January 4, 2009

“Leave the area now, or I will arrest you.”

You know there’s a problem even before he opens his mouth. He strides up to us, his eyes blazing with contempt, antipathy, anger and probably and little bit of fear.
He stops a few feet away from us and gives us both barrels.
“Right, no photographs. You’re not to take any photographs. Is that clear?”
“But we’re just trying to do our job. And I don’t mean to be rude, but this is a public place – we can take photos where we want.”
“No, you listen, I’m telling you that you are not to take any photographs. In fact, move away now – get way back.”
“But, hold on, there’s no tape up, the scene’s over there. Sure look, all these people are standing here looking and you’re not telling them to move.”
“I am directing you to leave this area. If you do not move away now, I will arrest you.”
“No problem, garda.” Through gritted teeth.
Another day, another row.
The sad thing is he can do what he wants to us. Under the public order act, any garda can tell anyone to leave an area. If they don’t, the garda can arrest them. It doesn’t apply just to drunks: it also applies to reporters just trying to do their job and is being used increasingly by gardai on the ground against the media. Paranoid souls that we are, we all think they are out to get us – and they probably are. The big question is why?
Recently, I was at the scene of a murder in a large town. A man had been killed and the immediate area, beside a busy road, had been sealed off. We vultures were gathered across the road, about 100 yards away. Suddenly, a young garda came up to the photographers and camera men and told them to move back another 100 or so yards – thus ruining the possibility of getting a good shot of the coffin being taken out of the murder scene. (Yeah, I know, we’re scum. The truth is we’d rather not be spending four hours freezing our nuts off waiting for the hearse to come along to get the pic – but it is an integral part of any murder/tragic death story.) The lads protested. They pointed out that people were walking on the road, on which we were standing, past the sealed off murder scene – surely it didn’t make sense to allow them so close and keep us away?
No joy. They had to move back. A senior officer had ordered it, apparently. I hid my notebook in my pocket and stayed my ground while the snappers had to, grudgingly, retreat. But the day will come, undoubtedly, when they refuse to move back. And that’s when the fun will begin. It will be up to a judge to decide of the public order act does actually allow gardai to arrest a photographer for not moving on from somewhere where they are legitimately working.

My theory is that official Ireland is becoming increasingly anti media and increasingly more secretive.
The gardai we deal with on a day to day basis are just victims of the new state secrecy. Reporters of all types are finding it harder and harder to get information as public and civil servants clam up.

It's not the mules' fault...

Nowhere is that more apparent than An Garda Siochana.
I don’t blame the mules on the ground for the increase in hostility, or perhaps more accurately the decrease in civility, at scenes. Most gardai are fundamentally decent, hard working and polite. Obviously, because I’m a crime reporter, I would be close to a lot of gardai – and there are some I’m proud to consider friends. They have a hard enough job without some muppet reporter coming up to them at a scene and acting the fool. Up until few years ago, relationships between gardai on the ground and reporters were, largely, cordial. They have a job to do; we have a job to do. We respect their crime scenes, we don’t act the bollox; we don’t ask uniformed lads just preserving a `Garda do not cross’ line any stupid questions – they leave us at it. All we want, anyway, is just a few pics. That live and let live philosophy is gradually dying. Some gardai become pushy and rude – some snappers threaten to report them to the Garda Ombudsman. It’s pretty nasty sometimes.
Of course, it’s not a one way street. Do reporters or snappers sometimes cross the line? Yes. Is it a regular occurrence? No. The same people go to most murder scenes – they know what to do and what not to do. Occasionally someone new who doesn’t know the score comes along and does something stupid – but they soon learn. Speak to any reporter or photographer who goes to scenes and he or she will tell you that the attitude of many gardai they encounter there is changing, hardening.
But, as I said, I don’t blame them. I blame the culture in which they are working. The message is repeatedly being hammered into them from their bosses: don’t talk to the media. The number of internal investigations carried out every year into leaks is frightening. I’ve been interviewed several times in the past few years, as have most crime reporters, by detectives investigating a leak. It’s a charade, really. They know it’s a waste of time, I know it’s a waste of time, but they still go through with it. They ask you where you got your story, you reply: “I have no comment to make on this, thank you.” Everybody’s happy – they’ve done what their bosses have asked them to do, and I’ve politely declined to help them.
But there is a consequence to every investigation like that. Every garda is now afraid to talk to a reporter in case they are disciplined. Then Justice Minister Michael McDowell (left) brought in the Garda Siochana Act in 2005 that warned gardai they could be jailed and slapped with huge fines (up to E75,000) if they spoke to a reporter and disclosed secret information to them.
Now, the caveat is that the Act specifies that the disclosure of the information must have a “harmful effect” before the leaking becomes a crime. It lists 10 areas that would be defined as harmful – everything from facilitating the commission of an offence, to identifying a witness in an investigation to damaging state security. So, it could be argued that briefing a reporter about some aspect of an investigation that isn’t harmful is not illegal. Remember, most reporters are just looking for a bit of extra information that cannot be given officially – they’re not trying to wreck any probe, or cause the collapse of the state. But the reality is all gardai know about the generality of the act now and are terrified of it. More and more, reporters are getting the response “Do you want to get me jailed?” when you try to speak to a garda off the record.
This probably sounds like a self pitying rant by a frustrated hack – and it is. But there are bigger issues here. One of the biggest strengths of An Garda Siochana has always been the link it has with the people. The media have a role in maintaining that link. Gardai tell us and we tell the people. Sometimes, we can tell the people things that gardai can’t officially say. Gardai might not want to say something officially about an investigation – but want the message to get out to the people. That’s where we come in.

If only Ireland was America...

But gardai are doing that less and less. The culture of fear within An Garda Siochana is getting stronger by the day. And it’s their link with the people that will suffer in the long run.
It doesn’t have to be like this, however.
A few years ago, I was investigating disgraced judge Brian Curtin. Several days after the State in May 2004 dropped the charge of possessing child pornography against him – thanks to gardai searching his house on what the trial judge ruled was an out of date warrant – I decided to see if I could get more information on the images he allegedly possessed. He was charged under Operation Amethyst, which took place on May 27, 2002 and was the first large scale Garda investigation into child pornography in this country.
The information that led to around 100 homes and businesses being raided simultaneously came from the US authorities. They busted a child abuse image operation, called Landslide, that had tens of thousands of subscribers all over the world.
The US cop who headed the investigation was, the now retired, Steve Nelson. There was, obviously, no chance of getting anything juicy from the gardai – they were in the middle of a firestorm over the warrant and were keeping their heads down. So I decided to chance my arm and ring the US cop.
Not that it was much of a risk: US cops – and to a lesser extent their UK colleagues, are much more open with the media than the Garda. I knew that if I got him on the phone, there was a good chance he’d talk.
I did get him. But I was totally amazed by his reaction to me, a complete stranger, phoning from thousands of miles away. “What do you need?” he asked. “Everything,” I joked– yet expecting nothing.
There was a long pause on the phone as he went through his database - by long pause, I mean 30 minutes. Eventually, he piped up: “Yes, here he is,” and started to give me, literally, everything.
He gave me Curtin’s credit card number – even the expiry date – and said exactly how much it paid ($29.95) for a month’s subscription to a website called lolitaworld.com (don't worry, the link doesn't exist any more).
He even agreed that, if necessary, he would swear an affidavit on what he had just told me and would fly to Ireland from Dallas to give evidence for us if Curtin sued.
We ran the whole thing on page one the next day: Curtin didn’t sue.
And, almost five years later, I’m still amazed at the openness of this guy – and depressed by the secrecy of our Garda force.
But I’m heartened by the members who are brave enough to talk to us.
  • Addition at 2pm on Monday, January 5: A reader has emailed me to argue that the media need to bear more responsibility for the increased hostility of gardai, and other state bodies, to us. His argument was that with the increased media competition in this country, some outlets have started writing flyers, particularly in crime. “Now if I was a senior cop, I would be pulling my hair out, over than kind of shite,” he says.
    He has a point. Of course we are obsessed with ourselves and always try to blame others when things go wrong, but it is fair to say there is a large number of reporters working in Dublin who do make stuff up – or fail to check up a line before printing it. We’ve all made mistakes, me more than most, but there is an increased tendency for people – obviously under severe pressure from their bosses – to write crap. Gardai obviously react to that.
    We are obviously not blameless. But I don't think that accounts for the hostility of gardai on the ground - I think that is an institutional problem.


  1. Good to see you in the blogosphere, Michael.

  2. I've just read this whole blog Michael and I reckon I've learned more about actually working as a reporter than I've learned in the two years I've been in college studying journalism.

    Cheers for taking the time to write


    Mark Coughlan