The Only Loser is Democracy

Social Democrat co-leaders, Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall

It must be great to own the news. Not necessarily be the news, but own it. Own the channels of distribution that give the public their knowledge, and in doing so, be the de facto gate-keeper that decides what knowledge becomes public in the first place.

Now, presumably you must have some serious amount of money and power to be able to exert such control, but even then you can’t stop it all.

That’s where we come in. Bloggers. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Citizen Journalism? People in the middle of a riot, in a town square somewhere far away using Twitter to get the truth out to the masses?

It’s a little romantic, honestly.

But we live in Ireland. We have freedom of expression. Our journalists aren’t threatened with legal action if they try to print a report on the goings on in our national parliament.

Until now.

You may have heard of Dáil Privilege before.

In case you’re wondering:

Members of the Oireachtas (TDs and Senators) enjoy certain constitutional privileges. This means that they have certain rights and privileges that are set down by Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution).

  • TDs and Senators may not, for example, be arrested when going to, returning from or being within the precincts of either the Dáil or Seanad. This privilege does not apply to arrest for treason, felony or breach of the peace.
  • TDs and Senators may not be sued for defamation because of any speech in the House. This privilege protects members both in the House and at Committee hearings.

If a member of either House acts in a way that amounts to an abuse of a privilege, the Committee on Procedures and Privileges may recommend disciplining the member.¹

To be honest the first time I heard of people talking about Dáil Privilege was probably in relation to TDs and penalty points on their driving licences.

At the time it seemed to be ridiculously open to abuse, and it possibly is, but it’s also incredibly important.

Now the simple and flippant thing to say would be that I’d love to be in a position where I couldn’t be arrested going to or from work. Or to be able to say anything I like at work without any chance of being sued.

But that would be to use Dáil Privilege as a punchline, whereas it was designed to be used as an instrument of democracy.

When for example, things of importance to the public interest happen. When the kind of thing that news broadcasters should be letting the people of Ireland know about happen. When court injunctions, that prevent those broadcasters from reporting on these things, happen. This is when Dáil Privilege shines.

Catherine Murphy TD made a speech in the Dáil introducing her Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2015. In this speech she mentioned things that were covered by an injunction obtained by Denis O’Brien regarding reporting on his dealings with Anglo Irish Bank, now IBRC.

To the best of my understanding, she did this because she felt it was in the public interest to make these matters known. Since we, the people of Ireland, own IBRC, we have a right to know what is (and was) going on with it.

Whether or not this was an abuse of her Dáil Privilege is not for me to say, but Deputy Murphy put this information into the public arena, knowing that the Dáil record can be accessed by anyone.

If you’re curious, I’ve provided a link to the transcript of that Dáil session at the end of this article.

The question now is, does the injunction cover reporting on that session of the Dáil?

As Robert Dowds TD put it in his statement on the matter:

It is hard to believe that any High Court judge could knowingly have granted an injunction that prevents the news media from publishing a verbatim report of proceedings in the Dáil. If that is indeed what the High Court did, then the decision must be immediately appealed. If this is what has occurred, then the national media has effectively been barred from reporting on proceedings in the national parliament.²

Now remember what I said about Citizen Journalism?
If it’s the case that there is a ruling that says that Article 15.12 of the Constitution (which states that “all official reports and publications of the Oireachtas…and utterances made in either House wherever published shall be privileged”) applies to media reports, then this doesn’t really matter all that much.

If the opposite is the case, as it certainly seems to be at the minute:

RTÉ is now saying it cannot report on what Deputy Murphy said in the Dáil yesterday, in moving first stage of her Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill. This is apparently because the subject of her remarks yesterday is the same as what was at the centre of last week’s injunction.³

Then the role of the internet blogger becomes both interesting and important.

Are we to be considered journalists? If so, it would mean that this injunction applies to us and our reporting of the issues covered by it. It would also mean that we are entitled to press credentials and access beyond that of the average person in the street in order to report the news. The freedom of the press.

If we aren’t considered journalists, then this injunction doesn’t apply to us as we are not news media reporting on the issues covered by it or Thursday’s Dáil session. We are simply private citizens sharing our opinions as anyone in this country is entitled to do. We would have the freedom of the press that the press seems to be currently denied.
From a cynical blogger’s point of view, it’s a win-win. If the national press has been barred from reporting on proceedings in the national parliament, the only loser is Democracy.

¹. Citizens Information

² & ³. Robert Dowds TD

Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2015: First Stage

Thursday, 28 May 2015 Transcript


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