Imagine this column is a saloon in the Old West. The swing doors burst open. An old timer rushes in, wearing a racoon hat and long-johns, hollering: "Gunfight! There's a-gonna be a gunfight!"
Two lawmen are heading for a showdown. One stands for the big ranchers and is gathering a posse of new laws to clean up Newspaperville. His name is Dermot Ahern. The other is a moustachioed hero standing for its townsfolk (journalists). His name is Gerry 'The Sheriff' O'Carroll.
The Sheriff is a former garda who writes a column for the Evening Herald. He's not a fan of minister Ahern and, like the rest of us, has been kicking him over his privacy legislation, which is before the Dáil.
A part of Ahern's Defamation Bill, this legislation forbids the "disclosure of documentation" – including documents that are in the public domain such as planning applications. It also prohibits "stalking/harassing" of possible wrongdoers which will hamper the work of our latter-day Veronica Guerins.
It says invasions of privacy are justified only when fair, in good faith or in the public interest. There's a conundrum. If a reporter is halted by an injunction before he/she has completed their investigations, they have no way of proving justification. Therefore they have broken the rules. This legislation – which Gerry and the rest of us rail against – will take away the basic tools the journalist uses to expose corruption.
There's no denying that the media sometimes crosses the line. Last year, Dubliner Michelle Herrity was awarded €90,000 against Associated Newspapers over articles in Ireland on Sunday in 2003 about her relationship with a priest. These were based on the illegal tapping of her phone calls and, according to the High Court, were an unjustified breach of her right to privacy.
Each time something like this happens, it undermines the argument that we don't need a privacy law. It plays into our politicians' hands. Here's a statistic. According to Dublin City University research, two-thirds of all privacy complaints over the past 25 years came from public figures – mainly politicians. They want the new law more than anybody else.
Two weeks ago, the Herald led with pictures of Ryan Tubridy walking with his new partner. They had been taken by an opportunistic dogwalker and sold to an agency. This wasn't as bad as phone-tapping but Tubridy was, understandably, unhappy. He believed it was mean-spirited for someone to take a picture of him from behind a tree and sell it.
His anger annoyed the Sheriff who felt the papers were justified in publishing the pictures and Tubridy had no right to complain. In Wednesday's Herald, he shot "the kid" down. Bang, bang. Tubridy was disingenuous about the pictures and knows that publicity is the oxygen of celebrity. Bang, bang. "If you look at his own show on a Saturday night, it is all celebrity tittle tattle… The kind of stuff he's giving off [sic] about." Bang.
The piece was peppered with lines such as "The kid's angry" and "Listen, kid, grow up and enter the world of the big boys." Bang, bang.
According to Gerry, Gay and Pat had no problem with being in the public eye. I don't ever recall them being photographed strolling through the woods, together or otherwise. They were allowed, in the main, to keep a lid on their private lives.
Still, according to Gerry, this erosion of Tubridy's privacy was the price of getting the Late Late. Actually, the pictures were taken before Tubridy had been given the gig. Would they still have been published if he hadn't landed it?
As a journalist, Gerry said, Tubridy should know better than to give "cannon fodder" to privacy-law-toting Dermot Ahern. Take your medicine, kid.
The Sheriff is relatively new to journalism. Hearing him dispensing advice to "the kid" was beyond cringeworthy.
He's missed a few key points about Tubridy. He's not part of the micro-celebrity herd. He doesn't seek out publicity in the same way as Rosanna Davison or Glenda Gilson, or Brian Ormond and his girlfriend do. He doesn't go to every launch or talk about his 'love life'. He doesn't want to play the Diary game. Fair enough.
As publicity guru Max Clifford said about the pictures last week, "If he hasn't courted publicity for his own ends, it's not justified." Tubridy, as Late Late host, will have to sacrifice some privacy, but not to the extent that he should have to check under bushes for cameras. Gay and Pat never had to do that.
Publishing those pictures was an invasion of privacy, plain and simple. I've been a tabloid hack myself and so have no right to be too judgmental about that. What sticks in the craw, however, is O'Carroll's pompous lecture about press freedom. How Tubridy was giving "cannon fodder" to Ahern by complaining.
Hypocritical statements like that by O'Carroll only strengthen the minister's position. If you're going to invade someone's privacy while prattling on about press freedom, then at least have a decent reason for doing it. Highlighting wrongdoing, for example.
Stop shooting your mouth off about press freedom, Sheriff.
You're just shooting yourself – and the rest of us – in the foot.