‘I’ve been answering ... to the best of my ability’, journalist tells Charleton Tribunal

A journalist has told the Charleton Tribunal she would not consider sources who provided factual statements about a Garda investigation into allegations against Sgt Maurice McCabe to be smearing the sergeant.

The tribunal is looking at allegations by former Garda press officer Supt David Taylor that he was directed to smear Sgt McCabe. Former commissioners Martin Callinan and Nóirín O’Sullivan deny there was any smear campaign.

Irish Mail on Sunday journalist Debbie McCann told the tribunal she was not negatively briefed by any garda about Sgt McCabe. She said she investigated rumours and learned there had been an investigation following which the DPP directed no prosecution.

The tribunal has heard the DPP said there was no evidence of a crime after a garda investigation following allegations from Miss D in 2006.

Michael McDowell SC, on behalf of Sgt McCabe, asked Ms McCann whether, in saying there was no orchestrated campaign or smear against Sgt McCabe, she was “carefully distinguishing” a smear campaign from a situation where a garda told her a fact about Sgt McCabe.

Ms McCann said nobody had given her the information she received, she went out and sought it.

“I don’t feel like the sources that I got this information from are smearing Sgt McCabe. In my job I ask questions all the time, and I don’t consider the person responding to my questions maligning someone.”

Mr McDowell asked if she had come with “formulaic answers” to mislead the tribunal.

“I absolutely have not, I’ve been answering the questions to the best of my ability in this matter,” she said.

She said she was “a little bit more sceptical of Sgt McCabe” than her colleague Alison O’Reilly.

Ms McCann said when she went to the D home in an attempt to get an interview, she spoke briefly with Mrs D, mother of Miss D. She said Mrs D was “upset”, and “clearly believed something had happened”.

Ms McCann said she could not answer questions about conversations she had with Supt Taylor, as she had an obligation to protect confidential sources.

Mr McDowell said he would make a submission that the tribunal could infer from Ms McCann’s failure to answer questions that Supt Taylor gave her information about Sgt McCabe.

“I absolutely don’t want that inference to be taken,” Ms McCann said.

Ms McCann said she was being asked to disclose conversations that were off the record, and she did not feel she could do that.

Michael O’Higgins SC, for Supt Taylor, said given the number of contacts shown in Supt Taylor’s phone records, it was inconceivable they had not discussed Sgt McCabe when his client was Garda press officer.

Ms McCann said there was ongoing communication, but she could not answer questions relating to conversations with an off the record source.

Ms McCann said that although Supt Taylor had waived his privilege, she did not feel that released her from her obligations, and if she revealed what a source told her, no other source could ever trust her.

Ms McCann said she never spoke to Mr Callinan or Ms O’Sullivan.

Tribunal chairman Mr Justice Peter Charleton told Ms McCann he needed to know the circumstances in which she was claiming journalistic privilege. He told her it might be said this privilege was a smokescreen.

Ms McCann said she was in a difficult position, and if she revealed the contents of conversations with sources, she would not be trusted for the rest of her career.

Questioned by her solicitor Michael Kealey, she said she felt “horrified” when she learned from the tribunal that she was the journalist described by Brendan Howlin in a Dáil speech in February 2017. Mr Howlin had said he had been told a journalist had knowledge of a negative briefing from Ms O’Sullivan against Sgt McCabe.

“I felt I was in the most impossible position because of privilege and everything else,” Ms McCann told Mr Kealey. She said she obtained “factual information that I was provided with. I wasn’t being spun, and it wasn’t information that didn’t happen”.

The tribunal resumes on Monday.

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