We must reform our libel laws to protect local journalism, says new NUIG Head of Journalism

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Ireland must reform its ‘completely outdated’ libel laws to protect local journalism, according to the new Head of Journalism at NUI Galway, Tom Felle.

Tom Felle said that local investigative journalism is under threat by frivolous defamation action, as editors and their owners can’t afford to defend libel claims, even when they are sure their journalism is accurate.

He said we need to look at the balance between protecting a person’s right to a good name, and allowing the media to do quality journalism in the public interest.

Tom Felle made the comments at a keynote address to local newspaper editors from across the country this week at a conference in NUI Galway marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Press Council and Office of the Press Ombudsman in Ireland.

“Ireland’s arcane libel laws were eventually reformed in 2009. A lot has happened in the meantime and the legislation is now completely outdated in terms of dealing with defamation on social media,” he said.

Felle said that the high costs of legal fees in defending defamation actions is also a major difficulty for local media.

“In some cases litigants are bypassing the Press Ombudsman’s office completely and launching expensive litigation seeking damages for often minor mistakes in print, or worse still in an attempt to silence the truth in cases where a newspaper has done an excellent job in exposing wrongdoing of some kind,” he said.

Felle warned that investigative journalism in local communities is under threat because of the high costs of defending libel actions.  

“Defending defamation actions even when a newspaper is 100 per cent in the right comes at a huge cost in terms of stresses on often very small editorial teams, and in legal fees.

“Editors and owners need to make a judgement call not on the merits of the case, but whether it would be cheaper to settle rather than risk huge costs in a trial.

“This is having a chilling effect on good quality local investigative journalism because editors and their owners cannot afford to defend libel claims, even if certain their journalism is factually accurate. Democracy will suffer if this balance is not redressed,” he said.

Felle also commended editors in local newspapers for their collective commitment to local journalism, and also urged them to be brave and innovate more.

“It’s really important to acknowledge the work you have done in staying afloat during the economic crisis from 2008 on. You remain trusted brands in your local communities and a focal point for news, information, entertainment, blow by blow details of wars won and lost on the sporting battlefields, in that all important role of holding local government to account, and in recording that first rough draft of local history.

“Your journalism has never been more popular, but the funding model to support that journalism is certainly in difficulty. It’s time to innovate, to be brave, to think about how your quality journalism can be sustained and supported in the local community.

“The UK Houses of Parliament produced a report on the future of local journalism. In the UK the BBC supports 150 local democracy journalists a year who work for local newspapers, funded by the licence fee. We certainly need Oireachtas Committee hearings to look at options for supporting local journalism in Ireland,” he added.