Frances Fitzgerald says public debate sparked U-turn
by Conor Lally, Irish Times
Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has ordered a review into the accessing of journalists’ telephone records by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) just 24 hours after expressing her support for the contentious procedures.
Explaining her decision to announce a review on Saturday, she said the public debate on the issue since the middle of last week had influenced her thinking.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin said yesterday that the stricter rules in Britain should be examined with a view to implementation in the Republic.
“Each application for looking at a journalists telephone records would be subject to an individual analysis by an independent judge,” he said.
The controversy surrounding the accessing of personal data began last week when The Irish Times revealed that GSOC had viewed two journalists’ phone records without their knowledge or consent on foot of a complaint about reports in the death of model Katy French (24) in 2007.
Last Friday, Ms Fitzgerald pointed out that the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 – amended last year – that enabled GSOC and the Garda to access citizen’s telephone records also provided for a High Court judge to review annually how the legislation was being used.
She said a complaints procedure was also enshrined in the Act.
“The law provides the very important safeguard that if persons feel that access to their information has arisen improperly there is an independent appeal procedure to address this,” a statement issued on her behalf said.
It added she “of course, fully supports GSOC in carrying out its important work”.
However, on Saturday she issued another statement to the media in which she said she now had concerns.
“I recognise that issues of concern have been raised . . . and I have reached the conclusion that there is a need for a review of law and practice in this area,” she said.
“This review will have regard to any relevant judicial findings and ensure our law in this area represents best international practice.”
Asked why she had defended the procedures on Friday but had ordered their review the following day, Ms Fitzgerald said she believed “the general debate which has been taking place raises important questions about whether the law in this area strikes the right balance and the safeguards which exist are sufficient”.
While journalists were entitled in a democratic society to go about their work unhindered, others had the right not to have their personal information leaked to the media. She said she had only decided on the review on Saturday.
The Association of Garda Sergeants (AGSI), Garda Representative Association(GRA), Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have all expressed their concern at the revelations.
AGSI said GSOC had been established to investigate complaints against Garda members and if it wanted access to the telephone records or other personal data of journalists it should, under law, be required to set out its reasons to a judge on each occasion.
Mr Howlin supported that idea yesterday, saying a new issue had emerged around the “maintenance and protection of the freedom of the press, which is a fundamental pillar of our democracy”.