Taoiseach says balance needed between free speech and privacy

Review of defamation laws underway, Leo Varadkar says, in wake of Denis O’Brien case

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said we need to get the balance right between free speech and people’s privacy.

Speaking in Belfast on Friday evening in the wake of a jury decision that businessman Denis O'Brien was not defamed in an article carried in the Sunday Business Post, he said a review of defamation laws is being carried out.

“Defamation laws in Ireland do seem to be more restrictive than they are in other countries,” he said.

“But we always have to balance the need for free speech and the need for a free press but also the need to protect people’s privacy and people’s reputations.”


He added that “where organisations or journalists do publish things that are untrue and are damaging they can really hurt people”.

“So we need to get that balance right. I think we can get it right but it does require a review and that review is underway.”

In a statement on Friday, The Sunday Business Post said it welcomed the verdict of the jury.

While the article which led to this action predated the purchase of the Sunday Business Post by Kilcullen Capital Partners, the issues raised are of critical importance for the media in Ireland and therefore the new owners were happy to support the paper’s defence of this claim, it said.

Chief executive Siobhán Lennon said: "The Sunday Business Post prides itself on its independence and objectivity. Now more than ever a strong, independent and objective media is essential to a functioning democracy."

She said the case highlighted the extent to which Ireland’s defamation laws place significant constraints on all Irish media outlets in their efforts to provide robust, objective and fair scrutiny of the stories that matter to Irish democracy. “We believe it is time for action to reform the relevant defamation laws and to ensure that the media are liberated from unreasonable pressures which currently exist.

Ms Lennon thanked the paper’s legal team as well as Tom Lyons former business editor and Ian Kehoe former editor of the paper “for their time and robust defence of this case”.

Tom Lyons said they had “stood up to him and fought for a full month”.

“Thankfully, the jury came down on our side,” he said. “Hopefully this will make people like Denis O’Brien think twice before taking cases like this.”

Mr Kehoe described the verdict as a vindication.

“ This is not a victory, it is a vindication of what we chose to publish. The easy thing to do in situations such as this would have been to cave.”

Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists also welcomed the decision.

“The work of Tom Lyons, Ian Kehoe and the Sunday Business Post was manifestly in the public interest,” he said. “Mr Lyons and Mr Kehoe withstood enormous pressure in the witness box and deserve credit for the manner in which they stood up for the principles of media freedom.”

He pointed out that Mr O'Brien "could have taken his case to the Office of the Press Ombudsman, a complaints system which is fair, independent and devoid of the risks and costs associated with High Court actions".

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times