Democracy and the media: time to face reality

The conduct of those who control media organisations is not a private matter

In a letter to some of its employees (and others) this week, Independent News and Media (INM) confirmed there was a risk their data, stored in server back-up tapes, was “put at risk of unauthorised disclosure” to a third party in 2014. Photograph: Alan Betson

In a letter to some of its employees (and others) this week, Independent News and Media (INM) confirmed there was a risk their data, stored in server back-up tapes, was “put at risk of unauthorised disclosure” to a third party in 2014. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Freedom of the press is not a privilege granted to journalists. It is first and foremost a necessary condition for citizens to be able to exercise their right to give and receive information. That right is essential to democracy. If you can’t raise your concerns in public through the media and if you can’t get unbiased news, you are a subject, not a citizen. If those who own, control or work in the media can claim any special protections, it is only because they serve those fundamental democratic needs.

This is why the conduct of those who control media organisations is not a private matter. It affects the quality of our democracy. We must wonder, therefore, why one of the most serious potential breaches of the principles of press freedom in the history of the State has been of so little apparent interest to the Government.

In a letter to some of its employees (and others) this week, Independent News & Media (INM) confirmed there was a risk their data, stored in server back-up tapes, was “put at risk of unauthorised disclosure” to a third party in 2014. This acknowledgement follows widespread reporting of an affidavit submitted to the High Court by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) which details, among other matters, the transfer of the back-up tapes to an outside company on the instructions of then INM chairman Leslie Buckley. The invoices for this work were allegedly paid by a company beneficially owned by INM’s largest shareholder, Denis O’Brien. The matter will come before the High Court on Monday and it is to be expected that as events unfold we will hear much more from Buckley, who has said he will “robustly defend my position against each and every allegation”, and from O’Brien, who so far has remained silent.

What seems clear, however, is that the emails of journalists and of the citizens with whom they were communicating were accessed. Though the scale of the intervention is unknown, the ODCE’s narrative could hardly present a more serious threat to the fundamentals of press freedom. A media organisation has an absolute duty to protect those who provide it with its life’s blood, information, on a confidential basis. And it has an absolute duty to protect its journalists from unwarranted intrusions into their work, so that they can fulfill their professional obligations to act without fear, without favour and in the wider public interest.

If those duties have been breached, the Government has to respond to protect democracy. It should be questioning in particular the ownership and governance structures at INM that made such a breach possible. It has long been clear that the concentration of Irish media ownership in O’Brien’s hands is unhealthy for democracy. It is time for the Government to acknowledge this truth and do something about it.

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