Ex-Independent News and Media group-editor-in-chief Stephen Rae last month sent a legal letter to the Oireachtas after, it was claimed in a committee hearing, that he engages in SLAPPs – strategic lawsuits against public participation.
SLAPPs, which have no standard defitinition, are considered cynical legal proceedings designed to censor journalists and activists.
Rae’s solicitor wrote to the Oireachtas’s Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers the same day that Rae was named in a justice committee hearing. The solicitor demanded immediate action, including that the Oireachtas record be amended, after what he called an “especially vile defamation”.
“The purpose of this letter is to ensure that the record is amended immediately and that my client receives an apology, retraction and confirmation that he will be properly redressed,” wrote defamation solicitor Simon Carty in his early July email.
'Confirmation that the offending utterance has been stricken from the record of the Oireachtas'
On 4 July this year the Oireachtas Committee on Justice heard from press freedom group Index on Censorship, which was represented by Jessica Ní Mhainín.
During Ní Mhainín’s contribution she was asked by Donegal TD Thomas Pringle to give an example of a SLAPP – a type of lawsuit often taken against media outlets and journalists for the purpose of stamping out critical reporting.
Ní Mhainín referred to legal proceedings brought in response to a Sunday Times story from August 2018 titled “Rae 'changed stories' for INM”, written by Mark Tighe, which outlined how ex-INM chairman Lesley Buckley had asked his editor-in-chief Stephen Rae to make changes to stories.
Rae sued the Sunday Times and Mark Tighe as a result of the story.
Rae took exception to being named as someone who engages in cynical legal actions and had his solicitor write to the Oireachtas to demand a retraction.
“Mr Rae has instructed me about a very serious defamatory utterance during the course of the Justice Committee hearing this afternoon,” wrote lawyer Simon Carty.
“My client's defamation lawsuit against Sunday Times, RTÉ and Mark Tighe,” wrote Carty, was used “as an example of SLAPP proceedings. The chairman of the committee failed to prevent this gross breach of privilege.”
Carty disagreed that Rae’s action amounted to a SLAPP.
“The suggestion that the proceedings in question were SLAPP suits is untrue and severely damaging to my client's reputation. There is no question of my client's lawsuit being a SLAPP lawsuit. This utterance is untrue and defamatory,” he wrote.
He said, given Rae’s past career at INM, that the suggestion he engages in SLAPPs was “vile”.
“The fact that Mr Rae has a reputation regarding free speech and the protection of journalists and sources makes this defamation especially vile. As long as the record remains unamended, the damage to my client increases,” he wrote.
Carty awaited a response “as a matter of urgency” and he sought the Oireachtas record to be changed on behalf of Rae.
He looked for “confirmation that the offending utterance has been stricken from the record of the Oireachtas, including but not exclusively all video and audio records” as well as “a retraction and apology”.
Carty also demanded personal apologies from those who had named Rae.
“We would also expect the maker of these wrong statements and claims would retract those claims and apologise. The abuse of privilege in such circumstances is outrageous.”
The Oirachteas didn’t comply with the requests.
“As you are aware, the proceedings of Oireachtas committees are subject to absolute privilege,” responded the committee’s clerk to Carty.
The clerk told Carty it wouldn’t be “possible to alter the record of what was said at a meeting of a committee. The purpose of an official report of committee proceedings is to provide an accurate record of what was said at a committee meeting. This is essential for transparency of parliamentary proceedings.”
The committee did however agree to “record a statement which refers to the meeting of the 4 July 2023” and acknowledge “that the committee received correspondence from solicitors acting for Mr Stephen Rae who objected in strong terms to the characterisation of proceedings taken by him as “ SLAPPs.”
It's unclear how Rae and his solicitor will proceed.
Rae and Carty declined to comment.