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Una Mullally: Politicians should reform libel laws instead of using them

Sinn Féin is misguided in placing itself in the same bracket as the elites it rails against

The narrative that insinuates that taking defamation cases is a sport specific to Sinn Féin is also disingenuous. Above, Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

It is rarely a good look for a person who holds great power – be they a business person, a sportsperson, a celebrity or a politician – to sue the media. And yet the masters of messaging, the self-styled anti-establishment, the communicators of desirable policy, and the very popular Sinn Féin, now finds itself in the same bracket as the types of people it rails against, the type of people whose time, they say, is up in Ireland; the elites, the cronies, the political establishment, the golden circle, the old boys’ club.

By taking a defamation case against RTÉ, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has highlighted the urgent need for defamation law reform in Ireland. In March, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee published a review of Irish defamation law. Our laws are among the harshest in Europe and have been criticised and condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and various NGOs. Smaller media outlets in particular, or those already on shaky financial ground, can be crippled by a single case due to disproportionate payouts and alarming legal fees.

But the political and media narrative that has emerged around this case, which insinuates that taking defamation cases is a sport specific to Sinn Féin, is also completely disingenuous. Here is a random list of politicians who have taken defamation cases; Paudie Coffey sued the publishers of the Kilkenny People. Dara Murphy sued the publishers of Irish Mail on Sunday. Maria Bailey sued the publishers of the Mirror. Albert Reynolds sued the Sunday Times. Beverley Cooper-Flynn sued RTÉ. Michael Lowry sued Sam Smyth.

The constraints journalists are under because of defamation laws break a sort of trust between audiences and journalists

It is possible to hold more than a few thoughts concurrently. It is possible to think that there is a general bias in the Irish mainstream media against Sinn Féin, and simultaneously believe that Sinn Féin may be misguided – as any party or politician is – in taking legal action against media organisations in this manner, given the potential ramifications caused by current defamation laws, and the consequences for those media organisations beyond the courts.


My bias

Sinn Féin relies on people now supporting them to multitask in a similar manner on other issues. A large proportion of the electorate understands that Sinn Féin is both untested at government level in the Republic, and yet believes them ready to govern. A large proportion of the electorate understands Sinn Féin’s history in terms of proximity to the IRA, while also appreciating that such history is – in many people’s eyes – past tense. Sinn Féin themselves are masters of not just holding multiple thoughts at once, but also conflicting ones, in particular in relation to the man who made the modern party what it is, Gerry Adams.

Of course, on this topic, I have a bias too. Perhaps it is even a blinding one. My job is to express opinions that sometimes rub politicians up the wrong way, and I want to be able to call out corruption, skulduggery and failures.

Every journalist wishes they could write or say more than the law often allows for

The constraints journalists are under because of defamation laws, I believe, also break a sort of trust between audiences and journalists. People sometimes think journalists hold back, that we’re too much on the inside, that we’re not calling out things as they are. This causes frustration and leads to accusations of bias, censorship, cronyism and insider-ism. I’m not saying every journalist is a white-hatted impartial crusader for truth, but I do know that every journalist wishes they could write or say more than the law often allows for. How’s that for freedom of speech?

Target for litigation

Like anyone taking a case against RTÉ, Mary Lou McDonald knows well what impact her actions will have on that organisation. I’ve often been critical of RTÉ’s framing of various issues, but RTÉ is a media organisation that is chronically careful, and the reason for that is because it’s a target for litigation again and again. In recent years, thankfully, some broadcasters have emerged who are so smart, so deft, so capable of laying into someone without triggering these legal laser alarms, that they can take someone to task effectively, and dismantle their arguments without ending up in court.

I’m not asking for a free-for-all. Destroying someone’s character using slander or lies is not what we’re talking about here. It’s about robust expression and press freedom. If journalists want to build trust within the fractured, frantic and often furious discourse we navigate – and unfortunately sometimes contribute to – then we should talk every day about reforming defamation laws.

Our industry is with us, the public is with us, so what’s lacking? Ah! That would be politicians campaigning on our behalf. I wonder why? Defamation laws protect the powerful. Perhaps if politicians across all parties spent more time working on reforming them than talking to their lawyers about how to use them, we’d be getting somewhere.