Saturday 1 October 2016

Shane Phelan: GSOC's credibility not being helped by policy of silence

Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30

High Court judge and GSOC chairwoman Mary Ellen Ring. Picture: Arthur Carron
High Court judge and GSOC chairwoman Mary Ellen Ring. Picture: Arthur Carron

The crisis sparked by the garda watchdog's snooping on the phone records of journalists has now been continuing for almost a week. Yet no one from the embattled Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has yet seen fit to publicly comment on the issue.

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Although the commission's chairperson, High Court judge Mary Ellen Ring, has met Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald on the issue, we have yet to hear any public explanation for its actions. We can, however, deduce that whatever was discussed at that meeting did not reassure Ms Fitzgerald enough for her to let the matter lie.

Indeed, so serious was the situation in the eyes of the Justice Minister that she moved yesterday to appoint the former chief justice, John Murray, to review the legislation which allowed GSOC access the records.

There is no question that GSOC investigators acted within the law when they accessed the phone records as part of a probe into alleged garda leaks relating to the tragic death of model Katy French.

However, it is questionable whether the action taken was proportionate in the circumstances of that investigation.

Indeed, it has been seen by many observers as an attack on the freedom of the press and the ability of reporters to protect their sources.

Even after the announcement of Mr Justice Murray's review, GSOC has been unmoved in its policy of silence.

It is a policy which will serve only to deepen negative perceptions about the operation of the commission, the credibility of which has suffered terribly over the past two years.

The departure of former chairman Simon O'Brien in the aftermath of the 'bugging' scandal that never was has failed to trigger an upturn in the commission's fortunes.

Its credibility and the judgment it exercises remain in question - a state of affairs that is unlikely to change significantly while the three commissioners continue in their refusal to publicly explain GSOC's actions. On a daily basis, all questions asked by the media are met with a firm "no comment".

Even general queries about the procedures used by GSOC are not receiving any response.

The commission has, for example, refused to clarify at what level within the organisation a request can be made to a telecommunications provider for access to the phone and email records of a private individual.

Nor do we know what internal safeguards, procedures or deliberations processes are in place to ensure that actions taken are proportionate.

GSOC will not even comment to say whether or not it believes it exercised proper judgment in deciding to access the phone records of journalists.

Irish Independent

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