Writer and Author

Tag: Gerry Ryan

Broadcasting from the Water Cooler?

Twitter’s got itself in the news again this weekend. Once again people have had cause to realise what a powerful tool for the dissemination of information the social networking site is.  At this stage Twitter has become mainstream and yet it’s still new enough that the issues it raises – the reliability of it as a source, the ethics of news breaking so quickly, the awesome power of this brand new form of broadcasting – are still to be hammered out satisfactorily.

The latest thing to throw the spotlight on the little blue bird is of course the way that the death of Gerry Ryan, one of Ireland’s foremost figures of broadcasting, spread like wildfire even before the news had been officially confirmed.

In fairness there’s always been a way of doing these things. Stories have to be confirmed before they’re made public and I can still vividly remember spending a very late night as a journalism student watching the Sky newsreader struggle not to break the news of Princess Diana’s death.  We had happened across the story quite early on, when it was still a serious car accident in Paris involving a man and a woman. Even with those meagre details it was obvious from the prominence the story was being given that someone very well known had been in the crash and we decided to stay with the story.

Eventually they confirmed the fact that it was Diana but it was a considerable time before they confirmed she was dead.  I remember watching the newsreader’s face crumble for a split second as the early confirmation came in his ear but he carried on for more than half an hour before he could share the news with his audience.

Twitter is as ever present as those 24 hour news bulletins but it’s far more anarchic in the way it operates. It’s not treated as the on air studio, it’s more the office water cooler.  People go there to vent and to comment and to enjoy a freedom that isn’t normally available to working journalists outside the ranks of colleagues who physically share the scene. Maybe we shouldn’t think of it that way but we do, that’s just the way it works.

Journalists are naturally gossipy creatures and it ‘s the most natural thing in the world for us to want to share what we know around the water cooler.  But with Twitter the water cooler has moved into that on air studio and broadcasting has become open to everyone.  There’s a very good reason for that bright red ON AIR light in any studio. It reminds us that people are listening.  With Twitter there’s no red light and sometimes people are going to forget.  It’s natural and it’s human nature.

There are good reasons why news organisations hold back on reporting deaths.  The main one is to allow the family the basic human dignity of hearing the news directly.  It’s brutal enough when news like that is broken by the arrival of sympathetic gardai, to hear it at the same time of hundreds of thousands of other people is just too cruel. However, when the death is as high profile as that of Gerry Ryan journalistic instincts can over ride caution.  It’s hard to describe what it means to break a story if you’re not a journalist but it’s such an intrinsic part of the job it becomes an almost physical urge that goes beyond merely doing the job you’re paid for. It’s the heart of what we do and that race to the finish can be – I hesitate to say addictive because I don’t want to be taken up wrong but it’s probably the best word for that feeling.

Twitter is the kind of place where you want to share a story that big. The first journalist to really break the news was Sunday Business Post journalist Adrian Weckler, he’s written about what happened on his blog here.  There are a lot of Irish journos on Twitter these days and everyone jumped on the story.  As the details emerged the debate was already raging about whether Weckler had been right to confirm the details before there had been any official confirmation.  Una Mullally, writing in the Sunday Tribune, has written about what happened and she goes into far more detail than I’m going to.  I know that the news broke where I was, in court, through Twitter but I was late to the story and didn’t get involved.

This isn’t the first time Irish media news has broken on Twitter.  When the INN news agency took the decision to close last year Twitter somehow got the story before the journalists were informed they were about to lose their jobs.  The news spread from Twitter into the mainstream media, just as it did on Friday, and staff listening to the news while they waited for a meeting with management to start, first heard they were out on their ears.

Journalism as we know it is changing rapidly. It’s easy to forget how loud a megaphone Twitter gives you.  I’ve been an active user of Twitter for well over a year and I’ve made friends and contacts there I would have found it very difficult to find anywhere else.  I’m fairly evangelistic about it, I tweet trials and during the recent Eamonn Lillis trial earlier this year that live tweeting really came into it’s own.  I was tweeting from my personal account and being listened to by people in so many different newsrooms not to mention the general public.  It makes you realise that Twitter is more than just a social tool.  It’s a very powerful broadcasting medium.

Now I’m no longer the only journalist tweeting updates from the trials I cover and it’s only a matter of time before the subject comes up for debate within the courtroom. Social media is raising brand new questions about the nature of broadcasting and how journalism is done and some day it’ll need to be discussed properly and ruled on. But I’m not going into the whole issue of live blogging and tweeting in courtrooms. Another time maybe.

What it all boils down to is that the old journalistic adage “If in doubt leave it out”.  If you put out news on Twitter it WILL spread.  If you’re not willing to stand by what you said or have any doubt about it’s veracity don’t Tweet it.  Most of us would do that anyway but there are times on Twitter when you know that your information is solid and you’re left with the decision of whether to share it.

Since we all became our own publishers these questions have become a lot more pressing.  It’s going to be a while before they are all hammered out and even when the talking’s all been done it remains to be seen whether news will ever go back to being something that could be easily embargoed by tacit agreement.  We’re going to see a lot more leaks like this, it’s simply the nature of the beast.

RIP Gerry Ryan

I was sitting in court yesterday listening to the closing speeches in the trial of Sean Keogh and David Curran, which I’m covering for the Sunday Independent. The press bench was fairly full, it usually is as a trial comes to an end and the verdict approaches.

Shortly before 3 o’clock a ripple went through the gathered journalists.  Suddenly people weren’t taking down the particulars of the speeches but instead holding whispered conversations and poring over laptops and mobile phones with feverish intensity.  The barristers continued in full flow to the jury as one by one the journalists got up and left hurriedly.

The speed with which people left their posts was different from the more unhurried reaction when a verdict in another court has come through.  There was an urgency usually reserved for terrorist acts or the deaths of heads of state. Whatever was causing the mass exodus was something of national importance.

What had happened of course was that the news of Gerry Ryan’s death had started filtering through to newsrooms around the capital and those newsrooms were suddenly scrambling every available staff member.  The news first broke on Twitter, I’m not going into the pros and cons of whether those using the social networking site should have broken the news when RTE, Ryan’s employers were holding off to allow for all his family to be notified.  Twitter is the kind of place where it’s impossible to keep a secret, especially one this shocking.

If you’re not familiar with Irish broadcasting, Gerry Ryan was one the genuine stars.  His show on RTE’s 2FM had been one of the biggest shows on Irish radio for over 20 years.  I’d say there are very few people in this country who can honestly say they have never listened to his morning show, whether they tuned in regularly or not.  He was a broadcaster everyone had an opinion of, be it good or bad, but there is no denying the fact that he was well loved by his colleagues and his legion of fans.

Whether you liked his style or not if you’ve ever worked in Irish broadcasting he was one of the ever present big names.  News of his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 53 was genuinely shocking, His passing leaves a sizeable hole in the 2FM schedule that will be extremely difficult to fill. 

I was lucky enough to go on his show just before my book Devil was released in 2008.  In one of the more bizarre twists of the trial, Gerry Ryan and his producer were both called by Sharon Collins’ defence team to be witnesses in the trial.

The day they were called there was excitement in court as we all arrived in to take our seats, passing by the familiar figure in a huddle with the barristers on the far side of the Round Hall.  His evidence, when it came, was brief and somewhat underwhelming.  It concerned one of the most salacious bits of evidence in the trial. An email found on Sharon Collins’ computer, addressed to the show, had detailed accusations of all kinds of sexual kinkiness from an unnamed partner.  The email was being used by the prosecution as proof of intent but the defence were saying it was just a writing exercise that had never been sent.  Gerry Ryan was called to back this up and confirm that he had never read the steamy contents of that email.

He took the stand and answered a few brief questions and the court sat in rapt attention before he and his producer disappeared to catch a plane to wherever they were due to do the show from the following day.  He gave the trial a little sparkle that day and yet another bizarre twist in one of the oddest trials to have passed through the court.

When Collins and her co accused Essam Eid were sentenced in November 2008, just days before the book was due out, I got a call from the Gerry Ryan Show asking me to come on and talk about the trial.  I was over the moon but it was by far the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to, even with a radio background.

I needn’t have worried. He was a brilliant interviewer. The time flew past and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much talking about a Central Criminal Court trial.  He was happy to talk about his own involvement and it was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done.

It’s not much of a connection, a brief 15 minutes or so of shared air time, but it’s what came into my head when I heard he’d died.  Irish broadcasting has lost one of it’s most larger than life characters and a consummate pro.  I can only send my condolences to his family and friends and the colleagues who will also feel his loss acutely.  RIP.

Finally the End Really is in Sight!

So Sharon Collins and Essam Eid woke up this morning knowing how long they’d be looking at the same four walls.  It’s hard to believe that after all this time the story finally has an end.  Now all that’s left was to give my story an end which shouldn’t have been so difficult since they’re one and the same story.

It was a ridiculously busy day yesterday.  The sentence hearing went on most of the day and by the time I finished work it was almost ten o’clock so I was looking forward to a fairly gentle start to the day before settling down to writing.

But some time after 8 the phone rang and there was a voice saying they were calling from the Gerry Ryan Show.  Now Gerry Ryan is one of the top broadcasters in Ireland.  He’s also a pretty integral part of the Sharon Collins story.  One of the most lurid elements of the trial was a certain letter recovered by gardai from the hard drive of one of the computers Sharon had access to.

This letter, only part of which survived, had been written in a fit of pique around April 2006.  It was part of an email to the Gerry Ryan Show and the section that survived was a catalogue of allegations about PJ Howard’s sexual tastes.  Now Sharon has said that these allegations were taken out of context and PJ has said they are just totally untrue but the Gerry Ryan letter is still one of the most distinctive pieces of evidence.

Well today it wasn’t Sharon contacting the show, it was the show contacting me.  I ended up reminiscing with Mr Ryan himself about his appearance in court.  An unexpected start to the day to say the least.  And after the Gerry Ryan Show it was Neil Prendeville on 96FM in Cork to follow up on a piece I did for him before the sentence yesterday…all before 10.30 in the morning.  Then Spin 103 just before 2.  I suppose this is what they mean by publicity – I’m feeling positively over exposed but if it gets The Devil in the Red Dress out to a wider audience then needs must.

But the main work of the day was writing my final chapter.  In fairness this is a story that pretty much tells itself but there was still an awful lot to cover just giving an account of yesterday’s events.

It’s now almost done and now the real work begins.  It’ll be a while yet before I can stop telling this story but I’m beginning to look forward to moving into the next phase of this author business.  Right now though I’m so tired I could fall over so a more in depth post will just have to wait until tomorrow.

On Being a News Subject rather than Reporting It…

Well Devil in the Red Dress has had it’s first public outing.  Yesterday’s Sun and today’s News of the World both talk about a “sensational new book” on their front page – when I first saw the trail for the News of the World got all excited and wanted to know who had written it!

It’s odd reading material from my book as a news story.  I’m so used to being the one reacting to the the news it’s weird being the news myself.  Writing a book puts you in a bubble where it’s easy to forget about the outside world.  You concentrate so much on telling the story that everything else melts away for the duration.  Now we’re getting close to publication it’s all about changing gear and getting out there and selling my tale.

To be honest I’m looking forward to it.  The more I looked into the details set out in the trial the more interesting I found Sharon Collins and Essam Eid.  I spent eight weeks of the day job covering Sharon’s trial for the national and local media, I knew all about the emails, the letters to the Gerry Ryan Show (one of the most famous talk shows on RTE, Ireland’s national radio service), the fact that her lover, one of her three potential victims was standing by her and proved as much by planting a kiss directly on her lips as he left the stand.

At the Central Criminal Court, Sharon was very much the leading lady and there were many days when her co-accused faded into the background, a “patsy” bobbing along in the wake of the great white defendant as his defence counsel put it in his closing speech.  It wasn’t until I started researching The Devil in the Red Dress that I came across the details of another leading lady on the other side of the Atlantic.

Teresa Engle’s trial for extortion in California yielded evidence just as lurid as that in the trial I sat through.  Arguing that she had been pushed into her involvement with Hitmanforhire.net and the subsequent attempts to extort money from the unfortunate “marks” she painted her “husband” Essam Eid as a kinky sadist who made her do all manner of depraved things in bed.  It was news to me, for example, that Eid had neglected to tell his first wife Lisa that he was in favour of polygamy even when he moved wife number 2 into the family house.  Teresa was always referred to as his wife in the Irish courts because that was what she called herself.

I’m looking forward to talking about the weird symmetry that I found looking through the evidence against these two convicted women.  Both of them got involved with a dodgy marriage  – Sharon ordered a Mexican proxy marriage online while Teresa claimed she married Essam bigamously in a Vegas wedding.

Both of them accuse the partners they were so keen to snare of all kinds of sexual perversions (although the only claim that has had any evidence to back it up was the fact that Eid was in the habit of having threesomes with wives 1 & 2 – it was the one thing the wives agreed on in their statements to the FBI).

Finally both women had a staggering determination to get what they wanted. Sharon Collins would trawl the Internet to find someone to bump off her lover and his two sons when he refused to marry her and give her and her own two sons a claim to his millions.  Teresa Engle on the other hand was so desperate to have a baby that she left her husband (who hadn’t told her he’d had a vasectomy), took up with a raging drug addict for a decade with whom she had the longed for baby, then dumps him and goes back to husband number 1, who was a better financial bet to play the kind of happy families she had always wanted to.

It’s a bizarre symmetry but one that gives the ballad of Lying Eyes and Tony Luciano an easy narrative flow that real life doesn’t often have.  Maybe if Sharon Collins had met Teresa Engle under different circumstances (other than when Teresa turned up to give evidence against her) they could even have been friends.

When gardai first heard Sharon’s alibi, a woman called Maria Marconi who she claimed had been teaching her to write a novel but may have really been dating her blackmailer, they thought she and Teresa could have been one and the same.  The description Sharon gave the gardai matches Teresa in all respects other than her hair.  Sharon would tell of her friendship with Marconi rather wistfully…perhaps she could have found it with Teresa Engle.

When I start publicising Devil properly I’m looking forward to telling people about these two mirrored lives and everything else I found out when I researched the story behind the Hitman trial.  But it’s not the same as reporting news.  It’s telling a story certainly but it’s something that other people will report.  It’s all a change of perspective and one that I’m looking forward to.  It’s a great story after all…and one that’s been great fun to write about!

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