Law to protect sources after alleged INM data breach considered - Varadkar

Sinn Féin leader claims attempt being made to ‘silence’ the ODCE

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar rounded on Green Party leader Eamon Ryan in the Dáil. Photograph: PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar rounded on Green Party leader Eamon Ryan in the Dáil. Photograph: PA Wire

 

The Government is to consider introducing legislation to protect sources following the alleged data breach at Independent News & Media (INM), Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

He told the Dáil on Tuesday the time had come for the Government to “dust down’’ reports on the issue.

“I think having an independent news and media service is a corner-stone of our democracy,’’ he added.

“It is, after all, the fourth estate and I believe journalists must be free to pursue stories that they want to pursue.’’

He said their sources must be protected, free from any unjust interference, external or internal.

“We need the plurality of voices in the media,’’ he added.

“We need to ensure these voices are not drowned out or silenced and we also need diversity in ownership.’’

He commended the journalists who had worked on the story, including the journalists in INM who had not allowed their independence to be compromised.

“The reports of the data breaches represent a very significant threat to the freedom of the press,’’ he added.

“However, I think the way the media has responded to the threat to date should reassure us that our press will not be silenced.’’

The Taoiseach was replying to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who said there was a deep and worrying concern relating to the alleged data breach.

Mr Martin said an independent and free media was essential to the operation of a parliamentary democracy, particularly the protection of journalistic sources and editorial independence.

He said recent events served as a wake-up call for the Oireachtas more generally to consider legislation to deal with those issues on a number of fronts.

Mr Martin said a lot of work had been done by interested bodies, not least former chief justice John Murray who had produced a comprehensive report last year on the protection of journalistic sources.

There had also been other reports, he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald claimed that “an attempt is being made to silence the ODCE”.

And she also questioned the Government’s commitment to dealing with white collar crime and corporate enforcement when there were 35 staff in the office of the ODCE but 350 welfare inspectors.

The Dublin Central TD also said that the Government allocated € 5 million to corporate enforcement and the same amount again to his “spin unit”, the strategic communications unit.

Ms McDonald referred to the decision by businessman Denis O’Brien, the principal shareholder of INM, to seek a judicial review of the ODCE request to appoint an inspector to the company “by accusing them of leaking information about the data breach”.

“The ODCE has been investigating this story for a whole year without any leaks,” she said.

“It appears to be me that there is now an attempt being made to silence the ODCE.”

She added: “There is no doubt that the ODCE is up against it because of lack of resourcing.”

The Taoiseach told her there were 36 staff and seven gardaí and four further staff were being recruited including forensic specialists and forensic accountants.

Mr Varadkar said the ODCE does face difficulty recruiting high quality additional staff.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the Taoiseach uttered fine words in the Dáil but he asked what would he ask Facebook and Google who were appearing before the Oireachtas today and who are taking over €300 million in advertising revenue which used to go to Irish media.

He said it was same with Netflix and broadcast media in Ireland.

Mr Ryan said the Taoiseach went to Silicon Valley and told tech companies that Ireland was pro-business and pro-enterprise.

“There wasn’t a word about good regulation or high standards. And there hasn’t been a word about Cambridge Analytica.”

He asked “how are you going to fund Irish media if all the money is going to Facebook and Google?” and he said the Taoiseach would not take the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee that would create a €60 million pot annually for media funding.

The Taoiseach rounded on him and said “sometimes when I hear the Deputy preaching from his perch on the edge of the Oireachtas on Irish media, I almost forget - he was the minister for Communications for four-and-a-half years when he was part of the administration that led the country to crisis”.

He said Mr Ryan should account for his own time in office instead of asking him.

“He’s intelligent enough to develop his own questions,” for Facebook and Google personnel, Mr Varadkar added.

The Taoiseach said the Government is bringing in legislation now on data protection.

And referring to media funding he said there was some funding through the TV licence. “Beyond that media organisations are private companies and funded by their customers.”