'privacy breach' | 

New era of strict social media rules imminent says Taoiseach in wake of Leo Varadkar video

A video was posted on TikTok of Mr Varadkar in a nightclub and was viewed millions of times before it was removed

Taoiseach Micheal Martin (Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)© PA

Leo Varadkar

Philip RyanIndependent.ie

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has warned a new era of stricter rules around social media is imminent.

He was speaking in the wake of the controversy surrounding Leo Varadkar being covertly recorded in a nightclub.

In an interview with The Indo Daily podcast, Mr Martin condemned the intrusion into Mr Varadkar’s private life, saying “what happened was a breach of privacy fundamentally”.

“I do accept that in the world of social media it is an ever-present reality, perhaps, or danger but what would concern me is the degree to which it could deter people from getting involved in politics,” the Taoiseach added.

The Fianna Fáil leader’s intervention comes after Mr Varadkar conceded he made “errors in judgment” when asked about the video and the ongoing fallout over his decision to leak a confidential GP contract to a friend.

“Everyone makes errors in judgment.

“You wouldn’t be a human being if you didn’t but, I hope, when it has come to the big calls, whether it was the reaction to the pandemic, whether it was Brexit, whether it was managing the economy, that I’ve made right decisions,” Mr Varadkar said.

A video was posted on social media platform TikTok of Mr Varadkar in a nightclub and was viewed millions of times before it was removed.

Mr Martin said he believed society had “not fully worked out” what the impact of social media would be on our lives or on public debate and politics.

“I think we are now entering into a new era where there’ll be far more regulation of social media platforms,” he added.

He said there was legislation pending relating to the country’s first social media regulator and that forthcoming EU directives would also introduce stricter rules for tech firms that operate the online platforms.

Leo Varadkar

However, he said social media users also needed to be held accountable for their behaviour.

“I think a lot of companies are doing a lot of work to try and take hate speech off, to take a lot of material down as quickly as it goes up and I think there has to be a responsibility on individuals and society as well,” he said.

He said the Government would need to spend “huge resources” to fund an online media regulator which is currently being worked on by Media Minister Catherine Martin.

The Taoiseach said he read some of the online comments about him and his government, from a “research perspective”, and to investigate where certain lines of attack were coming from.

“I’m interested in going through some of the commentary to see where they’re coming from. Is that a far-right kind of trend? Who’s engineering it? It seems that a lot of the reactions can be engineered,” he added.

Mr Martin said he hoped his family were “immune” from the abuse he received online.

However he does concede they contact him occasionally when they see some comments about him.

“I said to them on day one to ignore it but they do watch Twitter and Facebook. But the one thing that worries me at times is the degree to which you can influence thinking almost without people realising it,” he said.

“So sometimes they might ring and say, ‘What about this?’ and I say, ‘you’re hooked too much on Twitter, get off that, that’s only one perspective, get out there and meet people and talk to people on the streets and you might get another perspective,’” he added.

Mr Martin said he did not agree with a suggestion taken from evidence given to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) by the Tánaiste that the Taoiseach of the day has the power to declassify documents at will.

“I think there are limitations to power and I often say that to people that we have checks and balances in our system,” he said.

In a submission to the Sipo inquiry, Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy said Mr Varadkar suggested in his evidence that “any action in his roles as Taoiseach judged by him to be appropriate/in the public interest cannot be questioned”.

He said the Fine Gael leader suggested “the Taoiseach has the power at will, and without recourse to any process, to declassify a document at his discretion”.

Mr Martin said the Tánaiste had acknowledged that leaking the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) document to his friend Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail, who was president of a rival representative group for GPs, was wrong and apologised for his actions.

Mr Martin also said there was an argument that negotiations with doctors should not be confidential because you are “talking about the spending of public money”.

A majority of three Sipo commissioners ruled against holding an investigation into Mr Varadkar’s decision to give the document to Ó Tuathail.

The political ethics watchdog decided it did not have the remit to investigate complaints made against a Taoiseach.

After Sipo’s ruling, Mr Varadkar had said: “I have been now cleared of criminal wrongdoing and any breach of ethics or standards.”

However, it later emerged Mr McCarthy and Ombudsman Ger Deering did not agree with the final decision not to hold an investigation. The Taoiseach said he would be wary of giving some members of Sipo more superiority than other.

“Each member of Sipo is equal to the others as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

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