RTÉ has called for a relaxation of Ireland's "restrictive" defamation law. Director-general Noel Curran said the broadcaster was bound by "strict and often restrictive legal responsibilities" and that it "would like to see some changes" in the expected review of the 2009 Defamation Act.
There should be greater clarity on the “honest opinion” defence to libel accusations, Mr Curran said. “There are issues for me around honest opinion. Some of the language [in the legislation] is incredibly complex.”
He also suggested that an update to the legislation should consider obliging litigants to prove that a libel “caused serious harm”. A similar threshold was introduced to UK defamation law at the end of last year in order to deter trivial claims and discourage the wasting of court time.
RTÉ's deputy director-general Kevin Bakhurst said the Irish law "does have an impact round the edges" on its news and current affairs coverage, which he oversees. He noted that "four or five" political figures were currently pursuing legal actions against RTÉ.
“There is a danger to robust public debate,” Mr Bakhurst said.
The RTÉ executives were speaking at an Oireachtas communications committee hearing. The committee's agenda included recent payouts made by the broadcaster to columnists John Waters and Breda O'Brien as well as members of the Iona Institute following comments made by performer Rory O'Neill, aka Miss Panti Bliss, on RTÉ One's The Saturday Night Show.
"If it had been on Jay Leno, would it have been a defamation? There's absolutely no question - it wouldn't," Mr Curran said, citing the First Amendment freedom of speech protection in the US.
However, he was “unsure” what the outcome would have been had the comments been made place on UK television since the change in its defamation law. “We will wait to see what precedents emerge.”
The director-general denied that RTÉ was in the habit of “rolling over”, as one member of the committee phrased it, on legal actions.
“An awful lot of libel cases never reach court and are never settled because we defend them to the hilt,” he said.
“Lawyers do not run RTÉ. We take advice from lawyers and we make decisions,” he added. “We are not looking for carte blanche to say what we like about people. I think that’s an important point to make.”
The live nature of much of its output and its commitment to investigative journalism means defamation cases will inevitably arise, Mr Curran suggested. “We receive legal threats every week. We shouldn’t get a pat on the back for it, because this is the space we’re in, but there is no weakening of our resolve.”
RTÉ understands that “homophobia and discrimination is very real”, Mr Curran also said in his opening remarks to the committee. “No individual settlement or decision will weaken RTÉ’s resolve to present a wide range of views on current affairs topics and to allow forthright debate.”
The 2009 Defamation Act specified that a review of the legislation must take place within five years of its passing, which suggests that the Department of Justice will initiate a review later this year.
Eamonn Kennedy, RTÉ's director of legal affairs, has submitted a document to the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications outlining how defamation law, including honest opinion, works in practice for the broadcaster.
"The recent events around The Saturday Night Show have focused our minds perhaps on opinion and how that is treated in the legal system," Mr Kennedy said.
Mr Curran said RTÉ’s own reputation-tracking analysis indicated 72 per cent of people trusted the broadcaster, while 78 per cent say they are proud of RTÉ as an Irish brand.
“None of this means that RTÉ doesn’t at times upset certain sections of society or people who hold particular views, or broadcast programmes that some people dislike, or of course make mistakes.”