Inability to hold HSE to account exposes chronic failure of journalists

Opinion: If referendum is rerun, media will campaign again for more power for State

Former Munster MEP Kathy Sinnott and John Waters appearing in a TV debate on the children’s referendum.

Former Munster MEP Kathy Sinnott and John Waters appearing in a TV debate on the children’s referendum.


This morning in the High Court, Mr Justice Paul McDermott hands down his judgment in the challenge to the outcome of last year’s so-called children’s rights referendum. I was a witness in the case, having taken an active role in the campaign. One way or the other, the result may be appealed to the Supreme Court. If the challenge is finally upheld, the referendum may be rerun.

A year ago precisely, three weeks to polling day, two opinion polls measured opposition to the amendment in single figures. Notwithstanding the Government’s illegal use of taxpayers’ money to make a one-sided case, we eventually persuaded 42 per cent of voters to vote No.

The Government’s unconstitutional conduct was one of several factors militating against those of us warning that the amendment was dangerous for children and families. There was no formal anti-amendment campaign, and, unlike the recent Seanad referendum, no significant Oireachtas opposition to the proposal. In general, the media coverage was woeful, with most journalists and broadcasters seemingly regarding the amendment as an unexceptionable rebalancing of rights between parents and children. We argued that this interpretation was misleading – that the real issue was the redistribution of rights between families and the State – and this appeared to irk journalists no end.

Several times in debates or interviews I sought to describe the reality of the abuse of State power behind the curtain of in-camera secrecy. Gingerly I cited cases I had encountered in which it was rendered clear that the State already had excessive powers over family life. Each time, journalists who would scarcely blush if you described them as “crusading”, “radical” or even “anti-establishment” demanded: “But why would the State want to do this?” Invariably there was a tinge of belligerence – echoing an animus I had encountered many times from journalists, editors and radio and television presenters over many years of seeking to raise such issues.

On voting day in the Seanad referendum two weeks ago today my column did not appear in this slot, after the lawyers who advise this newspaper on legal issues declared what I had written unsafe. The column essentially revisited the issues at the core of the “children’s rights” referendum. The reason given for its spiking was that a social worker referred to (but unnamed) might recognise herself and have cause for legal action.

That week, unprecedentedly, two significant stories had appeared above ground that, on the face of things, vindicated much I and others had been saying a year before. In one case a newborn baby was snatched from his mother’s arms by seven Garda officers, transported in no less than three official Garda vehicles. As some aspects of the case came before the High Court there was widespread coverage of the outline facts, though few details and minimal commentary on the underlying questions. The matter went off the radar a week later when the warrant lapsed and mother and child were reunited.

I also referred to the case highlighted that week by the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, of an 11-year-old girl, raped at knifepoint by a neighbour, who was denied help by the Health Service Executive because her mother was deemed “difficult and challenging”. The mother had made the outrageous suggestion that she be present while her child was interviewed.

I had found interesting the constructions of choice among journalists who almost invariably referred to the girl being “let down” or “failed” by the HSE. Public figures who had adopted high-profile involvements on the Yes side in last year’s referendum emerged briefly to lament the “communication failures” in the case.

From listening to similar stories for many years I recognised the dynamics of both cases as relating to the pettiness and vindictiveness of individuals with already close to absolute powers over families. In writing about this I outlined a couple of cases – without names or significant identifying details – observing that the facts as revealed by Emily Logan were entirely consistent with the known modus operandi of the HSE.

Lack of accountability
If journalists are unable to make such basic and substantiated observations about the abuses of some of the most powerful agencies in this State, is there any point in journalism at all? In a country destroyed by lack of accountability, is it possible to draw connections in public about matters more vital than money?

It seems not.

The veil has fallen back into place. Journalists who looked briefly up from their workstations because the children’s ombudsman was speaking have returned to more pressing matters. The editors shrug and get on with commissioning articles about fictional cats.

And if the “children’s referendum” is rerun, the same editors and journalists will passive-aggressively campaign, as before, to give more powers to the people Emily Logan was talking about – people who think nothing of summoning a battalion of policemen to snatch a newborn baby from his mother’s arms.

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