Junk journalism attack on Sinn Fein spreads to Europe
By Anthony Sheridan
On Monday 25 April last, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, filed a writ against RTE in response to comments made by an RTE presenter on Morning Ireland.
This is a newsworthy story because it involves the leader of the Opposition and the national broadcaster but it is a single issue story – prominent politician sues national broadcaster.
But Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy did not report it as such. Instead, he effectively created a fake news story around the core facts.
Without evidence he strongly suggested that Sinn Fein was operating a policy of encouraging its members to pursue media outlets in the courts. The trend is unmistakable, he writes.
Later, in a disgraceful example of junk journalism, he went on to suggest, again without evidence, why Sinn Fein was operating such a policy.
Sinn Féin’s political opponents – and many people in the media – see all this as part of a strategy to muzzle criticism of the party by trying to generate a “chilling effect” to dissuade opponents and the media from robust criticism and investigation of the party, its members and its controversial history.
If so, it is a tactic often used by powerful people and institutions to discourage scrutiny.
The next day, this junk journalism was parroted in an Irish Examiner editorial. [owned by the Irish Times]. The anonymous author patronisingly suggested that perhaps it would be best if the electorate were informed of this ‘belligerency’ by Sinn Fein.
This kind of low grade journalism is now common throughout the establishment media particularly when it comes to Sinn Fein. But what’s really disturbing in this instance is the response of the National Union of Journalists [NUJ], a response curiously appearing in the same edition of the Irish Times as Leahy’s hostile article.
The secretary of the NUJ, Seamus Dooley, took the same line as the Irish Times
“Defamation proceedings can have a chilling impact on press freedom. It’s important that media organisations are not inhibited by libel threats, from whatever source and that editors and journalists continue to ask awkward questions.”
Here’s a few awkward question for Mr. Dooley: Why is the NUJ questioning the right of any citizen to take legal action for alleged defamation? Why does the NUJ think it appropriate to lecture any citizen on how they should proceed when the believe they have been defamed and, most worryingly, why is the NUJ supporting junk journalism that appears intent on damaging the reputation of a legitimate political party?
But the story becomes even more bizarre.
The Index of Censorship, a media freedom NGO based in London, filed a media freedom alert known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation [SLAPP] with the Council of Europe’s Safety of Journalists Platform, in response to Ms. McDonald’s legal action.
A SLAPP is, according to the Index of Censorship:
A strategy used by powerful actors in an attempt to stop individuals or organisations from expressing views on issues of public interest. Although they are disguised as ordinary civil claims, such as defamation or privacy, they are not intended to succeed in court. Instead, their goal is to saddle critics with prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, and nerve- wracking legal processes. SLAPPS threaten not only freedom of expression and media freedom, but access to information, rule of law and our very democracy.
This is a very strong and, in my opinion, dangerous generalisation. It suggests that those with power and wealth, who feel they have been defamed, should be treated differently under law, that they should not enjoy the universally accepted principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
And that, in effect, is what the Safety of Journalists Platform has done in response to Ms. McDonald’s action.
They have issued a formal alert notice with the heading:
Sinn Fein Leader Files SLAPP against RTE – No. 175.2022
Created 25 May 2022
Harassment and intimidation of journalists
Source of threat: Non-State
This is untrue, McDonald did not file a SLAPP against RTE. She has filed a writ against the broadcaster for alleged defamation – nothing else.
The alert, among other things, claims that McDonald’s legal action against RTE is a disguised strategy to attack the broadcaster and therefore poses a serious threat to media freedom, offline or online.
[See end of article for details of a Level 2 charge]
Here’s Jessica Ní Mhainín, policy and campaigns manager with Index on Censorship.
“We are alarmed at the legal action that has been filed against RTÉ by the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald as we believe the action is characteristic of a strategic lawsuit against public participation…
…fundamentally they [SLAPPS] involve powerful people making legal threats or taking legal actions against public watchdogs – such as media outlets – in response to public interest speech that may be inconvenient to them or their interests.”
To my knowledge no evidence has been provided by The Index of Censorship, The Safety of Journalists Platform or the Council of Europe to back up the SLAPP charge.
I’m no legal expert but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Sinn Fein president is considering her options in response to this arrogant, self-righteous and, potentially, false charge.
[Personal note: While writing and researching this article I couldn’t help noting the apparent interweaving between The Irish Times [and other Irish media], the NUJ, Index of Censorship and the Council of Europe.
Could it be, I wondered, that all this feverish activity was somehow connected to the democratic challenge posed by Sinn Fein to the power of the ruling regime in Ireland?]
Council of Europe
Safety of Journalists Platform
Index on Censorship
Covers all other serious threats to media freedom, including but not limited to physical assaults causing actual bodily harm, acts of intimidation and harassment; use by public figures of threatening or severely abusive language towards media members; unwarranted seizure or damage to property or equipment; laws and regulations that unduly restrict media freedom or access to information; actions that jeopardise the confidentiality of sources or the independence of the public sector broadcasters; abusive or disproportionate use of legislation; misuse of governmental or other powers to direct media content or to penalise media or journalists; interference with media freedom through ownership, control and regulation; and other acts posing a serious threat to media freedom, offline or online.