February 18, 2009

Now you weren't talking to me, right?

He sees me just before I see him.
I’m trudging to the front gate of the court complex; he’s walking towards me, sandwiched by two fellow detectives. He’s chatting away with his buddies, but he’s looking in my direction. We’re only 50 odd feet or so away from each other. He’s laughing, but I can see his eyes nervously darting towards me, then away, then back. Then away again. And his pals are looking at me a bit too intently for my liking. Do they know? Have they found out? Or are they just thinking `there’s that prick’?
This is not good. I haven’t told anybody. But has he? I can feel the blood rushing to my face as the space between us is eaten up. Oh Shit. What’ll I do? Will I ignore him? Will I raise my eyebrows subtly as we pass – hoping that nobody notices? Will I just say hello? Don’t be ridiculous. Fuck, what if he says hello to me? I could just turn tail and run...He’s only 20 feet away from me now. This is tricky. Very tricky. I make the wrong decision and we’re finished. Think, for Christ’s sake, think! They’re only a few feet away now. They go quiet as they near.
Then, from somewhere, an idea: a coward’s way out.
Just a few paces before we draw level, I bend down and pretend to tie my lace. In an instant, they are past me. Nothing is said. I get up, shake the dust of my knee and walk in to court. As I enter the packed and claustrophobic Court 45 in the Bridewell complex, just across from the Four Courts, my mobile phone vibrates silently. I take it out of my pocket, look at the message: Dat ws close. Gud tinkin batman! Dose uder 2 tink ur a prik by de way. I smile to myself, happy. Relieved.
Welcome to the world of trying to keep your contacts secret.
Political reporters can be seen having lattes with their TD and spin doctor mates in Leinster House; sports stars, of all codes, are known to have their favourite hacks (or fans with typewriters as I call them when I’m drunk); business journalists go for expensive lunches with their confidantes in the best, most conspicuous, restaurants. And don’t even start me about entertainment reporters...
Crime reporters, on the other hand, ignore some of their best friends when they walk past them in the street.
You could be standing beside one of your best contacts, say in back of a courtroom, and nobody would have a clue. Absolutely nobody. In fact, by the contact’s body language, you’d think the reporter just asked him if his wife accepted all major credit cards. Contempt is one word for what's on the garda's face. Which is great. The last thing you want is any other mule looking over, putting two and two together and getting four. The more members who think the fella beside me thinks I’m a bollox, the better.
And, above all, you never name your contacts in your copy. It’s all about keeping things as vague as possible to protect your people. They could be jailed, fined and sacked if anyone found out, so you’ve got to do everything you can to keep the relationship a secret. In your copy, you’ll say sources, or insiders. You won’t even write detectives or Garda sources – you have to keep it as vague as possible.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to name every garda who give you information for your story. Look at America. Cops there are happy to tell you everything you need to know about a case. They’ll even spell out their name for you, so it goes in the paper properly. In many cases, reporters actually work out of police stations and are given the same incident reports that the local chief of police receives. Anyway, you’re not looking for something that will wreck an investigation: all you want is a few details that will give your readers the impression you actually know what you are talking about. The name of a murder victim would be nice. Or an age, even. An address would be heaven.
But this is not America. Everything is hush-hush. Everything is secret – especially the details of people who talk to us.
So we call them sources. And nobody is satisfied by that.
I got thinking about the whole issue of using the word “sources” a few weeks ago, when I was asked to speak to a meeting of the Press Council of Ireland on the subject.
There were several speakers and probably around 30 people in the room altogether. It was all on off the record, so I can’t go into detail into who said what. But I came away from the meeting on the defensive and depressed.
The impression I got from many attendees at this seminar was that when readers see the word sources in a newspaper they just don’t believe it. Many people see sources and think it’s all made up. I can understand that. There are a few reporters I have no faith in at all. I look at their pieces and ask myself why I can’t get my Garda contacts to speak in such flawless, fluent, journalese like they do?
There was one sort of row when a few people said the word sources should be used in copy where there was no official confirmation to back up the thrust of the story. So, instead of Michael O’Toole will tomorrow be charged with crimes against journalism, it should read Michael O’Toole will tomorrow be charged with crimes against journalism, sources have revealed. The argument was this: if the term sources is appended to the article, the reader will realise it has not been officially confirmed and decide to believe or disbelieve it on that basis. One person insisted that a paper should be able to write the story without any official or unofficial sourcing.
I thought that was nonsense. People need to know that what is written in the paper is confirmed officially, or not.
I use the word sources every day. If I have credibility as a reporter, people will believe that what I am writing is accurate. If I don’t, they won’t. Simple as that. If I have no credibility I am toast.
In the seminar, I was aghast when I heard how one reporter in a broadsheet newspaper was challenged by a superior about a quote attributed to a source. Incredibly, the reporter admitted to not having spoken to the source – and then said `that’s what they would have said if I had spoken to them’. Jesus Christ almighty. If a broadsheet journalist would do that, what hope is there for the rest of us?
And then I realised something. It's not about the paper, it's about the reporter. I know some great reporters who happen to work in tabloids. I know how thorough they are and I believe something when they write it. On the other hand, there are some broadhseet reporters I would not trust as far as I could throw.
Sources is an entirely unsatisfactory term. It’s the chancer journalist’s get out of jail card. They can make up what they want and put it down to sources. Everybody knows it goes on. There’s nothing we can do to stop it.
But there are people out their working their nuts off every day and promising potential and current contacts one simple thing: Nobody will know I was talking to you.
So that’s why we use the word sources. And pretend to tie our shoelaces in the street.

February 9, 2009

Wrong place, wrong time.

Sometimes you can just be unlucky.
You take the wrong turn; you walk down the wrong street; you bump into the wrong person; you get into the wrong car. Through no fault of your own, you are just unlucky. Afterwards, if you survive, you try to rationalise things, ask yourself why what happened to you happened. Was it your fault? Did you look at that person the wrong way? Did you not see the warning signs? Did you not listen to your instinct? But the reality is occasionally there is no explanation bar the obvious one: you were just unlucky.
Sometimes crime is just horrifically random.
It would be comforting in a way if there was a logical explanation for every major crime committed in this country. I remember a few years ago talking to a senior Garda officer who told me something very interesting over a pint. We were chatting about the murder rate and he told me that there had been a certain number of homicides in Ireland the previous year. I can’t be more precise at the moment as some of the cases are still sub judice, but let’s say there were 55 murders that year. He asked me in how many of them did I think there was no link, of any sort, between the victim and the aggressor. By link he meant mother, husband, friend, neighbour, or even the fact that the victim was in one drugs gang and the killer was linked to another. I guessed, not unreasonably in my opinion, about 20.
The answer was actually two.
In only two cases that year had gardai been unable to find a link of any kind between the victim and the aggressor. So, in other words, there were only two real stranger murders in Ireland that year. As it happens, the victims were both women, both victims of a sex killer.
So both those women were unlucky. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time when the killer took them. They’d never met their killer before, never even laid eyes on him. But, in each case, he saw her and went for her. They were both random murders. The killers could have chosen any woman in each case: their victims were just unlucky.
The whole idea of the randomness was brought home to me, again, while reading this truly horrible case. The poor victim was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was on a night out with her boyfriend, needed to use a toilet and to the local Supermac’s in Nenagh. It was just her horrendous, truly horrendous, luck that a beast was waiting for a woman in the toilets. The ordeal he subjected the woman to in the toilets is simply unimaginable.
I know people sometimes read about rapes like this, or a murder, and search for a rational explanation. Understandably, they try to attach meaning to the meaningless because they don’t want to believe that it could happen to them or their loved ones.
I’ve covered too many random murders and rapes to even think of rationalising them. The suffering of the victim in these cases is, of course, not any more valid than the suffering of people who knew their killer or know their rapist. But, for some reason, it is these random attacks that stay with me. I know they’ll stay with me forever. It must be the whole idea that, but for a shitty bit of fate, the victims’ lives would have been so completely different.
And it’s particularly bad when it comes to young people. Young kids who had so much hope in their eyes, cruelly snuffed out because of bad luck.
I think of Siobhan Hynes and Alan Higgins a lot. Even now, years after their murders, I can still see their faces as I type. Look at the photographs of them, you can see the bright light of hope in their eyes. They literally have their whole life ahead of them as they smile, innocently, at the camera. If they had lived, they’d both be mature adults by now, they’d probably be fretting about the recession, just like the rest of us. But they didn’t get a chance to grow. Both their lives were snuffed out just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Siobhan Hynes, a beautiful young girl, met her death because – like the Nenagh rape victim – she stopped off in a fast food joint to go to the toilet. There she had the misfortune to meet one of the most evil people I’ve ever seen in a courtroom. John McDonagh was animal. He gave her a brutal death, stripping her of all dignity, before throwing her in the sea. A few days after his conviction, I tracked down a prostitute he attacked before the murder. Even then, years later, you could still see the fear in her face. She was lucky to survive him. Siobhan was unlucky. She died just a week after her 17th birthday. She’d be 27 now.
Alan Higgins, a young man who had beaten Leukaemia as a child, had a great future ahead of him. He came from a decent family in Donaghmede and wanted to be an architect. He was at the cinema with his girlfriend and had just said goodnight to her when another youngster – younger than him – robbed him of his mobile. He died after being stabbed in the struggle.
Two vibrant, optimistic, people gone. No explanation. No reason.
They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

February 8, 2009

Irish Times Weekend piece on Mick Moran

This is an interview carried out by Mary Minihan in the Weekend section of The Irish Times.


February 2, 2009

There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.

You can't escape the screams.
You can clamp shut your eyes, turn your back on the screen, scurry to the other end of the room, do plenty to get away from the images. But there's nothing you can do to get the screams out of your head.
At first, it was only the baby's wails of agony that pierced the silence, but then I noticed I was hearing another another person screaming. And then I realised it was me. Horrific is a word I over use: but this was horrific. It's the only way of describing what was in front of me. Even now, more than a year after seeing what I saw, I'm still haunted by the video. The truth is I didn't, couldn't, watch the whole thing. I managed only to look, with my eyes peeking through my fingers, for a few seconds before running away. But no matter where I went in that room, the screams chase after me. Both his and mine.
The baby could not be more than six months old. The man standing over him is his `father'. In the grainy video, it's clear to see what the father is doing to his baby boy. Your instinct is to smash through the screen and rescue the infant, beat five colours of shit out of the fucker who is doing those things to him and take the baby in your arms to protect him. And when you've done that, kick his father again. Just to make sure.
But, of course, there's nothing you can do except close your eyes and run away.
The video my colleague Jim Walpole and I saw was played for us inside one of the warren of rooms of the Interpol headquarters in Lyon, southern France. It was just one of a number of images a Garda officer, Detective Sergeant Michael Moran, showed us that day. It was a week or so after D/Sgt Moran - on secondment from the Garda Siochana with Interpol - had hit the headlines over Operation Vico.
The Criminal Intelligence Officer coordinated the international hunt for Neil, who photographed himself abusing young kids in south east Asia. Neil, a Canadian, got what was coming to him late last year when he was jailed in Thailand for abusing the kids. We were there to give Mick a Star/TV3 Best of Irish Award. In return, he gave us a brief glimpse of hell.
Mick keeps an outsized pair of headphones in his office. It's not so that he can listen to his bad music in peace. It's because people walking along the corridor outside his office complained about the sounds of babies and children crying as they were being abused in the videos Mick has to watch every day. Next time you think your job is tough, think of Mick and think again.
This is one of his favourite quotes: "There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter." Hemingway wrote that. It sums up perfectly Mick's job. Catching animals like Neil must be one hell of a buzz. Mick searches he internet for images of child abuse. he looks at each photo or video for clues that help him track down not only the victim but also the abuser. They're the bad days. The good days are when he gets to see shits like Neil caught. He recalled to me and Jim how he encountered Neil in the Thai police station after he was arrested. Mick was the only other Westerner there and Neil foolishly thought he could bond with the no nonsense Meath man. He looked up at him and shrugged his shoulders as if to say `This is a bit of a mess'. Mick just stared at him and didn't say a word. Neil looked away.

(This photo, taken by Jim Walpole, shows Mick Moran at his desk in Interpol. Note the Irish flag at the forefront and those outsized headphones behind him on the wall. I've crudely hidden what was on his computers. You don't want to know. © The Irish Daily Star.)

The little baby was called Baby Hee. What we were watching was an infamous video of child, baby, abuse. D/Sgt Moran occasionally uses it when giving talks to law enforcement personnel around the world on the reality of what he deals with on a day to day basis. He assured me my reaction was not unique. For the record, the father got caught. He's in jail in central Europe, but will be released soon. At least the baby was rescued.
And it wasn't only Baby Hee. There was a young girl who her father persuaded to do unspeakable poses for the camera. The smile on his face as she does his evil bidding was obscene. He was caught as he prepared to swap her with another paedophile's daughter. Both girls were rescued.
Looking at the images (which I have to say make you sick to the stomach for the abuse that is being perpetrated in them but also because it's mostly fathers doing it to their own kids and putting the pictures on the Internet) was a deeply distressing experience. I wasn't the same for weeks. It still affects me now.
But, as well as the infernal visions, I took something else away from that trip to Lyon; something much more important.
It was a new determination not to refer to these monstrous images as child pornography. That, to Mick Moran and many others, equates child rape photos to adult pornography. That is, almost always, modeled by men and women who, for whatever reason, voluntarily do what they do. The term child pornography almost softens the obscene.
But with these defenceless young kids, there's nothing voluntary. The reality is they're forced into it by people who have complete control over them. Not only do they abuse them, but they then get their kicks by bragging to other paedophiles and swapping the images with each other. Interpol, and other police agencies, prefer the term child abuse imagery.
Having seen what I saw that October day in Lyon, I can understand why.