There was the scurrilous story surrounding Liam Lawlor’s death in Moscow. And the unfounded allegations carried by Magill in 2002 that Mary Harney had accepted cash from a businessman. And of course Corkman Denis ‘Starry’ O’Brien’s claims that he gave Bertie Ahern £30,000 in the car park of the Burlington Hotel in 1991.
All of those stories had one common feature: they weren’t true.
And as yesterday’s amazing and frankly farcical events unfolded, you sensed that another story is about to join that growing list — the amazingly compelling and eyebrow-raising story that a serving government minister was a regular snorter of cocaine.
The claim is made in
Justine Delaney Wilson’s book High Society and then buttressed in the RTÉ series of the same name, though the minister is demoted here and is now merely described as Robert the Politician.
However, from the moment Delaney Wilson aired the claim in public, there has been considerable scepticism about it. To be frank, journalists and politicians alike have simply not believed that a Government minister moseyed across the road from Leinster House to Buswells Hotel and admitted to a journalist (with whom he was not familiar) that he was a regular user of cocaine. And all the while, she was recording this and taking down contemporaneous notes.
The holes and contradictions of how this purported interview took place have reached almost cartoon proportions in the past 48 hours. What it unusual and perturbing is that RTÉ has found itself skating on very thin ice when it comes to standing up the claims; and being honest and forthcoming about the information it has at its disposal.
The documentary series itself was appalling television. Not one ‘real life’ cocaine user or dealer was accessed on screen. The approach taken was to reconstruct everything using actors. There is a difficulty with this. You just don’t know what is real. We are given an assurance that everything is true, but have to take Justine Delaney Wilson’s word for it. And everything that we see is based on information that is anonymous, unsubstantiated and unverifiable. How do we verify if a pilot or a judge or a politician took cocaine? We can’t.
Surely, it would not have been too hard to find a few former cocaine users who would be willing to talk openly — for example, male socialite Gavin Lambe Murphy and Irish Independent journalist Ian O’Doherty have both publicly admitted that they snorted cocaine in the past. But the central difficulty was Delaney Wilson’s claim about the minister, the one most people zeroed in on. For weeks, journalists have been asking RTÉ questions about this claim. In its response, RTÉ stated it had “access to the body of material gathered by Ms Delaney Wilson, including listening to taped interview material”.
The clear impression that most journalists took from that was the interview with the minister was taped. And RTÉ did nothing to disabuse newspapers which interpreted it that way last weekend. That’s why the station was accused of misleading yesterday. The response to this from Kevin Dawson, the commissioning editor of factual programmes was puzzling: RTÉ, in defending confidential relationships had “to be relatively economical in terms of what is said”.
Really? Why? Is it justifiable even if it had the effect of misleading journalists to interpret a statement incorrectly and not have it corrected.
As Sean O’Rourke put it in his remarkably tough interview with Dawson yesterday, the full story had to be beaten out of RTÉ.
In essence, it transpired that there was no recording of the minister’s ‘Charlie’ admission. And when O’Rourke played a clip of an interview with Delaney Wilson from October 4 — where she said she recorded the interview with the minister and retained the recording — that’s when the alarm bells started to go off.
It was “troubling”, admitted Dawson. It was more than that. It undermined (fatally) the credibility of the claim. And Gill & Macmillan will also have to explain its comments to the Sunday Times on October 27, when a spokeswoman said the publisher and its lawyers have listened to a recording of the interview with the minister and have kept two copies of this tape.
And to cap it all, Delaney Wilson issued a statement last night through her solicitors in which she claimed that she both recorded the interview and took contemporaneous notes.
And then the gnomic: “I have not retained the digital recording.”
That’s a pity. Because this is another story that just seems too good to be true.