Varadkar hints at media legislation


Privacy laws should be considered here to protect the public and media merger legislation is required to prevent the emergence of "an Irish Berlusconi", Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has said.

Speaking at the MacGill summer school in Glenties, Mr Varadkar said he didn't believe the Press Ombudsman here had been very effective.

Responding to a questioner during a session on the media and democracy, the Minister said he hadn't given the question of a statutory press ombudsman a great deal of thought.

"But what I do think we would benefit from though is some proper privacy legislation. That hasn't been the case, and was attempted by Michael McDowell and wasn't seen through. I think that's something that probably would protect the public better."

Asked if it was something the Government was considering, he said: "Not that I'm aware of."

Mr Varadkar said the Government needed to bring in media mergers legislation to prevent excessive dominance in the media. It would have to be done in the next Dáil session or the one after, he said.

On media ownership, he said: "No society can benefit from an excessive concentration of media ownership in the hands of one individual or one company and legislation. We definitely do not want to have an Irish Murdoch or Berlusconi, and legislation to address this is long overdue."

The Minister said that one of the more frustrating aspects for Government Ministers had been the demand from the media for 'real political reform' coupled to "their total disinterest in it when it happens".

"Objectively, this government has implemented more political reform in a year than the last one did in three five year terms," he said.

The "loneliest places" in Leinster House were the seats reserved for members of the press down in the committee rooms, he said.

"The 20 minute show at Leaders’ Questions makes better news."

Mr Varadkar said if you spent too much time reading the papers or listening to the radio, "you’d think nothing has been done to bring about a new politics in our State.

"Of course, a lot more needs to be done, and this must only be a start, but for those of us who believe in reform, who really embrace the new politics, it is harder and harder to maintain momentum and win the internal battles for reform, when we are given no credit for what has already been achieved."

Mr Varadkar said politicians and journalists had "a co-dependent, almost symbiotic" relationship. "We don’t always like each other or trust each other but we need each other to survive."

Prof Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University London, said the media was different from dealing with the judiciary, or anything else.

"There's a media narcissism - in one way it's bad because we get very self-protective and we live in our own bubble," he said.

"But the other thing about media is that we watch each other all the time. The very reason that we exposed phone hacking was because one part of the media - in this case the Guardian - was prepared to take on another part of the media. So that's the good side of it."

On statutory regulation, Mr Greenslade said that if the state or government had any reins with which to "rein in" the media, the public would suffer in the long run.

Self-regulation was "problematic" and it was a matter being struggled with in Britain. But Ireland had a system of self-regulation which largely worked.

Mr Greenslade said of course the government wanted to influence the media. "We are the bulwark against the State. And that's why we alone in our world need to be self-regulating."

The Editor of the Irish Times, Kevin O'Sullivan, also said he believed the system of self-regulation largely worked here. It was not perfect, but there was "buy-in" by the media, which was one of the key elements. He said there was a logic to incorporating broadcasting and digital content within the one structure. This issue was problematic, but worth pursuing.

Mr O'Sullivan said well-resourced newsrooms were necessary to "support and to bring to account those who run our democracies, though some politicians may be sceptical of their ability to do so.

"Moreover, they are needed to expose the systemic failures of our political systems that have brought so many states, including Ireland, to the brink of financial ruin.

"At this juncture many media organisations are falling into the trap of reducing journalistic resources on a large scale," he said. "To be frank, The Irish Times is subject to similar pressure to follow the same course as we contend with a recession that is lingering so painfully for so many within Irish society."

Mr Varadkar said in response to questions that he was "sceptical" of the idea of public funding of local and online media. It would effectively amount to a new tax unless it was to be taken away from RTÉ.

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