Wednesday, October 24, 2007

High Court rules against the Irish Times

Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy is quoted today in that paper as saying that “it is disappointing that the issue of public interest seemed to receive no weighting in the judgement”, following the decision of the High Court to order herself and Colm Keena to reveal the source of an article about payments to Bertie Ahern, gleaned from confidential documents produced by the Mahon Tribunal.

The High Court ruled that, in this case, journalistic privilege regarding confidentiality of sources was “overwhelmingly outweighed” by the need to maintain public confidence in the Mahon Tribunal itself.

I’m puzzled by the Irish Times claim that this was a publication “in the public interest”. The source was a document from the Mahon Tribunal, detailing information which would, in due course, be put into the public domain via the public hearings of the tribunal. What purpose was served by it’s premature publication in the Irish Times?

The obvious commercial answer is that it was a significant journalistic scoop, generating significant publicity and boosting the reputation of that paper, if not necessarily greatly increasing circulation. However, the downside is that leaks from the Tribunal damage public confidence, reduce political support and provide ammunition to those who are willing to go to the High & Supreme Courts in order to delay and/or stymie the workings of the Tribunal and/or the scope of its ultimate findings.

The problem is further compounded by the destruction by Messrs Kennedy & Keena of the documents received, allegedly from an anonymous source. This effectively rules out any possibility of identification of the original source of the leak to the Irish Times. The corollary of this is that neither Ms Kennedy nor Mr Keena can now provide any credible assurance that the Tribunal itself is not the source of the leak, thus leaving it open to the accusation of resorting to trial by media and depriving those who are under investigation of natural justice.

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