Sunday 25 August 2019

I was exonerated - but we must act to halt the avalanche of lies and vilification

In the interest of justice, we must change how our legislature, media and public interact

PRIVILEGE: ‘The most egregious of unsupported defamation is walked into our national press wrapped in the cloak of Dail privilege’.
Photo: Frank Mc Grath
PRIVILEGE: ‘The most egregious of unsupported defamation is walked into our national press wrapped in the cloak of Dail privilege’. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Frances Fitzgerald

Those who have their reputations wrongly destroyed in the avalanche of public opprobrium normally have no recourse.

You can't sue everybody. You can't chase down every lie and correct it. Especially as each falsehood, each misapprehension is a seed guaranteed to find fertile ground, to grow, to blossom and disperse progeny before you even know it has landed.

The person whose life is destroyed in this way is expected to simply shrink away and sit in the wreckage of their career. If they are lucky, years will pass - and the capriciousness of the public mind may allow them to return in some form. If they are unlucky, they are simply done.

I was unusual in this paradigm - as I was the Minister for Justice who previously had the power to commission a Tribunal of Inquiry led by a Supreme Court judge. Without the tribunal, I would be that minister who resigned having conspired in a strategy to destroy a man's life - as I was so horribly and falsely accused of.

That lie would have hung around me forever, just as it would have hung around the former Garda Commissioner, Noirin O'Sullivan.

More than absolutely anyone, Sergeant Maurice McCabe knows how much destruction can land at an individual's door.

He is an honourable and good man, dedicated and committed to An Garda Siochana. As Mr Justice Charleton said, he is "a genuine person who at all times has had the interests of the people of Ireland uppermost in his mind."

This confirmation will not fix An Garda Siochana, nor will 'exonerating' me fix the political/media interplay - which now often functions in a destructive way for individuals and for our democracy. And no-one can really call out the problem. Those who have experienced it first-hand have, by definition, had their credibility so shredded that nobody will listen. Those who have not experienced it cannot begin to know what it is like when the hydra turns its sole focus on you. Therefore, given my vantage point, I want to describe what I see.

Our media operates under pressures of deadlines which never pertained before and which cannot but harm reflection and consideration.

Take the Disclosures Tribunal report itself as an example. It goes to the heart of a complex web of interactions between dozens of people across a number of years. It is also 200,000 words long. A good reader could get through it in about 16 hours! However, the first report about its contents emerged after only 15 minutes.

That's not reading. That's word-searching. It's cutting and pasting. The first major discursive analysis of the document was broadcast and published within five hours of publication. This is not a criticism of those who published and broadcast - they had no choice. It's act fast or be ignored.

This sacrificing of consideration for speed is not good. Yet it is only one part of what is wrong with the discourse.

Some of the problem lives within the Oireachtas. Getting voter support is a lot easier if they have heard of you - and if they have a vaguely positive sense of the work you are doing. Whether we like it or not, one of the main routes to achieve this is through media. And media likes controversy.

In my case, that meant when the avalanche began, my Opposition colleagues were presented with a vast array of opportunities for coverage, which they were not shy to exploit.

I was accused of standing by while Noirin O'Sullivan conspired with my Department "to destroy the life and reputation of Maurice McCabe". Untrue.

Another Opposition spokesperson was similarly eager to defend someone who had been falsely smeared by falsely smearing someone else. "We do not say the Tanaiste formulated the strategy. We do not say that she was part of the make-up of the strategy. But we say she was aware of that strategy, to use a phrase that was used elsewhere on the issues, the Tanaiste was privy to the strategy. The Tanaiste did nothing to stop it." Another great quote. Another untruth.

And yet another: "…the very malicious strategy designed by former Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan and her legal team to destroy the reputation and the life of Sgt Maurice McCabe. It seems to me that there was a conspiracy to ruin this honourable man and that members of An Garda Siochana and the Tanaiste's former department [the Department of Justice] were part of this conspiracy."

For generations, media has had to make ethical calls about whether or not to print unsubstantiated attacks. They have to balance the public interest in what senior elected officials are saying with the moral responsibility to trade in truth. Now they have to do it in minutes, not hours. Finding that balance is an age-old challenge. Politicians viciously attacking each other is not.

What is new - and deeply worrying - is politicians using the shelter of parliament to defame. Had someone done this outside the House, legal recourse would have been possible - and predictable. But inside the Dail, it is untouchable but printable.

The most egregious of unsupported defamation is walked into our national press wrapped in the cloak of Dail privilege. Defamation laundering is not what this privilege was designed for.

And all of this took place to a background hum of commentary and opinion on social and traditional media discussing 'the smear campaign' and 'the aggressive strategy'. Each mention further cementing the original untruth.

Questions were continually asked why I, as Minister, did not intervene. Every attempt to point out that there was not a shred of actual evidence for the accusation was rejected.

Our political discourse suffers from precisely the same infection as our economic discourse did in the peak of the boom - consensus without evidence. Everything in the system lends itself towards group-think and the suppression of counterpoint.

The weight of consensus is hard to countenance if you have not experienced it directly. When momentum builds around an issue, it is extraordinarily powerful. It's hours of Dail questions. It's hundreds of pages of newsprint, countless front pages. It's endless commentary. It's Parliamentary Questions, Leaders' Questions, broadcasting requests, reports, doorsteps and trending on Twitter.

Usually the avalanche halts when somebody resigns or is fired. When an issue gets hot, the discourse turns to firing. We give impassioned attention to something until the victim is chosen and dispatched. The Apprentice politics should be left to the United States.

I consider myself very lucky. Without the Disclosures Report, I would forever be daubed with believed complicity in events which never happened. But having seen how the system works, I believe we must do something to fix it.

Consensus is not truth. Rumour is not fact. Defamation is not heroism. Career destruction is not systemic reform.

We must change how our legislature, media and public interact.

Starting with our rules of parliamentary privilege. Politicians must have the scope to debate without fear. But with that scope comes responsibility. We already constrain certain terms and language - it's high time to censure those who wilfully use privilege to smear.

Next, we need a quick access route to deal with online lies. For too long, social media has operated as a wild-west of human discourse with each snowflake protected by the mass of the avalanche.

We have to make it practicable for the laws of decency to apply to bloggers and posters and the media companies which host them. International child exploitation and trafficking alone demands this.

Lastly, all media, and particularly publicly-funded media, must look into how they handle group-think.

Fairness and balance means more than having two opposing sides address a question.

Did an editorial voice say: "Wait, where is the foundation on which everyone has built this edifice? Are we all just enjoying the consensus of this avalanche of breaking 'news'?"

In essence, we all need to consider where we in Ireland want to end up. Trump has taught us that it is now possible for a politician to shift dangerously the relationship with voters. He no longer engages with balanced media. He eschews sit-down interviews and press briefings in favour of pieces with conservative cable TV, rallies and 280 characters. It is a disaster for the American political dialogue. Populations are best served by a political system held to account by a well-briefed expert media who are sceptical, not cynical; and inquisitive, not inquisitorial.

There is an unfinished democracy in Ireland in relation to gender. Young politicians - female and male - coming into the Irish system must have confidence in a political system which allows them to be seen for what they are. A system that allows for truth, for ideals and for the good of our citizens.

"The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche." - Jon Ronson

Frances Fitzgerald is the Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid-West and was Minister for Justice until June 2017 and Tanaiste until November 2017

Sunday Independent

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