Criminally Bad Reporting

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.


  • Twenty Major says:

    Very good. Paul Reynolds really is a despicable little toad.

    He’s has no more interest in reporting crime above and beyond raising his own profile and selling more of his noxious, semi-literate, sub-tabloid books.

  • bernard says:

    “The problem with these papers’ approach to crime reporting, is twofold. Firstly, it is useless. Unless there actually finding new evidence of crimes, which can be used to convict, what purpose does it serve to print leaks from an ongoing investigation?”

    People who read Paul Williams articles are not interested in seeing criminals brought to justice.
    They are just interested in the gory details of semi-fiction stories.

    I had the misfortune of seeing him on the misfortunate Late Late Show with Felix McKenna.

    You could see McKenna cringing at Williams “glorification” of their work.

  • Fergal says:

    The Herald chose in yesterday evening’s headline to characterise the award against the gardai as “€70,000 for sex offender’s family”. Nice.

  • Celtictigger says:

    Are there any figures for how many cases have been dropped by the DPP or thrown out of court because there was a view that media coverage (even in local media) had prejudiced the case?

    How many crimes may have resulted from public reaction to sensational headlines (how many alleged criminals have been beaten up because “if it is in the Sunday World it must be true”)?

    And have any Garda operations(and even lives) been jeopardised by careless reporting of leaked information?

    Journos such as Paul William et al are not employed to report news objectively. They are employed to get headlines and sell papers – hence they fall back on creating what sociologists call a ‘moral panic’. By creating a climate of fear, and a sense of a threat from ‘the bad man’, as well as a sense of moral outrage over the slightest things they become self-justifying prophets of the descent of society into chaos. And people then buy their headlines to see just how bad things are getting.

    Well done to the courts for sending the message that leaking of information will have penalties for the guardians of the peace.

    Gardaí in possession of sensitive information should treat it as such. Journalists who receive leaks should really ask themselves – is it in the public interest to publish this? Publication is not always in the interests of the public at large.

  • Niall says:

    “You may recall that it was this kind of coverage which saw Charles Haughey escape criminal prosecution.???

    If I recall, it wasn’t the press coverage that saw Charles Haughey escape criminal prosecution but a judge’s interpretation that he would not get a fair trial because of the coverage – a different thing entirely. An intelligent, well-picked jury who don’t believe everything they read could have tried that case.

    Should the press not have covered his financial dealings because at some stage in the future he might have been brought to court? That’s a bizarre proposition. If the courts are going to prevent trials going ahead because of the output of the bottom-rung tabloids what hope is there that any high-profile figure will be prosecuted.

  • Simon McGarr says:

    The reference to Haughey was simply the most prominent example of a person sucessfully using the defence that their trial had been prejudiced by comment prior to the hearing date. Findings of fact regarding his financial dealings were not in dispute. What was at issue was whether he was guilty of the offences with which he was charged.

    In that case, Judge Kevin Haugh found the most compelling example of prejudicial comment to have been uttered by Mary Harney. The reasoning being that her elevated status in society made a comment by her particularly likely to prejudice a jury.

    The stronger the storm of media comment which is whipped up, the more likely that an argument of prejudice will succeed.

    In those circumstances, the most effective method of ensuring that justice is done is to stick to reporting facts, rather than uncorroberated garda leaks and leave the assertions of guilt until after the verdict.

  • fústar says:

    On a totally unrelated note…I hope to see Team Tuppenceworth at the Blog Awards in March. I dropped you a few votes/nominations in the relevant categories.

    I’ll treat you to a cheap half-pint of something…between you…

  • Garreth says:

    Granted that the editors of Sunday tabloids want gory details and banner headlines (and stomach-churning photos of corpses)to sell their rags, the work of fact-digging crime reporters like Paul Williams can shock us out of our complacency about the drug-related contract murders and various stabbings that have become commonplace in recent years.

  • Simon McGarr says:

    But Garreth, fact-digging is exactly what these kinds of reports don’t do. They are stenography of Garda Gossip, without the journalistic minimum of two sources. (And I don’t think two policemen count)

  • colm says:

    Tom Brady of the Irish Independent is another spokesperson for the Garda Press Office.

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