Court awards punitive damages against Associated for unlawful phone taps
A woman has been awarded €90,000 (£71,000) damages against Associated Newspapers (Ireland) for publishing articles about her relationship with a priest based on unlawfully tapped phone conversations.
The articles, published over three successive weeks in November 2003, outlined transcripts of phone conversations between Ms Herrity and Fr McMahon, and claimed they shared “intimate and frequent” phone conversations which were intercepted by a private eye working for Mr Herrity at the instigation of her estranged husband.
Ms Justice Dunne ruled that the right to freedom of expression cannot be asserted over information unlawfully obtained even when that information is true and despite the fact that a newspaper could be acting in the public interest in publishing information about the conduct of a priest. Punitive damages were awarded because of the use of unlawfully obtained material and the distress caused to Ms Herrity over the “flagrant and unwarranted” breach of privacy, while €60,000 was awarded as ordinary and aggravated compensatory damages.
The judge said the articles about the relationship between Ms Herrity and the priest were one-sided, based solely on Ms Herrity’s husband’s version of events, and that use of the transcripts constituted a “deliberate, conscious and unjustified breach” of Ms Herrity’s privacy right.
The Judge ruled that while some limited information about Ms Herrity could have been published in an article about the priest’s conduct in embarking on the relationship, the newspaper went beyond what was permissible in using material unlawfully obtained.