Writer and Author

Category: Media (Page 2 of 5)

On Criticism…

Nobody’s going to like everything you write. It’s one of those basic facts that come as a kick to the system the first time you get shot down in flames for putting an opinion into print.  I still vividly remember the first time someone didn’t like something I’d written – it was many years ago on two weeks work experience for the Belfast Herald and Post.  My editor had asked me to write a review of a book of poetry that had come in and, in my youthful enthusiasm I slated it.  I think I used the word “pap”. These days I would never be so mean but back then I was just trying to make an impression.

Well I did make an impression.  The poet was an avid reader of the paper, the local free sheet attached to the Belfast Telegraph.  Within hours of the paper hitting people’s doormats he was on the phone.  My editor made me take the call.  The rest of the office burst out laughing as I turned puce and almost burst into tears because, to be honest, I had it coming.

These days I don’t do many reviews.  I write about people’s lives, and more often than not people’s deaths.  I try to be sensitive to the feelings of those I write about but I can’t do my job if I’m always pulling my punches. 

I’ve worked in the courts for a long time now and I’m used to being careful about what I write.  During a trial there are very clear reasons for doing this – it’s the law.  We do our job under strict rules about what can be reported and what can’t.  I must observe the accused’s presumption of innocence, make sure that any illicit googling from jury members doesn’t find anything prejudicial and I must respect the privacy of anyone under 18 or the accused or the victim of a sex crime.  I can write anything that has been said in front of the jury as long as it’s within these rules.  Until the verdict.

After the verdict – as long as it’s guilty- I can write with considerably more freedom.  I can write about what happened when the jury were sent out of the court and any prior nefarious dealings of the convicted, as long as I get my facts right.  I can also say what I think about the verdict or the trial.  This is where people sometimes get upset.

I can only write what I see and comment on my own observations.  I’ve sat through a great many trials over the years and watched an awful lot of men and women face the justice system.  I’ve seen psychopaths and sociopaths and bewildered innocents, people who made a monstrous mistake that no backtracking could make go away, people whose worlds had ended in a split second.  I’ve seen lovers and abusers, the dumped, the possessive, the controlling, those who acted in revenge, or defence, or rage.  Like most of my colleagues in the courts, I can usually get a sense of how a trial will go at an early stage, there’s always one verdict that feels right, that seems to finish the unfolding story.

I will generally comment on a verdict only if it’s unexpected but when something doesn’t sit right it should be pointed out.  The justice system is there for all of us and it has to work for people to have the necessary faith in it. 

In the case of Marcio da Silva it was the defence that didn’t sit right.  I’m not for a moment suggesting that da Silva’s legal team did anything but their job but the case they were putting forward was an uncomfortable one.  I’ve written many, many times before about the fact that the only person missing from a murder trial is the victim.  They are present as a collection of biological samples, a battered, fragile body – but everything that made them who they were in life is frozen in a frenzied, final moment, we hear other people’s memories, vested interests.  We have no idea what their final thoughts were, how they felt as life slipped away, regretful, frightened, alone?

The accused is always in front of you during the trial but the deceased is a only blurred snapshot.  They get some sort of voice during the victim impact statement, when their family have an opportunity to put the record straight and again on the steps of the court, with the flashguns blazing and the barrage of microphones.  It’s the way it has to be to ensure that those accused of a crime maintain their presumption of innocence.

When the accused was emotionally involved with the deceased their silence is even more total.  Women who have died at the hands of their partners are often portrayed in the negative.  Before her husband was convicted of her manslaughter, Celine Cawley was painted the domineering bully.  Josalita da Silva was the woman who manipulated men, used them to her own ends.  The accused has the opportunity to put their case forward, the deceased does not. 

So afterward, when the accused has been found guilty we can write about the deceased.  Josalita da Silva died from more than 40 stab wounds.  Marcio da Silva, her flat mate, had attacked her with no warning and no provocation other than her decision to spend the weekend elsewhere.  She was sitting down, at her computer.  He was standing at the kitchen counter by the knife stand.  She was dying before she hit the floor.

The problem is that sometimes,  when I say what I think,  people don’t agree with me.  That’s their prerogative of course but I draw the line when they question my professionalism or my integrity.  I’m a long way away from slagging people off because I want to make an impression.  I know I write about things that matter, life and death, I don’t do that casually.  My job is to tell a story and I will tell it as I see it.  I will take care to write within the law but I will not mince my words because they might offend. 

A Line in the Sand

This Thursday, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  It marks the start of a global campaign of 16 Days of Action.  Here in Ireland the campaign is being spearheaded by Women’s Aid with events running around the country.

Working in the courts you see the grim effects of this violence on a daily basis.  Any regular readers of this blog will know my views on sentencing for sex crimes and on the men who murder the women they are supposed to love.  There has to be a proper line drawn in the sand to show that violence against women is utterly unacceptable.  As long as men like Anton Mulder think they can get away with killing their wives with nothing more than a slap on the wrist that message hasn’t got through.

So many of the trials I’ve covered have been of men accused of killing women.  Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee, Rachel O’Reilly, Siobhan Kearney, Jean Gilbert, Celine Cawley and Sara Neligan all died at the hands of those who were supposed to love them.  But it’s not just loved ones that kill.  The list of victims can be added to, Melissa Mahon, Manuela Riedo, Mamie Walsh, Rebecca French; a litany of women killed by men.  There are countless other women who can’t be named.  Women who lived but who were subjected to such brutality that their lives have been shattered.

I’ve written a post over on The Anti-Room blog on the subject of sentencing for sex crimes.  It’s an important issue.  We need to draw that line in the sand and say it’s not acceptable if it’s ever going to stop.

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.

Facts and Figures

The Courts Service today released their Annual Report for 2009.  As usual it’s always an interesting read for those of us who work down there.  Apart from seeing in black and white how busy it actually was it’s interesting to put things in some kind of context, to see the breakdown of what actually happened in cool columns of statistics rather than the blur of day to day reporting.

It came as no surprise that murders were at their highest level in eight years.  Last year was a pretty hectic one.  53 murders were sent to the Central Criminal Court in 2009 of which 49 were dealt with.  There were 15 guilty pleas leaving 31 cases to go to trial.  Of those 31, three defendants were found not guilty by reason of insanity, one was acquitted and the rest were convicted – which rather puts the lie to the assumption that the majority of murder trials end in acquittal, certainly not my experience.

There were 18 convictions of murder and 22 convictions for other offences, including manslaughter. If those figures don’t seem to add up that would be because the not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts would still result in some form of detention, usually to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.

The 18 murder convictions all received the mandatory life sentence as did one of the manslaughter verdicts (Ronald Dunbar, who was convicted of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon – his appeal is due to be heard soon.) There were another ten sentences of ten years or more.

Looking over the trials I covered last year those figures mean a lot of trials that went under the radar.  For every David Bourke, Ronnie Dunbar or Gerald Barry there many more trials that didn’t peak the media attention and were heard without the fanfare that the high profile trials get.  I’ve written before about the trials that go uncommented. I know there’s been a lot of criticism in recent years of the level of press attention that turns certain murder trials into cause celebres but the flip side of that is that those that lose their lives get their stories told.  I couldn’t list off the names of the defendants in the trials I didn’t cover, let alone the victims.

The only type of criminal trial that was down in numbers was rape down 37% from the 2008 figure of 78.  Before you get excited that’s not as positive as it sounds.  There were still 52 cases in front of the courts.  18 ended with guilty pleas but 25 went forward to trial.  Of the 21 sentences imposed there were 3 life sentences, 5 over 12 years and the rest between 5 and 12 years.

I’ve written at length here in the past about the low sentencing for sex crimes in this country and these figures bear that out.  Rape isn’t an offence that has an inbuilt lesser charge like the majority of murder trials.  You are either guilty or you’re not.  To give someone convicted of rape a mere five years is ridiculously lenient.  I’ve covered a lot of rape trials in the past and I’m well aware that there are different degrees of aggression involved but rape is rape.

Of the life sentences given last year, two of them were to the same person, Gerald Barry.  He had already been convicted of the brutal murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway and was later sentenced on two counts of rape for his hauntingly similar attack on a French student only a few short weeks before he killed Manuela.  I was at that sentencing in Galway.  Judge Paul Carney told Barry that he had no hesitation giving him life sentences on both counts and expressed the view that for someone like him the carrot of the automatic quarter off his sentence that every prisoner receives was a waste of time.

But this means that only one other rapist was given a life sentence, the maximum any of the others received was 12 years.  Life is the maximum sentence that can be given for rape but based on these figures you’d pretty much have to go on to kill to be given it.  But I digress.

In the Circuit Court the bulk of the cases were theft and robbery.  Up by 28% since 2008, there were over 1500 dealt with.  The next largest category was assault, up 5% to 1100, followed by drugs offences, approaching the 1000 mark and up by a depressing 23%.  The most shocking jump is the rise in child abuse and child trafficking offences, up from 10 in 2008 to 397 last year, although this leap was due to just two cases each involving over 180 individual offences. However it was only earlier this month that an international report slammed Ireland for it’s record combating child trafficking.

Apart from the crime figures, the main focus of press attention on the report has been concerning the massive increase in debt matters.  Bankruptcies were up by over 100% at 17 and there were almost 70% more orders to have businesses wound up – 128 in total.  This section of the report makes depressing but rather unsurprising reading for anyone who’s picked up a paper over the past twelve months or so.  Numbers in every area have risen except for new businesses – rather unsurprisingly there weren’t as many people looking to take out restaurant or hotel licenses last year.

The grim economic climate has even made itself felt on matters of the heart.  Divorce, separations and annulments are all down on 2008 as are applications for quickie marriages.  Domestic violence applications are down as well though you can’t help wondering how representative those figures really are.

The Court Service Annual Report always gives an interesting reflection of the state of the country.  It might be a reflection of a moment in time some distance away, given the time things take to get to court but it’s an overview of life that’s difficult to see anywhere else.  The courts reflect the darker sides of society, the rotting underbelly that’s frequently hidden from our gaze. Looking at these figures might give us a slightly twisted view of the world we live in but it’s an accurate one nonetheless and says a lot about where we are, or at least have been, as a country.

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. 

A Matter of Convention

I’m still whizzing round on the publicity merry-go-round for the new book this week.  Today started off with back to back interviews and a reminder that even when you’ve a few interviews under your belt at a time like this you can still get that curve ball thrown at you when you least expect it.

My second interview of the morning was with Declan Meade on the Morning Show on East Coast FM.  I’d been in to talk to Declan when Devil came out so it was nice to be back.  at the end of the interview he asked me a question that had honestly never occurred to me before (an achievement since I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping this book since the trial in January). Why, he asked me, had I referred in the book to Celine Cawley as “Celine” while referring to Eamonn Lillis as “Lillis”.

When you write a true crime book there are a lot of things to take into consideration.  Quite apart from the fact you have to make sure you get the legal end of things absolutely right and double, and triple check all the factual details there are other, more subtle considerations.  The language you use must be evocative but you’re not writing a work of fiction, it’s a record of an event, a tragic event that has traumatised all those touched by it and that has to be taken into account.

One of the most basic things that you have to decide on are what to refer to the principal characters as.  In a court report of an ongoing trial there are conventions that you tend to stick to.  Witnesses, the deceased and the accused are all referred to by their surname with the appropriate title before hand.  Sometimes, to avoid confusion, say if numerous members of the same family are giving evidence you might resort to first names for clarity but for the most part its the formal title followed by surname.

When you’re writing a book or even a more fluid kind of article this form of address doesn’t always work.  It can sound clunky and artificial.  So you’re left with a choice.  Do you use first names or surnames.  Forenames can sound overly familiar but can feel like a natural choice when you’re talking about the victim, someone to be viewed with sympathy and compassion whose place in the story is to have a tragic ending.

For the convicted however it’s the flip side.  Once they’re marked a killer by the decision of a jury they often lose their title, to be referred to ever after by their surname only.  Referring to them by their first name just wouldn’t sound right, so they become the surname with an extra dose of ignominy.

It’s not a hard and fast rule of course.  It can depend on the house style of the publisher or publication you’re writing for, sometimes everyone gets the surname approach although it’s generally not the other way around.

When I was asked the question I wondered briefly was I actually calling Celine Cawley by her first name because she was a woman. I know that when I was writing Devil and when I’ve written about both cases on this blog it’s been first names all the way.  I don’t think it’s as simple as that though.  I frequently refer to people who’ve played principal parts in the trials I’ve covered by their first names, mainly because I write in a more informal style here and it just sounds better.

There might be an element as well of the fact that when I’m writing about a case in depth it’s very hard not to develop a distance from the subject as you chisel the words into shape.  I know when I’ve written true crime I think about the people and situations I’m describing in much the same way I would think about characters and plots when I write fiction.  I’m aware that I’m talking about real events but to shape them into book form I need to treat them in the same way I would the raw material for any other kind of book.

It was a question that really got me thinking – always great when that happens.  I’d love to hear what you think on the subject, weigh in with your own thoughts please – I’m perhaps too close to the subject by now and can’t see the wood from the trees.

In the Spotlight

Death on the Hill hit the shops this week.  To coincide with this I’ve been hitting the publicity trail.  The last week has passed in a blur of corridors and studios and next week promises to be no different.  It’s a necessary part of bringing out a book but it’s one of the more surreal parts of the job.

As a journalist I’ve been in a fair few studios over the years.  I started out working in radio and it’s great to get the chance to be sitting in front of a mic again albeit on the other side of the desk.  It’s strange to be answering questions rather than asking them and being an item on the running order, a part of the story.

It’s very different from the daily business of court reporting.  Taking notes, checking facts, always on watch to catch the smallest detail that will make the picture that you paint at the end of the day all the more vivid.  It’s quite a passive line of work, an observer not a contributor.  Definitely not a position that tends to land in the spotlight.

Of course when you write a book it’s a different matter entirely.  You’re no longer simply a story in the paper, waiting for tomorrow’s chips.  You’ve pinned your colours to the mast and embarked on a project that involves, of necessity, some hard sell.  Suddenly you’re flashing a smile and plugging away and getting ever more removed from the violent facts that you’re recounting.

Covering murder is an odd business.  When you do the job for any length of time you develop armour so that the gory details slide off you like drops off an umbrella.  You become flippant when faced with brutality, treating each tragedy lightly because it’ll only be followed by another.  That’s not that you don’t have compassion, just that it get’s rationed, metered in the face of relentless details that bleed into one another as trial follows trial follows trial.

The details of each successive trial settle on each other until your brain is clogged by the fallen details of dozens of deaths, dozens of post mortems.  You learn to leave the job at the end of the day and put aside the details and the pain of the victims and their families but your sense of humour gets a blackened edge and gallows laugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job – well love is probably the wrong term, but it’s what I do and the work suits me. But when you’re selling a book it tends to come home that while you are happy to have a book with your name on it you’re also constantly retelling somebody else’s personal tragedy with each bright and breezy interview.  It’s more than a little surreal.

All you can do is try to keep the balance.  A balance between the book I’ve written, telling a story as a writer and a journalist, and the dark, tragic truth at the centre of it.  It’s the nature of this kind of book.  Most of the time I don’t navel gaze but when I find myself sitting in another corridor waiting to go on air to do another interview it can get a little introspective.  Tomorrow starts with two such corridors.  You have been warned.

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.

An Issue of Privacy

The big legal story of the day is definitely the action being taken by convicted serial rapist Michael Murray to safeguard his privacy.

49-year-old Murray, who raped four women in a six day period in 1995, says he has been hounded by the press since his release from prison last year.  He says he can’t take part in any meaningful rehabilitation programme when there are snappers hiding in the bushes wherever he goes and can’t even stay living in the same place.  They say the public has the right to know where a serial sex offender is living.

Today was only the first day of the case so there’ll be a long wait to see what the court rules.  It’ll be a judgement that anyone who covers the courts or crime will be watching with interest.  Crime stories are big news in Ireland.  Covering the big trials over the past few years I’ve grown used to seeing scrums outside the court after a verdict that would rival those usually reserved for Hollywood stars.  Certainly a lot of the more paparazzi shots that appear in the papers are to do with crime lords rather than movie stars. 

I’d be out of work if that interest wasn’t there but when it comes to privacy there’s a whole different can of worms.  When photographers chase musicians or actresses they’re chasing people who signed up for the chase.  Sudden celebrity might come as a shock but if you do something that requires you to perform in front of (hopefully) large crowds it kind of goes with the territory.

Those who commit crimes don’t tend to do it for an audience.  They might crave some form of notoriety through their actions but it’s not really the same thing.  Yet once they’ve been identified and especially once they’ve been caught and tried, they become a rather magnetic news story.  This newsworthiness isn’t something that will fade with their looks.  Once they’re convicted they are indelibly linked to their crime.  If the crime was awful, tragic or extravagant then public interest in it will remain and so will journalistic interest.

Take Wayne O’Donoghue for example.  Convicted in 2006 to four years for the manslaughter of his 11-year-old neighbour Robert Holohan, O’Donoghue was released from prison in February 2008 after serving three years.  It had been a trial that hit all the front pages and passed into legal history when his mother Majella made certain allegations in her victim impact statement. Because of these comments this is a trial that tends to be raised any time there’s a discussion about victim impact statements and it remains fresh in the public mind.

Wayne O’Donoghue left the country after his release but as recently as this January the Sunday World ran a story about his new girlfriend.  Joe O’Reilly’s girlfriend Nicki Pelley has been a regular tabloid fixture, photographed every now and then because she stuck by the man who was convicted of the brutal murder of his wife Rachel.

As long as the names of those convicted sell papers when they appear on the front page the press will keep their interest.  That’s how newspapers work.  When Sharon Collins, the subject of my first book Devil in the Red Dress, is released from jail the photographers will be waiting to see if her proposed victim PJ Howard is waiting to whisk her off to some Spanish villa.  When Eamonn Lillis (subject of the latest book) has served his time there’ll be those wanting to see what he does next.  There’ll probably also be those who are curious to see whether his former mistress Jean Treacy gets the Italian wedding she was planning while she was cheating on her fiancé with Lillis.  The list goes on and on.

This is the nature of news.  If something’s a story it’s a story.  It might not be pleasant for those caught in the crosshairs but that’s the way it works.  It may seem sordid or even rather repellent but these stories have been filling newspapers as long as there have been newspapers.  But however you feel about the examples I’ve given what about those who have committed the really, really bad stuff…like Michael Murray, who raped four women in less than a week and whose own counsel describes as an “abnormal risk to the community”? 

He served time for his crimes, his debt to society as decided by the courts.  Is he entitled to privacy?  A quick Google throws up some of the stories that obviously caused offence, stories of day trips to Bray, security alerts.  When you look at the results Google throws up it certain gives the impression that he has had very little time since his release when he wasn’t being watched by a press posse.  He’s not the first to receive this treatment but depending on the outcome of this case he could be one of the last. 

These are the stories that lead to calls for a sex offenders register, for the public to have more, not less information about who lives close to them.  But privacy is the right of every individual and that causes a problem.  It’s going to be very interesting indeed to see how the Michael Murray case works out.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time I post on the subject.

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