Michael Clifford: Media quarrels blow tribunal off course

The Disclosures Tribunal is prone to getting blown off course on a not infrequent basis, writes Michael Clifford

Michael Clifford: Media quarrels blow tribunal off course

Judge Peter Charleton tries hard, within the constraints of the law, to get everybody to focus on the proposed destination, but sometimes that is not easy.

One of the distractions that had been dogging the tribunal of late involves media fallings-out, feuds, and disputes.

For the last two weeks the procession of witnesses has been dominated by members of the fourth estate.

Some have come to deny that they ever heard any of the bad stuff that was flying around about Sgt Maurice McCabe. Others have come to say that they heard all the bad stuff flying around about Sgt Maurice McCabe.

The inquiry is at a stage where it is examining whether a historic, discredited allegation of sexual abuse against the sergeant was used to discredit him and his complaints of malpractice. Former head of the Garda press office, Supt David Taylor, claims that he did just that in 2013-14 on instructions from then-commissioner, Martin Callinan. So far, all of those whom Taylor says he briefed deny it ever happened.

A feature of the procession of journalists has been various personal and professional conflicts that have spilled over into the tribunal.

Yesterday, the editor of the Irish Independent Fionnan Sheahan came in to dispute an allegation from former Sunday Independent editor Anne Harris that Sheahan told her that Sgt McCabe was a paedophile.

It never happened, Sheahan said, in emphatic evidence that included the provision of records and documents which dispute Harris’ timing and premise for him saying any such thing.

Harris’ lawyer, Darren Lehane, challenged Sheahan on his evidence. “You’re saying that Ms Harris came in here and made up lies about you,” he said.

The witness replied: “Her article in the Sunday Business Post said she was at war with INM and in her previous article in the Sunday Times she said she had numerous battles with INM, so I can only take it that she is disgruntled.”

Judge Charleton focused on the apparent disharmony among so many journalists who have come before him.

“This is the fourth direct conflict among journalists… is there anything in the world of journalism that I’m unaware of that might help me in any way about these conflicts… I don’t know if it’s down to sick buildings. Is there any way you can assist me on this?”

“I can’t, chairman,” Sheahan replied, focusing instead on his own conflict with Harris and how he is adamant that his evidence should be preferred.

Earlier this week, RTÉ crime correspondent Paul Reynolds disputed that media academic Colum Kenny had told him that Sgt McCabe was a child abuser. He said the conversation didn’t happen.

“For the last five years Colum Kenny has been writing disparagingly and in a factually incorrect way about me.” And on it goes.

All the disputes involve one journalist claiming to have been briefed about Sgt McCabe to the effect that he was a child abuser, or at least suspected of being one, while the other denies it. At the tribunal, Sgt McCabe, and usually his wife Lorraine, have to sit through constant coupling of his name with the phrase “child abuse” or “paedophile”.

This is necessary in order to examine whether there was a smear campaign, but it can’t be easy to listen to.

While the journalistic spats are of zero value to the deliberations of the chairman of the tribunal, the evidence from journalists is deadly serious.

Supt Taylor provided to the tribunal a list of nine journalists whom he claims to have briefed about McCabe. This list was later expanded to 11 when Taylor was presented with evidence uncovered by tribunal investigators.

All of those whom he named have either denied any such briefing, or claimed privilege.

Taylor has failed to provide any specifics as to where or when he spread the muck about McCabe.

Combined with other features of his evidence, this has lowered his credibility.

However, there remains a curious feature about one aspect of evidence from a number of those Taylor claims to have briefed. These reporters have stated that not just Taylor, but no garda whatsoever passed on negative stuff about McCabe.

This was at a time when it was believed that many elements within the force were discommoded at McCabe’s attempts to highlight malpractice in fixing speeding tickets.

The tribunal has also heard that Callinan personally briefed various individuals — including TD John McGuinness and Comptroller and Auditor general Seamus McCarthy — that McCabe was a child abuser.

Callinan denies this, but in any event the allegations appear to support the belief that McCabe was a thorn in the side of senior management at the time.

Yet no reporter has come forward to say that he or she was similarly briefed.

For some reason, it would appear that reporters who had regular contact with the gardaí were kept in the dark. Perhaps nobody at all in the force who had contact with reporters was discommoded enough to attempt to smear the turbulent sergeant from Co Cavan.

The tribunal sits again next Thursday with its finish line hovering into view.

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