Failure of Denis O’Brien case ‘terrifically important’

Chair of the judging panel at the NewsBrands Journalism Awards calls for reform of laws

Fomer editor of the Irish Examiner Tim Vaughan (centre) with former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy and former press ombudsman John Horgan.

Fomer editor of the Irish Examiner Tim Vaughan (centre) with former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy and former press ombudsman John Horgan.

 

The failure of businessman Denis O’Brien’s defamation case against the Sunday Business Post earlier this year was a “terrifically important event”, the chair of the judging panel at the NewsBrands Journalism Awards 2019 has said.

Mr O’Brien sued the newspaper and its former editor Ian Kehoe and former deputy editor Tom Lyons, claiming they had defamed him, and had acted with malice. A High Court jury rejected his claims and costs were awarded against him.

Tim Vaughan, a former editor of the Irish Examiner, was speaking at the conclusion of this year’s ceremony in the Mansion House in Dublin city centre. He said Mr O’Brien’s case illustrated the need for reform of the State’s libel laws.

“There was one terrifically important event earlier this year that we can all be thankful for, and that was the failure of Denis O’Brien to win his defamation case against the Sunday Business Post,” he said.

“It was a very courageous decision by the Post to take on one of Malta’s wealthiest and most powerful residents,” he said. “It was very high risk. It always is when you’re in the lap of the gods with a jury. And, if it had gone the other way, it could have closed the paper.”

Taoiseach’s reaction

Mr Vaughan was also critical of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s reaction to the case.

“He threw the issue of protecting people’s privacy into the libel law reform mix,” he said. “I was driving when I heard this and I clearly remember thinking, Jesus Christ, does he not get it?

“Because – counterintuitive though it might seem to some people – privacy has nothing whatsoever to do with defamation law, and to link both shows a fundamental lack of understanding about what’s at issue here.

“But let’s hope that Mr Varadkar shows the political leadership that’s been totally absent up to now to prioritise this law reform which is in the interest of our democracy, when other democracies are being undermined by relentless attacks on their media.

“That same leadership and courage he showed in his support for Maurice McCabe when the rest of his Cabinet colleagues shamefully failed to do so.”

Stressing an “urgent need” for Government reform of libel laws, he called for an end to the jury system in such cases, the introduction of a serious harm test, and a cap on awards.

This, he said, would ensure “we can continue speaking truth to power and very deep pockets”.

Ban on journalists

In addition, Mr Vaughan was critical of Communicorp’s ban on journalists from The Irish Times and the Currency – a new business website run by Kehoe and Lyons – appearing on its programmes. The media group is owned by Mr O’Brien.

“While we look to our politicians to act, should we not ask what we ourselves can do in the face of attacks on press freedom and freedom of expression in this, our own country?” he asked. “When we have the outrageous situation where Communicorp has banned all Irish Times journalists from its stations, including Newstalk and Today FM, simply because it didn’t like what Fintan O’Toole wrote.

“I still find it hard to believe that this has happened – and that it can happen without consequence,” he said. “It’s pernicious and it’s intolerable, and an urgency needs to be applied to implementing whatever is necessary to have it stopped.

“They mightn’t have breached current BAI regulations, but the fact remains that these are public airways that Communicorp is using to ban and boycott at will – and for that there should be consequences.”