February 24, 2014

Fintan O'Toole - Libel action should be an absolute last resort

In December 2010 The Sunday Times carried a long, anonymous profile of Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole and included the assertion that he drove home from an Irish Congress of Trade Unions rally in a BMW 5 Series. As Fintan O'Toole said, the story "was pure invention and almost every “fact” that followed was wildly and demonstrably wrong." He could have sued, but choose not to. He explained:
"The “profile” was, in other words, a gold mine. I had hit the libel jackpot. The Sunday Times couldn’t possibly go into court to defend an article that was so sloppily written and badly researched. Even the most aggressive lawyer would tell them to stuff my mouth with gold and make the whole thing go away fast."
Fintan O'Toole explained that he realised that he has a special privilege as national commentator and a responsibility to defend freedom of expression. He said:
"Then I remembered something. I am a national newspaper columnist. I occupy a position of enormous privilege. I’m allowed to take part in what we might call the semi-official national discourse. I’m allowed to be robustly critical of all sorts of people. I’m allowed to enrage some of those people and (though I don’t set out to do so) to upset others. I’m given those freedoms because there is a working assumption that free and open and robust debate is not just permissible in, but essential to, a democracy. 
If you benefit from those freedoms in the extraordinary and highly privileged way that newspaper columnists do, you have to be very, very careful about the way you conduct yourself."
He explained how he mediated outside the traditional libel lawyer route:
"Instead of hiring a lawyer and suing the Sunday Times, I talked to the paper’s Irish editor. He agreed pretty quickly that the article was inaccurate and indefensible. It was taken off the paper’s website and a retraction was published the following week. And that was the end of it. The record was put straight. No money changed hands. No lawyer’s children’s school fees were paid. I still don’t have a BMW."
Fintan O'Toole explained that being defamaed is an occupational hazard and part of being an opinion former:
"Being defamed is an occupational hazard for opinion-makers who stir up emotions. It has happened to me about a dozen times. I’ve been accused of some pretty nasty things, from lying to lack of professional competence to outright criminality. Sometimes, if the thing was merely stupid, I’ve just let it go. At other times, when the defamation was serious, I’ve tried to sort things out without involving lawyers or looking for money.
Fintan said the libel was almost intrinsic to the journalist trade, but said that it should be an "absolute last resort":
"It is true, certainly, that the threat of a possible libel action is implicit in these affairs, but it has always seemed to me that for a newspaper columnist it should be an absolute last resort. So I’ve never sent a solicitor’s letter and never sought damages."
Fintan O'Toole in full here. Here's a list of some of the blog posts I've written which have included Fintan O'Toole. On Ireland's dark history here. On Arthur Griffiths, founder of Sinn Fein, here. On the Good Friday Agreement here. On the hyper-inflation of language and emotion, here. On the "folly of sectarian solutions", click here. On the impropriety of the Mandela-McGuiness/Adams comparison, see here. On incinerating Ireland's censorship board, see here. His brief note on Conor Cruise O'Brien here. On Irish identity as not being about being not-British, see here. More on Irish identity here. Fintan O'Toole on loyalist culture, here. On Fintan O'Toole at work in the Irish Times office here.

This post originally appeared on Media Law NI here.

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