Williams versus McDowell: the battle of the big beasts at the Disclosures Tribunal
A leading journalist came out fighting, wanting to set the record straight at the Disclosures Tribunal, writes Shane Phelan
The Disclosures Tribunal has seen some robust exchanges in its opening weeks, but the clash between journalist Paul Williams and barrister Michael McDowell was on a different level.
In boxing parlance, it was not really a slugfest, but rather a fascinating clash of styles.
McDowell, the former Attorney General and Justice Minister now acting as counsel for Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, spent 12 rounds working the witness with skilful jabs.
Williams, the pre-eminent crime journalist of his time, came out of the other corner fighting too.
There were issues he wanted to set the record straight on and when he had done this, he spent much of the rest of the bout standing his ground and absorbing the barrister's onslaught.
While he sometimes appeared to be on the back foot, no knockout blow was landed.
It was a mark of the interest in Williams's testimony that the public gallery at Dublin Castle was almost full last Tuesday.
The press box included high profile spectators Eamon Dunphy and Vincent Browne.
But before the audience got to see the two big beasts go head to head, Williams was first questioned by counsel for the tribunal Diarmaid McGuinness SC.
For those who knew him, it was strange to see the campaigning and investigative journalist - more at home in a distinctive brown Arabic leather jacket and denim shirt - wearing a suit and tie, but he showed himself at ease in the gladiatorial atmosphere in the castle's George's Hall.
The Irish Independent correspondent and Newstalk presenter was the first journalist to interview Ms D, the woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.
Her allegations were investigated in 2007, but the DPP found no basis for a prosecution.
When Sergeant McCabe came to prominence in 2014 through his whistleblowing activity, she was angry that he was being portrayed as a hero.
Ms D told the tribunal last Monday she reached out to Paul Williams that March as she wanted to tell her story and believed he was a journalist she could trust.
Two articles appeared in the Irish Independent the following month in which an unnamed woman, now known to be Ms D, complained that her sexual assault complaint against an unidentified garda, now known to be Sgt McCabe, was not investigated properly.
Paul Williams received flak from some quarters after the pieces were published.
"A suggestion might be made or floated that you were in some way acting as a puppet of the guards in participating, willingly or otherwise, in a smear campaign relating to Sgt McCabe," McGuinness observed.
Without missing a beat, Williams replied: "I have read that extensively and that is absolutely false."
Williams rejected as "completely baseless" a suggestion he had been given a Garda file on the sexual assault case.
He also said he was never briefed by Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, former commissioner Martin Callinan or former Garda press officer Supt Dave Taylor in relation to rumours which circulated about Sgt McCabe.
The questions faced by the journalist took a change of course when McDowell stepped into the ring.
Throughout the tribunal, McDowell has carefully probed witnesses for any sign of a conspiracy against his client.
His tactics on Tuesday were to dissect the content of Williams's articles and the contact the journalist said he had with Supt Taylor.
Williams told the tribunal that around a week after the interview, he contacted Supt Taylor seeking to verify aspects of Ms D's story and that there were a number of subsequent follow-up calls before the articles were published.
He wanted to know if there had been an investigation into Sgt McCabe, what was the decision of the DPP, and was the case recorded on the Garda Pulse computer system.
Williams said Supt Taylor came back to him with an off-the-record response that there was an investigation, but the DPP directed there be no charges. McDowell seemed quite perturbed about this. He wanted to know if any reporter could call the Garda Press Office and get such "highly confidential information".
"I would presume so. I don't know," said Williams.
"I ask questions for a living and if people wish to answer them, they will answer them. If they don't want to answer them, they don't answer them," Williams said.
This didn't satisfy McDowell, who dwelt on the issue for some time and seemed exasperated by the responses he was getting.
Although the articles did not contain any names, McDowell felt "a lot of people would infer it was Sgt McCabe" who was being referred to.
Williams did not accept this, saying the pieces were "deliberately highly anonymised".
But McDowell zeroed in on a quote where Ms D said the whistleblowers' controversy "brought back to me the whole anger about what happened to me".
The barrister described this as "a very clear coat-trailing exercise, to link the matter to Sgt McCabe".
Williams insisted it wasn't.
The journalist also rejected McDowell's suggestion he had gone as close as he "possibly could to identifying Sgt McCabe without using his name".
The articles referred to the fact Ms D was seeking to meet Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin to highlight her case.
McDowell suggested this was mentioned to put pressure on Martin to agree to see her. Williams said it was true he helped organise a meeting, but denied he was "orchestrating events". He had organised many such meetings for people "who wanted to be heard" in the past and would do so again.
McDowell questioned the efforts made by Williams to verify Ms D's account of events, suggesting he should have contacted Sgt McCabe.
"Because it was so anonymised, I felt there was no need," Williams replied.
Towards the end of McDowell's questioning, tribunal chairman Mr Justice Peter Charleton reminded the barrister there was a question he had posed during a private session which he had yet to ask.
This, the judge said, was an allegation Williams was "too close to the gardai, that he depended on them for his stories and therefore subject to making professional errors of judgment in favour of gardai because of that closeness".
"Absolutely not, is my answer," the journalist replied.
McDowell accepted Williams had been "quite critical of Garda Headquarters" in a lot of his commentary.
But he said he was suggesting crime correspondents generally were dependent on garda sources for information.
"I am not dependent on them and was not dependent on them at that stage in my life. Thirty years in the business, I don't need to depend on them. Because they have their own agendas," said Williams.
The exchanges between the two ended soon after and other senior counsel took their turn to ask questions.
Later that day, it emerged there were conflicts between Williams's evidence and the evidence Supt Taylor intends to give in relation to the frequency of phone contacts between them and the contents of their conversations.
Williams rejected the claims put to him by counsel for Taylor.
And then, it was over.
Williams gave as good as he got, with no side drawing blood, after he faced five senior counsel over several hours.