Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Interaction between journalist and press officer under the spotlight
Detective Superintendent John O'Reilly after giving evidence on day 10 of the Disclosures Tribunal. Pic: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
The treatment of Maurice McCabe by some elements of the media came under the spotlight yesterday, and it did not make for a pretty picture.
One of the country’s most successful journalists, Paul Williams, was in the witness box, explaining how he came to write unflattering articles about Sgt McCabe.
The garda sergeant was not identified in the pieces. The articles were based on interviews with Ms D in 2014, at the height of the garda whistleblower scandal in which Sgt McCabe had highlighted malpractice within the force.
Ms D had made an allegation against Sgt McCabe in 2006 that, eight years previously, when she was six years old, he had rubbed up against her inappropriately. The lawyer for the tribunal has described the nature of the incident as “horseplay” but Sgt McCabe denies it ever happened.
Ms D’s father was a colleague of his who had been demoted after Sgt McCabe reported him on a disciplinary matter.
In 2014, Ms D was angry that Sgt McCabe was in the headlines. She wanted her story out there, to show the world who he really was. Via a friend, she was put in touch with Mr Williams.
He interviewed her at her home and wrote an article. In a second article, he quoted her as saying that the incident occurred when “he shut the door and sexually assaulted me for what seemed like a long time”.
This is in complete variance with her original allegation, transforming “horseplay” into serious and sustained abuse of a sexual nature behind a closed door.
The article also quoted her as saying that the incident “sent her into a downward spiral” once she became aware of it some years later.
The DPP ruled that, even if the incident had occurred as she had alleged, it wouldn’t have constituted a criminal act. Yet now Ms D was claiming it had — as Mr Williams said in the witness box — “ruined her life”.
This is a narrative that would suit anybody ill disposed towards an individual who was highlighting malpractice in An Garda Siochána. Who, after all, would trust somebody portrayed as a child abuser?
During a forensic cross-examination by Sgt McCabe’s counsel, Michael McDowell, Mr Williams accepted that he never checked out the story.
“Did it ever strike you that you should make some effort to validate the truth of those charges,” asked the lawyer.
Journalist Paul Williams at the The Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle today. Pic: Collins
Mr Williams replied that he didn’t feel it necessary as Sgt McCabe had not been identified in the story.
“Many, many people must have known whom you were referring to, not least Maurice and Lorraine McCabe; the D family; gardaí in the area would have known; the members of government who were aware of this would have known; the station party in Bailieborough would have known,” said Mr McDowell.
“Did you care for one minute about getting the other side of the story?”
Mr Williams repeated that he wasn’t identifying Sgt McCabe in the piece.
He also helped out Ms D in her quest to get somebody to listen to her. She had claimed the investigation into her allegation was flawed. Mr Williams put her in touch with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, picked her up from the train, dropped her to Leinster House, and brought her back afterwards.
Then he wrote about the meeting in a speculative piece suggesting that Enda Kenny, the then taoiseach, was going to open an investigation into Ms D’s case.
“It was deceiving the reader into believing that you were reporting events when in fact you were orchestrating events,” said Mr McDowell.
Mr Williams denied this.
He also organised for Ms D to meet Alan Shatter after he resigned as minister for justice that year. Mr Williams told the tribunal he had performed services like this for other people about whom he has written stories.
His contacts with the garda press office on the matter were unorthodox. He says he contacted the head of the office, Superintendent Dave Taylor, some days after the initial interview. He says Supt Taylor filled him in on the background to the case, including that the DPP had ruled that it did not warrant prosecution.
Nobody filled him in on the exact detail of the case.
In any event, the tribunal was told that Supt Taylor disputes Mr Williams’ version of their contact. He claims that Mr Williams rang him from the home of Ms D on the day he conducted the interview.
Supt Taylor says Mr Williams told him that Sgt McCabe had destroyed this woman’s life and he, Mr Williams, was going to write a piece that would be very damaging to Sgt McCabe.
Mr Williams denies this.
Whichever version represents the actual facts, the interaction between the journalist and garda press office about the confidential details of a member of the force raises a major question.
Were things done this way in order to further an agenda to blacken Sgt McCabe’s character? Mr Williams says he wasn’t part of any campaign. He also denies he was “a puppet for the guards”.
The articles written did not identify Sgt McCabe to the general public, but for those in the know it was obvious who was the subject.