In December 1985, Justin Keating, a former government minister, sued the Sunday Tribune newspaper over an article published a year earlier about the sale of land in Co Meath under which lay valuable zinc and lead minerals. Keating was a Labour Party minister in 1974 when a controversial deal was agreed about contested land ownership. “Justin Keating gave £10 million of State money to four people tax free for effectively nothing...” the article’s headline stated. The end of the eight-day libel trial in the High Court saw Keating receive £65,000 (€83,000) in damages as well as his costs. The amount equalled the then-record libel award, which had been set earlier the same year when a Fianna Fáil TD successful sued the Evening Herald.
The pattern of politicians, members of the business community and well-known media and entertainment industry figures taking defamation actions is an established reality for Irish media outlets. In many instances, settlements are reached rather than contesting the claim in court due to the high legal bills involved and the related risk of a potentially costly award in the event of losing.
Since the Keating decision more cases, and even higher awards, have followed, notwithstanding some legal reform and the establishment of a non-court based complaint process via the Press Council of Ireland. Politicians - as is their own right as citizens - continue, however, to have a preference for the courts.
More recently, the long list of Sinn Féin public representatives threatening libel actions has led their critics to claim the party has a policy of using the libel laws to shut down public debate and avoid media accountability. In a wider context, journalists in Ireland are fully conscious of a legal environment described recently by the editor of this newspaper as a threat to democracy.
In a new DCU report, Irish Journalists at Work, one in three respondents said they had faced some kind of legal action against them over the past five years due to their work as journalists, while 52 per cent said media law and regulation was extremely or very influential on their work.
Aside from legal actions, the survey also asked about their history of experiences related to their work as a journalist. There are clear positives, especially when considering the more violent and extreme physical encounters that impact the working lives of journalists in other countries. But there are specific challenges faced by Irish journalists. One in four reported experiencing surveillance over the previous five years, 21 per cent had “often” or “very often” experienced demeaning or hateful speech, and 19 per cent had seen the public discredit their work.
Almost half of journalists said they were concerned about their emotional/mental wellbeing; 58 per cent said they had felt stressed in their work over the previous six months. The findings varied significantly by age and gender: 71 per cent of women were “often” or “very often” stressed, compared with 49 per cent of men, while younger journalists were more stressed “often” or “very often” – 73 per cent of those under 30 compared with 45 per cent of those aged 50-plus. One in four women journalists said they had experienced workplace bullying over the previous five years.
Some of these stresses are related to the pressures of a newsroom environment. These pressures are not necessarily new as many of these constraints and limitations have always been part of a journalist’s job. The new digital aspects of the industry – such as the need to publish immediately or to continuously update stories – clearly, however, bring additional demands. Time pressures are seen as very/extremely influential for 48 per cent of Irish journalists, while a further 40 per cent said time pressures were slightly/moderately influential.
Social media plays a big role in this story of work-related pressure. Some 55 per cent of Irish journalists rely on social media in some form each day. Twitter (now X) is their preferred social network, with more than 80 per cent of journalists saying they use the platform always or often. Journalists use social media to stay up-to-date, and to find story leads and ideas. Having a presence on social media, however, brings its own problems especially in terms of interactions with the public. Online abuse and harassment is a reality for journalists: 13 per cent said they experienced it daily or weekly, 14 per cent said at least monthly, with a further 26 per cent saying it happened a few times a year.
This online abuse and hostility may be associated with a more general wave of anti-journalistic sentiment in recent times, fuelled by claims of “fake news”. More than half (55 per cent) of Irish journalists said they sometimes/often/very often experience demeaning or hateful speech directed towards them, while 48 per cent noted some kind of public discrediting of their work. Although not exclusively an online or digital issue, it is important to note that social media and online comments can act as platforms to facilitate attacks on journalists.
Yet despite the negatives of potential legal action and ongoing online hostility, this DCU study shows Irish journalists to be resilient. They remain committed to core journalistic values in providing news to the public, while adhering to high ethical standards in how that news is generated. In the Irish media sector’s navigation through the continuing structural and digital changes, the stability offered by Irish journalists remains a huge asset. Almost four in five respondents (77 per cent) see their role to monitor and scrutinise those in power while 86 per cent resist the idea that their role is to convey a positive image of political leaders. In an important respect, these strong attachments to core journalistic values remain a vital bulwark against libel threats and keyboard warriors.
Prof Kevin Rafter and Dr Dawn Wheatley are based at the School of Communications at DCU