Friday 23 August 2019

Disclosures Tribunal: Irish Independent editor says claims by former Sunday Independent editor are 'at odds' with his actions

Fionnan Sheahan at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Fionnan Sheahan at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Andrew Phelan

Andrew Phelan

IRISH Independent editor Fionnan Sheahan has denied telling a former Sunday Independent editor that garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe was a “paedophile,” saying her allegations were born out of a “grudge.”

Mr Sheahan said Anne Harris was “disgruntled” and “bitter” following her departure from Independent News and Media and what she claimed he said was “at odds” with his actions at the time.

She had suggested he was trying to “warn her off” stories about Sgt McCabe, while his emails at the time showed he was involved in commissioning positive coverage, he told the Disclosures Tribunal.

The tribunal is investigating an alleged smear campaign by senior gardai against Sgt McCabe.

Former Garda Press Officer, Supt Dave Taylor claims to have negatively briefed 11 journalists about Sgt McCabe between mid-2013 and March 2014.

Supt Taylor has said he was ordered to do so in mid-2013 by then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and with the knowledge of then Deputy Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan. They both deny his allegations.

The alleged briefing was that Sgt McCabe had been investigated over a historic allegation of child sexual assault. While Sgt McCabe was investigated over a complaint made by a woman known as Ms D, the DPP decided in 2007 not to prosecute and what was described by her did not amount to a crime.

Mr Sheahan, who is not one of those Supt Taylor claims he briefed, told the tribunal he did not believe he had anything worth submitting.

“I am only here today because Ms Harris made an allegation against me,” he said.

Ms Harris retired from INM in 2014. Mr Sheahan was INM's group political editor at the time of the alleged remarks.

He agreed with Diarmaid McGuinness SC, for the tribunal, he had been aware of “general discussion in political circles” of allegations against Sgt McCabe but he had learned not to pay much attention to “unfounded gossip.”

“Leinster House is a gossip factory, in effect when you walk across the plinth of Leinster House you would hear more gossip than in a bingo hall on a Thursday night,” he said.

He never spoke to either Mr Callinan, Ms O’Sullivan or Supt Taylor about Sgt McCabe and was never negatively briefed.

Mr Sheahan said he would not regard Supt Taylor as a confidential source of his and those were not his dealings with him.

He could not recall when he first heard that Sgt McCabe had been investigated. Mr McGuinness asked him about former INM Head of News Ian Mallon’s evidence earlier this week.

Mr Mallon had said after the Irish Independent published an article by Paul Williams in April 2014, almost every journalist in INM was aware of Sgt McCabe’s identity, knew there was an old allegation of sexual assault on a child and that the DPP had ruled there was no case to answer.

Mr Sheahan said the issue was coming up on different platforms after that but he could not say if everybody knew the day after the article was published.

He himself had no part in the stress-testing of Mr Williams’ article, was not consulted about it and had no involvement in it.

No reporters had come to relate to him that the garda press officer was conducting a smear campaign, he told Mr McGuinness.

He saw no evidence that Supt Taylor was conducting a smear campaign in 2013/2014.

Mr McGuinness then said Ms Harris had given evidence that following an editorial conference toward the end of September 2014, where a potential story about Sgt McCabe was discussed, Mr Sheahan turned back into the office.

"He said, he's a paedophile. McCabe is a paedophile. And I was shocked," she had said.

“I took that as an allegation that I was withholding information from this Tribunal, which I regard as very serious,” Mr Sheahan said. “That was a personal allegation directed against me. Not only was it made to this tribunal, but it was made in the Sunday Times not six weeks ago.”

“What Ms Harris accuses me of, in terms of what she characterises as warning her off Sgt McCabe, I would contend I was doing the complete opposite,” Mr Sheahan said.

He questioned the time she alleged this happened, saying she had not mentioned an actual precise date and referred to his own records which “pretty much take me out of the equation” for four editorial meetings in the period.

Everything he said was backed up by emails he sent to Ms Harris- deputy editor in the Sunday Independent in the third week in September 2016, he said, when he was advocating coverage relating to Sgt McCabe.

There was also “nothing in the paper” following meetings at which it was suggested Sgt McCabe was “heavily on the agenda” at meetings.

Mr McGuinness said he took it from the tone of Mr Sheahan’s replies that the allegation was denied.

“Absolutely,” he said.

Mr Sheahan told Darren Lehane BL, for Ms Harris, in cross examination that he did not just deny her allegation but it said it was “entirely contradictory to my actions in that third week in September.”

He said he was happy to expand his definition of “political circles” to include the media in relation to the gossip about Sgt McCabe. It was “impossible to say” where any stories around Leinster House started or where they came from, he said.

There was a difference in journalism between hearing a rumour, gossip, innuendo or ephemera and “receiving hard facts” that can be chased down and put out in the media.

“Nobody briefed me, nobody provided me with any information that I regarded as worth noting or pursuing in any regard,” he said.

Mr Lehane said there was nothing intrinsically wrong with describing someone as a paedophile in the context of a sexual offence against a minor.

“I don’t think that is the kind of language that one uses about individuals,” Mr Sheahan said. “I don’t think it’s polite conversation.”

He added that it was a serious allegation.

His emails to her deputy editor “categorically show that that was not my mind set at the time,” he said.

“You are basically saying that there was some proof or evidence, that it was being stated as fact,” he said of what he was alleged to have told Ms Harris.

“It’s what I would regard as very strong language,” Mr Sheahan said.

Mr Lehane said Mr Sheahan was saying Ms Harris was motivated out of malice or a grudge against him.

Mr Sheahan referred to a Sunday Business Post article in which Ms Harris described  “men who furiously took notes who had big swinging titles” in INM and added: “I don’t think she looked on me terribly favourably.”

However, he said, she had sat before the tribunal and described him as a “great fellow altogether.”

This contradicted what she said about him and his colleagues in the Sunday Business Post, he said.

He did not want to get into mud-slinging, he said.

Mr Lehane asked Mr Sheahan if he thought Ms Harris was abusing the tribunal to ventilate a private grudge against him, or if she had come in and told lies.

Mr Sheahan said Ms Harris was “quite confused” and he did not “get where her account of what happened is coming from.”

“I don’t know what she is talking about,” he said. “What she says is utterly at odds with my behaviour and actions at the time.”

Mr Lehane said Mr Sheahan was saying Ms Harris’ evidence was tainted by “improper motive” and she was a “bitter person.”

Mr Sheahan said Ms Harris had said in newspapers she was “at war with INM” and “had battles with INM”.

“I can only take it, yes, she is disgruntled,” he added.

He said he was standing over what was put to her by counsel when she gave evidence.

Mr Lehane said Ms Harris had come voluntarily to the tribunal while Mr Sheahan had not come voluntarily.

Mr Sheahan said he did not believe he had any information worth submitting to the tribunal.

“I am only here today because Ms Harris made an allegation against me,” he said.

In a letter to the tribunal, solicitors said on Mr Sheahan’s behalf that what Ms Harris said was not protected by any form of privilege against defamation.

Mr Lehane said Mr Sheahan’s response when faced with Ms Harris’ statement was to “threaten to sue her.”

“Ms Harris is headline hunting here, it’s quite remarkable,” Mr Sheahan said.

Mr Lehane said Mr Sheahan seemed to have a “serious problem with Ms Harris” and was attacking her.

He replied that he was contradicting her evidence as he was entitled to do.

Former Irish Independent editor Claire Grady said in March 2014 she attended a number of meetings prior to publication of an anonymised article about the allegations against Sgt McCabe, written by Paul Williams.

It was being considered where the story would be run and she saw the video of Mr Williams’ interview with Ms D. She felt it could not be used without further checks and this was undertaken to “firm up the story.”

Before this there “would have been chit chat that this man has a grudge” but she did not hear the allegation that was covered in the story.

In her statement she had said she was aware at that time that garda whistleblowers were “persona non grata” to senior gardai including the commissioner and Ms Grady told the tribunal that the “most senior garda in the land” had said whistleblowers were “disgusting.”

It seemed to her to be convenient for the garda authorities that the story had surfaced at that point in time, which was after Sgt McCabe appeared at the Dail Public Accounts Committee.

Diarmaid McGuinness SC, for the tribunal, said it appeared Ms Grady had been suspicious that Mr Williams had been given this story by the gardai.

Mr Williams was a journalist of many years’ experience and had been contacted by Ms D, Ms Grady said. Her frame of mind was that it was likely that a garda gave Ms D Mr Williams’ number.

Part of her job was to be skeptical about stories and she was aware that these allegations against Sgt McCabe were emerging against a background, she said.

She was explaining her “initial resistance to the story,” she said, and she thought the story if written in a particular way could impugn what Sgt McCabe had said at the Public Accounts Committee.

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