Writer and Author

Category: Journalism (Page 2 of 4)

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.

Sitting in the Wrong Seat

I’m always open to new experiences but there are some that I’d much rather leave on the shelf.  I’ve been covering the courts for a long time now.  I’m used to walking into a courtroom and finding somewhere to sit where I have good sight lines and can hear what’s going on.  If there’s a table or a ledge to rest my notebook, so much the better.

I’ve often wondered idly what it would be like to sit on a jury – although it probably wouldn’t be much in the interests of justice for me to sit on one. You get a wee bit cynical in this gig – I can be a little harsh in my judgements.  But, like many of my colleagues, I’ve often wondered what goes on behind that closed door.

Also in common with my colleagues I’ve cringed in sympathy when one of our number has had to take the stand during a trial.  We’re used to covering the story, not being part of it.  The witness box is one seat I’ve never had a particular urge to sit in.

In the courts everything has it’s place.  The judges, barristers, court staff, gardai, prison officers and the press all have their roles just as surely as the jury, the witnesses and the accused.  We all sit in set parts of the courtroom, are generally on nodding terms and are all there to do a job.  I’ve been working there for almost five years and I’m very familiar with my place in all of it.

So it was disconcerting this week to find myself sitting in that seat I’ve never really had an urge to sit in before.  On Thursday I was a witness in the civil case taken by Sasha Keating, daughter of murdered Meg Walsh, against Meg’s husband John O’Brien, the man sensationally cleared of her murder after a lengthy trial back in the spring of 2008.

I had been called because I covered that trial and had written about what Mr O’Brien said when he gave evidence in his own defence.  The case was about whether Sasha, as Meg Walsh’s next of kin, had a claim on the house her mother had owned with John O’Brien.  Since Meg’s death, the house had reverted to the sole ownership of John O’Brien and had not been treated as part of the estate.  I had been asked to use my shorthand notes of the trial to confirm whether Mr O’Brien had mentioned the fact that his wife had started a process of moving the house into her name on the stand.  The process had begun after a violent argument a few weeks before Meg Walsh disappeared.  She had consulted a doctor, a garda, a solicitor and a banker and a letter had been sent to John O’Brien telling how serious the consequences of the matter could be.

O’Brien had indeed mentioned this under cross examination.  He had said he had agreed to sign the house over to prove the attack would never happen again.  He denied that it formed a motive to murder his wife.

That was my evidence.  A sentence.  A couple of squiggles in an old notebook.  Half a quote.  But last Thursday I found myself in Dungarvan steeling myself to walk across the faded carpet and climb the step to the seat that would have everyone’s attention on me.

Standing outside the courtroom that morning was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in a working day.  I knew most of the journalists who’d travelled to cover the case and since I’d covered the original trial they all assumed I was there like them to cover an interesting post script to one of the most high profile trials of the last few years.  At first we just chatted but all too quickly the interest shifted from fellow coverer of the news to a potential fragment of it.  Standing outside the door of the courtroom I was glad I had dressed with more care than I do to slip into my customary place on the press bench.  I’d taken care with my makeup and had actually worn a dress, and just as well because it wasn’t long before the TV3 camera turned it’s lens in my direction as I stood chatting with my colleagues.  How good was that going to look on the evening news?

When we went into the court they all went and sat at the end of the barristers table, leaning their heads together and glancing around the room to check the demeanour of the key players as John O’Brien and Sasha Keating took their seats with friends and family, a few rows away from each other.  I took a seat in the body of the court feeling horribly conspicuous.  Even though I was well aware that my evidence was unlikely to feature in any headlines unless I made a complete tit of myself on the stand and got relegated to colour.

I wasn’t called till after lunch and once I’d given my evidence all the lawyers left the room with a speed that is enough to give a girl a serious complex.  As predicted I didn’t in fact make the evening news and I doubt if my evidence will sway the judge one way or another but it’s an experience I wouldn’t be eager to repeat.

I cover the courts.  I’m used to observing what goes on impartially, being free to comment, to tell the unfolding story.  Being a witness is different.  I am always careful to be accurate in my accounts (I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise) but it’s a strange thing to actually take an oath to do it.  I’m used to hearing those words a dozen times a day but when it was my turn to affirm I stumbled, becoming one of those witnesses I’ve smirked at as an airhead for being unable to remember to the end of a sentence.  I know when I was answering the questions being put to me I wasn’t concerned about how fast I was talking and probably gabbled my way through the little bit of evidence I had.  I also forgot that when all the barristers left  the room and I wandered down from the witness box that I was still under oath until I had been released and had to catch my tongue before wandering over to one of my colleagues and starting to chat about how things were going.

Something that should have been so familiar and so simple to do was actually nerve wracking and downright weird.  I felt like a fish out of water and followed my instructions with a rabbit in the headlines automation that I’ve seen on so many faces as they clutched the testament in sweaty fingers to say words that have suddenly developed a whole lot of meaning.

It was only five minutes and it wouldn’t have made my court report if I’d been sitting with the press but from where I was sitting it felt like the world had flipped on it’s access for a day and was all hopelessly unfamiliar.  The next day I was back in the press benches and back in Dublin.  It felt damned good.

A New Year and a New Decade

2010 has arrived and I’m feeling optimistic.  It’s been an incredible roller coaster of a decade but I’m ready for something new.

As we went into the new millennium I wasn’t married and I hadn’t graduated college. Both those happened in 2000 and I’m hoping 2010 will be just as exciting.  Over the past ten years there have been ups and downs but I’m happy with where I am now – it’s all to play for.

In the last few years I’ve started working in the courts and had my first book published.  My first novel is with my agent and I’ve high hopes that 2010 will be the year it finds a publisher.  Looking back on where I’ve come from I’m proud of where I am and confident of where I can get…one day.

So I’m sharing my New Years Resolutions in the hope that, once they’re out in the world I won’t be able to back out of them.

First on the list is a commitment to write.  Quite apart from the freelancing I already do I want to get more disciplined about fiction writing.  I’ve been talking for ages about posting short stories on this blog to give you readers an idea of the non court reporting stuff I do so that’s resolution number 1.  At least one story to be up on the blog each month.

Next I have to look to my next fiction project.  If Book 1 finds a publisher I’ll probably have to start work on the sequel (it’s the first of a trilogy) but these things can take time so I’ve another book to be working on in the meantime.  I know my characters and have a strong plot outline…what I need to do now is start seriously drafting it.

With all this fiction to be written, on top of the day job, I think resolution 3 ought to be to do with the blog.  I’ve ideas to expand it, including podcasting and possibly themed posts but at the moment all I’m committing to is at least three posts a week – I’ll be aiming for daily but if deadlines loom I’m afraid the paying gigs get priority!

Finally one of those grandiose resolutions that really don’t have any major bearing on day to day living.  I’m resolving to have faith that all this will work.  That even on the slack days when I’ve no commissions and the fiction looks like nothing more than a pipe dream, I will trust that this is all going somewhere and I’m not wasting my time.  It’s so easy to have doubts but I’m going to try to keep them to a minimum this year.

I’ll try and keep all of these resolutions and a few more I’m not sharing.  It’s a good time for promises and this year anything seems possible.

Back in the Saddle

After a break of several months I’m back into murder mode this week.  Next week I’m back in court for a trial and this week I contributed to a new series on murder that’ll be shown in the New Year.  After spending the summer working on fantasy, this week reality came back with a bang.

Normally when I’m working I flit between journalism and fiction easily enough.  I’m used to working on both so it’s a question of what the circumstances demand and I can flick from one to the other pretty easily.  This summer however I had the luxury of writing only fiction.  The courts were on their summer recess and I had an October deadline to get my novel ready for my agent to send around publishers.  I was free to spend my days in a world of my own creation, working on my characters and my plots…all those things that you don’t get to create as a journalist.  One or two have tried but that’s not my way of doing things at all!

So I’ve been writing fiction for the past couple of months, doing the whole writer thing, sitting in my pajamas, drinking too much coffee and hardly leaving the house.  It’s quite different from what’s generally required in journalism.

But that little idyll is now at an end and the day job beckons.  Maybe one day I’ll make enough money from fiction to hang up the Press hat for good but for the moment the media is well and truly the day job.

It’s been a nice break but now I’m back to juggling.

The Closure of INN

Last night the passing of an Irish media institution was marked.  Independent Network News or INN had provided news bulletins for local stations around the country for the past twelve years.  It had formed in 1997 after the two Dublin stations, FM 104 and 98FM, who had previously provided the service banded together to provide a single service for the country.

It’s been the starting point of many a career, my own included, but at the beginning of the month it was announced that the service was to close with the loss of all jobs there.  Staff found out they were out of a job when they heard it on the national RTE lunchtime radio news.

Staff, backed by the journalists’ union, the NUJ, did what they could but last night the staff and colleagues from throughout the industry met to mark the closure.

Journalism can be a really shitty business sometimes.

That’s about all I can say on the subject.  I’m not going into the whys and wherefores here but my thoughts are with my friends and colleagues who lost their jobs yesterday.  It was a dark day for Irish media.

I’ll leave the last word to INN themselves.  The final bulletin, read by news editor Richie Cullen, which was broadcast at 12 midnight, last night October 30th 2009.

On the Perfect Trial and the Bane of Tax Returns

I haven’t been writing about murder here much for the past few months.  There’s a reason for that.  Apart from the fact I’ve been busily immersed in a fantasy of my own creation (the book I’ve been working on not some kind of breakdown) it’s been very quiet in that department since July.

The courts summer break, through August and September, is always a quiet period.  It’s one of the things I love about working down there…I have two clear months every year to write without a daily deadline.  Last year I wrote Devil in the Red Dress, this year I spent the months editing my novel.

The courts have been back since the beginning of October but it’s been a slow start. The trials passing through the doors of the Central Criminal court haven’t been the type that would easily tempt an editor.  One of the least savoury aspects of this job is the fact that you rapidly start to see trials from an almost commercial standpoint.  There are certain cases that get everyone talking, the one’s with the “water cooler” edge and those are the ones you look out for.

It’s not that journalists are unnecessarily ghoulish, it’s just that we know the trials the public want to read about.  Cases with elements that mark them out of the ordinary so that they stand apart from the standard details of these brutal crimes.  It’s a sad fact that familiarity really does breed contempt so if there are too many of a particular type of trial the public, and consequently the press lose interest.  Every murder used to be big news in the days when there were only a couple a year.  These days we can have one a day so the process of selection begins.  Anything unusual about a trial will elevate it to something of interest.  The bigger the violence, the tragedy or the irony the bigger the splash will be.  It’s not unusual, the selection process was no different in the Victorian press, even if the style of writing may have changed over the years.

Anyway, trials like this have been thin on the ground since the courts went back.  It might seem as though there is always a big murder in the news but that’s not always the case.  There can be a run of trials at some times and nothing for months at others.

So here I am at home waiting on news of one book and the next one not yet started.  This is a time to catch up with all the minutiae of self employed life; updating the diary, filing notes and cuttings, filling in tax returns.  Tax returns are the bane of the self employed existence.  I’m not organised enough to find myself an accountant ahead of the deadline so in the middle of October you’ll find me up to my elbows in receipts, tearing my hair out and shouting at my calculator.  I like the freelance life but taxes are our penance for a bit of freedom.

If you’ve never filled out a return you are very, very lucky.  It’s a labarynthine form and if you’re not mathmatically inclined or, I’m increasingly inclined to thing, in possession of a qualification in advanced cryptography, trying to understand them is like trying to run while waist deep in mud.  They’re doable, eventually, but at the end I always feel as if I’ve handed over a portion of my soul as well as a chunk of my bank balance.

Speaking of which I’d better get back to them.

Lively Debate

Last night I went  to the inaugural Insight Debate at the National College of Ireland.  It’s not something I’d normally have gone to (my college days are long behind me and there never seems to be any time) but as the motion was “this house believes that the scales of justice are tilted towards the criminal” I made the effort.

Given the day job it was a subject that I’m more than familiar with and one that often comes up in the courts   – prolonged exposure to the court beat tends to send people either to the right or the left so discussions can get heated.  Even in the controlled circumstances of a formal debate structure like last night, things got heated.

The lecture theatre was packed and there were plenty of familiar faces dotted around.  I was live tweeting the debate, trying to get as many of the main points as I could but once the discussion was opened to the floor it was almost impossible to keep up.

This is a subject that will always get people’s blood up. Crime is something that affects everyone living in a society and we can’t avoid the latest escapades of a bewildering array of miscreants that seem to keep some red tops in business.   Now granted, for me, a substantial drop in the crime rate would be fairly disastrous for the bank balance but it’s impossible to sit through trial after trial, especially at Circuit Court level, without forming some opinions about whether or not the criminal justice system works or not.

As I said, it’s a topic that comes up fairly frequently among my colleagues and I’ve often heard the opinion that working the court beat can actually make you sleep safer in your bed.  It really is a case of the devil you know.  You realise that the gardai, for the most part, do their jobs well and there are a lot less miscarriages of justice than you might previously have thought.  Even though I’ve written here about some of the more peculiar decisions that are made in the courts, the reason I comment on them is because they are peculiar.

More often than not once you’ve sat through the horrific details of some crime with the absolute certainty that the tattooed thug beside you did everything he was accused of and probably more, you have the satisfaction of seeing a conviction at the end of it.  Juries might be subject to certain flights of lunacy on occasion but for the vast majority of the time the bad guys go to jail and the innocent men walk free.  It doesn’t always work but it mostly does and it’s the safest system we have.  Having 12 random men and women who will not look on court proceeding with the jaundiced eyes that familiarity can breed, is a hell of a lot fairer for all concerned than any alternative I can think of.

It was fascinating to watch the debate and hear the comments that came from the floor.  Certain issues stood out through repitition and showed current preoccupations.  Rather unsurprisingly the subject of white collar crime was a recurring theme.  It seemed to be a general consensus that many in the audience, regardless of which side of the motion they came down on, would rather see the prisons full of bankers than many of the others who currently lodge there.  I could be wrong but I think that every speaker made a crack about John O’Donoghue’s ignominious departure from the post of Ceann Comhairle earlier this week.  I get the feeling though that jokes about expenses are going to be satirical currency for many months, if not years, to come.

The idea of treating those who end up in the criminal justice system through disadvantage and drug addiction with a degree of compassion is one you see a lot in the Circuit courts.  The idea that there are people who wouldn’t commit crimes if they could kick the drugs comes easily if you listen to sentencing after sentencing where the defence mitigation speech sounds the same.  Education for those in the lowest economic groups and access for treatment for those who become addicted to expensive drug habits with no way to support them, would appear to be a no brainer.

The idea that those involved in the criminal justice system need to be treated like human beings instead of numbers arose on both sides of the debate.  The more vulnerable amoung those accused of crimes deserve a way to get themselves out of the hole they are in and the system needs it’s checks and balances to ensure that those accused of a crime get a properly fair trial.  We’re back to the jury on this, and the presumption of innocence.

This presumption is the cornerstone of Irish justice.  It’s the way we do things here and it’s a far more dignified way to treat those in the dock.  Even the dock in Irish courts no longer exists so that the accused is not stigmatised by having a set place to sit.  OK so in practice they all sit in the same place, that seat formally known as the dock, but the principal is there.

The presumption of innocence seems to be the hardest part for those affected by crime to grasp.  Why should someone who you know has done you wrong, because you were there or because you know the facts of the case, get to be treated like an innocent man.

I know it can be difficult for victims families in a murder trial when the accused swans in through the Four Courts gates ahead of them each morning before the trial.  They find it galling to watch the defence successfully exclude reams of evidence that make up part of the complex case the gardai have painstakingly built.  I can’t comment on the wrongs and rights of the evidence and the bail but while a trial is ongoing all you can if you are there to see justice for your loved one, is trust that things will work out.  Most of the time they do.

It must be hard to watch someone you believe to be guilty treated with kid gloves but better that than an innocent man treated like the devil himself.

The flip side of this issue, which was returned to time and again by both the audience and the team proposing the motion, is that of victims rights.  Ger Philpott from Advocates for Victims of Homicide (AdVic), spoke movingly of his experiences of the justice system as he watched the trial of the men accused of the murder of his nephew Russell Deane.

I’ve seen mothers of those killed thrown out of the court for crying as the story of their child’s last moments is recounted to the court.  I know why their displays of emotion don’t play well with the defence but it’s always one of the most awkward bits of a trial when it happens.  Victims don’t really have a place in the prosecution of a case.  If they weren’t around for the events leading to their relation’s death they might not even be called as a witness. Often the only thing they can do is provide a victim impact statement at the very end, once a conviction has been secured.  I’ve seen some very nasty characters indeed milk their status as an innocent defendant as a blatant way of twisting the hearts of  their victims even more.

Crime by it’s very nature hurts those it happens to.  Those wounds run deep and the criminal justice system doesn’t always help the healing process – one of the points thrown up the the audience was that even data protection legislation conspires against victims of violent crime and their families.  Under these rules the gardai are forbidden from passing on their details to some of the support groups set up expressly to help them.

It was perhaps inevitable that the ayes would have it and the motion would pass.  Our justice system is a complex thing built over centuries, in need of modernisation and streamlining perhaps but for the moment it’s the one we have to work with.  When we read about the criminal gangs who maim, kill and wreak lives,  then terrify those who could be witnesses to send them away it’s hard not to feel that this world we live in is a dark one indeed.  We can be passionate about human rights and justice but if crime comes into your life it’s hard to keep that objectivity.  It was great to see the subject debated so thoroughly though.  It’s always good to challenge viewpoints and I’ll look forward to the next debate with interest.

I’m just playing around with some of the ideas thrown out last night here.  I’m not saying which side I voted for merely continuing the discussion.  Feel free to join in!

Victim Impact Statements Hit a Nerve

Ronnie Dunbar’s trial was always going to be contentious.  Whenever a grown man is accused of harming a young girl feelings run high.  Dunbar was found guilty of the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon at the end of a six week trial in May.  Her family reacted angrily to the verdict and there was certainly surprise at the jury’s decision in some quarters.  They came to their conclusion after hearing the evidence in the trial and after due deliberation and there is nothing anyone can say or do about that.

Well the jury have done their job and today, at the sentence hearing all attention was on the trial judge Mr Barry White who must decide the length of sentence Ronnie Dunbar will now serve.  The Mahon family were out in force.  Melissa’s parents, Freddie and Mary Mahon sat together as they had through most of the trial.  Eight of their nine children surrounded them in the packed courtroom.

During the trial the family had come under certain criticism with evidence that Mary Mahon had a somewhat volatile relationship with her youngest daughter and had initially been less than forthcoming with gardai investigating her disappearance.  She had told them that Melissa was staying with family in the UK when they came looking for hints about where the vulnerable 14-year-old had vanished to in September 2006.  She refused to tell them who had told her Melissa might be in the UK and also refused to give a statement, saying that Melissa’s disappearance was the responsibility of the HSE from whose care she had been lost.

Today Mr Justice Barry White said that he found the victim impact statement Mary had prepared to be “disingenuous in the extreme”.  He told prosecuting counsel Isobel Kennedy that he could not prevent her from reading it out but asked that evidence of the Mahon’s family’s attitude towards the investigation be read into the record.

The witness impact statement was duly read to the court.  Mary Mahon had filled out the standard form succinctly giving details of the physical effects of Melissa’s disappearance and death.  In blunt language she had put that she herself had been depressed from a very early stage in the investigation and had tried to take her own life by taking an overdose.  Her husband had saved her but would not now allow pills into the house.  She said that her two youngest daughters had turned to self harm and had received treatment from their local GP although she herself had preferred to deal with the trauma in her own way without seeking medical attention.

In the brief statement she said that the whole situation had an emotional effect on the entire family both in England and Ireland.  “My whole life is gone.  She was my baby.  Our whole life has been torn apart by the loss of our baby Melissa.”

Mr Justice White had already asked the DPP to find similar cases that could help him determine a sentence in a case involving such a vulnerable youngster.  Isobel Kennedy told him that there had been no cases quite like this one but listed several familiar names, most notably Wayne O’Donohue, the teenager who was convicted of the manslaughter of 11-year-old Robert Hollohan in January 2006.  O’Donoghue was sentenced to four years in prison.

Dunbar’s defence team say that the O’Donoghue case has the greatest similarity to their client’s plight and senior counsel Brendan Grehan has repeatedly mentioned the issue of involuntary manslaughter, although no evidence was produced during the trial outlining how Melissa Mahon’s accidental death could have occurred.  Today Mr Grehan repeatedly objected to Ms Kennedy’s reading of certain areas of evidence from the trial, areas that had been meant to prove motive for the murder charge discounted by the jury.

The prosecution, on the other hand, were happier to liken Dunbar’s actions in the aftermath of Melissa’s death (as described by his two younger daughters during the trial) to the bloody cover up of the Scissor Sisters after they had killed their mother’s Kenyan lover.

The defence were unhappy with the comparison to such a high profile murder conviction and Brendan Grehan told Judge White that a judge could not hand down a sentence that undermined a jury’s decision.

Technically, manslaughter can carry the same sentence as murder, that of life in prison.  But Mr Justice White will have to determine his sentence according to a complex system of checks and balances, case law and legal precedent.  It was perhaps not particularly surprising that he postponed the sentence until the end of the week.  Ronnie Dunbar will now have to wait until Friday morning to learn his fate.

Speaking to reporters outside the Four Courts Melissa’s parents voiced their anger at the judges comments on Mary Mahon’s victim impact statement.

Mary and Freddie Mahon are not expected to be in court to see the man convicted of their daughter’s killing sent to jail but other members of the family plan to attend.

A Web 2.0 Election

If you’ve worked as a journalist and ever covered an election count with all the boredom and rushes of excitement and pandemonium it’s hard not to get the politics bug.  Yesterday’s elections in Ireland have today provided some of the most interesting counts in years and then there’s the added ghoulish fascination with watching the Government parties take heavy hits.

I’m not working today, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the general news beat and so in line to get sent to a count centre but these days the Net provides so many ways to follow proceedings that you can have the information pretty much as soon as it’s felt on the count centre floor.  It’s at times like these that the immediacy of the social web and the speed and ease that information can now be transmitted and received really come into their own.

I’m a big fan of Twitter.  I’ve tweeted updates of trials I’ve followed in the past and have long been fascinated by the possibilities of the service as way of getting news.  Twitter has hit the headlines in the past when news of major events has spread like wildfire through the community, beating conventional news outlets.  The Mumbai attacks and the Hudson River plane crash were two cases in point and both garnered the site international press attention.

Today, watching the steady stream of chatter from Irish twitterers around the country, was like a virtual equivalent of covering a count.  You’re hearing the chatter, the gossip and the early tallys as well as the comments and the jokes.  Quite a different experience to watching the coverage on TV or listening to the radio.  Of course it helps that Irish twitters are a  media savvy lot and are passionate about what’s going on today.  This election was always going to get people interested with Government approval ratings plummeting and job losses hitting record highs every month.

I watch a lot of media types and bloggers so a fair few were down in the count centres which added to the atmosphere but this really was a day when Twitter came into it’s own.  These days Twitter is often my first port of call when I want to see how a story is developing, maybe it’s because it’s like having access to a wire service at home, but also because I know I can shout out a question and chances are someone will come back with the answer quicker than I could find it through more conventional means.  A day like today is absolutely ideal to see these strengths in action.

All over the country people were tweeting from count centres, giving updates often before they were available through the conventional media.

  1. Christine Bohan
    christinebohan Joe Higgins just elected to Fingal with a surplus of over one thousand #le09
  2. Simon McGarr
    Tupp_Ed RDS awash with Labour, triumphant. Other parties circumspect. #le09
  3. Suzy Byrne
    suzybie Fine Gael to move motion of no confidence in government next week #le09
  4. Emily Tully
    EmilyTully Pat the Cope Gallagher: “Its been a bad day for FF – we expected that” #le09

this quote was brought to you by quoteurl

This is the first time I’ve monitored a story like this entirely online.  I’ve been streaming Newstalk 106’s coverage which was excellent, and available after RTE radio had switched their attention to sport.  They had live coverage from the RDS count centre (the main centre in Dublin) with reports from around the country at regular intervals.  For a station with far smaller resources than RTE they really mobilised well and provided great coverage.

Irishelection.com also provided excellent coverage from the count centres with a live blog of election results which again rivalled the coverage provided by RTE.  It’s great to see online news services providing such great coverage of something like this – it opens up so many possibilities.

In previous elections the only constant coverage would have been RTE television, which is always excellent but it’s only one view.  Being able to follow so many different viewpoints gives a far rounder idea of what’s going on and if you’re slightly obsessive like me, it makes for a fascinating afternoon.

This election has been the first one that can truly be said to have been fought online.  During the campaign candidate after candidate took a leaf out of Obama’s book and fought the fight through Twitter and Facebook.  The list of Irish politicians on Twitter exploded with names like Joe Higgins, Ivana Bacik, Proinsias De Rossa and Eoin Ryan all seeking to woo the twitterverse.  Many of them also courted the Facebook generation with hastily elected pages once the fight had begun.

It seems fitting that their success or demise should be so comprehensively examined in the same places they sought to kiss virtual babies and press virtual flesh.  Certainly from now on the way elections are covered will never be the same.  The traditional Irish media might have been wary of  new fangled social networking in the past but it has finally come of age in Ireland.  This election, new media arguably beat old media when it came to rapidly getting news out there.  Irish election coverage was all the better for it.

An Inconclusive Post Mortem

The post mortem results are always one of the most eagerly awaited pieces of evidence in a murder trial.  It’s where you finally get a picture of how the deceased actually died, what the cause of death was, whether all this ties in with the evidence already heard.  In the case of Melissa Mahon, there wasn’t much to go on.  All State Pathologist Marie Cassidy had to go on were a few bags of bones, fragmented, partially destroyed by the elements that had been on work on her body since it had found it’s way onto the shore of Lough Gill in County Sligo.

As Professor Cassidy pointed out, some of the bones were so badly weathered that she needed the help of an anthropologist to work out what they were.  The tell tale signs that would have confirmed whether or not Melissa was strangled as two of the daughters of the accused have claimed, were absent, as the flesh was absent.  It was impossible to tell whether her face had had the characteristic redness, whether there had been the petechial (or pinpoint) haemorrhages around the face and eyes that tend to be an indication of restricted blood flow.  The tiny hyoid bone that sometimes shows up fractured in these cases was absent.  It was impossible to discount or confirm whether Melissa had been strangled.

She could say that the accounts given by Samantha Conroy and her younger sister, that they had seen Melissa with a red face around the time of death and that her body was “half purple, half white” prior to dumping it would have been consistent with the account they had given. Although she did say that the time period during which Melissa’s post mortem lividity would have developed (the purple and white colouration) would normally have taken an hour or more, rather than the half hour that the youngest Conroy girl described.

Their father, Ronnie Dunbar, also known as Ronald McManus, denies murdering Melissa somewhere in Sligo on an unknown date between 14th and 30th September 2006.  He also denies threatening to kill his daughter Samantha.

The girls had previously described dumping Melissa’s body into the River Bonet.  Skeletal remains, along with a Beauty and the Beast nightdress and a sleeping bag tied up with a blue tie, where found scattered on the shores of Lough Gill some eighteen months after Melissa’s disappearance.  Professor Cassidy told the court that the bones had spent much of their time on dry land, suffering the ravages of the wind and rain and the beating of the sun.

The sleeping bag and the nightdress, she said, were ripped and torn, consistent with the damage that would have been inflicted if some sharp toothed animal, foraging along the wooded shoreline had come across the bag and it’s grim contents and torn it’s way through the body within.  The bones would then have been scattered across a wide expanse of shoreline.

The bones she examined were broken and damaged, as they would have been by this hungry creature, perhaps one of the foxes or badgers that live in the area.  The edges of ribs cracked apart from the spine and the sternal and crunched at the end. Fragments of black cloth found in the area could have been all that was left of the black tracksuit bottoms Melissa was described as wearing when she died.

When the feeding had finished the bones were left to be finally picked clean by the elements.  The sun that baked the bone, making it thin and brittle after it’s watery resting place, the damp that had encouraged the growth of grey mould in the bowl of the scalp.

There wasn’t much left of Melissa by the time the search teams found her.  A few bones, some clumps of hair, a few scattered teeth. Her parents weren’t in court to hear what had become of their daughter’s body.  They’ve absented themselves each time she’s been reduced to those pitiful bones.  Who can blame them?  Post mortem evidence is always shocking, any body left out in the elements will attract animals or insects who do what they are designed to do.  I don’t write this to shock, simply to account for what was said.  The body lay undiscovered for many months, almost long enough to disappear entirely, to be worn away and become a part of the land.

So far we have not heard any DNA evidence so a definite identification is still to come.  We have heard that the teeth found scattered on the shore did not contradict the dental records procured from the UK but that’s as far as it goes.  Even the sleeping bag and nightdress bare no obvious sign that they were wrapped around a dead body.  It remains to be seen what, if anything, the DNA evidence will show.

EDIT:

I’ve noticed that some people have come looking for what happened with the witness who denied going out with Melissa that I tweeted about this morning.  With the grim images left by the post mortem Danny Mills quite slipped my mind for all the rare burst of comedy he gave us this morning.  It’s rare that a witness doesn’t allow a barrister to get a word in edgeways – barristers tend to be rather good at avoiding that kind of thing – but Mr Mills gave both sides a run for their money.  He had only known Melissa for three days he said, never really talked to the girl, last time was when she was being bundled into a garda car.  He had never gone out with her…he’d only met her three times, not even on consecutive days.  He had never been with her in that way…there were only three times he saw her and the last one she left in a garda car.  Danny Mills spoke nineteen to the dozen but was adament about what he had to say.  If I haven’t mentioned it before it was that he’d only met Melissa three times and the last time she was taken away in a garda car.  The diminutive absolutely-not-a-casanova was only on the witness stand for a couple of minutes but what a word filled couple of minutes they were.  Mr Mills I am sorry for having forgotten you.  I hope I have now corrected that.

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