Since the Joe O’Reilly trial in the summer of 2007 the Irish media seem to have managed a “trial of the century” every couple of months. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, it is after all my bread and butter, but it’s got to the stage where you can spot one of these trials long before they ever come to court.
The O’Reilly trial really did have it all from the press’s point of view. There was an attractive young mother, brutally murdered in her own home; the husband, who not only admitted he was the prime suspect but had even appeared suitably suspicious on the country’s biggest chat show and had a whole room dedicated to Star Wars; there was even a mistress who had been called early on the morning of the murder and again shortly after it.
It was a sensational case from as soon as the garda investigation began that only grew more extraordinary through every day of the three week trial some two years later. But trials like that don’t come along very often. Ever since, the media have been trying to find a replacement, a trial that will capture the magic of the Joe Show. A certain type of case seems to fit the bill.
There’s usually an element of class about them – either the accused or the victim will be middle class, from a respectable home. The victim is frequently a young mother, frequently someone who could be described by the colour writers as “the pretty blond…”, the husband is often in the frame. The trials of Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney or John O’Brien all fitted the bill and the media, predictably, went nuts.
I’ve often sat through trials that might have received steady coverage from beginning to end where, nevertheless, I was the only member of the press sitting in court. But when the trial has this magical mix of sex, class and violence you know your working day has just grown by several hours since you will now have to be in court at some ungodly hour simply to get a seat.
The verdict will be characterised by a scrum outside the gates of the Four Courts, a scrum made worse by the fact that many of the papers have decided to send their own photographers and multiple reporters to make sure that every possible angle is covered.
It’s hardly surprising that news editors go nuts for stories that definitely help to sell papers. The Irish public, it seems, simply can’t get enough of true crime. I’ve heard this time and time again when I’ve visited bookshops to sign copies of Devil. Several store managers have told me it’s their fastest selling genre.
It’s been a while since “petite blond mother of two” Sharon Collins was up for conspiring to murder her partner PJ Howard and young Finn Colclough, with his address on the exclusive Waterloo Road, was sentenced just before Christmas. The search is now on for the next big thing.
There are a few possibilities, there always will be those trials that tick the sex and class boxes, as well as the ever present violence one. Before the month is out there will probably be at least one trial that fills the press benches to bursting point and stirs the disapproving commentators who accuse the hacks of glorying in people’s tragedies.
But there lies the question. Have the press over-stepped the mark and made criminal court proceedings into a form of entertainment that a greedy public devours in their daily news or is it simply that in these times we live in there are more news worthy killings than ever before and the press are simply doing their job.
There is a turn of mind, frequently muttered in the winding corridors of the Four Courts by members of the Bar unhappy that they now have to fight for seats with mangy hacks, that we are being overly sensational, introducing an ambulance chasing mentality to those solemn proceedings.
Certainly there have been rather a lot of tragic, blond, passably attractive, relatively young mothers virtually beatified by certain red tops over the past couple of years. Telling the public that these women fall into the “sexy” murder category has certainly boosted sales in certain quarters. These days the facts of a case have to pretty sensational to attract attention if the elements of sex and class are absent.
But then, maybe it’s just that the number of murders passing through the courts these days are so much more than Ireland used to see that the number of cases that tick the tabloid boxes is going to be far higher through simple statistical inevitability. Unfortunately there are some people who kill those they are supposed to love, some men who see murder as an alternative to divorce while others fail to keep violent tempers in check.
Joe O’Reilly might seem to have started an avalanche of sensational murder trials but unfortunately such trials have always and will always appear; journalists and editors will always get excited about a good story and the public will always find human suffering interesting. Maybe one or two women met their deaths while it seemed that the gardai would never have a sufficient case against O’Reilly but the reality is that we live in more violent times and the number of murders in Ireland has increased drastically in the past few years.
2009 will have it’s sensational trials that pack the court rooms with media and public alike and displace barristers who might have wandered in out of professional interest or possibly because they secretly have the same blood lust as the rest of us. They are now a fact of life and until the public stop buying the papers that report on them that’s not going to change.
So all that’s left is to look ahead and spot the next big one then turn up early to get a seat!