NewsBrands Ireland calls for ‘Serious Harm’ test to be applied in all defamation cases

Oireachtas Committee on Media today heard how Irish news publishers are facing unwarranted and exaggerated claims for defamation which are threatening public interest journalism and the financial  viability of the industry

17 January 2024. NewsBrands Ireland were today invited to address the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Media on the subject of non-court-based conflict resolution mechanisms in media disputes.

Speaking on behalf of news publishers and journalists, Business Post Editor Daniel McConnell, Connacht Tribune Editor Dave O’ Connell, and DMG Media Ireland solicitor Michael Kealy outlined the chilling effect current defamation laws are having on the pursuit of public interest journalism. Irish news publishers are dealing with a vast volume of unwanted and exaggerated claims. The costs of defending these cases are significant and these costs are often unrecoverable even where the defence succeeds.

A serious harm test for all defamation proceedings would alleviate the costs of such unwarranted claims and the risks to Ireland associated with SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) and ‘libel tourism’.   

In the absence of a serious harm test, very wealthy claimants, including those with little or no connection to this country, will have little deterrent to stop them going to law. The ‘nuisance’ claimant will have little incentive to seek alternative redress. If such a test is introduced, meritorious claimants will still have open to them non-court based mechanisms and well as the right to go to full trial. 

NewsBrands Ireland recently welcomed the General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill which proposes the abolition of juries in defamation trials. The Scheme also supports the promotion of alternatives to litigation, namely the roles of the Press Council/Press Ombudsman. However, NewsBrands Ireland argues that, for all the advantages of non-court based solutions, lawyers and their clients can be slow to look beyond litigation and a potential financial windfall. They may need not just the carrot of alternative dispute resolution methods but the stick of the risk of failure to meet a serious harm test. 

Today’s Committee hearing also featured addresses from Local Ireland, the Press Council of Ireland, the Office of the Press Ombudsman, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), and the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI).