Saturday 15 December 2018

Garda the likely source of journalist's information on McCabe - says editor

Whistleblower Maurice McCabe
Whistleblower Maurice McCabe
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A newspaper editor has said it was "likely" information his crime correspondent received about an allegation of sexual assault against penalty points whistleblower Maurice McCabe came from someone in An Garda Síochána.

Irish Mail on Sunday Editor Conor O’Donnell told the Disclosures Tribunal journalist Debbie McCann proposed the story in early 2014 and went to the home of the complainant, a woman known as Ms D, to seek an interview.

However, she only got to briefly speak to the woman’s mother.

No article appeared, the newspaper "did nothing more on it" and "it wasn’t discussed again", Mr O’Donnell said.

The tribunal has previously heard allegations from Irish Daily Mail reporter Alison O’Reilly that Ms McCann told her the source of her information was former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and former Garda press officer Supt Dave Taylor.

Ms O’Sullivan has denied this, but Supt Taylor has named Ms McCann as one of eleven journalists he says he negatively briefed about Sgt McCabe.

Much of Ms O’Reilly’s evidence is being disputed by Ms McCann, who is scheduled to give evidence tomorrow.

Mr O’Donnell said he did not know where Ms McCann got her information and had never asked her.

In response to a question from Michael McDowell SC, counsel for Sgt McCabe, Mr O’Donnell said it was "likely" Ms McCann got her information from someone in An Garda Síochána.

He described Ms McCann’s visit to the D household as "a scoping exercise" and said “there was never a commitment to do a story”.

Mr O’Donnell said there had been potential for the newspaper to learn more about the controversy surrounding Sgt McCabe.

Sgt McCabe was someone who was "in the news" and there would have been interest in the story, he said.

While Sgt McCabe was investigated over a historic allegation of child sexual assault, the DPP decided in 2007 that no charges should be brought and that what was described did not amount to a crime.

Ms O’Reilly has told the tribunal Ms McCann told her the story was not running, and that Mr O’Donnell wanted to put in an anonymous story but Sebastian Hamilton, group editor of the Mail’s titles in Ireland, did not want the story in the newspaper.

She claimed Ms McCann told her Mr Hamilton was "too cautious about the scandal and did not want to air it".

Giving evidence, Mr Hamilton said it was "entirely incorrect" to suggest it was his decision not to run a story.

He said it did not happen and could not have happened because the editorial processes in place did not allow. He explained he had no editorial responsibility for the Irish Mail on Sunday.

For the claim to be correct, it would have required Ms McCann to be complaining about the non-publication of a story she didn’t have and didn’t submit for publication, he said.

Fíonán Ó Muircheartaigh BL, for Ms O’Reilly pointed out that Mr Hamilton had written an editorial calling for an investigation into an alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe following comments in the Dáil by Labour TD Brendan Howlin in February 2017.

Yet a solicitor for the newspaper group had written to the tribunal saying he could confirm that none of the “open communications” that the journalists written to by the tribunal had with Supt Taylor relate to matters falling within the terms of reference.

“The Mail called for a public tribunal, the Mail had information, it had people who were involved actively in this thing, and this letter was essentially telling the tribunal, no, we can't help the tribunal,” Mr Ó Muircheartaigh said.

Mr Hamilton said he did not accept that this was a hypocritical stance to take.

He said source protection placed him in a position where not all questions could be answered.

Ó Muircheartaigh said Supt Taylor had waived privilege over any conversations he may have had with journalist.

The barrister put it to Mr Hamiliton the Mail’s position wasn’t consistent with assisting the tribunal.

"I don’t accept your assertion that I or the company is somehow refusing to assist the tribunal," Mr Hamilton said.

“There are certain issues on which I feel and obviously on which other journalists feel they are not at liberty to be able to answer certain questions because of their requirement to uphold the protection of sources.”

The tribunal has previously heard Ms O’Reilly was the source of information which led Mr Howlin to make his comments in the Dáil.

It has also previously heard Ms O’Reilly was in a dispute with her employers about a workplace matter, and had lodged three lawsuits.

Ms O’Reilly has said this matter has no bearing on her allegations.

Today it emerged a letter from Michael Kealey, a lawyer for the Mail titles, to the tribunal in April of this year said his clients believed that the state of Ms O’Reilly’s relations with them at the time she spoke to Mr Howlin was a relevant issue and, in his client’s view, was a strong motivating factor in her actions.

Tribunal chairman Mr Justice Peter Charleton suggested to Mr Hamilton that the company had taken sides against Ms O’Reilly.

Mr Hamilton said he didn’t believe this was a fair characterisation.

However, he said it didn’t make logical sense to him that Ms McCann would say any of the things she was alleged to have said. Mr Hamilton also said there was no supporting evidence for Ms O’Reilly’s allegations.

He said he thought it was reasonable for the company to say it believed her evidence may be motivated by the fact she had a grievance that has not been resolved.

But Mr Justice Charleton observed: “You know it is possible you can have a grievance with someone and still tell the truth.”

The judge said it was a big jump to put such an allegation down on paper and say someone was lying.

Mr Hamilton was asked why the Mail group had not volunteered information about Ms McCann’s visit to the D household and the tribunal had to learn about it from other parties.

Mr Justice Charleton said the tribunal was set up in February 2017, and it took until July 2017 “for something to come out of your paper”, while at the same time it was publishing “thundering editorials”.

"All I can say is that from the beginning I was concerned about any breaches of journalistic privilege," Mr Hamilton responded.

He said this position was not held in defiance of the tribunal and that things can often take longer than they should.

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