Former court reporter claims news agency bosses ‘set out to destroy’ his freelance career

Ruaidhri Giblin said the Covid-19 pandemic made his job site at the Criminal Courts of Justice building in Dublin an “unsafe working environment”.

Stephen Bourke

A former court reporter claims his former news agency bosses “set out to destroy” his freelance career after leaving him with no option except to quit because the Covid-19 pandemic made his job site at the Criminal Courts of Justice building in Dublin an “unsafe working environment”.

At a constructive dismissal hearing yesterday, Ruaidhrí Giblin’s solicitor told the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) that Ireland International News Agency Ltd “did not take [his] safety seriously”, alleging the employer had been in breach of health and safety legislation when the pandemic hit in March and April 2020.

Mr Giblin told the tribunal that he struggled to make a living as a freelancer after leaving the agency because of his former employer’s correspondence with news organisations about him and a “whispering campaign”.

“My career as a journalist is over thanks to them,” he said.

Mr Giblin’s former boss, news agency managing partner Brian Kavanagh, said the firm was “perfectly entitled” to write to its clients to say it had “something in place” to cover the Court of Appeal after Mr Giblin offered a “rival service” covering his former beat.

The tribunal moved to hear the primary issue in the matter after the company conceded that the complainant had the right to bring a complaint under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 – having earlier argued that as he had only been on a contract for 10 months when he quit, he was not covered.

“The company failed to employ me legally for years, they were engaged in bogus self-employment for years and it seemed that had carried through to their approach to health and safety. They never bothered,” Mr Giblin said in his evidence.

The news agency, which denies constructive dismissal, said it had acted in line with the government public health advice in operation in April 2020, which it argued did not permit it to require staff to wear a mask. It added that it had, however, offered to refund Mr Giblin for face masks and other personal protective equipment.

In his evidence, Mr Giblin said the agency had a policy of “docking the wages of journalists” for errors in copy, citing one example where he said a deduction of €10,000 had been taken from a colleague’s pay over a libel award, adding that a colleague had only just been let go around when the pandemic reached Ireland.

“I felt my neck was on the block if I didn’t continue going to work,” he said.

His case was that after he first raised health and safety concerns, the news agency’s managing partner, Brian Kavanagh, wrote back stating: “If we do not provide court copy, we do not get paid. We are run on a co-operative basis, with receipts used to pay wages. We do not earn a profit, and without receipts, we obviously cannot pay wages.”

Mr Giblin said that with this response, the company had “acted to mislead me about its finances” by saying it was a “co-operative” and was “hinting at my dismissal”.

He said the agency had failed to provide face masks or other PPE, had no sick pay scheme, carried out no risk assessment, did not consult with him on health and safety, and that he felt he had to resign, as the company was taking a “business as usual” approach.

Mr Giblin said the Irish Independent “dropped down a box of face masks” to its reporter at the CCJ building and that another news agency based there, CCC Nuacht Teoranta, “shut down on 31 March [2020] and told reporters to stay home”.

“They always looked after their employees – unlike Ireland International,” he said.

“You said CCC Nuacht had stopped. That’s not true; CCC sent an email saying coverage was ‘temporarily curtailed’ [but] they maintained a reporter to cover a rape trial,” Mr Kavanagh told the hearing.

“The bulk of courts stopped sitting, the district court, the circuit court stopped sitting. I think those trials that were going wound down,” Mr Giblin said, adding that the Court of Appeal stopped sitting physically on March 16 but that he was still asked to cover vacation sittings.

“I felt I was being forced to work in an unsafe working environment by people who didn’t care about my safety,” he said. “If I put a foot wrong or I didn’t follow their orders, go along with it, I’d be gone,” he said.

His case was that he resigned “reluctantly but with cause” on April 17, 2020, went back to work at the CCJ shortly afterwards, working as a freelancer.

The company’s solicitor, Valerie Morrison of Peninsula Business Services, submitted that Mr Giblin had left on paid leave for 17 days prior to resigning and had been due to return on April 20.

“I put it to you your actions speak way louder than your words in that it was unsafe working for your employer, but [you] attended personally,” Ms Morrison said.

“I don’t accept that at all because I could pop into a particular case and pop out. For them I’d be expected to sit through an entire list,” Mr Giblin said.

Ms Morrison put it to him that the firm had offered to reimburse him for masks and PPE.

“I don’t accept that was sufficient. In fact it was insulting,” Mr Giblin said.

The tribunal heard that after accepting Mr Giblin’s letter of resignation on April 17, the company wrote to news organisations referring to an “unsolicited email from Ruaidhri Giblin concerning coverage of the Court of Appeal” and stating that the complainant had resigned.

“This was them acting to destroy my career as a journalist. A reasonable employer would not have sent that,” Mr Giblin said.

Mr Giblin’s solicitor, Shay Fleming, said this had been a “knee-jerk reaction” on the part of Mr Kavanagh.

“It certainly illustrates the mindset. It illustrates either the intentional behaviour or the reckless behaviour of the employer in how the employer was dealing with the situation,” Mr Fleming said.

Mr Kavanagh said: “We had to inform our clients we would have something in place. I think we’re perfectly entitled to do that.”

He added that he believed newsdesk editors would “see ‘Ruaidhrí Giblin’” on copy and say to themselves “Ruaidhrí works for IINA”, Mr Kavanagh said. “If they wanted to use it, fine, but Ruaidhrí would invoice them. It’s the reality of how that industry works,” he said.

Mr Kavanagh said he “felt he was a competent person to fill out a site assessment” but accepted under cross-examination from Mr Fleming, that he was “not a biological agents hazard person” or a “formally-trained health and safety officer”.

“We were operating in a vacuum. We thought it prudent to cover [the courts] to prove to newsdesks, look, we’re making an effort to ensure continuity of coverage,” Mr Kavanagh said.

“Well, they’re getting paid regardless,” Mr Giblin said.

Mr Fleming said deficiencies in the company’s safety documentation amounted to a “fundamental” breach of his client’s contract of employment and that this was compounded by “unreasonable behaviour” in response to Mr Giblin having raised concerns.

“The respondent didn’t take Mr Giblin’s safety seriously so was in breach of contract,” Mr Fleming said, adding later that there were “very serious breaches of statutory duties on the respondent side”.

Ms Morrisson, for the respondent, argued that there had been a “good working relationship” between Mr Giblin and the company up to two weeks prior to his resignation.

She said the complainant had given notice “prematurely in our view...without fully engaging with our client”, adding that Mr Giblin had made no reference to health and safety in his letter of resignation.

Mr Giblin told the tribunal: “I haven’t earned a penny as a freelance journalist since January 2021”.

He said he was “struggling well before” claiming the Pandemic Unemployment Payment “thanks to the whispering campaign and the emails” and confirmed to the adjudicator that he was seeking compensation in preference to reinstatement or re-engagement, the other remedies open to him under the Unfair Dismissals Act.

Opening the public hearing, the adjudicating officer, Michael McEntee, noted formal applications by the complainant side for confidentiality in the matter and for a direction that the Ireland International News Agency’s WRC correspondent not report on the matter.

The applications were renewed by the complainant side in the evening, but Mr McEntee said he was not going to exclude the press from the hearing or make a direction to the media.

“This is judicial review material. I’ve going to have to take instructions on this,” Mr Fleming said.

Mr McEntee said he could not direct the IINA employee not to report on proceedings.

“His employer could ensure that the matter is not reported on as a matter of good faith,” Mr Fleming said.

Mr Kavanagh said he would not instruct an employee “not to go cover a case involving IINA”, calling it “extraordinary” and “preposterous”.

Mr McEntee then closed the hearing, stating that he would take legal advice from the WRC’s in-house counsel.

Note: Coverage of the Workplace Relations Commission for the Irish Independent is provided by Ireland International News Agency Ltd.