I was ex­on­er­ated — but we must act to halt the avalanche of lies and vil­i­fi­ca­tion

In the in­ter­est of jus­tice, we must change how our leg­is­la­ture, me­dia and pub­lic in­ter­act, writes Frances Fitzger­ald

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - ANALYSIS -

THOSE who have their rep­u­ta­tions wrongly de­stroyed in the avalanche of pub­lic op­pro­brium nor­mally have no re­course. You can’t sue ev­ery­body. You can’t chase down ev­ery lie and cor­rect it. Es­pe­cially as each false­hood, each mis­ap­pre­hen­sion is a seed guar­an­teed to find fer­tile ground, to grow, to blos­som and dis­perse progeny be­fore you even know it has landed.

The per­son whose life is de­stroyed in this way is ex­pected to sim­ply shrink away and sit in the wreck­age of their ca­reer. If they are lucky, years will pass — and the capri­cious­ness of the pub­lic mind may al­low them to re­turn in some form. If they are un­lucky, they are sim­ply done.

I was un­usual in this par­a­digm — as I was the Min­is­ter for Jus­tice who pre­vi­ously had the power to com­mis­sion a Tri­bunal of In­quiry led by a Supreme Court judge. With­out the tri­bunal, I would be that min­is­ter who re­signed hav­ing con­spired in a strat­egy to de­stroy a man’s life — as I was so hor­ri­bly and falsely ac­cused of.

That lie would have hung around me for­ever, just as it would have hung around the for­mer Garda Com­mis­sioner, Noirin O’Sul­li­van.

More than ab­so­lutely any­one, Sergeant Mau­rice McCabe knows how much de­struc­tion can land at an in­di­vid­ual’s door.

He is an honourable and good man, ded­i­cated and com­mit­ted to An Garda Siochana. As Mr Jus­tice Charleton said, he is “a gen­uine per­son who at all times has had the in­ter­ests of the peo­ple of Ire­land up­per­most in his mind.”

This con­fir­ma­tion will not fix An Garda Siochana, nor will ‘ex­on­er­at­ing’ me fix the po­lit­i­cal/me­dia in­ter­play — which now of­ten func­tions in a de­struc­tive way for in­di­vid­u­als and for our democ­racy. And noone can re­ally call out the prob­lem. Those who have ex­pe­ri­enced it first-hand have, by def­i­ni­tion, had their cred­i­bil­ity so shred­ded that no­body will lis­ten. Those who have not ex­pe­ri­enced it can­not be­gin to know what it is like when the hy­dra turns its sole fo­cus on you. There­fore, given my van­tage point, I want to de­scribe what I see.

Our me­dia op­er­ates un­der pres­sures of dead­lines which never per­tained be­fore and which can­not but harm re­flec­tion and con­sid­er­a­tion.

Take the Dis­clo­sures Tri­bunal re­port it­self as an ex­am­ple. It goes to the heart of a com­plex web of in­ter­ac­tions be­tween dozens of peo­ple across a num­ber of years. It is also 200,000 words long. A good reader could get through it in about 16 hours! How­ever, the first re­port about its con­tents emerged after only 15 min­utes.

That’s not read­ing. That’s word-search­ing. It’s cut­ting and past­ing. The first ma­jor dis­cur­sive anal­y­sis of the doc­u­ment was broad­cast and pub­lished within five hours of pub­li­ca­tion. This is not a crit­i­cism of those who pub­lished and broad­cast — they had no choice. It’s act fast or be ig­nored.

This sac­ri­fic­ing of con­sid­er­a­tion for speed is not good. Yet it is only one part of what is wrong with the dis­course.

Some of the prob­lem lives within the Oireach­tas. Get­ting voter sup­port is a lot eas­ier if they have heard of you — and if they have a vaguely pos­i­tive sense of the work you are do­ing. Whether we like it or not, one of the main routes to achieve this is through me­dia. And me­dia likes con­tro­versy.

In my case, that meant when the avalanche be­gan, my Op­po­si­tion col­leagues were pre­sented with a vast ar­ray of op­por­tu­ni­ties for cov­er­age, which they were not shy to ex­ploit.

I was ac­cused of stand­ing by while Noirin O’Sul­li­van con­spired with my Depart­ment “to de­stroy the life and rep­u­ta­tion of Mau­rice McCabe”. Un­true.

An­other Op­po­si­tion spokesper­son was sim­i­larly ea­ger to de­fend some­one who had been falsely smeared by falsely smear­ing some­one else. “We do not say the Tanaiste for­mu­lated the strat­egy. We do not say that she was part of the make-up of the strat­egy. But we say she was aware of that strat­egy, to use a phrase that was used else­where on the is­sues, the Tanaiste was privy to the strat­egy. The Tanaiste did noth­ing to stop it.” An­other great quote. An­other un­truth.

And yet an­other: “…the very ma­li­cious strat­egy de­signed by for­mer Garda Com­mis­sioner Noirin O’Sul­li­van and her le­gal team to de­stroy the rep­u­ta­tion and the life of Sgt Mau­rice McCabe. It seems to me that there was a con­spir­acy to ruin this honourable man and that mem­bers of An Garda Siochana and the Tanaiste’s for­mer depart­ment [the Depart­ment of Jus­tice] were part of this con­spir­acy.”

For gen­er­a­tions, me­dia has had to make eth­i­cal calls about whether or not to print un­sub­stan­ti­ated at­tacks. They have to bal­ance the pub­lic in­ter­est in what se­nior elected of­fi­cials are say­ing with the moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to trade in truth. Now they have to do it in min­utes, not hours. Find­ing that bal­ance is an age-old chal­lenge. Politi­cians vi­ciously at­tack­ing each other is not.

What is new — and deeply wor­ry­ing — is politi­cians us­ing the shel­ter of par­lia­ment to de­fame. Had some­one done this out­side the House, le­gal re­course would have been pos­si­ble — and pre­dictable. But in­side the Dail, it is un­touch­able but print­able.

The most egre­gious of un­sup­ported defama­tion is walked into our na­tional press wrapped in the cloak of Dail priv­i­lege. Defama­tion laun­der­ing is not what this priv­i­lege was de­signed for.

And all of this took place to a back­ground hum of com­men­tary and opin­ion on so­cial and tra­di­tional me­dia dis­cussing ‘the smear cam­paign’ and ‘the ag­gres­sive strat­egy’. Each men­tion fur­ther ce­ment­ing the orig­i­nal un­truth.

Ques­tions were con­tin­u­ally asked why I, as Min­is­ter, did not in­ter­vene. Ev­ery at­tempt to point out that there was not a shred of ac­tual ev­i­dence for the ac­cu­sa­tion was re­jected.

Our po­lit­i­cal dis­course suf­fers from pre­cisely the same in­fec­tion as our eco­nomic dis­course did in the peak of the boom — con­sen­sus with­out ev­i­dence. Ev­ery­thing in the sys­tem lends it­self to­wards group­think and the sup­pres­sion of coun­ter­point.

The weight of con­sen­sus is hard to coun­te­nance if you have not ex­pe­ri­enced it di­rectly. When mo­men­tum builds around an is­sue, it is ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful. It’s hours of Dail ques­tions. It’s hun­dreds of pages of newsprint, countless front pages. It’s end­less com­men­tary. It’s Par­lia­men­tary Ques­tions, Lead­ers’ Ques­tions, broad­cast­ing re­quests, re­ports, doorsteps and trend­ing on Twit­ter.

Usu­ally the avalanche halts when some­body re­signs or is fired. When an is­sue gets hot, the dis­course turns to fir­ing. We give im­pas­sioned at­ten­tion to some­thing un­til the vic­tim is cho­sen and dis­patched. The Ap­pren­tice pol­i­tics should be left to the United States.

I con­sider my­self very lucky. With­out the Dis­clo­sures Re­port, I would for­ever be daubed with be­lieved com­plic­ity in events which never hap­pened. But hav­ing seen how the sys­tem works, I be­lieve we must do some­thing to fix it.

Con­sen­sus is not truth. Ru­mour is not fact. Defama­tion is not hero­ism. Ca­reer de­struc­tion is not sys­temic re­form.

We must change how our leg­is­la­ture, me­dia and pub­lic in­ter­act.

Start­ing with our rules of par­lia­men­tary priv­i­lege. Politi­cians must have the scope to de­bate with­out fear. But with that scope comes re­spon­si­bil­ity. We al­ready con­strain cer­tain terms and lan­guage — it’s high time to cen­sure those who wil­fully use priv­i­lege to smear.

Next, we need a quick ac­cess route to deal with on­line lies. For too long, so­cial me­dia has op­er­ated as a wild-west of hu­man dis­course with each snowflake pro­tected by the mass of the avalanche.

We have to make it prac­ti­ca­ble for the laws of de­cency to ap­ply to blog­gers and posters and the me­dia com­pa­nies which host them. In­ter­na­tional child ex­ploita­tion and traf­fick­ing alone de­mands this.

Lastly, all me­dia, and par­tic­u­larly pub­licly-funded me­dia, must look into how they han­dle group-think.

Fair­ness and bal­ance means more than hav­ing two op­pos­ing sides ad­dress a ques­tion.

Did an ed­i­to­rial voice say: “Wait, where is the foun­da­tion on which ev­ery­one has built this ed­i­fice? Are we all just en­joy­ing the con­sen­sus of this avalanche of break­ing ‘news’?”

In essence, we all need to con­sider where we in Ire­land want to end up. Trump has taught us that it is now pos­si­ble for a politi­cian to shift dan­ger­ously the re­la­tion­ship with vot­ers. He no longer en­gages with bal­anced me­dia. He es­chews sit­down in­ter­views and press brief­ings in favour of pieces with con­ser­va­tive cable TV, ral­lies and 280 char­ac­ters. It is a dis­as­ter for the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue. Pop­u­la­tions are best served by a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem held to ac­count by a well-briefed ex­pert me­dia who are scep­ti­cal, not cyn­i­cal; and in­quis­i­tive, not in­quisi­to­rial.

There is an un­fin­ished democ­racy in Ire­land in re­la­tion to gen­der. Young politi­cians — fe­male and male — com­ing into the Ir­ish sys­tem must have con­fi­dence in a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem which al­lows them to be seen for what they are. A sys­tem that al­lows for truth, for ideals and for the good of our cit­i­zens. “The snowflake never needs to feel re­spon­si­ble for the avalanche.” — Jon Ron­son

Frances Fitzger­ald is the Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid-West and was Min­is­ter for Jus­tice un­til June 2017 and Tanaiste un­til Novem­ber 2017

‘What is new is politi­cians us­ing shel­ter of par­lia­ment to de­fame’

‘We need a quick ac­cess route to deal with on­line lies’

PRIV­I­LEGE: ‘The most egre­gious of un­sup­ported defama­tion is walked into our na­tional press wrapped in the cloak of Dail priv­i­lege’

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