Anne Harris: Double blow for brave reporter under attack
The failure of the media to defend a hounded colleague reflects badly on our moral compass, writes Anne Harris
Published 19/08/2012 | 05:00
ON Friday, July 27, Niamh Horan was in the millionaires' paradise of Quinta do Lago, Portugal, to investigate whether the Irish property collapse had changed the lifestyles of the bust and bailed-out builder developers who still maintained luxury homes there.
Having finished a long day's work and having parted company with her photographer colleague, she went into an Irish pub, De Barras, for a drink (it was her birthday) and found herself sharing the bar with Tom McFeely, the bankrupt developer who served 12 years in the Maze for robbing a post office and shooting a policeman and who more recently has left over 250 residents homeless because of his shoddy building of Priory Hall.
Realising that there was a warrant out for his arrest for non-appearance at his bankruptcy hearing, she approached him, took a phone picture and asked him if he would talk. His response was to smash his glass, lunge at her and then chase her with it out into the night until, being fleeter of foot, she managed to give him the slip.
To say she was terrified is to put it mildly. All with a duty of care towards her moved quickly and she pulled herself together and wrote the story.
Scarcely had the edition of the Sunday Independent carrying her article hit the news stands than Frank Fitzgibbon, the editor of the Irish edition of The Sunday Times (mystifyingly he wastes no time in getting our paper, which is published some hours before his is printed) had begun to tweet. His message was that she had brought it on herself. "Tough lesson. Guess she should have asked his permission before sticking her camera in his mug." As Elaine Byrne wrote in this paper the following week: "So it was all Horan's fault."
Even more courageously, as anyone who works with victims of assault will testify, the following week Horan confronted McFeely in the Four Courts and challenged him about the threat. His response was to push a female photographer to the ground as he made his getaway.
Fitzgibbon was not satisfied with his first week of belittling the reporter. A week later, presumably with the early edition of the Sunday Independent in his hands, he counselled fellow tweeters to: "Ignore Horan and she will go away." The problem is a lot of tweeters out there are under the impression that the editor of the Irish edition of The Sunday Times would be a person who commands respect: that Frank Fitzgibbon is a man of standards. Taking a lead from his loutishness they worked up an abusive storm about the invasion of Tom McFeely's privacy.
In the absence thus far of a privacy law (and bearing in mind that there are few absolutes), the following is a good rule of thumb for those hack wannabes. Private citizens are entitled to absolute privacy. Politicians are entitled to semi-privacy -- their public life quite clearly is subject to scrutiny. And criminals (over the age of consent and depending on the crime) have by and large forfeited their right to privacy. There are, of course, degrees in all these matters.
With a few notable exceptions the Irish tweeters -- mostly male -- took their lead from The Sunday Times Irish editor and abused the young female reporter.
Apart from her own newspaper and a small piece in yesterday's Irish Daily Mail by Cormac Lucey, the media maintained a silence. Dog doesn't eat dog is the time-honoured newspaper maxim, but the corollary also pertains: when a member of the pack is mauled, dog doesn't stand idly by.
One publication observed the decencies. The English satirical magazine, Private Eye. With a brevity and incisiveness I would commend to the wannabe hack tweeters, it noted: "Niamh Horan, a young reporter from the Sunday Independent in Dublin, narrowly escaped having a broken beer glass shoved in her face by Tom McFeely, the former IRA hunger striker turned property developer, two weeks ago.
"McFeely, who is now bankrupt, was enjoying a luxury holiday in Portugal while residents of the Priory Hall flats, which he built, remain homeless due to his company's shoddy work. When Horan doorstepped him in an Algarve pub to ask if he had anything to say to the victims back in Dublin, the enraged ex-Provo smashed his glass and moved menacingly towards her.
"Horan duly reported the incident in her newspaper. And what was the response of Frank Fitzgibbon, editor of The Sunday Times's Irish edition, to the news that a fellow hack had been chased by a former IRA thug? To chide Horan for her lack of manners. "Tough lesson," he tweeted. "Guess she should have asked his permission before sticking her camera in his mug.
And Private Eye had only seen one of Fitzgibbon's pearls of wisdom.
It is scarcely possible that Fitzgibbon is unaware of how misogynistic his tweets appear. But there is still an Irish women's movement out there -- women politicians, businesswomen, women writers, women artists -- which should have reminded him. Or spoken up for the young woman. What is mystifying is that there was not one word.
In the past month the National Women's Council, for example, has seen fit to issue press releases condemning the tobacco industry for targeting women and demanding legislation for abortion but apparently has nothing to say about the attack by a convicted terrorist on a professional woman simply doing her job.
When did feminist outrage at blaming the victim turn into callous indifference?
If anybody doubted that an attack by Tom McFeely was a terrifying prospect they had only to read Susan McKay's long account of him in last weekend's Guardian magazine. The article was obviously penned well before his attack on Horan, but reading it subsequent to the attack makes one's hair stand "like squills upon the fearful porpentine". For he describes journalists as "scum."
Last Friday morning, Myles Dungan on RTE Radio 1 took Susan McKay on a voyage around that Guardian interview, around the paradox that is McFeely, a man who was willing to kill and be killed for Ireland but who hid behind a British passport to avoid Irish bankruptcy laws.
The Bogside Boy jailed for 12 years for terrorism, now a developer who lived on Ailesbury Road. The man who made 250 Priory Hall residents homeless because of his shoddy building, complaining they were "victimising" him, calling them "jumped up Hitlers".
The man who called the Criminal Assets Bureau to whom he paid a €9m settlement following tax bills, "nasty individuals with an agenda".
Ironically Susan McKay was chief executive of the Women's Council until her resignation earlier this year and she has spent a career in journalism championing feminist causes.
Would it not have made perfect sense for Myles Dungan -- in that calm parlour of reflection on the terrifying career of Tom McFeely -- to have asked Susan McKay about the attack on Niamh Horan. I believe she would have put Mr Fitzgibbon in his place.
Dungan's failure to ask her to do so was an unforgivable lapse.