Sunday 26 January 2020

The well-rehearsed apology fell a little too easily from her lips

Michaella McCollum during the RTÉ interview
Michaella McCollum during the RTÉ interview
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

The first frame opened with the golden sun setting on the ramshackle streets of Lima.

It all looked far too cosy to be anything other than a soft-soap interview.

This was to be an exclusive broadcast by RTÉ in the days following the dramatic release of Michaella McCollum.

The national broadcaster had torn up their schedule to accommodate their 'scoop,' pushing everything else aside for the 35-minute interview, produced by Trevor Birney of Fine Point Films, an independent production company "with an international outlook" which focuses on the development of "high-end, international feature documentaries".

The production, snapped up by RTÉ, was eagerly awaited by an Irish audience, 550,000 of whom tuned in to catch their first glimpse of the young convicted drug mule from Co Tyrone.

The last time we had witnessed McCollum on screen, it was on the video shot by customs officers at Lima airport shortly after her arrest alongside Scottish woman and fellow smuggler Melissa Reid.

The women had 11kg of cocaine, valued at €1.7m, wrapped up in food packages of jelly and an almond-flavoured drink mix stashed in their luggage.

On camera back then, the girls were offered a chance to talk to reporters but declined, saying it had not been their choice to speak to the media.

Two years and three months later, it seemed upon release Michaella had not changed her mind about the idea of reporters asking awkward questions about her criminal activities.

And yet it was clear she - or someone around her - was savvy enough to know that unless she said something, she would be pursued for a comment.

The decision was taken to carefully stage manage this event.

A relationship of trust had been developed between McCollum and Birney, that much was clear from the relaxed and open body language of both as they appeared on screen in the rather luxe looking accommodation in Lima.

Her new immaculately-groomed blonde image was, perhaps, no surprise given that McCollum had spent every moment she could of her incarceration working in the in-house salon of the Ancos Dos maximum security prison in Peru, where she trained as a hairdresser and picked up fluent Spanish.

That it was also a distraction for viewers may have been a conveniently clever ploy.

Her persona on screen was the wide-eyed remorseful ingénue which at times did appear genuine when she spoke of the pain caused to her family.

But at other moments, it just looked far too forced from a woman who had just spent a significant portion of her adult life to date, behind bars.

Frustratingly, Birney kept the tone folksy throughout - with much emphasis on McCollum's family.

With both hailing from Northern Ireland, it was perhaps easy to slip into a 'local' gear.

However there was possibly more to it than that. A former inmate from the jail had told media that she would advise McCollum - still only 'semi-liberdade' given her state of parole - to tread carefully in interviews and not to talk about corruption within the system.

No doubt the Dungannon woman had been strictly instructed by her lawyers on this front.

Nevertheless, there were points during the interview when Birney could have pursued a line of deeper probing.

"What would you say to yourself then?" was all he asked after McCollum elaborated on how she had been targeted in a nightclub and persuaded to smuggle drugs.

Almost the hardest line of the whole thing was when Birney told her that while many people had sympathy for McCollum because she was "so young", there were also those "who will say they have very little sympathy and that you knew what you were doing and got involved in."

"What do you say to those people?" he asked.

"Well in life everyone makes mistakes," McCollum immediately replied.

"It doesn't mean they're a bad person - it means they're human."

The words fell too easily from her lips. There was no remorse, no emotion.

McCollum was almost academic in her detached interest about how her crime could have impacted on society.

"Obviously in the time here I thought if the drugs had got back, what would've happened.

"I probably would've had a lot of blood on my hands," she said, wide-eyed.

Her legal firm KRW Law issued a statement saying McCollum had made her apology "clearly and unequivocally".

Clearly, yes but genuinely - rather less so. McCollum's real story remains untold.

Irish Independent

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