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'There's a risk we'll remember this whole episode as a case of two bad, and one good cop'

Our politicians and government, as well as the media, should be prepared to be far more self-critical and embrace change, writes John Devitt.

John Devitt

MR JUSTICE CHARLETON did a fine job in telling the story of how the life of a ‘public-spirited, decent and kind individual’ was nearly destroyed by a ‘campaign of calumny’ by senior Garda officers in 2014.

But his report on the smear campaign against Sergeant Maurice McCabe did not say much about how government, with the acquiescence of some sections of the media, played their part in protracting the penalty points controversy and prolonging the suffering of the whistleblowers who exposed systemic abuse in An Garda Síochána. 

The history books will likely only remember that the former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan and the former head of the Garda press office, Superintendent David Taylor, used false allegations of child sex abuse against McCabe to discredit him before he got to testify before the PAC in January 2014.

However, in pinning the blame for a smear campaign on just two men, there is a risk that the whole episode will be remembered as a case of two bad, and one good cop. 

The reality, as so often is the case, is a little more complicated. 

In 2012, Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former Garda John Wilson reported that senior officers were routinely falsifying Garda traffic records stored on its PULSE database to cancel fixed-charge notices awarded against motorists.

The financial cost of the abuse is difficult to calculate, but it was clear that the cancellation of fines and penalty points for dangerous driving and other road traffic offences posed a serious risk to public safety. 

Not long after McCabe and Wilson’s identities were made public, they came under the kind of intense political pressure that would test the health and sanity of most people.

Gossip spread among journalists and TDs that the men were part of an “awkward squad” and could not be trusted.

Minister Eoghan Murphy told the Tribunal that in the months preceding Callinan’s pathetic attempt to smear McCabe as a paedophile, word had already gone around Leinster House that McCabe and Wilson “were odd, that these were two odd individuals making claims”. 

The narrative of the two men as insubordinate cranks was furthered when they were falsely accused in October 2013 of failing to cooperate with the O’Mahoney internal investigation into their claims; of recklessly sharing sensitive data with the general public; and of exaggerating the scale of the corruption that was undermining road safety and the rule of law. 

That it took a Garda Inspectorate report in March 2014 that vindicated the whistleblowers to force the then-Minister for Justice to apologise for remarks he made some six months earlier, seem to have been long forgotten.

He and most of his colleagues never called on Commissioner Callinan to withdraw his claim that the whistleblowers’ actions were ‘disgusting’. According to McCabe, this statement alone served to isolate him from his colleagues and had made his position almost untenable in early 2014.

By that time, the pressure was too much for Wilson and he had already taken early retirement. Few ministers who served during that time, with the notable exception of Leo Varadkar, were brave enough to openly stand by the two men.   

The role of some in the media in helping downplay the allegations by McCabe and Wilson was also not covered by the Tribunal’s terms of reference.

Some crime correspondents seemed to be more concerned with the arrest of Clare Daly for alleged drink driving (she was cleared of any offence) in 2013, than they were with growing evidence of systemic problems across the force.

Government and Garda statements were sometimes reported on verbatim and without seeking a response to those statements from the whistleblowers. The findings of the O’Mahoney report, published in May 2013, also appeared to be taken at face value by some journalists and without any criticism or opportunity for rebuttal from alternative sources.

Likewise, an RTÉ bulletin reported on leaked extracts of the Garda Inspectorate report in March 2014 but did not highlight the vital role the Garda whistleblowers played in exposing the wrongdoing and offered the Minister of Justice an exclusive opportunity to comment on its findings.

This is not to suggest that there was any conspiracy involving the media and Garda management, but it should help explain how easy it was for a narrative to be woven that suggested that the whole controversy had been blown out of proportion by two attention-seeking contrarians.

It is also worth noting that there were few journalists – including RTÉ’s Katie Hannon and the Irish Examiner’s Mick Clifford – that seemed genuinely interested in covering the whistleblowers’ experience in speaking up or the attempts to silence them.

The fact that neither of them are crime correspondents is telling and it is a pity that the Tribunal’s terms of reference did not ask Mr Justice Charleton to inquire into how the relationship between the media and the Gardaí might have compromised reporting on the issue or created the conditions for a smear campaign to gain pace.

There is a lot that could be learned from other jurisdictions – not least the US and UK – that could inform a new approach to police-media relations and how media can deal with potential conflicts of interest in the future. 

Justice Charleton suggested An Garda Síochána ‘should be able to look at itself honestly and to identify its own faults’. Our politicians and government, as well as the media, should be prepared to be far more self-critical and embrace change too.

The fate of the next Maurice McCabe could rest on it.

John Devitt is chief executive of Transparency International Ireland. TI Ireland’s helpline provided advice and support to Maurice McCabe and John Wilson from 2012 to 2015. The helpline can be contacted by calling freephone 1800 844 866 from 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday or through www.speakup.ie.

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