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Eilis O'Hanlon: Vincent Browne's soft-focus interview was a complete waste

UNLIKE in fiction, real-life murder stories rarely have neat endings, which is why the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier still resonates so powerfully.



It was two days before Christmas 1996 that the 39-year-old French film-maker was beaten to death at her holiday home in west Cork. In the following months, English-born journalist Ian Bailey would be arrested twice on suspicion of the murder, but was never charged after a 2,000-page report submitted by gardai to the Director of Public Prosecutions was deemed to contain insufficient evidence for a successful prosecution.

Bailey subsequently took a number of libel actions against Irish newspapers, which he claimed had implied that he was guilty of the Frenchwoman's death. Five out of seven of the actions failed.

French authorities, meanwhile, had opened their own investigation into Sophie Toscan du Plantier's death, in relation to which they sought the extradition of Bailey under a European Arrest Warrant. Bailey appealed the High Court ruling that he should be extradited and last week the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, meaning he does not have to go to France to answer questions.

However, the French investigation continues. Next week, they intend to apply to the District Court for access to Bailey's previously publicised private diaries, which were seized by the gardai in the late 1990s and returned to their author three years ago following legal action.

Bailey may even be tried in absentia, if legal opinion in France considers that he has a case to answer. The Englishman himself has a case under way against An Garda Siochana for wrongful arrest and assault.

Last week, it was also confirmed that the Garda Ombudsman Commission has begun investigating a complaint from Bailey that the investigation into him was prejudiced, which could prove lengthy.

Nearly two decades on, the shockwaves still echo.

All of which made the valedictory feel of Ian Bailey's interview with Vincent Browne on the veteran journalist's eponymous Tonight programme last week all the stranger. Within the first few minutes, Browne twice suggested that this was somehow the end, firstly asking his guest about the relief he must feel after 15 years of fighting to affirm his innocence and, secondly, inquiring: "Is it over for you now?"

Throughout, Bailey clearly stressed that there were "others matters which will have to be dealt with", only this "bit" of the process, dealing with the threat posed by a European arrest warrant, was done.

Getting an interview with Bailey was definitely a coup for TV3 and it's understandable that Tonight With Vincent Browne would wish to present it as if it was the full stop at the end of a sentence, rather than a semi-colon. But this is too long and complex a story to be reduced to the status of a personality-driven interview with Ian Bailey.

Documents have emerged showing that the DPP rejected the garda case on a detailed evidential basis and was shocked by errors in the gardai's handling of the case, errors which, the documents say, undermined the rule of law on which the State was based. But those documents did not form the basis for the Supreme Court's rejection of the French request for extradition.

The reason for refusing the request was that France had still not filed formal charges against Bailey, as required under Irish law; as Bailey's defence team said, there was no basis in law for dispatching him overseas to what was little more than a "talking shop in Paris". On that, the five appeal judges agreed unanimously.

The other basis for not enforcing the warrant, as agreed by four of the five, was that the offence occurred outside France and a French court would not extradite a non-Irish citizen to Ireland in the same circumstances. Bailey's solicitor -- Frank Buttimer, who also represented Wayne O'Donoghue -- pointed out that the arrest warrant remains in existence. His client might still be arrested if he travelled to another jurisdiction.

Browne also claimed that a key prosecution witness, who later retracted her eyewitness testimony against Bailey, had been "blackmailed by the gardai". "Blackmail" is a strong word to use when no action has been taken against the officers allegedly involved and Browne would be first to rail against sensationalist journalism if similar words were tossed around in other circumstances.

His lighthearted banter with Bailey over the Englishman's future plans was rather peculiar too, as he described hearing how his guest was planning to "do a PhD (in law) -- as though you didn't have enough punishment".

Those who reported on the aftermath of the freeing of Amanda Knox in Perugia were scrupulous about saying nothing which might seem as if they were treating the story lightly, since it involved the brutal murder of a young woman in the prime of her life.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier deserved to be treated with the same sensitivity as Meredith Kercher. More, in fact. Kercher's killer, Rudy Geude, is in prison, but there is still "a devil somewhere in the hills of southern Ireland", as Toscan du Plantier's late husband put it. Someone committed the crime. In the absence of a final answer, jokey banter on the national airwaves is inappropriate.

What a wasted opportunity. Browne had Ian Bailey sitting before him and typically went for the trainspotterish legalistic angle, rather than taking the chance to rummage around inside the skull of this intriguing and complex man. He didn't even ask about the savage beatings which Bailey delivered to his partner, Welsh artist Jules Thomas, on three occasions, severing her lip from her gum and pulling hair from her head. Nor were his private diaries mentioned, though they were published openly in the Irish press, revealing a disturbing dark side to Bailey's imagination as he indulged in lurid sexual fantasies, admitting, "I am totally obsessed with sex" and detailed the damage he had inflicted on his partner during an episode of "whiskey induced madness". "I actually tried to kill her," he wrote of Ms Thomas, and "made (her) feel that death was near".

The diaries prove nothing, but do go some way to explaining why he found himself under suspicion. Newspapers would not have been doing their job if they had ignored Bailey's own words when writing about what sort of man he was.

Bailey clearly remains perturbed by his treatment at the hands of the media, but the only accusation by him of libel which has ever been upheld was the claim in the Sun and the Mirror that he had also beaten his first wife. That was not true, so the judge in the libel action ordered the newspapers involved to pay damages of €4,000 each.

The principal accusations which upset Bailey so much -- that he was a violent man, and the self-confessed prime suspect for the murder -- were both found to be fair comment at the time and they still are. He was a violent man and he was the self-confessed prime suspect; he said as much to a number of witnesses on a number of occasions.

"Your life must have been pretty miserable," was all that Browne had to say to him about this entire terrible episode. Here's hoping he doesn't get the exclusive interview with Amanda Knox. He'd probably spend the whole time quoting relevant sub-clauses of Italian law, when it's human stories, personal tragedies, which are all that really matter, Sophie's and Ian Bailey's alike.

Sunday Independent