Who knows what the Sunday World, or the Evening Herald will fill their pages with now? The Gardai have been fined €70,000 for breach of privacy after the High Court held them responsible for leaking information to a newspaper. We might anticipate a break from such leaks for a week or two.
I mention those two papers, because they make the most of stories based on the uncritical, and uncorroborated, repetition of tales told from the barrack room. The Sunday World is currently running a bus ad campaign. Beside a photograph of a gimlet-eyed Paul Williams, they pose the question “Who keeps an eye on the bad guys?”.
The problem with these papers’ approach to crime reporting is twofold. Firstly, it is useless. Unless they’re actually finding new evidence of crimes, which can be used to convict, what purpose does it serve to print leaks from an ongoing investigation?
Secondly, and more importantly, it is corrosive of the administration of justice. This week’s finding touches on the gardai using the willingness of the press to pursue released criminals. But despite all their hysteria over crime, the papers and their police sources are handing those written about a defence on a plate.
Even over the Weekend of the 10th-12th November 2006 the Herald in particular was happy to print details of an ongoing Garda investigation, including their police source’s opinion of who the guilty party was as fact. You may recall that it was this kind of coverage which saw Charles Haughey escape criminal prosecution.
However from a Paper Round point of view, the corruption isn’t just one way. A reliance on the police force as the source for your scoops undermines a paper’s, and certainly a reporter’s, independence. Both Paul Reynolds of RTE and Paul Williams of the Sunday World are regularly now used by the rest of the media as proxy Garda spokesmen- demanding that the police be freed of ‘politically correct’ oversight so they can start to ‘think like villains’ or be freed from the need to produce evidence in court to obtain convictions.
When a reporter becomes a recognised mouthpiece for an institution, they’ve ceased to put their duty to their readers first. More damagingly, the paper they write for is compromised and inhibited from putting that institution under the microscope, for fear the flow of ersatz exclusives dries up.
And that’s when this kind of reporting really does its readers a disservice. It’s another area where the myth of the fourth estate evaporates on contact with reality.