Address by Mr Ben Dunne at Seminar on Privacy

Friday, 15th January 2010
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Good afternoon Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to address today’s seminar and I’d like to thank the Press Ombudsman, Professor John Horgan, for his kind invitation asking me to take part in this important event.

I’d also like to say how great it is to be back in Cork - my home town-, and to thank the audience for making me feel so comfortable.

I’m truly honoured to be surrounded by such distinguished speakers here today whom I’m sure never failed an exam in their lives – well neither did I -- the difference is -- I didn’t do any!!

I can’t claim any great expertise in how the media works or how it should work. What I do know is that, it’s powerful, it’s complex and when you break it all down, what the media amounts to is a form of organised gossip. Gossip is essential and hard to live with sometimes, but we definitely couldn’t live without it.
Ever since our ancestors got up on their hind legs and invented language as a means of communicating with one another, the news has always been an important part of society and you know we haven’t changed all that much in 200,000 years. If we meet someone we haven’t met for sometime it’s nearly a certainty that one of the first questions we ask will be: Any News?

I can understand why Newspapers go to tremendous trouble for their front page headlines. It’s one of the main reasons I why buy a newspaper. Recently, I saw a headline about the state of the economy and after a short time reading it, I found my hand turning to other pages in the newspaper in search of something more compelling. I wasn’t that interested in getting stuck into the details in the main story since all you needed to know was in the headline anyway. What interested me more was reading stories about other people - because as I have already said – we like gossip!!

That said, in a sophisticated and powerful media world, where news is not passed on any more around the camp fire, and people live in large groups where they may not know one another, a few rules need to apply.
The theme of this seminar, how the media treats the privacy of the individual, is a very important debate for all of us and our society. Because apart from its role as organised gossip, the media is also the banner of freedom in a democratic society. It’s the conduit between us and the powers that be. It exposes mistakes. It probes actions. It presents alternatives just to name a few things. Without a free media, freedom has far less meaning.

I myself have been dealing with the media for over 30 years and I’d like to talk to you about some of my own experiences. I also have ideas about the lines the media should avoid crossing and where I think the public debate and discussion regarding the media and privacy should be heading.
I’m not in the league of distinguished experts here today who know how the news should be provided. Like most of you, I’m a receiver of news. However, I’m also a newsmaker and over the years some of the news I made wasn’t very nice. And when it was reported, I disliked intensely what I read. But unfortunately it was nearly always true.

In 1992, I was involved in a well documented trip to Florida. I won’t go into the gory details of it here today but I do know it quickly became a big news story in this country and I knew that I would have to face the media. I had two choices: to hide or face the media. I decided to face the media. The Florida crisis came and went. And the consequences of it, for my personal and professional life, came and went too.   But I have never found a problem talking to the media. I’ve been uncomfortable from time to time talking to them. But if you made some of the headlines I made its understandable why I was uncomfortable talking to them.
What I find difficult to understand is why some people literally hate the media. I’m aware that many people use the media for free publicity but they seem to forget that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And then when something goes pear shaped in their lives all of a sudden they cut themselves away from the media.
What you must be able to do is take the good with the bad and then there’s no need to cut yourself off from the media. I have read good and bad things about myself and the reason I now read more good things and far less bad things is because I’ve changed.

Over the years I have found the media have given me a fair hearing. I believe one of the reasons that helped this to happen is that I never refused to take a phone call from a journalist and I never refused to answer a question from a journalist. I respect the fact that reporters have a job to do. I also know they’re human and honest errors of judgement happen from time to time. But I also know that everybody is not like me. As I have already said I can take the good with the bad and have recovered from whatever has been written about me to date. But I also know others can’t. Newspapers have the power to destroy reputations that can be difficult to rebuild. But the fact is no matter who you are or what you’ve done or what position you hold, your right to personal privacy as an individual must be protected in any civilised society. These are the lines that the media should not cross.

There has been a lot of debate about our Privacy laws but no law can provide for reporting which causes needless hurt. I think TV3’s broadcast on St Stephen’s day about Minister Lenihan is a good example. A lot of people were upset by the way TV3 broke the news. As Minister for Finance in the times we live in, it is of public interest to know what is happening to such an important figure but the idea that anyone would be rushing to publicise so quickly such a sensitive and personal matter offended many people in this country. The broadcast crossed a line it didn’t need to cross.

But, in my opinion, TV3 are not the only offender, in breaches of personal privacy.

I know that a strong, vibrant and professional media is vital to the freedom of our society. Any privacy law that unduly restricts the media in doing their job will be a bad law. The common good is best served by an independent and principled media. But what must be acknowledged and protected is the right to personal privacy regardless of who you are or what your status in life is.

In any discussion about privacy and the balance between the public interest and individual rights, we have to ask ourselves, should the media be allowed to regulate themselves? Perhaps the more important question, ladies and gentlemen, may be, can the media regulate themselves? To put it simply, when it comes to Privacy and the individual, if the media doesn’t crack this nut themselves then the court and politicians will surely crack it for them.

I don’t normally give advice but I want to finish today with two pieces of advice: to those who find themselves having to deal with the media; and to those who want to get the best story i.e. the reporter.
If you find yourself in a spot of bother, and the media come knocking on your door; my advice is that you talk to them; set your case out, fair and square and honestly. But always remember that the person you’re talking to is a professional doing a professional job. He or she will have to report what they think is worth reporting.

To the reporter, I want to say this: Whether you’re new or seasoned you can be taught a lot about journalism in school, about the law and ethics as well as the mechanics of good journalism. But what no one can teach you is sound judgement – that crucial mix of integrity, compassion and genuine empathy with the situation of other human beings. And if you don’t have it, then you shouldn’t go knocking on anyone’s door.

Thank you all for your attention.