Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Media (page 1 of 3)

A Point that Really Shouldn’t Need to be Made

Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.

“Um no, not recently.”

I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.

But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.

“Hell yes!”

So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.

After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?

The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.

Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.

But he is known for his strong female characters.

Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.

Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.

That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.

That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.

The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.

It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.

It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.

When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.

I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.

We Need to Talk

Any regular readers of this blog might have notice there’s not been much to read lately. It’s been well over a year since I’ve blogged a trial and I’ve not really been writing much about general court matters either. I think the time has come to actually set down why this has been the case and why I’m not likely to be writing on either of those subjects any time soon.

I started this blog nearly five years ago, about three months or so before my first book came out. I started writing about the trials I was covering in the day job, since the book had come directly out of that work it seemed the natural thing to do. By the time the Lillis trial came up in 2010 things seemed to hit a critical mass. I was blogging the trial at the end of every day’s evidence, as well as live tweeting from court as things happened. I was also writing things up for the Sunday Independent. A book about the case seemed an obvious next step so that’s what I did. The media circus was one of the things that interested me most. There have been certain cases in the past decade that have been newspaper catnip. Editors like nothing better than a good looking corpse. You only have to look at the front pages of certain newspapers today, the ones that have shown the bikini clad image of Reeva Steenkamp, the law graduate, campaigner on behalf of rape campaigners and former model that Olympian Oscar Pistorius is accused of killing. In the case of Celine Crawley the majority of the pieces written about the case carried a picture of her as she was more than twenty years ago, when she was a model who had once had a small part in a Bond film. The woman she had grown into, the successful businesswoman, was often only trotted out when using the “mouse that roared” version of events, that of a henpecked husband who had finally snapped. The Lillis trial was the pinnacle of a trend that had been all too obvious in media coverage of the courts for several years.

Trials that don’t fit into very narrow criteria tend to get ignored. There are plenty of stories that deserve to get covered but won’t be because they concern ordinary people, or people who aren’t Irish, or don’t live in a nice house. And we just accept this because that’s the way it is. So we end up with a skewed version of what’s really out there, the freak shows, the shock values. We stick to this narrow view of life that feeds the net curtain-twitching gossips but the stories that are sordid, or tragic, or depressing just don’t cut it. We want stories we can giggle at over coffee, to ooh and ah at in the pub. The stories that might actually tell us something about the world we live in, a world where life can sometime be depressingly cheap, are ignored.

It’s something that’s been bugging me increasingly for a number of years. The little details that stick with you mount up; foxes gnawing bones, fishes nibbling on flesh, lives snuffed out for no good reason. All the lives ruined, the pointless violence, the sheer stupidity and petulance of too many murderers.  Since my mum died this feeling has grown and stretched until it’s become impassable. There’s just been too much death.

So I’ve made a decision. After almost twenty years I’m getting out of journalism. Years ago, when I was planning on following in my parents’ footsteps and becoming an actor, I eventually decided against it because I knew the pitfalls all too well. There was no idealistic cushion against the hard times I knew damn well would come. I’ve reached that stage with journalism. I’ve always been a news journalist but I’ve been letting my objectivity slip for a while now. I don’t think there’s any getting it back. I thought I’d be a hack till the day I died but not anymore. I find myself dreaming of a job outside the media, away from newsrooms, away from filing copy. I just don’t love it any more and that’s probably the point to say goodbye.

So the long and the short of it is that I won’t be writing about any more trials. I had considered taking down the ones up till now and starting afresh but I’m not going to do that. I’ll also be avoiding commenting on murders that are in the news. I’ll still be blogging, in fact I’ll probably be blogging a lot more from now on, but the focus will shift. I’ll still be working on my latest book as well. Even though I came to the subject through a murder trial the story has most definitely become about the living not the dead. Besides, I’ve no intention of stopping writing – I don’t think I could if I tried. I want to take time to consider what’s next.  I’ve been court reporting for almost seven years, it’ll take time to shift gears. So bear with me and hopefully this’ll be the start of something new.

Back on the Women’s Pages

 

The-Newsroom-poster-HBO

I’ve a definite soft spot for journalism movies. Give me a story about a heroic hack (or a not so heroic one for that matter) and I’ll make the popcorn. The same goes for books and TV and has done since I studied journalism in college. So when it was announced that Aaron Sorkin was writing a new series set in a TV newsroom I got rather excited. I’d devoured the West Wings liberal bed time stories and even loved the short lived Studio 60. The Newsroom was bound to be good.

I should probably point out here that I don’t require my journalism movies to be madly realistic. The more gung ho and idealistic the better – I’m looking for entertainment not realism – but it does need to be recognisable. So I progressed from Lois & Clark to Drop the Dead Donkey via the short-lived Harry, starring Michael Elphick as a washed up Fleet Street hack running a news agency up north.  There was political intrigue in House of Cards,  not to mention Paul Abbott’s genius State of Play and more recently The Hour and that’s just the TV.

In films there’s Mel Gibson before we learned about his unfortunate religious views in The Year of Living Dangerously, All the President’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Up Close and Personal, His Girl Friday and To Die For to name but a few. And of course Paddy Chayefsky’s utterly brilliant Network. I never cared whether I was watching male or female hacks the hook that always caught me was the drive, the hunger for the story, the determination to get the truth out there. This was something I was sure Aaron Sorkin would provide in bucket loads and so settled down to add The Newsroom to the list.

But there’s a problem.

Several episodes in and I’m still waiting for a female character I can relate to. Actually I’m still waiting for a female character I didn’t want to slap. It’s never really been an issue before. There was never anything in the films and series that I’ve mentioned above that told me as a woman I wasn’t capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with any of the male journalists and chasing that story just the same. In the same way that I wouldn’t assume I was any less capable than any of my male colleagues. There might be differences between the sexes but they don’t tend to extend to news sense and ambition.

So why do I feel when I’m watching the Newsroom that the person talking to me thinks women should be making the tea and writing the women’s pages? It could have something to do with this interview with Sorkin that came out just before The Newsroom launched. But it’s a lot more to do with the character that every female character seems to be a neurotic incompetent who brings her personal life into work and gets distracted by sparkles unless there’s a nice strong dependable bloke to keep her focused.

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade. I’ve had a lot of female colleagues. I can’t think of one of them that wouldn’t have taken any of the Newsroom drips to one side to tell her to cop the fuck on. It’s a shame because in pretty much every other respect The Newsroom ticks the boxes. It’s nowhere near as sharp as Network, even though I gather Aaron Sorkin is also a fan, but its right-on outrage at the state of journalism is more heartening bedtime story stuff. It’s what he does.

But that’s what makes the Sorkin women so hard to take. Where are the strong female role models, a Martha Gelhorn for every Ed Murrow? Surely in this perfect journalistic world the exceptional women should be standing up with the exceptional men? I would have thought it was a given.

I’ll probably keep watching The Newsroom, for the rest of the first series at least, but it’s not going to be going on my journalist list. I wouldn’t recommend it to any girls or women wanting to follow a career in journalism. They should be told the sky’s the limit, not to wait until a man comes to sort it out. It’s hard enough out there. We don’t need this crap.

On Contempt and Scandal…

One of the first things you’re taught as a journalist in terms of court reporting is how to avoid landing yourself in contempt of court.  There’s a very good reason for this.  There are limited workplaces where putting a foot wrong can land you in a cell but it can be a hazard of the job if you work in the courts.

The thing with contempt of court is that it’s perilously easy to land yourself in it, whoever you are.  At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious contempt of court could be broadly described as anything that breaks the rules of the court.  It could be a witness contacting a juror directly or, as happened in a recent case in the UK a juror contacting the accused. For a journalist it could be printing something prejudicial to the defence during a trial or printing matters said in the absence of the jury, even turning on a recording device in court. Some of these things are easy to avoid if you know the job – though mistakes do happen – but other forms of contempt are harder to duck.

There are many reasons not to comply with a court order.  It could be journalists refusing to reveal their sources, as happened to Colm Keena of the Irish Times some years ago or a case like that of Offaly pensioner Teresa Treacy who was jailed for contempt for not allowing the ESB onto her land to cut down her trees. 

But not all contempt is as easy to spot.  There’s a type of contempt known as “scandalising the court”.  This is the rule that, broadly speaking, means that a judge can throw anyone in his court into a cell for not showing sufficient respect.  That might call to mind Soviet dictatorships or the Wild West but thems the rules.  I’ve heard gardai threatened with contempt for gum chewing and an accused threatened for not sitting up straight.  Last week in Bray District Court a barrister ended up on the wrong side of a contempt charge for not sitting down when he was told.  Apparently the judge in that case,  Judge Murrough Connellan has a bit of a name for running a strict courtroom.  Back in 2006 he jailed a punk father for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt in court.

Judgements like the Bray one and Teresa Treacy’s incarceration might raise considerable comment but it’s the nature of things.  The judge is in charge of the courtroom and some wield that authority heavier than others.  There aren’t many judges now that would throw contempt at someone who’d arrived in court in jeans, or the wrong t-shirt for that matter, but it’s usually a good idea to dress neatly – just in case.   

 

 

In a totally unrelated matter, I’ve been writing elsewhere this week.  The National Library of Ireland asked me to write a post on my specialist subject ahead of their Thrillers and Chillers season of Library Late talks.  I’ve been spending a lot of time there recently, researching far more lawless times than these so I wrote a post on our fascination with murder and how some things never change – with examples from the 1850s.

Another Fine Mess

I’m sure I’m not the only journalist glued to the whole cataclysmic mess that is the UK phone hacking scandal.  It’s a proper toe-curling political and social scandal on the scale of Watergate and at its heart is the press itself…and whatever else we might or might not get up to we do love reading about ourselves.

The dust is very far from settling on that that story and it’ll be a while before everyone knows just how far the toxic fallout has settled but even at this stage one thing is certain.  This is a story that will be talked about and written about not just for the coming months but for years to come.  It’ll be picked over and analysed and agonised over while many breasts are beaten in hollow mea culpas and many other shoulders shrugged.

So I’m getting in relatively early.  I’m not getting into the rights and the wrongs of phone hacking and whatever else is lying in wait to come out next. There’ll be plenty written in other places than here.  This is simply a personal view.

Journalistic ethics are in the spotlight at the moment and the general consensus is finding them absent at best, if not festeringly rotten.  In a survey commissioned by the Irish Medical Council earlier this year only 37% of Irish people trusted journalists to tell the truth. We came in above politicians but given this was before the last general election that really isn’t much of an achievement.  But it’s not a recent slide.  I know the guarded look that comes across peoples faces when I tell them what I do and I know the reaction of some of my actor parents’ friends when they learned my chosen profession. It’s not just that people are worried at ending up in the story it’s that they expect me to twist their words if they end up there. What’s really crazy is that a lot of them relax when they find out I write fiction as well – even though the odds are far greater of them ending up there, unless they kill someone.

I’m not wringing my hands and whining that no-one likes me because I’m a hack. I know that by writing true crime I’m skating on the edge of what’s considered respectable to write about.  Once again I would probably get less flack if I wrote crime fiction – because then I’d only be dreaming up interesting ways to kill people instead of writing about peoples’ actual attempts. The fact that I cover the trial rather than doing the death knocks and chasing grieving families doesn’t count for much when I’ve written not one but two books picking over every bloody detail of stories that might have faded away as the public looked to the next big thing…or so some may think.

But that doesn’t make me unethical.  It just means I’m doing my job.  On the back page of it’s final edition the News of the World quoted George Orwell.  The essay they quoted is called The Decline of the English Murder  and in it Orwell examines the public fascination for a good murder.  He talks, tongue in cheek, of the “golden age” when murders harked back to a sense of melodrama that chimed with the public consciousness.  Modern murder happened too easily, he argued, to stick in the consciousness of a nation numbed by war.  Orwell’s modern murder happened in the mid 1940s…but his point still stands.  There’s still an appetite for death, one that is part of human nature, but as life  has been cheapened with an increase in thoughtless deaths so that appetite is increasingly seen as a guilty thing, one of our baser instincts that has no place in a civilised society.

The ongoing revelations of the hacking of murder victims phones and the rest feed into a perception that’s been there for a long time.  The dodgy journalist is a stock character anywhere from Harry Potter to Coronation Street.  I suppose it goes hand in hand with the fact that part of a journalist’s job is asking questions that people don’t want asked and on occasion snooping where some would rather you didn’t go.  But if journalists didn’t have this instinct how many injustices would have gone unremarked? How many scandals would have gone uncovered?

It all goes back to ethics and journalistic ethics are something that perhaps have been increasingly overlooked over the past couple of decades.  When there’s an increasing pressure to sell newspapers in a market that’s changing so quickly and shrinking even faster then the urge to satisfy public curiosity with gory details and juicy revelations will grow and can in some cases leave taste and ethics languishing in its wake.  When I studied journalism in the mid 1990s, in a four year course that covered everything from languages to philosophy to film theory, there was no dedicated strand of the course that covered ethics.  We were made aware of the NUJ Code of Conduct but a dedicated class, where ethical issues could be debated and fully understood, was lacking.  How can you trust that young journalists will have a sufficiently strong moral compass to negotiate frequently complex ethical issues if you don’t give them the training to recognise these issues when they arise?

The exclusive has become the be all and end all and “human interest” has become a driving force.  Everyone who covers murder trials knows that even that formulaic process has it’s money shots.  The tears of the victim’s mother, the stoney face of the accused when he’s sentenced.  We write according to narrative rules that are embedded in instinct.  In order to sell a trial you have to draw out the emotion and spoon feed it to a public numbed by constant repetition.  We fit the characters in a trial into the same roles that they have occupied since the popular press came into existence, the dramatis personae of a melodrama with a fixed outcome and set pieces.  It really is nothing new…even Jack the Ripper himself, it’s been suggested, had help from the press – the infamous letters with their bloody signature that gave a monster such a memorable name may even have been hoaxes written by newspaper men to drum up more readers.

I write about murder trials because that structure fascinates me.  I’m interested in what drives someone to kill, on how easy it can be to take that decision to break one of the deepest taboos and end a human life.  It’s an interest that hasn’t just been limited to the so-called gutter press.  Charles Dickens covered many a murder and Truman Capote’s greatest work was not the tale of Holly Golightly but the examination of the brutal murder of a family that rocked a small town.  But I know that in the eyes of some people out there I might as as well be rooting through people’s bins and papping celebrities.

I’ve always cared about ethics.  It’s not enough to observe the law, there is a moral responsibility there as well.  It’s important to be fair, not just because I’m afraid of influencing a jury, but because it matters.  The press have always been known as the Fourth Estate and with that comes a duty.  We are allowed in the courts to make sure that justice does not take place behind closed doors.  It’s the press who keep an eye on the politicians to ensure that they have the public’s best  interests at heart.  That’s the way it should be and that’s still often the way it is.  In the face of all these recent revelations those sentences might sound trite and insincere but if the fall-out of the hacking scandal results in a hamstrung press that cannot shine a light on bad men and corruption society as a whole will be all the poorer for it.

There will always be a grey area here, a blurred line between public interest and what the public is interested in but without strong ethics  journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, will suffer.  The subject will be done to death in the weeks and months to come but somehow that trust will have to be rebuilt.  As long as the press is attacking itself and there’s ammunition for it to do so, other stories are being ignored.  Even by making that distinction between the “gutter” and the “quality” press journalism isn’t being served.  There are plenty of ethical journalists out there but it’s too easy to tar us all with the same brush.  This is a massive subject and far too big for a single post.  By the time the dust has finally settled in this almighty mess I just hope that journalism doesn’t take too big a hit.  I don’t know how this is going to fixed but I hope someone out there does.  I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference not because I wanted to rake muck.  There should still be a place for making a difference when the last shots have been fired.

A Vision of a Dickensian Past…

I love to start the day with a bit of hyperbole but in the case of the Irish Prison system it’s not much of an exaggeration. Yesterday at their annual conference the Irish Prison Officer’s Association complained that the chronic over crowding and lack of resources in Irish prisons was making their jobs near impossible.

As I’ve mentioned here before I’ve been spending a lot of time delving into a more Dickensian style of justice over the past few months.  When Dicken’s  Bleak House was first serialised in the mid 1850s Kilmainham Goal was still an unreformed mass of men, women and children forced to desperate measures by years of famine.  If you ever have the chance to take the tour look beyond the political stars who helped to create the State we live in and look at the ordinary cells in the old part of the building. They’re tiny, cold and dark.  In those days there wouldn’t have even been glass on the windows so on cold nights the winter wind would bite at inmates trying to sleep. Exercise was minimal, a shuffling circuit of a tiny yard, whose high grey walls hid all but the pale blue of the sky. The prisoners were put to hard labour, and forced to survive on a diet of not much more than bread and water.  If you had money things were a little easier as deep pockets could buy all kinds of luxuries from the underpaid, easily swayed prison guards.

Over a century and a half later it’s easy to assume that things are far more humane – and they are, of course.  There’s no longer hard labour and the windows in modern prisons do have glass in them but listening to the prison officers there’s still a long way to go.

I’ve only been inside a prison once and that was to a remand prison, where those who are awaiting trial, or extradition, or deportation are sent.  These are men who have not been convicted of any crime.  They are not serving a sentence, even if they are awaiting a trial.  The prison, Cloverhill, is classified as a medium security institution. I’ve spent enough time working in the courts to be somewhat cynical when it comes to guilt or innocence but the fact remains that our justice system centres on the presumption of innocence.  If there’s no conviction, in the eyes of the law, there’s no guilt.

OK so practically, any remand prison is going to contain at least some prisoners who will one day be fully guilty in the eyes of the law. They will inevitably be pretty nasty individuals even before that sentence is handed down because real life doesn’t have the same level of distinction that the law has when dealing with this tricky subject of guilt and innocence. When people end up in a remand prison before standing trial it’s generally because for one reason or another they haven’t qualified to be out on bail. It’s complicated.

I’d got to know the visitors centre attached to Cloverhill while I was covering a trial in the attached courthouse over several long weeks in the Spring of 2007.  It’s a great service for the families who come to visit the prison. Toys for visiting kids, tea and coffee and the women who staff the place are always happy to offer words of advice and support. It was set up by the Quakers and the walls are bright with children’s pictures.  The pictures might have to taken down though – prison authorities have ruled they’re a fire hazard.  The women who run the place are most proud of  the so-called Unity Quilt, it’s squares made by visitors, prison officers, solicitors and staff at the centre, which is due to hang above the service hatch to welcome anyone who comes in with a brightly coloured gesture of humanity.  It’s not up there yet though.  It’s had to be sent away to be treated with fire retardant…completion date and cost unknown.

The visitors’ centre is one of the few signs of humanity you’ll see when you visit the prison though.  It’s a pretty grim experience.  When you apply for a visit you are given a time with the strict instruction that you arrive fifteen minutes ahead of time for your half hour visit.  I was booked in for a 2 o’clock appointment and sat nursing a cup of tea while the clock ticked past the hour, waiting for the prison officers to finish their lunch and come and open the hatch.

Once you’re checked off the list, had your ID checked and you’ve left mobile phone, bag, coat etc in the lockers provided it’s time to walk across the car park to the prison itself.  Heavy metal doors slide back to let you through in increments with frequent stops for more ID checking.  The security check is stiffer than the one’s you find in Irish airports, a full body scan and pat down, shoes off, the lot.  Then it’s through a rabbit run of high wire fences to another automated metal door that lead to the prison proper…sort of.

The visit itself takes place in one of a series of rooms.  Well when I say rooms…it’s not like you see on TV.  There’s no cubicle with speaker phone hung on the wall, no large room with bare tables and plastic chairs, nothing like those tense scenes from Hollywood when the heroine confronts the bad guy .  There’s a large room that’s been divided into smaller rooms.  The smaller rooms have two glass walls and along their length are little benches positioned in front of a hatch like the kind you find in a bank or a dole office.  There’s no speaker phone.  You have to raise you voice to be heard through the metal grill set into the ledge in front of you.  The rooms alternate, one’s with open doors for the visitors and ones with a blue metal door down one end and a caged box for a prison officer at the other.  There was something about the place that reminded me of an  old aquarium or a calf shed.  Somewhere to go to view, not to have any kind of meaningful conversation.

Most of the other visitors on the same slot as me were young mothers wrangling hyperactive toddlers.  They leaned low over the metal grills and tried to murmur a private conversation over the din.  The kids ran up and down the room, bored and shrieking, ignoring the taps on the glass from their dads as they tried to attract their attention.  They’ll grow up with memories of seeing daddy in that grim cattle shed that won’t be tempered by the bright colours of the visitors centre quilt.  Couples put hands up to the glass to simulate contact under the bored gaze of the prison guard. The women took it all in their stride, accepting the grim normality, just the way things were.

I know prisons are meant to be a deterrent and contact is banned to prevent the passing of drugs or other contraband but it didn’t seem to offer much dignity to those having to shout to make themselves heard.  It all felt a long way away from the holiday camp that we’re told Irish prisons have become.  I only saw the tip of the iceberg as a visitor but it really didn’t feel all that much different from the the Victorian corridors of Kilmainham.

Irish rates of recidivism run at about 40% – you don’t have to cover the courts for long to be unsurprised by this depressing statistic.  Earlier this year the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture castigated the Irish prison system, calling it “degrading” and “debasing” citing the hundreds of prisoners forced to slop out their cells each day.  The tabloids run a steady stream of stories about mobile phones and drugs being freely available in the majority of Irish prisons. The system as it stands doesn’t work but it’s going to take a serious rethink to change it.  Overcrowding needs to be dealt with. There should be greater support for those leaving prison so they don’t slide straight back into their old lives.  It’s easy to say but it’s harder to do but something needs to be done.  Maybe rather than viewing the problem in isolation we should take a leaf out of the Scandinavian approach of viewing the issue holistically, treating each offender as an individual with an individual path to where they are and individual needs afterwards. Surely it’s worth a try anyway?

The Face of Evil

Today I watched the sentencing of a truly evil man.  I don’t use the word lightly.  I’m the first person to say that the word “evil” is misused in the media these days.  It seems like anyone convicted of a violent crime will lumped in with the devil by tabloid subeditors.  We have had evil rapists, evil wife killers, evil paedophiles presented to us with such regularity that the word has almost lost all meaning.

Take the cases of Larry Murphy and Gerald Barry for example.  Murphy abducted a woman from the street and took her up to the Dublin mountains where he subjected her to a horrific rape.  Barry killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo and raped a French student.  Both cases were horrific, the type of crime that triggers some primeval fear, the threat of the unmotivated attack, the random motiveless crimes.  Both men could be termed animals, monsters even, but evil is something different.

The word “evil” means something else. A more metaphysical threat beyond the ordinary.  The ultimate black and white into which no grey is allowed.  It’s something almost unimaginable, almost archetypal.  Something beyond sheer brutality and horror.

Today’s sentencing was a case like that.  In the years I’ve covered the criminal courts I’ve seen a lot of monstrous crimes, seen people convicted of murder and rape who I would have no hesitation in dubbing a psychopath but I would stop short of calling any of them evil.  Irredeemable maybe, banged to rights certainly but not evil.  That’s something else.

Well today was something else.  The man in the dock was old and frail, approaching his 74th birthday.  He wasn’t much to look at sitting huddled over his blue folder shuffling through the notes he had taken through the trial.  He looked no different, no worse than any of the other paedophiles I’ve seen over the years, wizened old men the lot of them, accused by now grown up victims of crimes committed in the long lost depths of a shattered childhood.  But this was different.

When I first started working in the courts I covered another trial with him at the centre.  The victims then were two grown up women who he had abused when they were little girls in the 1970s.  I hadn’t covered many trials back then and was shocked by what I heard but as repellent as the details were in that case this new trial brings things to a whole different level.

The victims now were three of his own children, who had not even been born when his previous crimes had taken place.  They had ranged in age from 3 to 11 when the abuse occured.  The courts had begun their summer break when the jury found him guilty of 87 counts against three of his children after a two month trial.

Today the litany of crimes was recited once again.  The court heard that his son, who had been abused between the ages of three and six had been so traumatised by the constant assaults that took place when he went to the toilet that he became unable to use the bathroom.  When he was taken into foster care he had been so traumatised that he would defecate into a drawer of clean clothes rather than do to the toilet.

Two of the man’s daughters had told the court how their father had repeatedly raped them, describing a perverted twisting of adult love making that their mother had done nothing to stop.  The abuse had started when they were as young as four.  He would tell them he loved them as he lay on top of them, ignoring their tears and pleas to stop.  He told one of them that this was just what fathers did.

Even when the HSE was notified and the children were taken into care, even when the man was charged with the offences so many years ago and the legal machinery had slowly started to move into action, the abuse did not stop.

One daughter described him banging on her window after she had been taken into care and persuading her to run away with him.  When the girls ran away he raped them; in the disabled toilet in a McDonalds; on the ground in view of the boats in Howth; in another toilet in a shopping centre.  One girl described how on the DART to Howth he had spread his jacket over their knees and abused her.

Both girls read victim impact statements to the court.  Addressing her father one said that she had loved and trusted him, believed him when he told her he loved her best.  It had all been lies, she said.  She had blamed herself when she was taken into care, she had written, but it had been his fault.

She had lost her family, she said, had been separated from her brothers and sisters and now no longer knew them.  When she was 16 she had found herself in a violent relationship but could not leave because she had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.  The memory of what he had done to her was like “a shadow that won’t go away” she said.  She still wakes up screaming.

She begged the judge to give her father a long sentence so she could feel safe again.

Her sister described how giving evidence during the trial had been “like being abused again”.  She told the court that she hated the part of her that was related to her father and the part of her that had been abused.  All that was left was a shell.  “”I would have been better off if he had have killed me.”

Passing sentence Mr Justice Bermingham said it was hard to imagine a more serious offence.  He said the rapes of the girls, after they had been taken into care, while their father had ignored the moves taken to stop the abuse, were at the worst end of the scale.  The maximum sentence of life imprisonment was not one to be given lightly he told the court but these crimes warranted it.  The man will start his life sentence when his current ten year term ends.  With a degenerative heart condition and his advanced age there is a good chance that he will die in jail.

The two girls looked shell-shocked as the sentence was handed down but their father barely flinched.  He shrugged at his legal team and did not look at his daughters agonised faces.

The man cannot be identified, since to do so would also identify his children who deserve to have a chance to try to rebuild their lives in peace now that their father is locked away from them.  They have  suffered horrendously at his hands and have been left feeling that no one, not those closest to them, nor the gardai nor well meaning social workers could save them.  Hopefully one day they will have some measure of peace and will know that at least some kind of justice has been done.

Their father is the only example of pure unadulterated evil I have ever seen.  A devious and manipulative man who tries to bend the law to suit himself and has never at any stage shown the least sign of remorse, the coldest, most ruthless type of pervert who would use his own children for his own sexual gratification.  He’s not a sick man, a twisted, depraved one maybe, but even the psychiatric report furnished by his own defence team could not find any mitigating mental dysfunction.

A fiend like that defies understanding.  There was no unhappy childhood, no history of childhood abuse so commonly heard in defence submissions in cases like this.  This man was and is an ice cold manipulator, a genuine monster who has destroyed those he should have protected.  He really is the face of evil.

A Matter of Credibility

If you’re Irish the last 24 hours will have had you cringing.  Not one but two government ministers have made international headlines in ways that can only bring embarrassment to the country as a whole.  One of them would have been bad enough but two in such quick succession does nothing to disprove any stereotypes that Ireland has been trying to escape for years.

If you haven’t been following the news or if you’re not Irish and are wondering what the hell I’m talking about it all started yesterday evening when the news broke that Minister for Science Conor Lenihan was to launch a self published book by a constituent which aims to debunk the theory of evolution.

The story had been buzzing around cyberspace for a couple of months but as the launch neared it gained critical mass and went well and truly viral.  The subject was being discussed on two popular Irish forums, Politics.ie and Boards.ie then it found it’s way onto Twitter.  As tends to happen, this sent the story into the stratosphere.  Before long the story had been picked up by high profile tweeters like Ben Goldacre, the science writer and Guardian columnist.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/bengoldacre/status/24424753852[/tweeted]

Dara O’Briain, the comedian and broadcaster also chimed in.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/daraobriain/status/24415254156[/tweeted]

Then the story got picked up by the traditional media appearing on the evening news on both RTE and the BBC.  Conor Lenihan appeared on RTE’s 9 o’clock news completely unrepentant.  He said he didn’t see a problem with the launch as the author, John J. May, was a constituent and a friend.  His name disappeared off the launch flyer on Mr May’s website.  Then this morning the Irish Times announced that Lenihan had pulled out of the launch.

This is John J. May.  This is the man who Conor Lenihan was willing to hold himself up to public ridicule for.  Many, many years ago I worked for John May.  He ran a company called The Day You Were Born.  The name kind of gives it away.  For a small fee you could get a piece of paper with information about the day you were born.  You know the kind of thing – that day’s headlines, sports results, what was in the chart.  You can still get that kind of thing now but back then, in the early 90s it was a reasonably new idea.

My job was to get the headlines.  I spent some very happy weeks in the Reading Room of the National Library going through microfilms picking headlines for each day in a certain year.  I still remember some of the news stories I found during that time.  The broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the World, as covered by the Irish Times, or the reading in the Abbey of one of Yeat’s plays when he had engaged with a heckler about the merits of his writing.  I was there the day Charlie Haughey walked out of Leinster House for the last time.  I had been listening to the radio knowing something was imminent and lead a mass walkout as we all left our books and ran downstairs to watch the doleful procession leave Leinster House, ignoring our pale faces pressed up against the wire that separates the Dail from the Library.

There were a group of us working for May. Every couple of weeks, it might have been once a month, we all met up in a pub in Clondalkin where he would brief us and hand out the pay cheques.  We all thought him a little odd but we all needed the work  so no one wanted to rock the boat.  It was definitely one of the odder jobs I have had.

Years later I ran into May again.  I was getting work experience in special interest station Anna Livia FM and May turned up as a funding guru with radio experience.  Rumour had it he had run a pirate station in the 80s that had been based around where the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre is now.

John May always seemed in those days to be a bit of a Flash Harry character.  I’m not by any means suggesting that he did anything untoward, just that he was a man who always had an eye for a fast buck and was enthusiastic and diligent in getting it.  I had heard something about affiliations with some kind of Christian group but don’t know any details about that.

The way he is pushing this book of his is no deviation from type.  He’s a pushy, fast talking person and it doesn’t surprise me that he would manage to pull off a coup like this, guaranteeing his tome will get world wide publicity and will undoubtedly sell more than it would otherwise.

It doesn’t surprise me that he would end up in the middle of something like this but what does surprise me is why a government minister would get involved.  It doesn’t really matter if Conor Lenihan goes along to tomorrow’s Gorillas and Girls launch party in Buswells Hotel.  What does matter is the fact that he agreed to it in the first place.

He might think that he was going in a personal capacity but he is a government minister with special responsibility for science and the book is anti evolution.  What exactly did he think was going to happen.  Surely if John May is a friend of his he would know that May would make sure the launch got as much publicity as possible.  It’s years since I’ve seen the man and even I could figure that one out.  The problem the minister doesn’t seem to understand is that in cases like this there is no “personal capacity”.  If in his personal life he is a rabid creationist, say, he should not be the man standing as a figurehead to promote and champion Irish science. If he can’t understand this surely at the very least his political acumen should be severely in doubt?

The Lenihan debacle was bad enough but this morning another embarrassing story broke, this time centring around the Taoiseach himself, Brian Cowen. This morning Brian Cowen appeared on Morning Ireland, the main breakfast news programme in the country.  It was a pre arranged interview.  The Fianna Fail party, his party, were having their yearly think in down in Galway before the Dail resumes sitting next month after the summer break.

You would have to have spent the last year or so on another planet not to have heard of the spectacular crash and burn that has been the Irish economy.  Things have been bad for a while now and this December’s Budget is likely to be a particularly tough one.  You always know things are bad when the media start over using the word “swingeing” when talking about funding.

Cowen’s appearance on radio to talk about the economy isn’t so very unusual in these trying times but this morning something about his voice on air and the way he bumbled through some of his answers provoked a fairly speedy response.  Opposition politician, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney got the ball rolling.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/simoncoveney/status/24458595143[/tweeted]

When Cowen got off air he was approached by the waiting media in Galway.  TV3’s Ursula Halligan asked him if he was in fact hung over after a late night, a fact he spiritedly denied.  But by then it was too late.  Once again the story had leapt from Twitter into the waiting arms of the International media.  As I write this the story of the question and Cowen’s denial has made it onto the BBC news.  It’s also been picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and has been picked up websites in South Africa and India.  It’ll probably keep growing.

Throughout the day those who were in the bar of the Ardilaun Hotel near Salthill in Galway last night, where the Fianna Fail party and attendant political correspondents are staying, came forward with stories of what went on last night.  Stories of late night sessions abounded, but whether or not anyone breaks ranks to give a full blow by blow account remains to be seen.  In the end only those who were there on the night will know exactly who was there and what went on but again, it’s not really important.

On Liveline this afternoon, members of the public were queuing up to give their support to the beleaguered leader.  Everybody deserves time to unwind, they said.  Give the guy a break.  We all like to think our politicians are human, Ireland perhaps embraces such displays of human frailty more than most.  Maybe this was why Bill Clinton decided to wait until he was on a visit to Dublin to apologise from his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  But there’s a big difference between Brian Cowen and Bill Clinton in this regard.  Clinton was leading another country.  He was a visitor and his admission put us in the glare of international media.

Brian Cowen is leading this country and he’s not accused of playing around with an intern.  The suggestion is that he was unprofessional enough to stay up so late he was groggy and hoarse the next morning when he knew he had an interview on one of the most listened to shows in the country, his country.  He’s the guy in charge.  He doesn’t get to play with the rank and file.  He has the ultimate responsiblity for steering this sinking ship and, at a time when decisions are being made about how much the country is going to suffer in the forthcoming Budget, surely coming on air sounding, at best tired and disinterested, at worst hung over, is not the way to instill confidence.

Once again if he can’t understand why appearances are important now, why having credibility as someone who’s holding the reigns is vital.  If you were working in a company and had heard rumours of redundancies and pay cuts how would you feel if you came into work to a boss who was unshaven, sweating and looked like they were wearing last night’s clothes.  I’ve no idea what Cowen was wearing on the radio this morning, he could have even been in his pyjamas, but he sounded as if he was wearing last night’s suit.

What both incidents in the past 24 hours have shown is that there are people in Fianna Fail, who are the majority partner in our coalition government, who do not understand that the job they are doing has a lot to do with appearances.  You keep up appearances to keep people’s confidence – not just the voters but also the world outside.  All these two stories have done is give a picture of a country that is floundering, one that is a joke.  A country that has no leadership.

It’s that that makes me embarrassed to be Irish today.  I hope it embarrasses those at the centre of the stories as much.

A Question of Taste

I’ve spent a large proportion of my time over the past fortnight talking about the dead.  This is nothing unusual, I’ve worked in the courts for over four years now and tend to be seen as the oracle on all that’s gory for family and friends.  You would not believe the number of people who want to hear about what poisons cause heart failure or the finer details of any of a dozen high profile murders. 

There’s a fascination in this country for the macabre.  We’re fascinated by death, the more violent or tragic the better.  That doesn’t make us a nation of ghouls though, just one with an interest in our fellow man.  It’s normal to be interested in your neighbours – who doesn’t take the opportunity to look into a curtainless window as you walk down the street?  In a  country where the rituals of birth and death still hold such a social resonance we all know that it’s at those moments you see people at their most unguarded – there’s a light on as well as the curtains being open.

For the past fortnight though I haven’t been talking about death in general, it’s been one death in particular.  Not the death of someone I ever met in the flesh, or one that left a hole in my own life but one that I know the tiniest details of nonetheless.

That’s what happens when you cover a murder trial, you get the details – all the details.  That’s why people have always and will always be fascinated in them.  You watch a trial like that and you will find out details that you might not know about your spouse.  The post mortem will tell you each mole and childhood scar, you might not know what that person was like to go for a pint with, say, but you will have more idea of a personality that you could have had in several casual meetings.

It’s a clinical kind of knowledge though, removed, academic.  You will even go away knowing that most private moment that comes to us all, the moment, the ultimate instance of death, the last breath.  A moment that loved ones might have missed will be examined in minute detail in front of strangers.  That’s the reality of the trial process and that’s part of the attraction of this kind of trial.

Of course not all trials attract the same kind of scrutiny and people like me don’t end up writing books about them.  I spent several years working for Ireland International News Agency. It was my job, and is still the job for those who still work there, to provide agency copy for the print and broadcast media on every murder and manslaughter trial before the courts.  Starting off you don’t cover the big trials. 

For every trial that sets editor’s pulses racing there will be a dozen that don’t. Those are the trials that the media don’t bother about, that appear as a side bar on page 11 or 12 of a paper.  The acts of random violence, the young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who settle a disagreement a knife.  The drunken rows, the senseless attacks, the depressing monotony of lives that were blighted before they were properly begun.  These aren’t the trials you gossip about at the water cooler, these are the depressing meat of the criminal justice system, the ones that pass unnoticed.

The public don’t bother going to those trials, the papers don’t bother to cover them.  Life after life is lost in obscurity, amounting to nothing but a violent sordid death.  If the agency reporter doesn’t sit quietly for every day of the trial, filing copy that no one will use unless it’s a really quiet news day, no one will hear the details of that life and death except those directly involved and the lawyers.

No one cares about those trials happening in public. They are a depressing reminder of how cheap life can be and a side of humanity no one wants to hold a mirror before.  But with the big trials it’s different.  There’s something about the story that’s being told that raises it above the ordinary, a whiff of celebrity, a kink of weirdness, a view into a life in some way surprising.

The media cover these trials because the public want to know about them.  It’s these stories I get asked about by friends, family and neighbours.  The one’s that in some way rise up out of the norm and become the stuff of thrillers instead of a grim reminder of the briefness of existence.  The protagonists are often rich, or if not rich at least possessed of some quality that separates them from the hot headed boys who get tanked up and stab their mates.  It’s that factor that provides a distance so we can look at the sordid details as a story, a plot, rather than another human being meeting death before their time.

In recent years the refrain has been that these unusual trials are cropping up too frequently, that the public interest is being pumped by the hungry media and they are being led astray.  I know a lot of people would think that I am also guilty of fanning that particular forest fire with this book, throwing my cap in the ring and exploiting the grief of the bereaved.

Anyone who thinks that is of course entitled to their opinion but it’s one I will take exception to if it’s put to me.  I don’t consider what I do to be voyeuristic and I don’t consider my colleagues to be doing anything other than satisfying a public demand, which is the way newspapers have always worked and always will.  When I write about a trial I’m not doing it to be ghoulish I’m doing it because it’s what I do. 

I’ve always felt that it’s important that trials are written about, that in some way I’m helping with the whole constitutional imperative that justice be done in public, disseminating what goes on in the courtroom, bringing an informed reading to proceedings couched in arcane methodology and convoluted terminology and giving a voice in a way to those that can’t speak for themselves.  I think that the media have a place within the courts and one that should be recognised and respected without accusing us of voyeurism and bad taste.

When I write about a trial I will try to show respect for everyone involved.  For the dead who cannot speak and also those on trial, for the families of both and the witnesses who have to relive the traumatic past.  Everyone I work with does the same.  We might have a feel for a story that sells but that’s part of the business and part of our jobs and it’s not incompatible with respect and compassion.

Of course sometimes, when push comes to shove that balance gets skewed.  There are times when the media scrum seethes forward and shoves us all into an unflattering spotlight.  There are times when the excitement about a story gets out of control and enthusiasm for the job can seem like callousness and poor taste.  It’s hard to explain news sense to someone who’s never had to find a story but it’s ingrained in most journos and can sometimes make us lose the head a bit but does not make us bad human beings.

Even in the heel of the hunt we don’t forget that we are dealing with death, that there are grieving family members and traumatised witnesses.  It’s just that our job is not to wrap them in cotton wool – it’s to tell the story as it unfolds.  All I can do when I talk about the deaths I’ve seen dissected is to talk about them with compassion, it’s got nothing to do with taste. 

The Baser Appetites

I watch the search terms people use to arrive at this blog with interest.  Every blogger gets some weird ones but I get more than most. It kind of goes with the territory when you spend most of your time writing about murder, rape, abuse, death and the media.

I write on a fairly niche subject so I end up high in the results for searches for Irish legal or criminal matters.  There’s a couple of weird ones – I get a LOT of hits from Japan for naked caricatures since I posted on the paintings of our esteemed Taoiseach in the nip that appeared in a couple of galleries in Dublin a while back using a full frontal image from Galway cartoonist Allan Cavanagh. And recently I seem to have become a go to place for those looking for the recipe for ricin (though since I’ve written extensively on that very subject I brought that one on myself).

Today I got an unusual one, a sentence that took me aback when I read it in the list of Google searches.  Someone had found my blog looking for the phrase “Abigail Rieley is scum”.  I know that people sometimes have very strong views about what I write here and that’s why I have comments enabled on every post.  Blogging is a social form of writing and I believe people should have the freedom to express their views.  I won’t allow comments that will cause unnecessary offence or break the law but if someone has a rational case to make they can make it freely.

But it got me thinking.  I write, for the most part, about death.  I earn my living following the stories of some of the most violent deaths we have in this country and I comment on them.  I’m aware that I can’t please everyone if I come down on one side or another in a trial but I will always try to be as fair as I possibly can.  But however fair I am there is always the risk of upsetting someone.

That’s the problem with this line of work.  As a court reporter specialising in criminal trials I am feeding one of the oldest appetites for news.  It’s the same public hunger that demands public executions and fights to the death for sport.  It’s the side of humanity that watches the pain of others with a bright glint in the eye.  Before you recoil in disgust stop a minute – it’s a lot more common than you think. 

It’s the same side of us that laps up crime fiction and violent movies.  Just because it’s make believe doesn’t mean it’s a different urge.  It’s the same sneering little voice that laughs at the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent, willing dreams to be dashed and hopes crushed and will continue to watch even though psychologist have warned of the dangers to the more vulnerable auditionees.  But what I write about doesn’t have the sanitised gloss of entertainment.  It’s real life, real death.  The raw explosion of emotion that leads one ordinary person to take another’s life. You realise very quickly when you work down in the courts that the average person on trial for murder is not a psychopath or evil or depraved.  They’re just like you and me.

With every trial there are people who have lost, families who must listen to their loved ones reduced to an echo, a cipher who was at the centre of a storm and is now in front of the court as a a series of figments; forensic samples, perhaps a few photographs taken after death and the inevitable post mortem.  It’s shocking in it’s mundanity.

I’ve seen the looks the family of both the accused and the deceased give us journalists as we file in to the front of the court.  We’re usually seen as vultures, vermin scrabbling for the juicy titbits left over from a tragedy.  I know how it looks, we all do.  But the reality of the situation is that we are there to do a job and to feed an appetite for this kind of news.  It’s easier to cover a trial when you aren’t emotionally involved and that distance tends to show itself as an increased cynicism and an outward callousness.  We’re there to tell a story and allow the audience that same remove.  We’re feeding an interest, crime and politics have been filling newspapers since they were just a bill pasted on a wall…at least we don’t write ballads about the more infamous trials these days.

I would argue though that court reporting’s not all base emotions.  We’re witness to the carrying out of justice, one of the basic pillars of society.  Without the courts we’d have anarchy, or something similar.  When we write about murders we’re giving a voice to the dead and seeing their killers brought to justice – most of the time.  Maybe the reason why there’s such an interest in crime stories is just that, because it puts the bad guys in their place and makes the world less scary.  There will always be those that just see the sleaze and think what I do is sordid and perhaps even exploitative but all I can do is try to show them otherwise.

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