Thursday, September 20, 2012

High Court: Bloggers can benefit from journalistic privilege

There's quite a lot to digest in the recent decision of Hogan J. in Cornec v. Morrice & Ors. Most of the judgment deals with wider issues in the protection of journalists' sources, and unsurprisingly the media coverage so far tends to focus on this aspect. But reading the judgment, I was struck by the way in which it considered whether non-traditional media could also benefit from similar protections. In particular, it appears to be the first Irish judgment to consider the position of bloggers.

In this case orders were sought to compel two individuals - Nicola Tallant and Mike Garde - to testify for the purposes of US civil proceedings. Both objected to the orders on various grounds, including the argument that requiring their testimony would reveal both their sources and the information provided by these sources, contrary to their journalistic privilege recognised by Irish law. ("Journalistic privilege" is used here as shorthand - para. 42 of the judgment makes it clear that strictly speaking there is no such thing. Nevertheless it is a useful phrase to capture the rights which journalists may have in certain situations.)

In the case of Nicola Tallant, an investigative reporter with the Sunday World, there was no difficulty in applying the concept of journalistic privilege. The position of Mike Garde was rather more ambiguous. As the court put it, he was "not a journalist in the strict sense of the term". Instead, he was a director of Dialogue Ireland - an independent organisation working with people who become caught up in cults or fringe religions - and regularly appeared in the media and blogged about issues surrounding cults. Despite this, however, Hogan J. had no hesitation in finding that he should also benefit from a similar protection, holding that:
While Mr. Garde is not a journalist in the strict sense of the term, it is clear from that his activities involve the chronicling of the activities of religious cults. Part of the problem here is that the traditional distinction between journalists and laypeople has broken down in recent decades, not least with the rise of social media. It is probably not necessary here to discuss questions such as whether the casual participant on an internet discussion site could invoke Goodwin-style privileges, although the issue may not be altogether far removed from the facts of this case.

Yet Mr. Garde’s activities fall squarely within the “education of public opinion” envisaged by Article 40.6.1. A person who blogs on an internet site can just as readily constitute an “organ of public opinion” as those which were more familiar in 1937 and which are mentioned (but only as examples) in Article 40.6.1, namely, the radio, the press and the cinema. Since Mr. Garde’s activities fall squarely within the education of public opinion, there is a high constitutional value in ensuring that his right to voice these views in relation to the actions of religious cults is protected. It does not require much imagination to accept that critical information in relation to the actions of those bodies would dry up if Mr. Garde could be compelled to reveal this information, whether in the course of litigation or otherwise. It is obvious from the very text of Article 40.6.1 that the right to educate (and influence) public opinion is at the very heart of the rightful liberty of expression. That rightful liberty would be compromised – perhaps even completely jeopardised – if disclosure of sources and discussions with sources could readily be compelled through litigation. [Emphasis added]
This strikes me as a very important ruling - by explicitly equating blogs and other new media forms with the traditional "organs of public opinion" protected by the Constitution it may well strengthen the position of internet authors not just in relation to the protection of sources but also in other areas such as defamation.

1 comment:

  1. Can I repost this piece on the Dialogue Ireland blog?

    While I certainly think that blogging should be afforded the same protections as journalism, I do not think this ruling has helped that. The thrust of the ruling, as I read it, is that if the underlying activity falls within the meaning envisioned by 40.6.1 then it is deserving of protection regardless of the medium used for that act of public education.

    Still, it is encouraging though. An appeal has been made to the Supreme Court so this case may have more to say on the matter if we're all lucky.