Wednesday 7 December 2016

Last night's TV - Larry Murphy: A Year In Hiding

Published 09/08/2011 | 08:39

Photo: David Conachy
Photo: David Conachy

Diarmuid Doyle on a documntary that told us nothing we didn't already know

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Few former prisoners warrant a television special dedicated to the first anniversary of their release from jail. But then again, few former prisoners have attracted the notoriety of Larry Murphy.

This time last year, when Murphy left Arbour Hill prison in Dublin after serving less than 11 years of a 15 year sentence for the savage rape of a woman in Wicklow, the Irish media went a little mad.

There was a huge reception committee of journalists and camera people waiting for Murphy when he emerged into his new life as a civilian; his taxi was subsequently followed around Dublin by several photographers on motorbikes. The frenzy continued for weeks as newspapers outdid each other with Where’s Larry? stories.

The media interest continues until the present day. TV3’s Larry Murphy – A Year In Hiding was the latest manifestation of that obsession, which it also purported to explain. It was a huge disappointment, however, telling us nothing that we didn’t know already.

The interesting points it made – about the wisdom of giving remission to prisoners who resolutely refuse to engage with rehabilitative programmes in jail; the weakness of the sex offender register – had all been made before, in greater detail, and with greater force. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the programme was sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake.

TV3 sometimes gets a hard time for being obsessed with crime, but there’s nothing wrong with that. (Indeed, I was interviewed earlier this year for a programme on the Catherine Nevin murder trial which will be shown in the autumn). Viewers like a bit of a true crime of an evening, and TV3 more than adequately responds to that need.

But rehash jobs like this one don’t serve much purpose other than to fill a gap in the schedules. It was lazy television throughout, right down to the demon’s eyes Murphy was given in the animated drawing of his face which appeared on screen from time to time.

Amongst the questions raised in A Year In Hiding was: why was the media so obsessed with Larry Murphy? The answer seemed to be: because the public was. “The fear levels were unbelievable when Larry Murphy was released”, one of the contributors said.

It was a mantra often heard at the time. People, we were told, were worried and frightened by the release of this beast. Therefore it was the media’s duty to report on it.

Shortly after Larry Murphy left jail, a media company did a survey of social networks to see how people regarded him and his release from prison. It found that in the weeks before he was set free, and before the media had begun the countdown to his release, nobody was paying any attention to him.

It was only when newspapers and television began to crank up the hysteria that members of the public started to pay attention. The conclusion of the survey was that the media had created the fear, and then exploited it for circulation purposes.

Users of social media are by no means reflective of the population as a whole, and the survey proved nothing in itself, but its argument is an interesting one and is at least worthy of a debate. Not here, however. As far as the documentary was concerned, there was a scared nation out there demanding news of Murphy’s whereabouts, and it was the media’s job to provide that information.

Fr Brian Darcy – to his great credit – was prepared to argue against some of the certainties on which A Year In Hiding was based.

It was unfair that Murphy had been released to be hounded by the media, he said. He raised the possibility that Murphy had paid his debt to society, having served a jail term, and embraced the notion that all men, no matter how evil their acts, have a good side to them.

That did come across as remarkably naïve, however. Murphy refused treatment in prison, and there must be a reasonable chance he will offend again. Is there not a public interest in knowing exactly where he is at all times? That debate never really kicked off, either.

The presence of Darcy showed that the documentary makers were aware that there is an alternative take on Murphy and the media obsession with him. But A Year In Hiding kept being sucked back into the TV3 comfort zone, a world full of monsters and psychopaths and fear and anger and outrage.

A year on, the story deserves better than that.

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