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Book now: Libel reform and threats to press freedom in Northern Ireland

Posted on: November 5, 2020 by Mariella Brown

The long overdue reform of libel laws in Northern Ireland and ongoing threats to journalists and press freedom more widely will be discussed by leading journalists at the Society of Editors Virtual Conference for 2020.

Titled ‘Northern Ireland: A Place Apart?’ the free debate on the evening of Tuesday 1 December 2020 will see editors and press freedom advocates in Northern Ireland discuss efforts to implement overdue and meaningful libel reform in NI alongside paramilitary threats to journalists, media plurality and privacy injunctions. The announcement of the debate comes in the same week as Belfast’s Sunday Life saw a convicted money launderer launch a publicly-funded legal bid against the newspaper in an effort to win lifetime anonymity.

Chaired by Martin Breen, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life, the discussion will also hear from Noel Doran, Editor of the Irish News, Sam McBride, Political Editor of the News Letter, Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist MLA and Fergal McGoldrick, specialist media litigation solicitor at Carson McDowell.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society said that the debate was an opportunity to look more closely at threats to press freedom in Northern Ireland.

He said: “Following the passage of the Defamation Act 2013 in England and Wales, concerted efforts have been made to ensure that similar meaningful reform of libel laws in Northern Ireland come to fruition.

“Alongside the issue of media plurality and the vexatious use of privacy injunctions to try to stifle legitimate reporting in Northern Ireland, journalists continue to face online abuse and paramilitary threats just for doing their job. With Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister promising action on this issue, we look forward to hearing what can be done to end this intimidation, more than 25 years since the first paramilitary ceasefires?”

Northern Ireland: A Place Apart?’ is free to register here.

The debate comes as part of the Society’s Virtual Conference for 2020 which will include four In Discussion with… keynote talks as well as eight panel debates in the nations and regions held virtually over the course of November and early December.

Panel discussions will also focus on diversity in the news media, experiences from the Leicester lockdown and the experience of reporters in Scotland covering the pandemic, the online abuse of journalists, mental health in the newsroom, Wales’ contribution to spheres including politics, sport and creative thinking and training and continuous personal development. Details of all the panels and how to register are available on the Society of Editors website.

The In Discussion with…series will hear from Kamal Ahmed, Editorial Director of BBC News, Rachel Corp, newly appointed editor of ITV News and the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon. Details of how to register for the keynote talks can be found here.

Speaker biographies appear below.

Martin Breen, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life 

Martin Breen is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Independent News and Media in Northern Ireland which publishes the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life. In this role he retains the Editorship of Sunday Life. Martin first joined the Belfast Telegraph as a graduate trainee in 1998, later becoming a reporter at Sunday Life. He left in October 2001 to join News UK, rejoining Sunday Life as Executive Editor in January 2008 and becoming Editor in May 2009.

Noel Doran, Editor, The Irish News

Noel Doran is the longest serving editor of a daily newspaper in Ireland, north or south, having been appointed to his post at The Irish News in April, 1999. He was previously the paper’s deputy editor and also worked for Downtown Radio/Cool FM, The Belfast Telegraph, The Ballymena Observer and The Antrim Guardian. He was named Northern Ireland’s feature writer of the year at the 1998 Institute of Public Relations awards. In a poll among readers of the Hold The Front Page website in February 2020, he was voted the UK’s best regional daily editor of the 21st century.

Sam McBride, Political Editor of News Letter

Sam McBride is the News Letter’s Political Editor, having begun his career at the Belfast Telegraph after studying English literature and then a postgraduate course in newspaper journalism at Ulster University. His first book, Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite, was published by Merrion Press in October 2019 and became a Sunday Times, Irish Times and Amazon bestseller. Sam is also a frequent broadcaster, providing analysis of political developments to audiences in Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and beyond. 

Fergal McGoldrick, specialist media litigation solicitor, Carson McDowell

Fergal McGoldrick is a specialist media litigation solicitor with Carson McDowell in Belfast. He acts on behalf of numerous publishers including Sunday Life, The Irish Independent, The Sun, Belfast Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph defending libel, privacy and data protection cases in Northern Ireland.

A Chamber and Partners ranked defamation and reputation management specialist for seven consecutive years, he also delivers guest lectures on media law at Ulster University’s MA in Journalism (NCTJ accredited), was consulted on the Northern Ireland chapter of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, (24 th Ed.,) and provides commentary to the media on media law matters.

Mike Nesbitt MLA, former Ulster Unionist Party leader

 Mike Nesbitt is a Member of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Strangford since 2011 and a former broadcaster.

Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party from 2012-17, Nesbitt has held positions including Chair for the Committee of the Executive Office and Chief Negotiator for the UUP at the Stormont House Talks in 2014.

He was one of Northern Ireland’s Victims Commissioners from 2007-10 where he was appointed to promote the interests of victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Prior to his political career, Nesbitt spent 13 years as an anchor and broadcast journalist for Ulster Television covering events from the Omagh bombing to the talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge.