NUJ ‘bitterly disappointed’ by Irish Times costs decision

Index on Censorship says whistleblowers will feel less confident coming forward with information

Seamus Dooley of the NUJ said the union had ‘grave concerns’ about the implications for the possible costs for any media organisation faced with this type of bill.

Seamus Dooley of the NUJ said the union had ‘grave concerns’ about the implications for the possible costs for any media organisation faced with this type of bill.

 

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has said it is “bitterly disappointed” at the rejection by the European Court of Human Rights of a case taken by The Irish Times over the costs of its successful legal battle with the Mahon tribunal.

The Strasbourg court ruled against two Irish Times journalists this week in their claim that the Supreme Court had interfered with their right to protect their sources by making the newspaper pay the costs of its dispute with the planning tribunal.

The case followed the publication of a story in 2006 which revealed that the tribunal was investigating a number of payments to then taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The Supreme Court ruled that Irish Times journalist Colm Keena and the paper’s then editor, Geraldine Kennedy, should not be ordered to reveal their sources, but directed the paper to pay all costs of the court proceedings.

In a majority decision, the European court rejected the paper’s application and found the claims of interference with freedom of expression to be “manifestly ill-founded”.

Reacting to the decision, the NUJ said it was disappointed by the decision of the court and the tone of its judgment.

“The case is recognised internationally as having significance for the protection of sources, and having the freedom to protect sources but having to incur punitive costs to protect that freedom seems to me to be contradictory, said Séamus Dooley, the NUJ’s Irish secretary.

“We would have grave concerns about the implications of the possible costs for The Irish Times and for any media organisation faced with this type of bill.”

The tribunal served a bill of costs on The Irish Times in October 2010, claiming the sum of €393,055.42.

In its case to the European court, the newspaper claimed there was a strong chilling effect to the Supreme Court’s decision, since it was clear to the press, to potential sources and to the public that journalists could be compelled, under the threat of an order of costs, to disclose the source of information given in confidence. The court rejected this, a conclusion Mr Dooley said showed a “worrying naivete” on the court’s part. “The difficulty will be now, for any editor, to take a decision which has potential financial implications. That’s where the chill effect comes in,” he said.

The Irish Times took a brave decision, and credit is due not just to the editor but also to the board of The Irish Times for supporting the editor. In the current economic climate, I would be fearful that other boards would be inhibited by the threat now faced by The Irish Times.”

The London-based Index on Censorship, which defends the right of freedom of expression, said it was concerned that the court’s decision sent a message to whistleblowers “that means they will feel less confident coming forward with important information that the public has a right to know.”

It added: “Journalists also need to feel confident that they can protect their sources in cases such as this.”