Fallen foul of Ireland’s defamation laws

The Irish state broadcaster RTÉ paid a €85,00 libel settlement to a journalist and the Iona Institute and they’re getting a lot of criticism for doing so.

The payout followed RTE’s Saturday Night Show presented by Sunday Independent journalist Brendan O’Connor on 11 January featuring drag artist Rory O’Neill, who is better known by his stage name Panti Bliss.

During the interview, O’Neill outlined the high levels of homophobia present in contemporary Irish society. Towards the end of the interview O’Connor asked O’Neill to name names which led to RTE issuing the payout.

That has to be some bad libel law there. RTÉ says it is.

…managing director of RTE television Glen Killane, said the broadcaster could not defend the case taken by the Iona Institute and the Irish Times columnist.

In a statement released today, Killane said:

Over the last week a number of people have approached me questioning RTÉ’s apology to John Waters and members of the Iona Institute following the receipt of six legal complaints and you will, no doubt, have seen the ongoing debate on this subject.

I want to reassure you that RTÉ explored every option available to it, including right of reply. Legal advice was sought and all avenues were explored, including an offer to make a donation to a neutral charity.

However, based on the facts of what was broadcast, and having regard for broadcasting compliance issues, the seriousness of the legal complaints, and the decision by the complainants not to accept RTÉ’s proposed remedies, we decided that a settlement was the most prudent course of action.  Senior counsel was consulted and confirmed that the legal position was far from clear.

As a dual-funded public body, RTÉ should not knowingly progress to defend an action when it is advised, internally and externally, that such a defence is unlikely to succeed before a jury.

RTÉ has not engaged in censorship, but has rather fallen foul of Ireland’s defamation laws. The topic reopened over the weekend and RTÉ will continue to cover this and related issues, as evidenced by last week’s Late Debate,  coverage of the protest in Dublin city centre on Sunday, today’s item on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 and last weekend’s debate on the subject on The Saturday Night Show.

 Terrible defamation laws, they must be. No room for political discussion or argument. Index on Censorship had commentary a few days ago:

Irish state-run television broadcaster RTE has come under heavy criticism after offering a full apology and possible financial compensation to the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic lobby groups declared “homophobic” by a talk show guest.

The decision appears to have been reached under pressure from Irish Broadcasting Authority board member John Waters, who was also declared homophobic during the same segment. The allegations follow RTE’s decision to remove  the remarks, made by Rory O’Neill who performs as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed drag queens under the name Miss Panti, and extensive popular debate about the treatment of Ireland’s conservative lobby groups in mainstream media.

RTE’s sudden condemnation of the remarks has been linked to legal action pursued by John Waters, a conservative Catholic commentator and journalist, and board member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland . The Irish Independent cite anonymous sources confirming that legal representatives of Waters sent a legal letter to the broadcaster seeking the removal of the interview on the popular Saturday Night Show. It has since been restored to the website, though the offending portions of O’Neill’s interview have been edited out. Waters resigned from his position with the Irish Broadcasting Authority on January 23rd, after the letters had been drafted and sent. His decision to legally challenge RTE has been broadly criticized as an abuse of office. As solicitor Simon McGarr explains, this “was not merely a letter from an aggrieved citizen to a broadcaster. It was also a letter from one of that Broadcaster’s regulators seeking to have that broadcaster censor a citizen, who was both contributing to a matter of public debate and engaging in a defence of a minority of which he is a member, bona fide and without malice”.

Well quite.



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