The cases of Barry Cowen and Roderic O’Gorman show how grown-up media is hampered, writes Fionnán Sheahan
It was unquestionably a rough week for Barry Cowen. The Agriculture Minister found himself under an "intense spotlight ... and on the shame, more importantly the shame, of drink-driving". Still, it could have been worse for him politically. He's being driven around as a Cabinet minister this weekend. The allegations about his drink-driving ban, provisional licence and speeding were being pursued weeks earlier before the new Cabinet was appointed. The chilling effect of our defamation laws meant it was exceptionally difficult to verify the story.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin did his best Claude Rains impression when hearing of Cowen's woes. Like Captain Renault in 'Casablanca' who was "shocked, shocked" to find gambling in Rick's Café as a croupier handed him his winnings, Martin says he first became aware of Cowen's drink-driving ban last Friday afternoon when contacted by this newspaper.
"I am disappointed that I learned about it in this way and have made that clear to him," the Taoiseach said.
After a week of internal rancour about ministerial appointments, by all accounts, the Taoiseach was taken by surprise by the revelation.
The dogs on the streets supposedly knew about Cowen's drink-driving disqualification. His supporters in Offaly admit it was on the grapevine.
"I heard a rumour at the time but I thought that's all it was, a rumour," Fianna Fáil councillor Eamon Dooley told the 'Offaly Express'.
Several attempts were made by this newspaper - and others - over recent years to prove it, but to no avail. The rumour first popped up on the radar sometime in the late part of 2017 and early 2018 and again in the latter part of 2019 and into the general election campaign. Serious allegations about politicians during an election campaign are frequent and rarely stack up. A legitimate question has been asked this week about why a case from four years ago only emerged now?
The straightforward answer is because Cowen didn't declare it and it was difficult to prove. The unique circumstances of Cowen's case was a factor. The rumour was he was banned off the road. Therefore, the assumption was he was prosecuted in court. He wasn't. The reason Cowen was banned, rather than just issued with penalty points, was because he was on a Learner permit. The side story about his provisional licence was unusual and served as a quirky obstacle to getting at the truth.
There was a rake of time spent in June on a wild goose chase through searches of court listings and newspaper archives from Offaly, Meath, Kildare, Laois and Westmeath looking for a phantom court case. Moreover, you can't just go around accusing public figures of breaking the law without the full proof. The draconian defamation laws in Ireland are arguably the most stringent in Europe. You need belt, braces, shoelaces. The lot.
There is a public interest in bringing a Cabinet minister's drink-driving ban into the public domain. However, that's no guarantee a jury will agree with you if you end up in court.
Defamation cases are often settled by media organisations - even if they have a good defence - who find themselves in a commercial situation where defending the case overwhelmingly outweighs the costs of standing by their own journalism.
Indeed, legal concerns meant this story needed additional checks. Get any detail wrong and you get sued. Simple as that. Hence the story took the month of June and into July to get across the line with certainty. Gossip and the grapevine are not much use when a legal letter arrives.
Politicians don't have a good record of putting their hands up and confessing all. Former Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey was less than co-operative when first contacted about her infamous swing-gate compensation claim. When votegate happened, Fianna Fáil's Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley first claimed ignorance and said they didn't know about it.
The drink-driving ban was a Government issue. Therefore, the Taoiseach was contacted instead of the minister.
A week later, there are still many outstanding questions about Cowen's driving record.
This week, the Taoiseach spoke about the vital role the media played during the Covid-19 crisis.
"I would like us all to note that in a free democracy such as ours, the independent media is the principal channel of communication with the public during a major emergency such as this. I want to acknowledge the commitment of journalists to covering this crisis in often stressful circumstances and also for asking the tough questions essential to challenging us to be more effective," he said in the Dáil on Tuesday.
The independent media is important in a free democracy so, says the Taoiseach. His party seems to have a different view. On Monday, when this newspaper reported that Cowen would be making a Dáil statement, a party activist from Offaly called this newspaper's coverage "gutter journalism".
This view was endorsed by Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O'Loughlin.
On Tuesday, when Cowen's speeding on a learner permit being up in court three months before his drink-driving ban, Fianna Fáil TD Padraig O'Sullivan said he didn't think "it warrants another front page". Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers concurred about it not being front page news, yet admits "fair questions" are still being posed by road safety campaigners about how exactly Cowen was on a provisional licence all those years. Those same road safety campaigners also want to know if he picked up points for speeding as a learner driver - and, if so, how many? Also, when exactly he "regularised" his licence? No answers are forthcoming from Cowen to the "independent media".
Fianna Fáil general election candidate Caitriona McClean wanted RTÉ to "explain the focus" on the Cowen story.
The pièce de résistance came from the self-proclaimed "former Fianna Fáil local election candidate" Robert Kellaghan, a Cowen supporter from Offaly, who colloquially labelled yours truly "some f*****g prick".
What a charmer.
Fianna Fáil wants an "independent media", just not covering their misdeameanours.
Nobody doubts Barry Cowen's remorse about his drink-driving is sincere, but the incident wouldn't be known, even by his own party leader, the Taoiseach, if it wasn't for an independent media, which operates constantly with one hand tied behind its back due to defamation laws. Meanwhile, over in the Wild West, the social media giants operate under no rules at all. In an unprecedented move, a Cabinet minister had to deny ridiculous allegations made about him this week. Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman was targeted for almost 10 days by trolls over a photograph of him marching alongside British LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell at Dublin's Pride march two years ago. Tatchell was criticised for a 1997 letter to 'The Guardian' newspaper about sex between adults and children. He says he was misquoted and has sought to clarify his remarks. O'Gorman wasn't aware of the views and wasn't supporting them by being photographed with Tatchell. O'Gorman stood firm and hit back at the attempts to link him to views, which seem to condone paedophilia.
"The accusations are rooted in homophobia, stoked by anonymous, far-right Twitter accounts," he said in a well-crafted statement.
The Green Party minister tried to ignore the hurtful comments but had to respond as supporters of his were defending him, which was inadvertently amplifying the allegations.
Welcome to the new normal.
The playing pitch is not level here. Social media and online posting sites are given carte blanche, while traditional news publishers are punished for any error.
The fawning over the tech sector by senior government figures is comparable to the relationship with the Catholic Church in decades gone by. Executives have direct access to the top of government and can ring the leaders directly and their calls will be taken.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin pays lip service to the importance of independent journalism for society, while he lets his own minister dodge questions.
The Government claims it is going to reform the defamation laws and tackle the social media trolling.
Don't hold your breath.
But on the latter, they are now seeing the social media monster is out of control.
Despite delivering a personal statement to the Dáil, Barry Cowen left many questions unanswered.