Belfast Telegraph

High Court rules for the freedom of our Press

By Paul Connolly

A ruling in Belfast High Court appears to have some fairly wide – and positive – implications for media freedom in Northern Ireland.

Mr Justice Gillen refused an attempt by a convicted robber to ban a newspaper from reporting on his alleged activities. His robust ruling has, hopefully, copper-fastened the boundaries under which investigative journalists can operate in the province.

There are some caveats to that statement, not least as it was an interim application, but the bottom line would appear to be that the courts have sent a strong signal that only in the rarest circumstances they will interfere with a journalist's freedom to publish.

But first, the background to Brendan Conway v Sunday Newspapers Ltd.

The court heard Mr Conway, a convicted robber who is suing the Sunday World for libel, has been at the centre of a series of articles in that paper in recent months, including claims that:

  • He was a Real IRA boss who headed up a so-called 'tiger' kidnapping operation
  • He was responsible for the murder of an alleged drug dealer, Kevin Kearney, in Belfast
  •  And that he is also a Special Branch agent who supplied bugged cars to other dissident republicans.

Mr Conway acknowledged he was jailed for his role in a 2008 robbery. Mr Conway also acknowledged that he is a republican of some stature and has been part of a protest against prison conditions endured by Colin Duffy and other high-profile republicans.

However, he argues that the further allegations against him are untrue and amount to a campaign of public vilification and harassment, which also place a "real and imminent risk" on his life contrary to Article 2 of the European Human Rights Act and which had led directly to threats against him.

The plaintiff's lawyers applied to the High Court for an interim injunction banning further coverage about Mr Conway. The Sunday World was supported in its defence against the claim by the Belfast Telegraph, BBC and UTV.

This newspaper lent its support as it believed that this was an important case, and any such injunction would put grave impediments in the way of investigative reporting.

It is of prime importance that – unless in absolutely exceptional cases – newspapers and broadcasters are permitted to publish freely. True, they have to be held responsible for what they publish and if they get it wrong, will pay dearly for their errors.

There are plenty of punishing remedies available to litigants via the courts, (too many locally, in my opinion) if and when someone is defamed.

Mr Justice Gillen refused to grant the interim injunction and his judgment came firmly down on the side of protecting bona fide investigations, acknowledging that "it is in the public interest that investigative journalism should not be impeded where it is publishing legitimate information concerning serious criminal activity".

He affirmed the principle that courts cannot grant interim injunctions in libel matters unless "exceptionally" the court is satisfied that a defence of justification – which the Sunday World outlined – is one that cannot succeed.

He also rejected the claims of harassment, privacy/misuse of private information and also malicious falsehood in relation to the tiger kidnapping claim.

Greater damage would be inflicted on the public interest and the right of the Press to freedom of expression than to the plaintiff, he ruled, noting a large amount of information about Mr Conway was already in the public domain.

Assuming Mr Gillen's position is not diluted by other judgments, his ruling is in my opinion a welcome development in a province which lacks fit-for-purpose defamation laws and has previously been rather more liberal, proportionately speaking, with other forms of injunctions – and indeed even so-called super-injunctions – than the rest of the UK.

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