Intoxicating Liquor Bill, 2000: Report and Final Stages
17th May, 2000
Acting Chairman: Before we commence I remind Senators that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment.On Report Stage each amendment must be seconded.
Mr. Costello: I move amendment No. 1:
In page 6, line 40, after "Act," to insert "and subject to an order of the Court on granting a particular licence or at any time thereafter varying the application of this section to the licensed premises concerned having due regard to the size and location of the premises and to relevant local circumstances, residential amenities and transport services, provided that the Court shall have due regard to avoiding any anomalies in the opening hours of adjacent and nearby premises".
I hope we can get through Report Stage expeditiously because we have been over much of this ground already. This amendment reflects the amendment I tabled on Committee Stage. The purpose of the amendment is to provide some flexibility to the licensing authority in the granting of licences at times different to those specified in the Bill. These would depend on relevant local circumstances, residential amenities and transport services, and the courts would have due regard to all of the anomalies which might arise.
The reason I am providing for that is the system being introduced will involve a greater degree of uniformity. Public houses will be able to open at the same time in the morning and I hope there will be a reduction in the number of times they can close early in the course of a week, but public houses come in a huge variety of sizes and there are different circumstances involved in many cases. A number of public houses in new residential areas are like big barns which are not suitable for socialising in a built up area and they should be subject not to a uniform system but to one for suburban and rural areas.
Facility should be made for small family run public houses. We should be encouraging such intimate social establishments which allow for much less gregarious behaviour than some of the larger ones. We must take into consideration the substantial disturbances of noise and traffic and the effect of large numbers of people decanting onto the streets at exactly the same time, whether after the half hour drinking up time on Sunday at 11.30 p.m., at midnight on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, or at 1 o'clock on Thurdays, Fridays and Saturdays. There is a need to provide a degree of flexibility to get away from the rigidity of the system and to concern ourselves with the transport exigencies of a number of areas.
Given that public transport will not be available on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the licensing authority should be given further scope, as is the case in continental Europe and will be the case in Britain. This is also the advice given by the Garda. There is no support for rigid closing hours for all public houses as proposed in the legislation because of the factors which could give rise to disturbances, hassle for residents and many other hardships, including difficulties for women trying to get taxis.
I hope the Minister will have a fresh look at this issue. The Minister is bringing forward legislation in an area which few other Ministers have had the courage to tackle because of the complexities involved and, rather than doing a half-hearted job at this stage, he should address thoroughly all the issues so that we can be more sophisticated in our attitude to closing hours than is the case at present or is proposed in the legislation.
Mr. Quinn: The concerns expressed by Senator Costello are important. On Committee Stage I referred to a premises in Malahide which was originally an hotel, then a pub and I understand is now a barn. Will the Minister assure the House that the concerns of local residents will be taken into account? I do not think this matter is given proper consideration in the Bill as it stands and I urge the Minister to give Senator Costello's amendment the consideration it deserves.
Dr. Henry: I support the amendment. Perhaps the Minister believes this issue is dealt with adequately but sometimes a pub is transformed by the additional uses to which it is put, apart from being a place to which people go to have a drink. Pubs with karaoke music can cause terrible disruption in neighbourhoods.
Mr. Bohan: I am familiar with the premises to which Senator Quinn referred and I agree with what he said. This was a very quiet, small hotel some years ago but it was transformed into a semi-disco, then into a hotel and it is now a disco-cum-bar. This is a very quiet road but there is a lot of unrest in that area of Malahide. I assure Senator Quinn that the Garda in Malahide are keeping a close eye on the premises. The owners of the premises have been warned on a number of occasions that the licence will be opposed when they seek to renew it unless they change the manner in which it is operated.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): The amendment, which is a variation of an amendment before the House on Committee Stage, will allow the court when granting a licence, or at any time after the grant of the licence, to provide for particular hours of opening for particular premises, depending on local circumstances. The variation referred to seeks to avoid the creation of anomalies in opening hours of adjacent and nearby premises. I give Senator Costello due credit for what he is attempting to do. However, I must outline what the amendment would do in my view.
The change proposed by Senator Costello makes the point I made on Committee Stage on the original amendment. The amendment as re-worded demonstrates eloquently the inconsistencies that might arise in working through the practical application of this provision if accepted. This amendment would be even more difficult to implement than the original one. How would the court go about avoiding the creation of anomalies? Would it, in order to deal with the licensed premises that is the subject of the order in question, also order restricted opening times in respect of all other premises in the locality, thereby removing the anomaly, or would the solution be to avoid making an order, given that the making of the order in respect of one or two premises in the locality would create an anomaly? It would be difficult, as the Senators recognise having amended their original proposal - to restrict the hours of one premises in a locality without creating an anomaly. The only solution would be to restrict similarly the hours of all premises in the locality. This would have the effect of penalising those premises in the locality which would have been entitled to operate the normal permitted hours.
I cannot see how the amendment could operate in a practical way. The effect of applying the order to all premises in the locality, however that is defined, could have the effect of creating virtual ghettos where licensed premises could remain open late, thereby drawing customers from other areas, not just to the detriment of those areas but eventually to the detriment of the areas with later opening hours. The sensible and practical way to deal with the issue is the way in which the law already operates. Where there is a problem with a particular premises, there are already provisions under the planning laws and under the intoxicating liquor laws which would come into play either at the development stage of the premises or at the renewal of licence stage.
Reference was made on Committee Stage to the growth of the "super pub" and the undesirability of this development. It is the inflexibility of the existing licensing system which has led to the creation of the such premises to which Senators have referred. I do not believe this is the whole answer. There is a certain market, particularly in the 18 to 35 year old cohort, for such premises where a variety of bars provide different forms of entertainment and opportunities for social interaction in different parts of the premises. I believe, however, that the changes in the licensing system which will follow the enactment of this Bill will address this situation where a market is identified by permitting greater mobility of licences from areas of over-provision and mainly rural areas to locations where there is a demonstrable need for such licences.
Once the provisions of the legislation regarding the licensing of premises are implemented, there will be a greater number of licensed premises in the areas of greatest need. This should result in opportunities for the establishment of more intimate premises to which some Senators have referred. I would not, however, be confident that this is what will be demanded in all circumstances. Neither would I suggest that those in the 18 to 35 year old cohort do not prefer premises which are more intimate.
While I understand the concerns which motivated the amendment and while I have some sympathy for it, my difficulty is that from a practical point of view it would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement. I hope this explains the position in even greater detail than I explained it on a previous occasion.
Mr. Costello: I appreciate the Minister's difficulty in trying to devise a degree of flexibility without creating further anomalies. However, the inflexibility in relation to the present licensing system has led to the development of big barns of pubs. I do not think the measures allowing for the transfer of a licence from a rural area to an urban area will address this issue because the present system is here to stay. The Minister is not creating new licences, he is allowing them to be transferred from rural areas to urban areas. The legislation does not address the difficulties that exist. There will not be a situation where residents can deal adequately with the difficulties that arise, as that very eloquent letter in relation to Maud Plunkett's Hotel, Malahide, highlights. The difficulties they experience, the noise and traffic will not be addressed. The Garda Síochána have been seeking a degree of flexibility, which this legislation does not give, in their wish to handle people coming out of pubs without finding that their resources are stretched when every part of the city is suddenly overwhelmed at one o'clock in the morning.
Anomalies exist already and it is up to us to try to address them. I would like the Minister to have looked at the systems that operate in other countries, particularly in continental countries which never seem to experience the types of problems we experience at closing time, and it is closing time essentially as well as the later hours that can give rise to inordinate difficulties in terms of discos, music and the activities that tend to go on in larger pubs. Larger pubs lend themselves to noisy events that would otherwise take place in other venues. They are event centres in their own right and they tend to bring about a distortion in terms of the clientele who frequents them. This is undoubtedly causing massive problems and will cause further problems now that the licensing laws are being extended to later in the morning.
There are problems and the Bill does not address them. I hope the Minister will take on board what has been said, tease it out before it is discussed in the other House and perhaps come up with something that might address the problems we have raised here.
Mr. O'Donoghue: From what Senator Costello and I have said, it must be clear to everybody that it is virtually impossible to reconcile what Senator Costello is seeking to achieve with the amendment he has tabled. I say that with due respect.
Mr. Costello: The Minister does not have to accept the amendment.
Mr. O'Donoghue: I am not for one moment suggesting that there is a solution which is amenable to me at this point. There is not. Had there been one, I would have put it forward. I do take issue with the Senator in relation to the liberalisation of licences. Up to now the position was that in an urban area if one wished to open a new licensed premises one had to get a licence from within the urban area, from a scheduled list of cities or towns. In a rural area, one could not open a public house within a mile of another public house. If one wanted to get a new licence, one had to surrender two licences. These are all very restrictive measures. There are 11,000 licences in the State and there is no question that there is an under-provision of licences in the Dublin area. The size of the population relative to the proportion of licensed premises in a place like Tallaght is obviously far greater than it is in County Mayo. The objective of the exercise is to remove restrictions so that in the future one will not have to extinguish a licence in an urban area in order to open a new public house in an urban area andn one will not be able to object to a person opening a new pub less than a mile down the road in a rural area. In addition, two licences will not be required in areas which are not scheduled in order to open a new licensed premises. It will be necessary only to purchase a licence in any part of the State and it will be possible to open a public house. It will be possible, for example, to purchase a licence in Mayo and open a pub in Tallaght, subject to the rules set out in the legislation. To that extent, I am convinced that the market will find its own level and the licences will find their own market.
With regard to people coming out of pubs and discos at all hours, no matter what hour I put in as closing time, there will be the same difficulty. It is not possible to reconcile the anomalies with sensible legislation.
Amendment put and declared lost.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 7, line 21, to delete "11.00 p.m." and substitute "11.30 p.m.".
This amendment relates to Sunday closing. Last week I moved an amendment seeking to have closing time on Sunday nights set at the same time as on the other weekend nights, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, namely, 12.30 a.m., with half an hour's drinking up time. In this amendment I have moved back the time by one hour to 11.30 p.m., bringing closing time into line with that on every other day of the week with the exception of weekend nights. Closing time would be at the same time on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. This 11.30 p.m. closing time is a recommendation of the Oireachtas Joint Sub-Committee which produced a very good report. I ask the Minister to consider this.
There may be objections. There is the religious significance of Sunday. People object to overlong public house opening hours on the sabbath. The point is made in the report of the sub-committee that there is a regenerative, recuperative and psychological value to having Sunday to rest at home and not in a public house. However, Sunday night is part of the leisure patterns of the weekend, especially in rural Ireland. It is unusual to have late opening on Thursday night in rural areas. Late opening on Thursday night is suitable in large centres like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and the other large city boroughs. In rural Ireland, which is still a very significant part of the country, Thursday night is not a great night for going out drinking - weekend entertainment and leisure do not really start until Friday night. Sunday, as any Senator here who has knowledge of what I am talking about will fully agree, is very much part of the leisure pattern of a weekend.
Current closing time, at least during the summer, is 11.00 p.m. We are asking that this be moved forward by half an hour with half an hour for drinking up. That would mean that public houses would be cleared by 12 midnight. If nothing else, it would bring the law into line with practice. There is wholesale non-observance of closing time, especially on Sunday nights in rural areas. The last thing that should happen is that the law is honoured more by non-observance than by observance. Nothing creates more contempt for the law.
I ask the Minister to consider this. It is not a major request. He will come under much pressure in the Dáil on this issue. We would be delighted if this concession, which the Minister might have to make in the other House, could be made here on the basis of this amendment.
Mr. Costello: I second the amendment. Of all the amendments before us, this is the one with which the Minister should have no difficulty. It is eminently sensible. I cannot see how it could cause difficulties with publicans or customers. The legislation provides for three closing times, 11 p.m., 11.30 p.m. and 12.30 a.m. That is too many. A closing time of 11.30 p.m. is the same as that proposed for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Sunday is the preferred night out in much of rural Ireland when people like to have an extra half hour drinking time. The current closing time is more honoured in the breach than the observance.
I can see no argument against this amendment. On Committee Stage the Minister argued that late opening on Sunday would make it difficult for people to turn up on time for work on Monday morning. If that problem exists at present it is because the present closing time rule is regularly breached. In many areas, Sunday is the same as any other day of the week. I cannot see any advantage in legislating to make it otherwise. I understand that the Minister wishes people to go home early on Sunday night so that they will be in time for work on Monday but that is not how things are. We must recognise in legislation what is happening in practice.
The Taoiseach visits at least three public houses every Sunday. The poor man must be rushed in his effort to complete his visits by closing time.
Mr. O'Donoghue: The Senator should go with him.
Mr. Costello: We have met occasionally.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: We want to make sure the Taoiseach goes to work on Monday morning.
Mr. Costello: The Taoiseach goes to work on Monday morning; it never interferes with his work.
Mr. Connor: Does the Taoiseach buy for the house in all of these public houses?
Mr. Costello: He is quite generous.
The legislation would benefit from having two closing times rather than three. It serves no purpose to set closing time at 11 p.m. on Sunday and 11.30 p.m. on the following three days.
Mr. Bohan: I have had many discussions with the Minister on this matter and I understand his point of view. Not all publicans wish to see 11.30 p.m. closing time on Sunday. Many would prefer to close at 11 p.m. However, a majority of people favour the 11.30 p.m. closing time and I have much sympathy for the amendment. I agree with Senators Connor and Costello that three different closing times cause confusion, especially to visitors.
The sub-committee gave this matter a great deal of consideration. We discussed the question of public house closings on Good Friday and Sunday and we recommended 11.30 p.m. as a reasonable closing time for Sunday. I ask the Minister to consider the amendment before the Bill is considered in the Dáil.
Mr. O'Donoghue: I have already explained the problem regarding the very high rate of absenteeism on Monday mornings. In those circumstances and given that the law has been liberalised with regard to other nights, I cannot accept the amendment.
Mr. Connor: I am disappointed with the Minister's reply. I believe he will be obliged to change his mind in the other House. His colleague, Deputy Healy-Rea, has said that he will not support this measure. The Minister has said that the Taoiseach supports the restriction of Sunday opening to 11 p.m. because to allow later opening would be damaging to the moral fibre of the country. Deputy Healy-Rea has been quoted in a Sunday newspaper as saying that he would go to the Taoiseach, "a man who takes a drink himself". In describing the removal of the reasonable belief plea, Deputy Healy-Rea said, "The likes of it would not happen in Russia." I am disappointed that the Minister is unable to accept the amendment but I predict that he will be obliged to accept it in the other House.
Mr. O'Donoghue: That is what the Senator thinks.
Mr. Connor: That will be a matter of some embarrassment to the Minister. We might have saved him that embarrassment. Three Senators have spoken and made reasonable arguments. The Minister has been given an opportunity to change his mind, which he must inevitably do in the other House.
Question put: "That the figure proposed to be deleted stand."
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 6.
Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
Cregan, Denis (Dino).
Tellers: Tá, Senators T. Fitzgerald and Keogh; Níl, Senators Connor and Costello.
Question declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.
An Cathaoirleach: Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are alternatives and amendment No. 6 is cognate. Amendments Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 may be discussed together by agreement.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 9, to delete lines 19 to 24, and substitute the following:
"(i) ordered by or on behalf of that person at the same time as a substantial meal is so ordered, and
(ii) consumed by that person during the meal or after the meal has ended.'.".
Mr. O'Donoghue: I explained on Committee Stage that under existing law, hotels and restaurants enjoy more liberal hours of trading than public houses where alcohol is supplied in conjunction with a meal, subject to the certain conditions that the liquor served in conjunction with a meal is ordered and consumed at the same time as that meal, is supplied and consumed in the portion of the premises set aside for meals and paid for at the same time as the meal. Senator Henry and Senator Quinn questioned this on Committee Stage. The law is contained in section 13 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1927, as I explained, as amended by the Act of 1988 which provides that the premises, which is a hotel or restaurant, is entitled to supply intoxicating liquor in conjunction with a meal to persons on the premises for up to an hour later than it is permitted to remain open for the sale of alcohol only. I promised the Senators, in deference to the points made by them, that I would return to the issue on Report Stage. While the existing law is specific, based on the premise that the sale of alcohol is ancillary to the main restaurant business, I accept that the conditions attaching to the sale of liquor in such premises are over-prescriptive.
The conditions which ensure that the meal is ordered by the person at the same time as the substantial meal is ordered and the condition that it is consumed at the same time as and with the meal, as reworded in the amendment now proposed, achieve the desired result. The effect of the amendment will be to continue to tie the consumption of intoxicating liquor in the circumstances to a meal but it will not overly restrict where on the premises the liquor should be consumed. This should provide restaurants, hotels and their patrons with a certain flexibility while ensuring that the premises will not be used for the purposes of obtaining alcoholic drinks only.
To ensure that the law relating to serving intoxicating liquor in clubs registered under the Registration of Clubs Acts is kept in conformity with the law as it stands relating to hotels and restaurants, it is also necessary to amend section 7 of the Bill. Amendment No. 6 achieves that result.
I thank the Minister for the attitude he is taking and
the amendment he and his officials have drafted. It
will be much easier to enforce than the way the previous
conditions were in the first place. They take my
concerns into account. I would not like the
Minister or anyone else to think that I had a string of
found-on convictions from restaurants and that this was
why I was so concerned about it. The only time I
ran into trouble was as a student and I quickly leapt
into the kitchen and started with the washing-up, thereby
avoiding a great deal of trouble and detection. If
one keeps semi-sober and keeps one's wits, one can get on
very well in life. These amendments cover
everything I wanted and I thank the Minister.|
Mr. Quinn: I offer similar words of congratulation to the Minister and his officials as Senator Henry has done for listening, understanding and taking a logical step regarding this matter. The restrictions there before were far too prescriptive and too tight and were probably a heritage from a previous generation. The logic of it has been accepted by the Minister and his officials and I congratulate him.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 not moved.
Government amendment No. 6:
In page 10, to delete lines 9 to 14, and substitute the following:
"(i) ordered by or on behalf of that person at the same time as a substantial meal is so ordered, and
(ii) consumed by that person during the meal or after the meal has ended.".
Amendment agreed to.
An Cathaoirleach: Amendments Nos. 7, 8 and 9 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
Mr. Connor: I move amendment No. 7:
In page 10, to delete lines 39 to 44, and substitute the following:
"(a) in subsection (1) by the deletion of ': provided that, where the period aforesaid exceeds nine days, the exemption shall be limited to such times and days as it thinks fit during a period or periods (not exceeding three) comprising in all not more than nine days' and substitute 'provided that the period aforesaid shall not exceed 12 days.'
(b) and by the deletion of subsection (4).".
It appears that amendments Nos. 8 and 9 in the name of the Minister meet what I was seeking to achieve in my amendment. The Minister will tell us if that is the case and if it is, I am very grateful.
Mr. O'Donoghue: I thank Senator Connor. I explained on Committee Stage that section 9 as it stands provides for an increase in the number of area exemption orders from nine to 12 and that under this section the 12 days may be divided into not more than four periods consisting of one or more consecutive days. The early exemption orders are granted where a particular local area in need is identified and it is accepted by the court that the area exemption order is necessary in order to accommodate an influx of persons visiting an area because of some period of special festivity.
Senator Connor made the point that a festival in a rural town may run for just a weekend and the licensees would not require the area exemption for three days. I accept that point. The festival may be on Friday and Saturday but licensees are obliged to take another exemption for Sunday or Thursday when they may not have as much business.
To meet Senator Connor's point, supported by Senator Costello and privately supported by Senator Bohan, that there should be some flexibility in the number of days for which the area exemption would be allowed, I propose the amendment now before the House. This will have the effect of retaining the character of the area exemption order in that it is necessary to accommodate extra persons in a locality because of a special event such as a festival. Under the amendment it will be possible to seek area exemptions orders in respect of special events that take place over a range of periods lasting two, three, four, five or even more days or in respect of a 12 day event. This should meet with the agreement of all sides of the House.
Amendment No. 8 in the name of Senator Connor and Senator Manning would allow an area exemption to be granted in respect of a single day and, therefore, allow a total of 12 such orders to be made in a single year. As I said on Committee Stage, this would not be in keeping with the spirit of the area exemption order. I have introduced, in the Government amendment, sufficient flexibility into the provision without compromising the underlying character of the area exemption order which is to provide for a special event that attracts people into a locality and takes place infrequently and not, for example, once a month.
As I said before, I am anxious to ensure that the special exemption order procedure is not circumvented by the utilisation of the area exemption order, which is a possibility if one were to allow for 12 single days. I have increased the number of days. I have also made provision for greater flexibility in regard to the periods during which a special exemption order may be in operation. I trust I have satisfied Members in that respect.
Mr. Connor: While the Minister's amendments do not go all the way in meeting what is being sought I am satisfied that he has made this concession.
Amendment, by leave, withddrawn.
Government amendment No. 8:
In page 10, line 41, to delete "four" and substitute "six".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 9:
In page 10, to delete lines 42 to 44, and substitute the following:
"(b) by the substitution of the following for subsection (4):
'(4) Not more than six orders under this section having effect in any particular year shall be made in respect of any particular locality and, where more such orders than one are made, the orders shall relate to consecutive days, not exceeding twelve in all in that year.',".
Amendment agreed to.
Mr. Costello: I move amendment No. 10:
In page 12, line 13, to delete "shall" and substitute "may".
As we rehearsed this amendment for a considerable period on Committee Stage we are all aware of the arguments in favour of changing the word "may" to "shall". In the case of a first offence a premises will be required to close for a period of up to seven days and in the case of a second or subsequent offence for a period of up to 30 days.
Mr. Connor: I second the amendment.
Mr. O'Donoghue: This amendment seeks to remove the mandatory nature of the temporary closure order. I dealt in some detail with the effect of this amendment on Committee Stage and signalled my strong opposition to it. The effect of the amendment would be to take away what I regard as not just a significant strengthening but a desirable one in tackling the under age drinking problem by targeting those who engage in this trade. I was gratified by the strong support I received from many Senators on this topic who support strong sanctions against those who engage in a criminally irresponsible act.
We discussed on Committee Stage the huge problem of under age drinking. Reference was made to the fact that it is a greater problem than the abuse of controlled substances and that the age at which persons are now presenting themselves at alcohol treatment centres has fallen dramatically. It can only be inferred from that latter observation - one I do not dispute - that persons are accessing alcohol at a much younger age than heretofore and that they are abusing alcohol from an early age.
We must have tight controls in this area. If every person charged with an offence in relation to under age drinking could say that the premises was, for example, crowded on the night in question, this section would not be worth the paper it was written on. It would be pointless. I accept that this provision is the toughest legislative provision which has been brought into force against the scourge of under age drinking in our society since the foundation of the State but it has been introduced for a very good reason. Under age drinking is a serious problem and becoming ever more serious. It must be tackled.
I have been offered an opportunity to make a difference in the fight against under age drinking and I intend to take the opportunity offered. It would be remiss of me not to do so. It should be borne in mind however that the court does take into account the circumstances in which the sale to the young person takes place. I have also been careful to ensure there is no minimum period which the court is bound to impose by way of closure. Licenceholders who uphold the law will have nothing to fear but those licenceholders who continually and consistently flout the law will feel the full force of its effect. I make no apology for this. As I have said before, there are only a minority of licenceholders involved in the sale and supply of intoxicating liquor to under age persons but even that small minority is not acceptable.
The amendment would serve only to dilute the strength of section 13 of the Bill and would lead to a situation where the section would not operate to any particular effect. That would defeat the purpose of the section and depart from the policy suggested by the joint Oireachtas committee and endorsed by the Government. I am sure Senators will realise that they and I have a duty to tackle this problem. I am not for one moment suggesting that the sponsors of the amendment hold a different view on under age drinking - far from it. All I am saying is that the effect of the amendment would be to ensure the Houses of the Oireachtas pay lip-service to the problem of under age drinking and would not tackle it in any meaningful way.
Dr. Henry: While I understand Senator Costello's concern about mandatory sentences, in this case the Minister is correct to stick with the word "shall" rather than "may". If he fails to do so it will be far too easy to let things slide and we will never see penalties imposed.
Mr. Bohan: Initially I was very concerned about this section of the Bill but having listened to the Minister on Committe Stage and today I am not as concerned in the sense that the courts will have discretion. I originally thought that the sentence was mandatory once a licenceholder was charged with an offence. I now understand that on conviction a premises may be required to close for a period of one or two hours or up to seven days. I agree with the Minister. The people I represent abhor the few premises in which under age persons are served. Nobody supports this. Having listened to the Minister I am much happier.
Mr. Quinn: Until I read the section carefully I was concerned about the possibility of overkill. I have no doubt that the Minister is correct. The sentence does not need to be mandatory. As Senator Bohan said, not only is the judge not obliged to close a premises for a period of six days, as I thought originally, he does not even have to close the entire premises. He may close one part of it - this had not dawned on me - for just one hour but I assume it will be for a longer period. The matter will therefore be in the hands of the judge. This is the correct approach. I applaud the Minister for his determination not to move on this amendment.
Mr. J. Cregan: As someone who also expressed concern on Committee Stage I welcome the Minister's full and comprehensive explanation. We cannot afford to leave any loophole. If we are to tackle the problem we have to proceed along the lines suggested by the Minister whom I fully support.
Mr. Costello: The Minister advanced many cogent arguments but what I have in mind is the question of mandatory sentencing which is not part of our jurisprudence. The courts should have scope to make the decision taking all circumstances into consideration.
The other side of the coin is implementation of the law. Intoxicating liquor law is often honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Because of the difficulties being experienced, has the Minister considered establishing a special unit to deal with under age drinking, whether it be in public houses or public parks, similar to the drugs squad and other similar units in the Garda Síochána? Unless implementation is sufficiently sophisticated there is no sense in enacting a Bill of this nature. Has the Minister had second thoughts about establishing a special unit in the Garda Síochána?
Mr. O'Donoghue: On the question of enforcement the Senator will be aware that I have made statements to the effect that it is the intention that the laws contained in the Bill will be enforced. Under age drinking is a matter of deep concern to me and the Garda Commissioner. It can be taken as read that the provisions relating to under age drinking contained in the Bill will be enforced.
As I said on Committee Stage the intention is not to penalise those who are not engaged in this practice. Unfortunately there is a very small minority who are engaged in supplying intoxicating liquor to under age persons. I outlined in great detail that the parents of teenage children are deeply worried that their children can be supplied with alcohol by these people. There are horrific stories, for example, of children coming home to their parents on the night they received their junior certificate results hopelessly drunk. The vast majority of publicans and people involved in the off-licence trade would not serve drink, under any circumstances, to people who are under age. There is a small minority throughout the country who will and this problem must be tackled. As I explained previously, it can be tackled by lip service in this House or we can deal with it meaningfully. The way that it is proposed in this legislation makes it a statutory imperative for the court to demand a closure. An order can last for one hour and up to seven days.
Mr. Costello: Who will monitor that?
Mr. O'Donoghue: That is at the discretion of the court. I also outlined that the court, in determining the duration of a closure order, may seek a report from a member of the Garda Síochána involved in the investigation of the offence on the circumstances in which it was committed and any other information which might be pertinent. While it is an offence for one young person to be given intoxicating liquor in a public house, it would not be as grave an offence if the publican said that he made a mistake. On the other hand, it is a different matter if a busload of young teenagers were served alcohol in the lounge of a public house or in a disco. The scale of the offence is different. In those circumstances the judge might take the view that the premises should be closed for a week.
In tandem with the closure order there is also provision in this legislation that the premises in question will be obliged to affix to the exterior of the premises and in a conspicuous place the reason the premises is closed. The length of time the premises will be closed must also be specified. The Garda Síochána are long enough in the business to know whom this legislation is meant for. It applies across society but there are people who habitually supply alcohol to young people.
As Senator Quinn correctly pointed out, this legislation also provides that the closure order does not have to apply to the entire premises. It may be made in respect of any part of the premises. The court might decide to shut down the portion of the premises where young people were served. It might hold that the lounge should be closed but the public bar should remain open and vice versa. There is a degree of discretion involved which should be noted.
It is true that habitual offenders receive little or no mercy in this legislation. I do not believe that anyone would argue that habitual offenders should receive any mercy for serving drink to young teenagers.
With regard to the argument that the publican or the off-licence holder could make a mistake, I have explained that I introduced a national voluntary identity card in April 1999 by way of regulation under the 1988 Act. Those cards are available from the Garda. Any person who is over 18 years of age but looks younger can go to a Garda station and apply for an ID card by producing his or her birth certificate, a photograph and paying a fee of £5. The application, documentation and fee are forwarded to the Garda headquarters in Phoenix Park. The card will then be issued in a short period of time. In so far as is possible the card is tamper proof. If a publican or a person involved in the off-licence trade has a doubt about a person's age then they can ask for their ID card. If a card is not produced and a doubt still exists then the strong, cogent and only advice I can give is not to serve them. If a large number of people enter a premises and the publican or people serving on the premises do not know whether they are serving a young person under 18 years of age, why should not the licensee be responsible for making absolutely sure?
Dr. Henry: The publicans should employ more staff.
Mr. O'Donoghue: It is possible for the licensee in those circumstances to make sure that the mistake does not occur. The alternative to what I am doing is quite simple - it is ifs, buts and maybes. If I start off like that then we will be right back where we started.
I appreciate the support Senators have given to this measure. To be fair to the intoxicating liquor industry, the representatives of the publicans, discos, hoteliers, restaurateurs and all involved have made it clear to me that they want to assist in clamping down on under age drinking. The Government deeply appreciates their support and it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that publicly and magnanimously. Any watering down of the provisions of this Bill would be a disservice not just to the parents of young teenagers now and in the future but to the young teenagers as well.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Connor: I move amendment No. 11:
in">In page 15, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:
"15--An under-age person having reached the age of criminal responsibility will be liable to prosecution for purchasing or attempting to purchase intoxicating liquor in a licensed premises.".
My amendment attempts to strengthen the Minister's hand in relation to fighting the scourge of under age drinking. I decided to table an amendment on this issue on Report Stage even though I did not have one on Committee Stage. I have no doubt the Minister will tell me that provision has already been made in other legislation to cover my amendment, perhaps in the 1988 Act. I apologise that I have not read it nor checked it since the last day.
My amendment seeks to ensure that the burden of responsibility for under age drinking is shared with young people who have reached the age of criminal responsibility. I would like to see the age of criminal responsibility increased to 14 years of age. This would send a clear message to young people.
The initiative to procure drink in a licensed premises is by the customer in the first instance. Young people who look more mature than their years enter licensed premises and there is not a compulsory age card. I accept the Minister's argument that the licensee should insist, when he or she is in doubt about a person's age, on the production of an identity card. I believe the Minister should introduce a compulsory age card but I may be in the minority. If he decided to go ahead and do that then I would support him.
It is unfair to place on the licensee alone all the burden of responsibility for the offence of serving drink to a person who is under age. Senator Bohan, other Senators and myself gave an example last week of a person over 18 years of age purchasing an alcoholic drink, taking it to a table where there is an under age person and handing it to them. I know extenuating circumstances can be taken into account in court by the judge but the publican faces a closure order, if only for an hour. In a case like that the responsibility should be shared by the young person who tries to procure alcohol.
An Cathaoirleach: As it is now 6 p.m. we must adjourn the debate.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: A Chathaoirligh, it would appear that we are close to completing this legislation. The Minister informs me that he must be in the Dáil at 8 p.m. Would 15 minutes suffice for Senators to complete the Bill?
Mr. Connor: Yes.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I do not wish to put pressure on anyone.
Mr. Connor: Fifteen minutes will suffice.
An Cathaoirleach: The Acting Leader is proposing that the debate on Report Stage be extended by 15 minutes.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: To complete the Bill.
An Cathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Connor: It might appear harsh of me to push the issue of placing legal responsibility on under age persons and that they might find themselves prosecuted for a criminal offence. However, so widespread is the scourge that urgent and strong action is required on the part of the Legislature. On many occasions, in both Houses, I have said that I am not a supporter of draconian legislation. However, if this is a draconian response then so be it. If this provision is included in the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988, there is nothing wrong with including it in this Bill.
Mr. Quinn: I second this amendment. The Minister may say this provision is included in other legislation but this will strengthen the provision. The closest comparison I can draw involves bribery. If there is a law which stipulates that accepting a bribe is a crime but offering a bribe is not a crime then that is bad law. The person who offers the bribe and the person who accepts it should be guilty and there should be laws against both.
In this case, it seems that if an under age person seeks alcohol they should be as guilty as the person who sells it to them. The Minister may say there is already such provision in law and may argue that this amendment is unnecessary. However, the amendment would strengthen the case and reiterate the strength of the Minister's opinion on under age drinking.
Dr. Henry: I support this amendment because it would make the act of attempting to buy alcohol by an under age person appear even more serious. Even if this provision is included in other legislation there is no harm in including it in this Bill.
Mr. O'Donoghue: The amendment provides for the prosecution of under age persons for purchasing, or attempting to purchase, intoxicating liquor. The Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988, already contains a comprehensive set of provisions designed to tackle the problem of under age drinking. Chief among those provisions are that it is an offence for any person under 18 years of age to purchase alcohol in an on-licence or off-licence premises, or to consume it in any place other than a private residence in which he or she is present by right or permission.
It is also an offence for any person to purchase alcohol for consumption by a person under 18 years of age in any place other than a private residence. Intoxicating liquor in the possession of under 18s in any place, other than a private residence, may be seized by the Garda. No person under 18 years of age is allowed on the part of a licensed premises where an extension or special exemption order is in force and under 18s are not allowed in off-licence premises unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
These provisions, when taken together with the tougher sanctions provided for in this Bill, are, in so far as legislation can contribute to combating abuse of alcohol by under age persons, generally regarded as strict and up-to-date and go as far as legislation of this type could reasonably be expected to go. In that context, they more than satisfy the proposal put forward by Senator Connor.
33 of the 1988 Act, it is an offence for young people to
demand drink knowing they are under age. Up to now,
however, because evidence of age was not routinely
sought, offenders were not easily identified with the
result that this provision was difficult to enforce.
I am confident that enactment of the provisions in this
Bill, together with the national voluntary age card
scheme which is already in operation, will strengthen
those measures already provided for in 1988. The
new provisions will place the onus on the licensee to
ensure that intoxicating liquor is only supplied to those
legally entitled to purchase or consume it. Under
age drinkers must also be made aware that they are also
in breach of the law when they represent themselves as
being over 18 and demand that intoxicating liquor be sold
to them or when they permit it to be bought on their
As I indicated on Committee Stage, following passage of the Bill it is my intention to begin an advertising campaign to publicise the age card scheme. As part of that campaign I also intend to emphasise the consequences of conviction of an offence under section 33 of the 1988 Act. I am determined that this Bill will once and for all tackle the scourge of under age drinking and I firmly believe that the measures I am putting forward will go a long way towards achieving that aim. The Intoxicating Liquor Bill, 2000, will make a difference. If I thought Senator Connor's amendment would add to the law I would be happy to accept it. However, it will not do so and, therefore, I do not propose to support the amendment.
As regards making the age card compulsory, it has to be remembered that the card will be required by a person who is over 18 years of age and who feels that he or she may be refused alcohol because the person behind the counter or in the off-licence thinks that he or she is under age. If I were to make the card compulsory it would mean that I would make it compulsory for young people over the age of 18, about whom the same doubt may exist, who have no intention of obtaining alcohol to also carry the card. This would not be fair or right and I do not think it is desirable.
Mr. Connor: I do not intend to pursue this amendment. However, I am glad the Minister noted how comprehensive the provisions in the 1988 Act are in prohibiting under age people from purchasing drink. I hope that he will soon better define the age of criminal responsibility. It is too low at present and I believe he has proposals to bring it into line.
The advertisements for the age card scheme should include public notice to those young people at whom they are targeted that, under sections of the 1988 Act, it is a serious criminal offence for an under age person to purchase or to attempt to purchase intoxicating liquor in an on-licence or off-licence.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Costello: I move amendment No. 12:
In page 16, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:
"(2) The Court may waive the requirement for the surrender of an existing licence if it is satisfied that it would be proposed to do so having regard to the population in the area where the premises to be licensed are situated and the scarcity of licensed premises in that area.".
This is a laudable amendment and the Minister said that present difficulties concerning "super pubs" in built up areas are due to the inflexibility of existing licensing laws. I am seeking to add greater flexibility by allowing courts to waive the requirement for the surrender of an existing licence if warranted by population trends in an area or the scarcity of licensed premises. This could avoid the difficulties which arise in built up areas such as Ballymun, Tallaght and other areas where there are massive pubs and not enough licensed premises.
Mr. Connor: I second the amendment.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Section 15 introduces new provisions concerning access to the market by the creation of a nationwide single licence area and the standard requirement of the extinguishing of one licence in any part of the State when applying for a new licence. The amendment would waive the requirement for the surrender of an existing licence based on a set of factors which do not, as I said on Committee Stage, make sense. Such factors as the population of the area where the new licence is to be located and the scarcity of licensed premises in the area are, given the fact that the prohibitions in current law would no longer apply, the factors which should have the effect of attracting persons to set up new premises in those areas by moving from areas where there is an over supply of licences.
I expressed the view, which I stand over, that section 15 as it stands would see greater mobility in licences to areas where there is a scarcity of licensed premises. Market forces will dictate such a movement and not the fact that they are permitted under the Bill.
Section 15 also introduces a new concept of adequacy. This is not a means whereby existing licencees in an area can have a veto on the establishment of new premises. In fact it is the opposite. The court will, where application for new licence is in question, assess, for example, need in an area by reference to the existing number of outlets of a particular type, for example, the number of existing public houses. The adequacy test is one that would operate to the advantage of places that are currently under served as far as licensed premises are concerned. The effect of the Senator's amendment would be to create a different and uncertain standard in some cases. That would not be satisfactory.
The Government has approved my proposal for the establishment of a commission on licensing. The commission will have ample scope to deliver quality advice to the Minister and Government in relation to such diverse areas as access to licences, nature of premises that can or should be licensed, the distribution of licences and the licensing system. Incidentally, it is my intention to ensure that the commission on licensing will be broadly based and that all sides of the equation, so to speak, are represented on it.
Amendment put and declared lost.
Mr. Connor: I move amendment No. 13:
In page 20, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following:
23. -A person who is the holder of a wine retailer's on-licence (within the meaning of the Act of 1910) or a wine retailers off-licence may offer beer for sale for consumption off the premises.".
In this Bill the Minister has extended the right of restaurateurs who hold a wine licence issued by Bord Fáilte to sell beer. They previously only had the right to sell wine and spirits. Small family supermarkets, which also hold a wine licence to sell wine, believe this provision is discriminatory in that they cannot benefit from this extension.
The amendment seeks to ensure that small family-owned supermarkets which have a licence to retail wine should also be allowed to sell beer, usually cans of beer. It is a reasonable provision. People buy wine as a take home drink and cans of beer are equally popular, if not more so. The Independent Liquor Licensing Reform Group has threatened to go to court on the basis that the provision in the Bill is discriminatory. It has been given sound legal advice that it is discriminatory and the group has a good chance of winning its case.
The Minister should make this simple adjustment. It will not increase the level of drunkenness or alcohol abuse. It would be helpful to a sector of the retail trade which, as a result of the huge competition it faces, is now struggling to survive. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I second the amendment. It is a simple and pragmatic adjustment to the Bill and it deserves support. Multinationals in large towns have off-licences which allow them to sell spirits, beer and other alcoholic drinks. The small supermarket owner who might employ eight to ten people is not in a position to compete.
Last Christmas Eve I was in a shopping centre in Ennis. I was confounded to find a queue forming at 10 a.m. When I asked the reason I was told they were queuing for the off-licence of a certain large national retailer. I will not promote the name by mentioning it. The queue was of no benefit to the publicans or small shopkeepers of Ennis. There would not have been that level of congestion in the shopping centre if we had a wider and more even distribution of licences across the town and county.
An Cathaoirleach: I remind the Senator that the House agreed to conclude Report Stage at 6.15 p.m.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I am sure the House will agree to allocating a few minutes more. Will the Acting Leader permit another five minutes?
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Five minutes and Senators should stick to the point.
An Cathaoirleach: Is it agreed that we extend Report Stage for another five minutes? Agreed.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: That is the point and it applies as much to Dingle as to Kilrush. Let the playing pitch be even and give small retailers a fair crack of the whip. They are not in a position to pay £80,000 to £100,000 to secure an off-licence. The Minister should make an accommodation for those who already have a wine on-licence and, as Senator Connor proposes, allow them to sell beer as well. That would be a fair solution.
Mr. Quinn: I support the amendment because, given my height, I regard myself as a small grocer. I support Senator Connor's view. It makes no sense to have a licence which allows one to sell alcohol as long as it is imported but does not allow one to sell alcohol produced in Ireland. I urge the Minister to consider the amendment.
Dr. Henry: I support this amendment in the national interest. Ireland makes little wine but a great deal of beer.
Mr. O'Donoghue: I remind Senator Quinn that there are many small farmers with large ranches.
As I explained on Committee Stage, any person, subject to meeting certain conditions, may apply to the District Court for a certificate leading to the grant of a beer retailer's off-licence. In common with all such applications, there is an application for the grant of a certificate for a spirit retailer's off-licence and a full publican's licence. It is a condition that an existing licence or licences are extinguished. No such requirement exists for the grant of a wine retailer's on-licence or off-licence. In section 15 of the Bill the condition relating to extinguishment is relaxed in that the licence may be sourced from anywhere in the State and only one extinguished licence is required in all cases. In addition, a publican's licence can be offered directly in substitution for an off-licence.
The amendment would permit the holder of a wine off-licence or on-licence to sell beer for consumption off the premises on foot of such a licence. Wine licences are granted without the need for a certificate of the court. There is, therefore, no examination of character of the applicant for a licence and no opportunity to examine the fitness of the premises in terms of its location and suitability. The amendment fails to address that point.
Moreover, it would be an error to compare the off-licence situation with the sale of beer with a meal in a restaurant that is provided for under section 22 of the Bill. That section is in tune with consumer demand. The section is framed to operate responsibly in that it is subject to certain conditions. In any event, it is not correct to argue that because a shop has a wine off-licence or on-licence attached, it should also be permitted to sell beer. In fact, in section 31 of the Bill I am ensuring that shops which wish to sell wine will do so by virtue of wine retailer's off-licence and not, as is now most common, by virtue of a wine retailer's on-licence. That section removes the anomaly in the current law whereby it is easier to receive a wine retailer's on-licence, which also permits sale off the premises, than to receive a wine retailer's off-licence.
We have devoted much time in the course of this debate to discussing the problem of under age drinking. I do not wish to beat that drum too much but I believe a proper balance has been achieved in the Bill as well as updating and achieving progress in the licensing system. I undertook on Committee Stage to refer the nature of the off-licence to the commission on licensing. I understood that Senator Connor, as a result of that statement, was withdrawing the amendment. I still believe that is the best course of action.
I am disappointed the Minister has not accepted my point
of view. There is a time constraint on the debate
so I cannot say much. I am not convinced by the
Minister's arguments. This amendment simply permits
the sale of beer in small, usually family-owned,
supermarkets. They are allowed to sell intoxicating
liquor in the form of wine. The Minister has not
made a convincing argument against extending that
permission to the sale of beer. Beers are taken
home for social occasions in the same way as wine bought
in supermarkets. There is the problem that this
type of alcohol might get into the hands of under age
drinkers but that will always be a problem.
I am disappointed at the Minister's response.
Amendment put and declared lost.
Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."
Mr. J. Cregan: I thank the Minister for his personal attention to this Bill. It is satisfying to have had the Minister in the House for all Stages. I compliment the members of the Opposition who put forward worthy amendments. It has been a frank debate, with good explanations and replies from the Minister. Some amendments were worthy and were taken on board by the Minister. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through the Lower House because the public demands that it is enacted before the summer recess.
Mr. Bohan: I thank the Opposition for its co-operation and help in bringing the debate on this Bill to a conclusion. I thank the Minister for the extraordinary amount of time he spent on it and the number of times he met people who made representations to him. I thank him for all his help and wish him well with the Bill in the Lower House.
Mr. Connor: I thank the Minister for initiating this seminal Bill in the House. We are delighted that it was taken here and we hope to see that happen more often.
I am grateful to the Minister for the amount of time he spent here. He did not send a Minister of State but was present on all Stages. He explained in great detail his position on the amendments we put forward.
While we are grateful for our success on one amendment, we are disappointment that the Minister did not accept other amendments. However, this is good legislation. While it is right to liberalise closing time, I want the Bill, above all, to be an attack on the scourge of under age drinking. There should be a way of auditing its performance. I sincerely hope that in a year's time we will be able to say that the Act had the effect of reducing the scourge.
Mr. Quinn: I thank the Minister for his open-mindedness in regard to the Bill. I congratulate him and his officials for the manner in which they handled this. I was impressed at the depth of the Minister's knowledge and, to a greater extent, at his determination on the issue of under age drinking. I am pleased that he was willing to make amendments which strengthened the Bill. They make it more worthwhile and logical.
Mr. Costello: I want to be associated with the remarks congratulating the Minister and his officials on the manner in which they have handled the legislation and that the legislation came before us because we have been waiting so long for it. He is the first Minister to have grasped the nettle.
I thank him for the thorough way in which he dealt with our amendments and the courtesy he has shown at all times. Naturally, we would have liked to have seen more amendments accepted since it is such an important Bill. I hope there will be the same effort made to get the Minister to agree to amendments in the other House and we might see the Bill returned to this House.
Dr. Henry: I thank the Minister for taking cognisance of our concerns and congratulate him and his officials for making the Bill as workable as possible.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I thank the main spokesperson on the Government side for all the work he put into this legislation. I deeply appreciated it. Indeed, I thank all the contributors on the Government side, particularly the Chief Whip. I also thank the chief spokespersons for the Opposition parties and other Members who contributed to the development of the legislation during its passage in the House. I also extend my deepest thanks to the Independent Senators who contributed so much to the passage of this legislation.
The Bill marks an important milestone in the Government's approach to the modernisation of the licensing laws. It can be described as the most comprehensive single package of reform measures ever introduced in the Oireachtas on the issue. It is of tremendous significance that legislation such as this was introduced in the Seanad. That is due in no small measure to the commitment of the Members of the House to reforming legislation which is deeply appreciated.
The legislation reflects the thoughts and concerns of the general public on the intoxicating liquor laws and the availability of alcohol. It does this in a number of ways and there is no need for me to go back through them now other than to say that the legislation is mature in many respects and that the increasing awareness and worries of parents about under age drinking is reflected in the legislation, as is the view of the consumers.
I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for your assistance and I thank the staff of the House. In particular, I am deeply grateful to the officials in my Department who worked so hard over such a long period to ensure that the legislation arrived in the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Laws of Libel and Defamation: Motion (Resumed).
The following motion was moved by Senator Manning on Wednesday, 10 May 2000:
That Seanad Éireann calls upon the Government to indicate what changes, if any, it proposes to make to the laws of libel and defamation and to outline its policy and proposals on the question of ownership and control of the media.
Mr. Quinn: As I spoke on the motion last week and as it is 6.20 p.m. I am happy to waive my right to speak.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I welcome the Minister. Last week I listened with great interest to the debate on the relaxation of the libel laws. At times the debate is quite confusing. One can see right on both sides of the argument.
I grew up in an era in which one's good name was sacrosanct. Indeed, one was meant to defend it, even with one's life or at least at the risk of getting a black eye in a scuffle with the school bully in the school yard. At the time there was another prevailing philosophy which one might call a theology, that one never spoke ill of the dead. I was thinking of that irony here on morning on the Order of Business when the Cathaoirleach allowed me to speak on a topical matter and I found myself defending such diverse characters as Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and General Eoin O'Duffy. I felt both had been maligned in articles and obviously were not in a position to defend themselves.
On the other hand we all grew up in an era when we respected and realised the need for a free or unmuzzled press. To an extent it came to me again strongly this morning in a story from Bosnia, where the local police raided the television station simply because it had been adopting a line which did not suit the establishment. The official version of the story was that they were suggesting an uprising against the establishment. However, we have seen such action in so many dictatorships throughout the world - whenever it was endeavouring to arrive at the truth the media was always sidelined or, worse still, put out of action. At such times we were particularly pleased that we had a free media of our own because we could well understand the frustration of not being allowed to put across a legitimate idea. Nobody should feel threatened by legitimate ideas and it is important that ideas would be published, debated and that people would be given the opportunity to put forward a point of view. We have always held that view in Ireland.
On the other hand, it would not be an exaggeration to state that there have been severe abuses of that same freedom and there is not always an opportunity to put forward a reaction to those abuses. For instance, I am always disappointed by certain Sunday newspapers where five columnists may write on the same subject and sing from the same hymn sheet on the same page. That is disappointing because the least one expects is that a counter argument might be made and there is an opportunity to inform, educate and, if necessary, provoke the public. I see nothing wrong with that, given that we have such a high level of education and that there are so many discerning commentators among the public and in public life. These people are well able to take that provocation. However, I do not think it helps the good name of journalism or that it is ethical that this should happen. We must consider the whole area of ethics in journalism if we are to defend the notion of a free press.
This was brought home to me recently when a particular member of a religious order was demonised and, having subsequently been found not guilty in the courts, this fact was set aside. There was not the same balance of coverage for the exoneration of this person as there should have been and I believe if there had been, it would have done more credit to the media.
One of the great difficulties at present is the perception abroad that the whole area of journalism is being driven in the context of profit. Perhaps this is one of the side effects of competition. For instance, the more newspapers, television stations or radio stations there are, the more competition grows and, because it grows, it seems to be important to introduce sensationalism on a daily basis. I am sure many Members of this House who travel by bus or train have picked up a newspaper and found that the content under the headline bore little or no relationship to the headline. This is sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism and for the sake of selling a product. I am sure that if any other product was being sold on the same basis, such as genetically modified foods or another product where one must protect against false claims, there would be an outcry if such an extreme scenario prevailed. This is far more important in the area of journalism because of the power of journalists and the media.
We have imported from abroad some of the worst tabloid excesses in this regard. On the other hand, it is fair to say that the local press and media create a balance which very often restores our faith in that fine profession of journalism. This is also true of local radio. Because the local media is so close to the local community, it quickly realises that whatever about titivating one's desire for sensationalism, people still want very solid news, very solid reporting and very solid provocation for public opinion. That has been my experience with the local media. As I said, this in many ways restores our faith in the media.
It is also true that there is a great effort on the part of some people in the national media to uphold those high standards. However, what I find missing is a willingness to criticise their own. There are maverick journalists, who are certainly in the minority, but I do not find many sections of the media prepared to criticise their own when they step out of line. If this is not done, it will indicate perhaps in the context of this debate that the media are not prepared for self-regulation. They must prove to many people that they are prepared for self-regulation.
I recall one case in the last 12 months which some might refer to as a mellowing concept on the part of a journalist. I very much admire this journalist for what he has done and he could in no sense be regarded as wimpish in the area of journalism. He has adopted a very independent role. He is no longer one of a herd and is prepared to look at the other side of the story. In one or two cases I found reference to him creeping into other sections of the media. Here was someone who was endeavouring to set the record straight and display a fair mindedness and some journalists were prepared to criticise him for leaving the herd in that particular case. This attitude did not last for long but they did rise above the parapet in that case.
There is also the question of the national interest which is very important, no more so than in relation to Northern Ireland. There are times in very sensitive situations when the necessary elements come together for a solution, when people are prepared to work and compromise in reconciliation. However, very often the challenge in a negative and almost destructive manner tends to come first of all from the media. I would like to know where the responsibility lies in relation to this. Is there the question of the greater good or the common good or is there the question of the national interest? I look back to a former Government Minister who sat at the Cabinet table and would have had access to State secrets. When he was no longer a public representative, he took up a position as journalist with an English newspaper. This was at a very volatile time in the North of Ireland. It was at a time when the situation could develop one way or another. Every time our Government endeavoured to pursue a particular line of action based on democracy, the common good and reconciliation, this person who had sat at the Cabinet table used a particular journal outside the shores of Ireland to undermine each step that was taken. Can that in any circumstances be justified? I am inclined to say it cannot be justified in such a case and that where the national interest is involved journalists must show common sense.
On the other hand, if we did not have a free press and free media, I believe many wrongs would have been perpetrated against people who were vulnerable. The media were needed in those situations. I would again like to balance my comments by saluting the contributions made by the media at that time. However, I hope the ethics of journalism will come to centre stage and that the influence and power the media have will be balanced with a degree of fair play and common sense.
I do not accept the argument that one of the reasons the libel laws should be relaxed is because of what we are now hearing from the tribunals. I do not accept this because it would make bad law. Let the media make the case for the relaxation of the libel laws, not for any specific period or any specific incident but with a broader vision of what the media should be doing.
I hope this debate will not conclude at this time because it needs to be ongoing. It is an evolving matter and there is a huge element of responsibility on us all. We should not rush our fences, but we should listen to both sides of the argument. I hope the media will continue to convince us that they will act responsibly at all times and endeavour to regulate their own area.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: This debate is very important and the subject matter should have been aired long before now. Its timing is particularly appropriate given the publicity there has been in relation to the tribunals and investigations taking place. It must be acknowledged that particular journalists have done the country a great service in certain areas of investigative journalism. Through their investigative journalism, they have prompted further investigations via the establishment by the Houses of the Oireachtas of various tribunals.
The public has a right to know what is going in the public service generally and in the Houses of the Oireachtas. They have a right to know how politicians conduct their business. It is important that there is openness, transparency and accountability at all levels and at all times. However, we all have a right to privacy, whether we are politicians, private citizens, professionals or school children. Whoever we are, we have basic constitutional rights and it is important that those rights are valued, protected and defended. They can be defended and protected within the law of the land and it is vital that the law does so.
In debating these issues it is important to preserve a sense of balance. All laws should strive towards balance. In the case of reform of the libel laws we need balance and fair play. Nobody should be put at a serious disadvantage.
I disagree with the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission that the defendant in a defamation case should have to prove that he or she has nothing to disprove. That is wrong. It would mean that any of us could at any time be put on the rack and it would be up to us to prove our innocence. If libel is committed against an individual, the onus is on him or her to prove their innocence. Immediately and automatically they are at a huge disadvantage. I fundamentally disagree with that principle. There is a need for balance.
In the discussions that take place on this, it must be appreciated that there is a certain element of concern and fear among the public and among public representatives in particular. There are outstanding journalists, highly professional, ethical people who operate to very high standards. They are honourable, decent people who do a very professional job, convey the essential element of whatever public debate is taking place and who are very mindful of the protection of the rights of individuals. That is what must be striven towards at all time.
In relation to libel cases there are particular difficulties. Among the public at large, politicians and in the media, there is good and bad on all sides. It is not a case of "them" and "us", rather it is important that the overall general good is protected. At present there are difficulties in how cases are conducted in the courts, in relation to how long it takes to process them, how long after libel is alleged that a case gets to court and how it is dealt with. There is a need to speed up the litigation process considerably. Some cases have taken four to five years from the time of the allegation to get to court. I refer specifically to the print media and in that context we are talking about the libel laws and the grounds for taking an action.
With regard to compensation resulting from such cases, currently a judge is not in a position to give guidelines to juries as to the amount of financial compensation they can award. I am not sure that is wise. It is important to have a yardstick relating to the damage that is done to a person in a defamation case. In the past juries adjudicated on insurance cases. Legislation was passed to enable such cases to proceed without a jury, but there has been no great change in the amount of awards. In relation to all such matters there is a need to have criteria laid down. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law reform should issue judges with guidelines relating to acceptable levels of compensation for various categories of injury.
In relation to defamation, defendants cannot make a lodgment in court without admission of liability. This is a bit far fetched in the year 2000. There is a need to have issue of admission of liability substantially reviewed. I hope that in the course of the debate somebody can come up with a proposal in that regard.
There are huge fears with regard to the media industry. As public representatives we are looking over our shoulders all the time. Every meeting to which a public representative goes at this stage, whether it takes place in a local authority, in the House, at a committee or elsewhere, there is openness, transparency and accountability. However, people are also now so careful and cautious that it is nearly obscene. They fear being open and saying what they feel like saying, within reason. They feel inhibited and that is not necessarily good for openness of debate or freedom of speech. It is a matter on which we need to be vigilant.
It comes down to the fear of being misinterpreted as a public representative. Some politicians are extremely articulate and can precisely put their points in the most effective way. Others get it wrong and convey a message other than what was intended and that can be misrepresented. That must be appreciated. The media need to appreciate that from the point of view of a public representative such fears exist.
Equally, one can also appreciate that journalists need to get a story. A newspaper is a commercial business. It is a competitive business and those involved have to get headlines, sell newspapers and keep a commercial operation viable. We are lucky to have a number of very good national Irish-based newspapers here which are commercially viable, and long may that last. It is important, in the interest of Irish society and of our culture and ethos that the publications of Independent Newspapers, The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner maintain their hold of the Irish market and continue to report on matters of national and international interest. Imported newspapers, particularly tabloid newspapers, which report stories with little substance but a high level of sensationalism, do not serve the interests of the Irish people. I hope Irish newspapers go from strength to strength. It may be necessary to establish a regulator to maintain standards in the press. The press council applies standards to its members but difficulties arise when journalists operate outside the national remit of the press council.
The journalist, Sam Smyth, suggested recently that if a person in public life can prove that he or she was libelled with recklessness and malice, he or she should be entitled to compensation. If someone is libelled it should not be necessary to prove that the person who committed the libel did so recklessly or maliciously. This puts an unacceptable onus on people in public life and the idea should not be entertained.
Our overall concern is for fair play and a balance of rights. It is important that we maintain standards. I appreciate the fact that the media have pushed back frontiers, particularly on social matters, and have helped to bring the country into the 21st century. However, when this interferes with the constitutional rights of the individual, frontiers are being pushed too far.
It is good that we are having this debate and I hope it will lead to a reform of the libel laws.
Mr. Farrell: It appears that journalists are the only people in the country who are above reproach in matters of morality and integrity. They resemble pharisees while public representatives are cast as publicans.
A short time ago an RTE journalist, in his contribution to "Thought for the Day", expressed the opinion that there were some bad teachers. He was sacked immediately. RTE apologised to the teachers' unions and, although a brilliant man, he was never allowed to work on RTE again. I loved to hear him on that programme but now "Thought for the Day" is neither one thing nor another. Where was that man's freedom and how was it recognised by his colleagues?
Douglas Gageby once said that the duty of a good press man was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I do not agree. A good journalist should be fair and balanced but many are not. I have sympathy with today's journalists because many of them are freelance or are employed on short-term contracts. Unless they produce scoops they do not make any money. How often do we read a headline which bears very little relationship to the article below it?
It is right that scandals are exposed. We must all be above reproach. I have been in politics for almost 37 years and I am confident that no skeleton will be found in my cupboard. When we examine scandalous behaviour we must ask ourselves what is the end product of that behaviour. The end product of the planning scandal which is reported every day in our newspapers is that thousands of people in this city have affordable homes and jobs. Of course, the system by which this was achieved was not correct. The end product of the Blood Transfusion Service Board scandal is death and destruction but which scandal gets bigger headlines? Senior people in the Blood Transfusion Service Board retired with large cheques and golden handshakes. Why do the media not report this more fully? On "Questions and Answers" last Monday evening half an hour was spent discussing the political scandal but less than five minutes on the BTSB scandal. Is this balanced, fair or just reporting? I ask people in the media to examine their consciences and see if they are being fair. Politicians go before the public every three and a half years, on average. How many journalists go before the public?
Those who work in the media are interested in stories as products. They campaigned to have the proceedings of the Dáil and Seanad televised, but only the titbits which journalists consider to be interesting are broadcast. Excellent debates on subjects such as child care are completely ignored by the media because they do not sell papers. The business of journalists is to sell a product to make money for themselves and a profit for newspaper proprietors. Local newspapers provide a community service. They are mostly privately owned and run like any family business. They give fair coverage and have a feel for what is happening in their areas.
Not long ago an RTE employee was found to have taken money but it was not suggested that everyone in RTE was dishonest. However, a very eminent reporter claimed on "Today Tonight" a few evenings ago that everyone knows that money was being paid to every politician in the country. What happened in one area of Dublin was not happening in rural Ireland. The councillors and politicians of rural Ireland are decent people. I have seen many millionaires around the country try to become Members of this House. If they could buy votes money would not stop them and if I had to compete against them I would not be here. I went around in my small car, stayed in bed and breakfasts and got elected. I speak on behalf of the county councillors who are decent, respectable people. They can hold their heads high.
-GB"> It is scandalous that people in the media, who talk of balance, put us all into one category. There are also journalists who are not right. The same thing happened with the clergy. A handful of priests did wrong but the media branded all the clergy as being wrong. There was no mention of the good work done by priests and nuns who sacrificed their time and their lives to give people an education and to help them. Where was the balance in that? Why did the media not talk about the good that was done? It was far greater than the evil, yet the bad acts were highlighted.
I always return to the gospel. Our Lord had only to pick 12 people. He picked one bad one who sold him down the river and took the 30 pieces of silver. There are bad people in every section of the community. Human nature has not changed. A small number of people are keeping the law courts busy. If everyone was like the people attending this debate there would be no need for lawyers, gardaí, social welfare workers or the courts. Many people would be out of work. A small number of people who are not living within the law are making many people rich.
Some years ago I called in this House for the establishment of a press council. The media were not anxious about having one. On that occasion only Senator Manning, Senator Cassidy and I spoke on the issue. Nobody else wanted to talk about it. There should be a press council. Who watches the press? Nobody. People in the media will write something in the newspaper over a large headline which perhaps three months later will be retracted by an apology printed in a small corner. Where is the balance in that? Why is the apology not given in headlines of the same size? There is a balance in the media, but it is not fairly represented in the national newspapers or the tabloids. The tabloids contain as much good reading as the broadsheets.
The establishment of an ombudsman for the media has been suggested, but that would be a very bad job. It is important to remember the old saying, he who pays the piper calls the tune. If the media were to pay for an ombudsman we could not expect much fair play. We need an independent press council with teeth, not an ombudsman. Journalists could be represented on it.
With all the lawyers they employ, people in the media can write articles and fail to mention the name of the person involved, yet everybody knows who is being written about. The planning scandal contains nothing but allegations. Nobody has been accused of anything, yet the media are prepared to accuse many people of a lot of things.
Do the media pay for stories? Journalists say they do not, but do they get their stories by way of expenses? Some reports indicate that the writer is in receipt of Garda files. Often a photocopy of the file will be published. How are such files obtained? Are they paid for? Every person has their price. I often wonder how journalists get confidential information, such as Garda files.
The media are running the law courts, the politicians and the country. Journalists often telephone people with questions but they are unhappy if the answer is not what they want. A journalist contacted me recently in connection with a speech I made in this House on alcohol abuse. However, he did not want my views on that; he wanted me to say something on another matter mentioned in the debate. I refused and told him I wanted to talk about alcohol abuse. Did he publish that? Did I get a headline? No blessed way. It was not news for him, but if I was daft enough to comment on the matter he wanted me to I would have been in the news.
The Garda have the power to question people but they must have a reasonable case. It is time we had a privacy law. We need privacy. Journalists have a cheek to telephone somebody at home on a Saturday or Sunday morning to ask questions. People telephoned me recently on a couple of matters but I told them what to do and I did not use parliamentary language. They have a cheek. Who do they think they are? Do they think they are lawyers? They seem to think they have more power than the Garda Commissioner.
I question the sincerity of people in the media. I know they must write to earn a living, but they are not being as fair and honest as they purport to be. Many solicitors and people in other professions have broken the law in a big way, yet we do not see solicitors being accused carte blanche of being dishonest. However, because a few politicians are only alleged to have taken money, we all stand accused by the media who say we are all at it. I want the media to be fair.
|I have been in
public life for 36 years. The following are lines
from the poem The Village Blacksmith:|
His hair was black and shiny,
His face a golden tan,
His brow was wet with honest sweat,
He earned what ere he can
And looked the whole world in the face
For he owed not any man.
Thank God I can look them all in the face after 36 years. I am not one of those accused. The great majority of the county councillors and Deputies are decent, honest, respectable people. It is scandalous of the media to try to paint us all with the one brush when as yet it is all allegation. There is not one criminal before them.
The media have taken to calling people by nicknames. A poor fellow got into trouble with the law and he was called by a nickname. Regardless of whether they are criminals, people have been christened and given a name. The media have even taken the liberty of calling Ministers by nicknames. That is scandalous.
If a Deputy or Senator has done something wrong in public life let him be confronted here. Why should his house, wife and family be photographed? The family is not involved. Human beings are involved here. The behaviour of some cameramen who use telephoto lenses on cameras to try to photograph innocent people is scandalous. There should be more rights to privacy because we need privacy for our families and our homes.
Mr. D. Cregan: I would seldom speak on an issue such as this because I would find that I had something else to do. However, at this point the problems have become so manifest that people must speak out. Now is the time to ask how we got so far before we met these people. That worries me more than what these people are saying. Senator Farrell has just made the point about requesting apologies. There is not an edition of the six o'clock news during which one would not see the High Court in the first four minutes. In times past one would never see the courts on the news but one sees the courts in the news every night, whether in cases of murder or an apology. It is in court that one must seek an apology, which is a sad reflection the broadcast and print media.
I find it disturbing that people are printing articles just to make money on the basis that if they do not print, they do not make money. I am only about 23 years in public life but up to ten or 15 years ago the journalists were a different calibre of person. Why is that? I always understood that if one was going to be a journalist one studied in the college in Dún Laoghaire and people studied very hard. In the past one always stood up for them because they were trained journalists. Nowadays anybody can write for a newspaper just to make money. I find that upsetting, particularly with regard to the regional rather than the national papers.
Although I did not agree with it in the past, a press council is needed. It would be in the interests of the genuine journalists and everybody else, in making sure more money does not have to be paid to people and in facilitating apologies. Although I do not know anything about press councils or commissions, it seems that since the press council came into being in Britain the system works much better there than here.
I do not want to criticise journalists for the sake of it because I might criticise them for doing just that. Only a few weeks ago in Cork city, there was a discussion about a sale of land in the city. A member of the council made negative allegations in the Irish Examiner against politicians and ex-politicians in the council and other councils. By the next evening, at city council level, the councillor was prepared to say that he was misquoted and had not said what was reported. As Senator Farrell has said, there was no attempt by the relevant paper to give an impression that what they printed was wrong. I cannot say whether the councillor made the remarks or not, but he said publicly in the council that he was misquoted and that he did not make them. In other words, there was an apology to the council.
Some days afterwards, a column by a journalist in the paper was printed, making the point which the councillor had made, that there was a question mark over the sale of the land to this particular developer or developers. I readily admit that the argument made by the journalist was fair and I am not saying he should not have made it, but if there was any question mark over the sale of the land to the particular developers and if the councillor was making the point on the night, why were there no objections by the councillor when the sale of the land was being made? The press did not bring that matter to the fore or question it.
That is where I want to see the line being drawn - I like to see both sides of an argument being put fairly. I know this journalist very well and he is a good friend of mine. I telephoned him and said that I did not understand what he was doing and I asked him why he did not put this question. He said it was only relevant during that week. It is very sad to see that in public life people are prepared to print something just for the sake of it. If people are going to do that, they lose their standards. I had rated him very highly but my opinion of him fell.
I asked him why he did not question why there were not objections to the sale at the time but that three years later there are objections because a person involved is under question with regard to other matters. I carry no flag for that person or any other. I carry the flag as a city councillor for Cork city and as a Senator of the State. I carry the flag for Cork city and I make no apologies for that. I felt the development was badly needed, irrespective of who bought it and we received a great price. I suppose if we had held it back until today, we might have received more for it. I would not mind holding it back if the city would make more money. I do not care who does it as long as it is done. That is all that worries me.
The Irish Examiner was giving the impression that everybody bar one person one was wrong, and it was right. That is why I asked at the outset how we got so far before we met them. At that rate, we would do nothing - I would not get out of bed in the morning if I thought that was the situation. They are right and we are all wrong. How did the city develop so well or so far before these people came in and started making the point that they think it should be done a certain way? Why are they not asking what happened in Dublin, which is another matter?
I do want to make points against Dublin, but why is the press not asking how all this came about or how was it created? Why was there was so much corruption created by so few and the opportunity given to them - if indeed there was corruption because there is still a question mark over this at the tribunals? Obviously, there are some people are still being questioned. Why was consideration not given by everybody at council, city, county and administrative level to ensure there was a proper development plan that did not create corruption? One creates corruption by giving people the opportunity. That is a sad reflection on us.
There is no way it could be done in Cork city because in 1969 we had a development plan. We added to it in 1974 and again in 1979 and nobody had any say after that. There was the development plan and we had to work on that. Our tunnel was under consideration in 1972 and it opened in 1999. That is how far ahead we had to plan for development. The Minister knows that is the way we worked. However, that did not happen in Dublin.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Cork copied it from County Kerry.
Mr. D. Cregan: We probably did and that is why Dingle is doing so well.
Why did we not see this coming and being highlighted by journalists? Why are they not asking how it was created? They should be asking who was wrong, seeking to find out who was not broadminded enough. That is the question I would ask.
There is a sad state of affairs in County Dublin, not in Dublin city thankfully. The way County Dublin has been planned is something else. Monday after Monday it was expanded by rezoning field after field instead of having a long-term development plan and had there re-zoning to be done it could be done over a five year period. That is what happened in Dublin. Everybody, unfortunately, was lobbied to do various things.
I make no excuses for anybody but a newspaper gave an impression that there was a question mark over Cork city planning when I know there was not. If there is any question of any of the 31 members of that council taking any money, I would walk on his or her corpse. I would find it very disturbing. I can happily say it did not happen but that was not the impression given by the Irish Examiner. I resented this as a real Cork man and could not understand why the newspaper did not state on the Tuesday that it was wrong when the relevant member said that he had been misquoted. It should have had the guts to do so. That is what I call calibre.
An issue may be raised on a local radio station and the impression is given that what is being said is correct. No matter what one does one cannot make contact with the radio station on the two or three telephone lines available. How did we get so far before we met the persons concerned? It worries me that they always seem to have the opportunity to express their point of view.
There are some excellent and classy journalists in the country whom I give great credit. I read Stephen Collins's column every Sunday. I probably have spoken to him only once but he is very fair and down the middle. I would read his column one thousand times over. I read the columns of one or two others in the Irish Examiner of whom I am very proud because they write about issues in general terms, the way I like them to be discussed - in other words, in terms of what is best for the country.
The question is never asked, "How was the Dublin issue created?" The people of Dublin do not deserve this. Neither do genuine politicians. I know of city councillors in Cork who are so committed they would die for the place. I know of councillors who are never in a hurry to get home on a Monday night. They would do the same on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. I am not looking for glory but I would do the same myself. The same is true of councillors in Kerry, Clare and elsewhere. Opportunities should not be created to make money. One should do what is best for one's area.
Dublin is in a mess. I cannot believe the way it is going. Over a period of seven to ten years it has reached the stage where there is no movement. This is not fair to those living in the capital. One of the persons involved in a particular shopping centre is a Cork man. I am aware of his affiliations and understand the way he thinks. I carry no flag but if the person in question had not built three developments in Cork they would never have been built. I make no apology for saying this but if there is a question mark it is only right and proper that he should be questioned and the media generally should be saying this. I heard a funny joke on an American public television programme last week: "How would you know an Irish person with Alzheimer's? They never forget a grudge." It is sad but that is how they think of us.
The only place where one will get an apology from journalists is in the courts. There is therefore a need for a press council. I have never spoken about journalists in this way before; I just want them to get on with the job they have to do. We have reached the stage where every little person writing for a newspaper does not know what the particular city or region is about. There are people writing in the Irish Examiner who would not be able to spell the word "Cork", who do not know what the people living there are saying and talking about. The rest of us do and they are insulting us by giving the wrong impression.
Mr. Manning: I thank all the Senators who took part in the debate. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform gave us a full statement last night not just on the issues of censorship and defamation but also on the question of ownership of the media and the Government's intentions.
Although it has not come to any great conclusions, it has been a useful debate. We start from the position that there should never be a close or cosy relationship between the media and those in politics. There must always be tension between us. We see the world in different ways. Mr. Eamon Dunphy once described some of the Irish soccer writers as fans with typewriters. If political journalists were to become fans with typewriters we would be in a bad state. We have to expect therefore a certain stringency, distance and suspicion on the part of the media in all that we do.
As politicians, we can be very quick to rush to judgment and doubt the motives of journalists who disagree with us. We are very quick to categorise them. If this debate can do something to let each side see the genuine problems of the other and the dimensions within which each works it will have been useful. I have a number of specific proposals to make in this regard.
There is a big difference between this debate over the last two weeks and a similar debate on the media about five or six years ago on the same issues. At that stage the media represented with a degree of accuracy that the laws of libel and defamation represented an enormous economic drain on newspapers in particular. That case is no longer made. The newspapers and the media generally are among the main beneficiaries of the economic boom. While the libel laws are an irritation and constraint, they do not represent the same degree of threat. It has been said that certain newspapers were prepared to pay out £1 million or £2 million per year in libel costs because the stories which generated the libel payments boosted circulation. While that is a charge that has often been made, it is good that we are not discussing the issue in the context of an immediate economic threat to the media.
It is important to state that we are discussing this issue in the context of an unprecedented amount of scandal, admittedly in a very limited area of Irish public life, a matter about which Senator Cregan spoke at some length. Whatever the scandal, it is in one specific area. Every other council has a clean bill of health. The scandal has left most figures in national life with their characters unassailed. It would be wrong therefore to change the laws of libel and defamation as an immediate response to a crisis. It would be better to change them because they deserve to be changed or not at all.
As an earnest of good faith I ask the Minister responsible to consider introducing an interim Bill on the reform of the laws of libel and defamation. I think it was Senator Quinn who made the point last week that the Bill promised by the Government is unlikely to see the light of the day in its lifetime. It is No. 65, out of 66, on the C list announced by the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach at the beginning of this session.
There is agreement that there are a number of specific changes that could be made, the first of which is a change to the apology laws. If a newspaper makes a mistake and issues an apology this is regarded as an admission of guilt and they cannot do it. I will be very specific here. If a mistake is made about me on the front page in large headlines then the apology should be equally prominent and large. But if an apology is given in good faith, and very speedily given, where a genuine mistake is made then that should be sufficient. Any fair minded person would regard that as something that can happen, especially at the speed with which the media operate. I would see no difficulty with having that written into law.
The media request for judges to give a guideline on the financial cost or damages to be awarded is not unreasonable. It is not a guarantee that the awards will come down. In the insurance industry when juries were abolished the judges made higher awards in very many cases. But if the media would feel happier with judges giving a more informed estimate of the actual damage done to a plaintiff then I would have no great difficulty with that. I would also have no great difficulty with the lodgment of sums of money in court. These are three immediate reforms. I believe the Minister, having listened to his speech, would have no difficulty with them either. As an earnest expression of his intent that would be well worth doing.
One of the most disappointing parts of the debate has been the reaction of many media people outside the House. They can clearly see the changes they want and make a strong case for them but they do not seem to understand the genuine fears very many people have about giving more power to the media. Those who speak out, as I did last week, will be accused of trying to defend a vested interest, of trying to stop the frontiers being shoved back or of not wanting to see greater freedom of the media for some defensive reason. That is not the case. As Senator Maurice Hayes said in a very eloquent contribution last week, we are talking about a balance of rights - the right of the individual to privacy, the right of families not to be intruded upon and the right of people to their good name. All these are rights that were hard won and fought for. They need to be protected as well. If we allowed almost unlimited intrusion or if we depended on the media to restrain themselves, the evidence to date would not give us much confidence that this would happen. Media people seem to find it hard to grasp the fact that there is a balance of rights here. They will argue that they will be responsible and will show restraint.
Our media are not homogeneous. There are all sorts of different newspapers, agendas and standards. Newspapers fight circulation battles by appealing to the lowest common denominator, intruding into privacy and grief and writing stories which can do enormous harm and where there is no justifiable news value involved. These things happen on a daily basis and ordinary people resent this aspect of the media. They are suspicious of change. It is not just the politicians who are suspicious or resent change and who want to see the media restrained. If the media cannot restrain themselves then someone else must do it. The laws of the State and constitutional protection are factors that must also be taken into account. That is the eternal problem.
For a joke a colleague of mine in the other House, who has raised media issues for quite some time, asked a senior journalist in this House last week why he does not pay some attention to the side of the story which calls for the continuation of certain controls and the establishment of an ombudsman. He was told, "You do not pay my salary." In other words, this is the agenda of the media. If members of the media were to apply that standard to other aspects of public debate then only one side of the story would be reported. I regret that only one side of this story is being reported at present. Those people who support reform of the libel laws will get coverage for their views. The only parts of my speech last week and that of Senator Maurice Hayes that were covered were those that called for change. There was nothing about the part of my speech which said why we should be reluctant or suspicious of change.
If the media are serious about moving this debate on then they should recognise the legitimate fears many ordinary people have about some of the proposed changes. They should also accept that this is an area where a little humility would not go astray. Journalists have said that they will wage war on politicians until they get what they want. They have threatened to do various things until they swing public opinion behind them. I do not believe that they will swing public opinion. We are a conservative and fair minded people and we do not like seeing anyone being done in by the media. People often turn against that type of treatment.
beginning and end of this debate we talked about the
balance of rights, fairness and the right to know and to
publish as against the constitutional rights of the
individual to privacy and to their good name. I am
glad that this debate has started. I appeal to my
friends in the media to at least open their eyes to the
other side of the story.
Question put and agreed to.
An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.