Wednesday 23 January 2019

Comment: Disappearance of Tina Satchwell shouldn't be turned into a game

Chat shows are not the appropriate place to investigate potentially tragic missing persons cases, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Richard Satchwell, Tina’s husband, pictured at Youghal Harbour
Richard Satchwell, Tina’s husband, pictured at Youghal Harbour

Eilis O'Hanlon

Speaking to TV3 last summer, Richard Satchwell claimed that the media was "beginning to mislead, and, to some degree, even fabricate stories" around the still unsolved disappearance of his wife, Tina, from their home in Co Cork a few months earlier. As a result, he told Paul Byrne of 3News, he would not be giving any more interviews.

That pledge has fallen apart in the last few weeks as gardai searched Mitchell Woods near Castlemartyr on foot of information from the public. That operation ended on Friday. Tina was not found, though some items were removed for examination.

As the search continued, Richard Satchwell was once again all over the media. He's given interviews to Cork's Red FM, and to RTE One's Ray D'Arcy Show. He also appeared on Prime Time, and his face has become an almost ubiquitous presence on TV3, including Ireland AM.

The husband of Tina Satchwell, who was reported missing almost a year ago to the day, has faced criticism for, it's said, being an attention seeker, but, asked by D'Arcy last weekend what he hoped to achieve by putting himself out there, Satchwell made it clear that he has not sought this high public profile so much as had it thrust upon him.

It was RTE who'd approached him on a number of occasions, he revealed, while his much-publicised visit to Mitchell Woods as the search for his wife continued was not his idea either. "I was asked by Paul Byrne, who's been very good to me through it, if I'd go down and just visit it, because it's a place I've never been, and he thought it might help in some way." (He felt it hadn't).

Richard Satchwell could have refused any or all of these requests, but it's hard not to feel a certain unease at the media's role in his elevation to celebrity. Is it really appropriate for a man whose wife has disappeared to be a guest on a Saturday night chat show, not least when he himself admitted that the gardai at one point regarded him as a suspect. He insists that he is "innocent of any wrongdoing", and innocent people are entitled to appear in the media as often as they like, but should the media be encouraging him to do so?

The interviews themselves are not the problem. Satchwell couldn't speak more highly of Paul Byrne. Barry Cummins's reports for Prime Time have been reassuringly sensation-free. Ray D'Arcy handled his exchange with the Englishman with highly effective sympathy. Neil Prendeville is a fine broadcaster, and asked probing, insightful questions. The question is whether they ought to be doing it at all.

The media is instructed by law not to indulge in comment or conjecture during trials, to avoid the very real possibility that proceedings might collapse. Shouldn't the same responsibility pertain in ongoing investigations? Instead, people are effectively being encouraged to speculate about what might have happened to Tina since she was last seen, and who might be responsible if harm has indeed come to her, as if they were amateur detectives, cracking the case from the comfort of their armchairs. Insinuation is rife.

The media is not directly to blame for some of the more irresponsible commentary which has taken place on social media, where few of the normal rules of evidence, fair comment, or reasonable doubt, ever seem to apply.

But knowing that it's impossible to control reaction to a story once it's out there, isn't it all the more important to tread carefully? The troll-baiting of Richard Satchwell has become a gruesome sport, and is invariably accompanied by lurid inferences being drawn from his body language or choice of words. There have been too many cases where the finger of suspicion has been pointed at people who turned out to be entirely innocent.

Just because he could stop, as Neil Prendeville put it to him, "keep putting your hand in the fire" does not absolve the media of responsibility for starting the fire and then asking a troubled man to thrust his fingers into the flames, by, for example, goading him into taking a lie detector test.

Indeed, it's surprising that the Garda has not been firmer in warning against these freelance Nancy Drew acts.

Richard Satchwell seems to be something of an isolated individual. He now lives alone, apart from his pets, and is suffering from depression.

If something was to happen to him, the media would have to partly shoulder the blame for adding to the pressure on him; and they're only doing so not because it might bring forward new witnesses, or add anything to the case, but for sheer divertissement.

Either Tina Satchwell is dead, or she is alive. Either Richard Satchwell had something to do with her disappearance, or he did not. None of these scenarios is an appropriate matter for light entertainment. This isn't CSI Miami. It's not some lark.

One year on from Tina Satchwell's disappearance, every effort should be directed towards solving that mystery. Instead it seems that the sensationalist media circus has become an end in itself.

It can only be hoped that the investigation is not being fatally hampered as a result.

Sunday Independent

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