Media threatened by small group of rich people, says Press Council

‘Unreasonable and frequent threats’ of defamation actions affecting press freedom

The Press Council has expressed concern that the media's confidence in publishing robust commentary is being threatened by "unreasonable and frequent threats" of defamation actions from a small number of wealthy individuals.

The remarks are contained in a submission to the Department of Justice, which is carrying out a review of the Defamation Act.

The council also addresses the issue of legal costs and their “chilling effect” on the freedom of the press. It says consideration should be given to hearing defamation actions in the Circuit Court where plaintiffs indicate a limit on the damages they are expecting.

It also suggests defamation actions in which large amounts of damages are being sought could be heard in the Commercial Court division of the High Court.

Levels of awards

The council says current levels of awards “are threatening the financial viability of publishers” and potentially contributing to the reduction in the range and diversity of news and commentary in the media.

“The current defamation process is costly for all parties, is slow and frequently results in excessive awards compared with other countries,” it says.

To combat this, it suggests limiting the function of juries to determine if defamation has taken place, with the judge determining the level of awards or informing juries of appropriate levels of awards. A cap on awards is also recommended.

Strengthened

The council says the Defamation Act could be strengthened by encouraging members of the public to use its services as an alternative to defamation proceedings.

In relation to the publication of comments by members of the public on online articles, it calls for the publisher to be deemed responsible for their content from the point at which moderation occurs rather than the point of publication, as is currently the case.

In addition, the council calls on the Government to amend the Act to take account of the increasing proportion of journalism which is now online-only and does not appear in print.

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter