Note: Dail Eireann is the lower house of the Irish parliament. Mary Lou McDonald is an elected TD (Teachta Dala, member of parliament).
Did you follow the debate a few years ago about parliamentary privilege? It involved Mary Lou McDonald TD. At the time she was deputy-leader of Sinn Fein. She is now the party’s leader. Do you remember it? It revolved around her use of parliamentary privilege. Laws and regulations govern what a politician may say in the Dail.
Mary Lou McDonald TD named six former politicians. They were being accused of alleged tax evasion. This had arisen because they held accounts at Ansbacher Bank. She named them under ‘parliamentary privilege’.
Parliamentary privilege covers all TDs speaking in the Dail. It means that they can name someone without fear of legal action. Media law, however, governs how journalists report it. This age-old privilege really relates to print media.
Political journalism was easier in the old days. A politician said something in the Dail. The journalist reported that a politician ‘named an individual’. The public were no wiser about the identity of the person. That satisfied the requirement of media law. If a politician repeated the comment outside of the Dail however, they could be sued.
Fast forward to the present day. The media now broadcast parliamentary debates as they are happening. Parliamentary ‘privilege’ still applies. The laws and regulations are no longer fit for purpose. The public now know exactly who the politician is talking about.
Media can broadcast the privileged comments but cannot discuss them with the politician. If the politician repeats the comments on radio or TV, s/he might well be sued.
The current situation is ludicrous! The broadcast of a privileged comment can name people. In an interview which follows, the person cannot be named. Does it give you some idea of the legal constraints on the practise of journalism?
The journalist is behaving in an ethical way. Media law is being respected. The public, however, don’t understand this behaviour. They don’t see it as ethical, they see it as ‘silly’.
Ethical Dilemma in Journalism
This is just one of the legal and ethical issues taught on journalism courses. Journalists need a good understanding of the law. It is vital that they understand what they can and cannot say, write and broadcast. This way, they protect themselves and their employer from possible litigation.
Are you interested in these issues? Perhaps you should study journalism online? Our Diploma in Print Journalism and Diploma in Radio Journalism courses both cover these issues.
This text was revised in 2018. The blog was first published in 2016.