Alison O’Connor.


Sordid tales of sexual violence are robbing us of our humanity

I feel defiled having listened to the graphic and disturbing detail in the murder trial of Graham Dwyer, writes Alison O’Connor.

Sordid tales of sexual violence are robbing us of our humanity

The shock at hearing the words being uttered on the 1pm news on Radio One at the beginning of the trial remain with me. There was no warning whatsoever of what we were about to be told. From then until now it has been constant sprints across the kitchen to turn the radio off as the headlines come on so as to ensure that the children don’t get to hear any of the unspeakably awful detail.

But it is not just those who are underage who should be protected from the circumstances of this case, and others like it, but adults who also simply do not wish to hear it.

It is difficult not to conclude that our society has coarsened to a horrible extent when we have this sort of detail bandied about publicly and that you hear it, even when you didn’t wish to, and have to work very proactively to ensure that young ears do not get to overhear it.

There were also times that you stood stock still and listened to the gory details, somehow transfixed by what was being reported, feeling voyeuristically sick, but unable to hit the off button. God bless my innocence, I thought on more than one occasion, and would immediately find myself wishing that it was still intact and that I had not heard a particular element of the case involving stabbing or enslavement.

At the start of this trial Judge Tony Hunt said the case was “not for the squeamish” and nobody could accuse him of exaggeration.

He and the jurors and the legal representatives and the journalists could probably all do with some form of therapy having sat through what they did for the last few months. In my opinion the members of the public who simply went along out of prurient interest may have needed that therapy beforehand.

How horrendous for the family of Elaine O’Hara to have this added burden of public interest, with the most intimate details of their daughter/sister, who had serious mental health issues, so exposed. How horrendous also for the family of Graham Dwyer, for his wife, his children, his father who attended court each day. How does one rebuild a life after such a devastating experience? How did this serve to do any justice to Elaine O’Hara, with her name becoming synonymous with utterly weird and depraved sexual activities.

The media has a duty of what we might call “moral soundness” and to upholding that with sensitivity, or a social responsibility, when covering cases such as this one. Applying freedom of expression to its nth degree can mean that others end up being violated.

This is not to ignore that responsibility of the media to perform its constitutional responsibility of covering the courts, and publishing what happens in them. The former Chief Justice Ronan Keane said following the Catherine Nevin murder trial, after the Supreme Court overturned a High Court ban on contemporaneous media coverage of the Nevin case, that justice must be administered in public.

It must not be administered in public, said the judge, to satisfy the “merely prurient or mindlessly inquisitive”, because if it were not, an essential feature of a truly democratic society would be missing. I couldn’t agree more, but with that agreement there is a big but, especially following the Dwyer trial, and often when I listen to or read the details of some rape cases. Surely repeated exposure to this level of detail can lead to a de-sensitisation of us all.

There is no end to the studies available that show repeated exposure by young people to violent scenes, especially in video games and on television, can lead to a form of learning in which we decrease or cease to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations.

The same can be said of viewing pornography and as that viewing becomes more hardcore, that which is being viewed becoming more the “norm” for the viewer, who then develops an expectation that this is how women should behave in real life and how sexual relationships should be conducted. This clearly touches on the nature of the sado/masochistic relationship between Graham Dwyer and Elaine O’Hara relayed in the trial, but it is mere speculation and a whole other column, to wonder where these perversions originated.

There is the added element, as there is in cases of sexual assault, where intimate details are given, of some people getting perverse kicks out of hearing these details.

The broadcast media may have begun issuing warnings a few days into the trial, ahead of running a trial report, but I do believe that if it were just a few years ago the detail of this trial simply would not have been broadcast in full, and justice would not have suffered for it.

This is not something which is easily legislated for and indeed it would most likely be impossible to legislate on it. How much to publish ends up being a matter of individual decision making by an editor. Of course it would be hard to decide on where to draw the line, especially at a time when the media and particularly newspapers are under such financial pressure. Like it or not a case like this will sell more papers.

But there must be a better way to balance the need for justice to be done in public and for the privacy of a victim and their family to be protected.

There is also the personal responsibility in choosing not to click on a link, or not to read something, simply because it presents itself to us. It may sound prudish but I always try, when there is a controversy surrounding topless photographs, or ones of nude actresses robbed from the “cloud” and shared all over the net, or simply an actress dropping her kids off at school makeupless and committing the “sin” of looking apparently wrecked, not to fall for the click bait.

Because when I do I feel it simply diminishes me, because I know I am susceptible, my main source of online entertainment would involve looking at other humans being humiliated and held up for ridicule. Clearly there are women’s magazine’s that have been carrying these “wall of shame” photographs for years, but again the internet has brought it to a whole new level.

The repercussions from this trial will be felt for a long time. It will be something which the two families involved will sadly never fully get over. But as a society we have valuable lessons to learn from it, not least that we are not better off knowing everything there is to know.

If it were just a few years ago the detail of this trial simply would not have been broadcast in full

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