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Trial by media puts society in the dock

I seem to be more troubled than some readers about the now-routine practice of trial by television. Writing last week about the Prime Time Investigates probe into the taxi industry, I expressed my unease at the singling out of an African man who was double-jobbing as a Dublin bus driver and a cabbie. Was he the only person in Ireland engaged in such practices, I wondered?

Accused by one emailer of being a politically correct bleeding heart, I incurred the wrath of another for appearing to condone the fact that the person in question was putting the safety of passengers at risk, which wasn't my intention at all. I merely felt that the programme's expose of a couple of individuals who have never been charged or even arrested for offences alleged by reporter Paul Maguire seemed invidiously selective.

This week's Prime Time Investigates (RTÉ1) adopted the same name-and-shame approach -- and the same tactic of cornering the offending person with a camera crew and a reporter armed with a microphone.

In this case, though, I shouldn't have felt unhappy with the techniques being employed -- after all, the subject was clerical paedophilia by Irish missionaries in Africa, which should immediately forfeit any sympathy for its perpetrators.

Yet something still niggled.

Although there was no doubting the sincerity or honesty of the distressed young Africans being interviewed, none of the priests named as abusers has been convicted of any crime and most of them haven't even been charged.

That may be the grievous fault of a system that allows clerical authorities -- from the papacy down to heads of religious orders -- to cover up sexual crimes by its members, but it also allows the media to act both as police force and sentencing judge, which seems to me a troubling outcome.

As if mindful of this unsatisfactory situation and of the fact that the film's thrust mostly depended on unproven accusations, reporter Aoife Kavanagh prefaced the individual stories by mentioning "allegations" of abuse and rape, though she then proceeded to speak of them as unarguable facts. And they probably were, though is "probably" good enough when a priest who's confronted by her outside a Galway church and accused of the sexual abuse of a young Kenyan woman denies any knowledge of the woman in question or the crime with which an RTÉ reporter is charging him?

It's a vexing question. I'm well aware that the clerical crimes with which we're all now familiar might never have come to light if it weren't for the diligence and tenacity of crusading journalists, and it would take a very blinkered person not to see that if clerical sex abuse was rife in Ireland it was almost certainly even more unfettered in Africa, but even those accused of paedophilia are entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Or is that unsayable?

The two-part Blood of the Travellers (RTÉ1) asked "What is the historical origin of Ireland's travelling people?" and enlisted former Olympic boxer Francis Barrett to try to find the answer. Using the tools of modern technology, he set out to do this by collecting 40 DNA samples from a range of Travellers throughout the country.

Francis, who's been engaged in construction work and scrap gathering since his 1996 Olympic heroics, proved to be an alert and intense man and along the way he met lots of other Travellers, as well as various genetic experts.

It was all quite interesting, though I learned nothing conclusive by the end of the first programme and might not get round to another hour of Francis's dogged quest.

Feargal Quinn's Retail Therapy (RTÉ1) began a new season with a visit to Edenderry, where our retailing maestro was attempting to lift McGreal's long-established gift shop out of the doldrums.

This he accomplished by means of a complete makeover of the store and its contents, with the nervous approval of its owners. They seemed like a very nice couple who hadn't quite realised what they were letting themselves in for, though at the end the place was packed with customers.

Let's see what business is like in a year's time when the camera crews have long vanished and Feargal is busy saving the livelihood of someone else.

The Life and Loss of Karen Woo (UTV) was an almost unbearably poignant documentary about the English doctor and aid worker who was ambushed and murdered by the Taliban last August, along with nine others, while they were on a medical mission in a remote area of Afghanistan.

What gave the film its extraordinary force was the presence of Karen herself in film and audio footage of her taken in the weeks leading up to her death.

A beautiful, idealistic and restless young woman, she was due to be married within a month and the film accompanied her fiance as he retraced her steps through Afghanistan, the film showing him in a succession of places where we also saw her chatting vivaciously to camera. It made for wrenching television.


Indo Review