Sunday 17 November 2019

Permission to be boring, sir? Why making headlines was a mistake

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan at the Dail's Public Accounts Committee
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan at the Dail's Public Accounts Committee

Terry Prone

The 30-year-old tapes may have nothing to do with the Garda Commissioner's resignation. Coincidence isn't the same as cause. But the one certainty is this. What, at first light yesterday morning, looked like a brutally simple quit notice, will forever be entwined in the public mind with the discovery that the country is dotted with what amounts to an unprecedented archive of sensitive material.

It was the final irony in a career destruction that didn't have to happen.

Just as a guest appearance on Joe Duffy's radio show is an invitation to do open grave broadcasting, so a request to appear before the Public Accounts Committee has a ring of the Grim Reaper about it. But the fact is that the PAC wouldn't have been able to lay a glove on the former Garda Commissioner if he had played precisely within the rules. The PAC job may be high profile, but it's narrow. They can look only at how state money gets spent. Mr Callinan didn't need to fall on the whistleblower sword.

What he could have done was sit down in the PAC room and addressed the first of the 47 recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General related to the gardai. Starting with number one and explaining in detail the process by which each and every one of them was going to be implemented. By the time he got to number four, everybody present would have wanted to throw themselves out of the PAC room windows.

Openness and transparency require that any public servant appearing in front of a Dail committee has to be full, frank and clear in their answers to relevant questions.

They don't require him or her to be sensational. Or entertaining. Nor do they require any witness to deliver the headlines for the following day's newspapers.

The task is as narrow as the committee's mandate. Answer the questions it is legitimate for the committee to ask, using data and no more, and you'll go home in one piece.

If someone asks something outside of the committee's remit, you don't have to answer it. Simple. In the case of former Commissioner Callinan, he was required to answer any question about money lost through misapplication of penalty points. His safety lay in unemotive language. Fewer adjectives, more facts.

He was not obliged to answer questions about his attitude to individual gardai. Yet he chose to do it. Worse, he did it in an interesting and pejorative way nobody would forget in a hurry.

Ministers regularly go into the PAC and deliver data in so uninteresting a manner that members of the committee begin to pray for death. In the last few weeks, one minister did it so effectively that participants came out afterwards and complained about how boring the session had been. Nobody complained about how boring Martin Callinan was when he described the whistleblowers' actions as "disgusting". But you know what? The boring minister still has his job. Mr Callinan does not.

That's the first mistake made by many people who go before the PAC and other Oireachtas committees. They mix up giving evidence with appearing on radio or TV, where you have to be exciting and memorable, and where everybody loves you if you deliver the headline.

But it wasn't just approaching PAC from the wrong angle that ended Mr Callinan's career. He may not have understood, for example, that the minute the title "whistleblower" gets publicly put on someone, they acquire a new role in society and a new status to match.

They are newly impregnable. They develop a sort of double-whammy credibility; if someone impugns their assumed virtue, the accuser will be disbelieved, but even if it is provable that the whistleblower has the odd flaw, it doesn't matter. What matters are the accusations and the stories they generate.

In any organisation containing a whistleblower, that infuriates other staff. In an organisation with a quasi-military structure and culture, like An Garda Siochana, it activates a desire to strike back, to mark out the whistleblower as a malignant outsider trying to bring down the team. That was undoubtedly what lay behind Mr Callinan's use of the word "disgusting" and refusal to take it back. A man who has spent a lifetime in the force, who is so wedded to it that he instinctively calls it "my force" will tend to think first of his internal "public", the men and women in blue, rather than the general public. But you're in peril when you use mass media to reach a relatively small audience better communicated with face-to-face.

Irish Independent

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