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Explainer: How does a garda media blackout work in the age of social media?

Gardaí requested a media blackout during the Blanchardstown siege on Tuesday night but social media companies did not comply.

Image: Niall Carson

A SIEGE IN Blanchardstown last night highlighted how media blackout requests from gardaí can be fraught with difficulties in an age of social media.

Sieges and “barricaded individual” incidents are complex of policing operations with dozens of specialist gardaí involved, as witnessed in Dublin 15 on Tuesday. 

The successful resolution of that shooting and siege showed the importance of a negotiator and how they can turn a potential murderous situation into a calm surrendering to gardaí.

Among the many procedures used by gardaí in such situations is the media blackout and that was a major component of their response in Blanchardstown.

Sources have said there are other standard operating procedures adopted by gardaí when they arrive at the scene as well.

These include the manner in which they secure the scene, rescue those in danger and then establish contact with the barricaded person.

The origins of Ireland’s use of media blackouts comes from the tragic Abbeylara siege, 21 years ago, during which John Carthy was shot dead by members of the Emergency Response Unit.

Carthy was a mental health patient and had been treated for bipolar affective disorder. On 19 April 2000, he armed himself with a shotgun. When gardaí, -who had been contacted by family – arrived at the house Carthy fired at them.

That began a two-day siege, which at its end Carthy was shot dead by members of the ERU as he exited the house.

A number of enquiries, including one by the US FBI, were undertaken. A tribunal, under the stewardship of Mr Justice Robert Barr, followed. It examined the handling of the incident and its findings completely modernised the ERU and how gardaí respond to barricaded individuals.

One key part of that case was the involvement of broadcast media.

There were significant concerns raised about the releasing of personal details by news crews at the scene and the broadcasting of specific details about John Carthy.

Arising from those findings, the gardaí developed an agreement with the media where by a media blackout request would be issued by the Garda Press Office if similar incidents arose.

At Tuesday night’s incident the media blackout request was issued at 7.52pm – and lifted at 10.10pm.

Journalists were fully aware of the incident with reporters, including Garreth MacNamee from The Journal, rushing to the scene to report on the events.

National news organisations, print, online and broadcast all complied with the request but ordinary people posted videos and photographs of injured gardaí across Tik Tok, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

The messaging service WhatsApp was also used to circulate information and images which detailed speculation about what was happening. There were images of the secretive ERU, including that of snipers. There were pictures of distressed relatives, videos of gardaí seeking shelter behind the engine blocks of their cars – there were even images of the resolution of the siege as the shirtless man emerged from his house, arms raised in the air.

To understand the dynamics of this situation from the garda perspective, The Journal spoke to the lead officer in the National Negotiation Unit attached to Special Tactics and Operations Command with in An Garda Síochána.

That officer, who has asked we not identify him due to the sensitivity of his work, spoke at length about the process of bringing a siege to a successful conclusion.

The garda negotiator said that the national team is trained in the UK by New Scotland Yard and at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.

There are approximately 60 trained officers around the country and they handle upwards of 100 incidents every year.    

The officer said that the use of media blackouts is “a consistent approach of best practice” to such incidents. Their aim when beginning dialogue with a barricaded individual is to ease tensions and slow down the events so they can be controlled.

He said that all their operations are guided by the preservation of life under Article Two under the European Convention on Human Rights. He believes that all identified risks must fall within the guidance of this international law.

“The reason for a media blackout is in case the person inside the building is watching the news or listening to the radio and there is a possibility that the news reports could heighten the tension and the tempo and aggravate the person or make the incident more prolonged.

What has been determined is that news reports can aggravate the person inside and anger them when they have been on the national or local media.

“We ask the media, who have been very co-operative with us, and any time we ask them to do a blackout, they do it and we are very appreciative of that,” he said.

The officer said that the policing and media environment in Ireland is very different from the open source, disclose everything culture of the US.

“We’re not like America here, where you’ve got this continuous coverage of helicopters hovering overhead, following incidents as they unfold in real time, we’re not at that level.

“So we’re very appreciative of the media and how they work with us. But we cannot control social media – that is what people put up on WhatsApp groups and people put up on Twitter,” he added.

The officer would not be drawn on whether this needs to be addressed by the State in conjunction with social media companies.

Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys spoke about the issue during an interview with reporters earlier today – she said that it is something that will be examined.

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“Thank you to the media for the blackout that was respected, it is very helpful in situations like this to the gardaí,” she said. 

“I have to say we have had very good conversations with social media companies, through the cyber-attack.

“I spoke with the Commissioner (Drew Harris) this morning and this is something I will raise with them. If there is a need for changes or something we can improve on it is something that we are happy to bring forward,” she added. 

In 2019, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate carried out a study which included media communications from gardaí at the scene of barricaded individual incidents.

The report did not address the use of a media blackouts but advised responsible reporting and a constant flow of information to media organisations.

In a chapter focused on media, it recommends: “A Garda spokesperson should continue to be assigned to deliver news releases and respond to media questions during these conferences. A spokesperson should also continue to be available to reply to media queries between conferences. The on-scene commander should approve all news releases but, given the onerous demands of the post, the on-scene commander should never be made available to the media during an incident.”

Blanchardstown

The two detectives shot during the siege incident in Blanchardstown are expected to make a full recovery. 

The two men in their 30s suffered gunshot injuries when they arrived on scene and the barricaded man opened fire on them.  

One suffered gunshot injuries to his hand and foot; the other injuries to his foot. 

Both were removed to Connolly Hospital where they are being treated for their injuries. One has undergone surgery for his foot injury.

It’s understood that the man involved in the siege is a known gangland criminal, who has been involved in a years-long feud with another local drug dealer.

Sources have described how the man was in a “distressed state” during the two-hour ordeal. He is to receive medical attention whilst in custody.

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