THE National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has called on the University of Limerick to withdraw legal proceedings entered in the High Court against the Limerick Leader and to redirect the matter to the Press Council of Ireland and the Press Ombudsman “if the institution feels wronged by the newspaper”.
In a statement issued this Monday by Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the NUJ, he said he viewed as “heavy handed” the decision to initiate legal proceedings against the Leader and, individually, against its editor, Alan English, as a result of a recent story regarding allegations about expenses at UL.
Mr Dooley described the approach by UL - which has its own journalism programme - as “unnecessary” and said it also “sets a dangerous precedent for an academic institution”.
“Libel actions are costly and can threaten the very existence of newspapers,” he stated.
Mr Dooley noted that over the weekend UL issued a statement expressing its “regret” at having to issue proceedings against the newspaper arising from a story published in the newspaper last month.
However, he urged UL to recognise that there are other avenues of redress open to it.
The Sunday Times has published reports relating to a third employee, who raised her own concerns regarding expenses at the Public Accounts Committee in 2012.
Leona O’Callaghan, a now former UL employee of the finance department, said she was going public with her story in order to support the two currently suspended employees who were at the centre of the Limerick Leader’s article.
A lengthy statement issued by UL on Saturday last claimed that the allegations published in the Leader are “false and seriously damaging to the reputation of the University of Limerick and to members of its staff”.
It added that after the Leader declined to apologise and retract its story, UL was left with “no option other than to initiate proceedings”.
However, Mr Dooley has said this was “simply wrong”, adding: “If the University of Limerick wants to seek redress for a perceived wrong there is a non-legal mechanism which can be used without expending vast amounts of money on a High Court action.
“The Press Council of Ireland and the Press Ombudsman have played a significant role in resolving issues, through conciliation, and in issuing determinations where conciliation has not been successful.
“It is regrettable that a university with a widely respected journalism faculty should effectively seek to derecognise the equally respected dispute resolution mechanism established by the newspaper industry. This is a heavy handed approach which is unnecessary and sets a dangerous precedent for an academic institution. Libel actions are costly and can threaten the very existence of newspapers.”
Fianna Fail deputy Niall Collins raised the matter in the Dail last week.
He stated that the legal action initiated by UL was “a very serious development because a State-funded university is using State funding to issue proceedings to gag the media, as I perceive it, on a serious issue of public interest.”.
“One could say that given that so many whistleblowers have come forward to the Limerick Leader they cannot all be wrong,” he said.