Varadkar: defamation laws are under review

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Varadkar: defamation laws are under review


Denis O'Brien. Picture: Collins
Denis O’Brien. Picture: Collins

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said his Government is carrying out a review of defamation law.

He was speaking after businessman Denis O’Brien lost his High Court action alleging he was defamed in articles published in the Sunday Business Post. The total legal costs of that case, which ran for 17 days, could amount to €1m.

“Defamation laws in Ireland do seem to be more restrictive than in other countries,” said Mr Varadkar.

“We have to balance the need for free speech and free press, and we also need to protect people’s privacy and people’s reputations.

“Where media organisations or journalists do publish things that are untrue or damaging, it can really hurt people. We need to get that balance right.”

Mr O’Brien, a shareholder in Independent News and Media, which publishes the Sunday Independent, sued Post Publications Ltd over articles published over six pages on March 15, 2015, in which Mr O’Brien was named as among the 22 biggest borrowers from Irish banks in 2008.

Their focus was a confidential PwC report given to the Government in November 2008 which looked at the exposure of Ireland’s banks in 2008.

Journalist Tom Lyons got a copy of the report in early 2015 and later shredded it to protect the source.

Mr O’Brien claimed the articles, including headlines ’22 men and €26 billion’ and ‘The Gang of 22’, wrongly meant he was among a “gang” of 22 borrowers responsible for the destruction of the Irish banking system and that they defamed him and injured his reputation.

He also alleged malicious publication, and sought punitive damages.

The defendant denied the words meant what he alleged, denied defamation and malicious publication, and pleaded “fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest”.

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The jury heard evidence from Mr O’Brien, Mr Lyons and former newspaper editor Ian Kehoe during the 17-day case.

Last Friday, the eight men and three women of the jury told the judge at about 12.40pm, after some five hours’ deliberation, that they could not reach a unanimous decision on some of the nine questions before them.

In those circumstances, a majority decision was open to them, Mr Justice Bernard Barton said. The jury resumed deliberations and returned to court just after 4pm.

The jury had nine questions to consider.

It found (1) the articles did not mean Mr O’Brien, as one of 22 borrowers, was among those borrowers most to blame for the destruction of the Irish banking system and the subsequent bail-out; and (2) was not a recipient of cheap and easy money which was in some way related to improper influence with bankers, politicians and civil servants.

It also found (3) the articles did not mean, as a result of what was said about Mr O’Brien’s borrowings, that the PwC report was one which he wished to keep secret and had been suppressed.

In addition, the jury found (4) that the articles meant the story of Mr O’Brien’s borrowings and the amount thereof was telling and disturbing but that was not defamatory.

Questions 5 and 6 asked if the articles meant Mr O’Brien was “massively overstretched” and “faced huge financial pressure” in November 2008. The jury found they did but that was not defamatory.

Given those answers, Mr Justice Barton said the case was dismissed with an order for costs against Mr O’Brien.

Sunday Independent


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