'Your family gets followed. Your mother and father get followed'

Martin Cullen: "A simple photograph perpetuated a lie in a very simple way that made my position an impossible one." From left: Martin Cullen, Monica Leech, Brian Cowen and a man who could not be identified late last night. Photograph: Aileen Drohan/Photozone

Martin Cullen: "A simple photograph perpetuated a lie in a very simple way that made my position an impossible one." From left: Martin Cullen, Monica Leech, Brian Cowen and a man who could not be identified late last night. Photograph: Aileen Drohan/Photozone

Sat, Jan 23, 2010, 00:00

A public figure – privacy and the law: MARTIN CULLEN’s speech at a conference on defamation law

AFTER ALL the experiences I’ve had over the last number of years I promised myself I would never speak about these things in public but yet here I am today.

I didn’t want to come here to give another legalistic view on the Defamation Bill. I think I’d rather throw into the pot what it’s like to be as a human being on the wrong side of something that’s very, very defamatory and what the impact of that might be.

The impacts on one’s life are completely horrendous. I would go so far as to say in my case they are life-changing. Nothing can ever undo the damage when something is done to you in a way that is completely a lie. It’s nice to use libel or defamation but when something is done to you that is so wrong, so unjust, it’s very very hard to recover. Certainly from my perspective I have never recovered from it and probably never will.

That’s not to say that I’m standing here today looking for your sympathy. I don’t ask for it and I don’t expect it. I’m simply trying to give you an insight into how one reacts and what the consequences are of certain actions.

I have no issue with the media for questioning and looking into and criticising in a forthright way, even in a satirical way. I can laugh as much as the next person at various articles. But the one word I see slipping away with all the rights that everyone is demanding in the Ireland that we live in today is the word responsibility.

I think the other word that has disappeared and something that we can’t speak about today is common or garden decency. That human decency that people express towards each other in many different ways, either by actions or by words, seems to me to have slipped down the list of our busy lives in the rush to be part and parcel of the world we live in on a 24-hour basis.

There is no doubt in my mind that the advent of 24-hour news through the medium of television in recent years has certainly added greatly to the demands to get stories out, even if there is uncertainty whether what is being printed is actually true or not. That is very much a feature of the world we live in today.

In my case, there was a very simple accusation made that you’re all probably aware of, which was extremely wrong. It was absolutely and utterly untrue but it almost destroyed my life and indeed my family’s life and I’m sure the other person’s life as well. Monica Leech can speak for herself, which she had done in a very public way, as I’m sure you know.

When I talk about privacy, it isn’t about privacy for myself. I’m a public figure and I accept what goes with that. I accept all the standards we’re supposed to adhere to. Of course like everybody else I’m a flawed person. That’s the beauty of what we are as human beings. We’re not perfect and that’s what makes us all a bit more interesting. The real impact, the real hardcore, destructive impact, is on the family, and I saw that at first hand.

I’ve had to move my children about three times from schools they were in, all because of what I was going through. Children would be children and the bullying that took place was horrendous.

Particularly for one daughter it was unbelievable what she went through. It reached its highlight when she was in class one day and the teacher decided to humiliate her in front of the class. It was the most appalling thing. I couldn’t understand it...So what do you do? What do you gain as a parent to try and counteract that? How do you deal with it? How do you find refuge for a person that’s 10 years of age, or 12 years of age, or 13 or 14 years of age?

My sons being young men think they’re tough. They decided in both cases that they would defend their father’s honour and got the living daylights beaten out of them trying to defend me. But that’s life, they gained a life lesson out of that.

These are things that are simply not seen. Privacy has to be thought of in the context of what people write about. It’s not enough to say that just because somebody is a public figure you have a right to be as intrusive as some of the media has been and is to this day and I’m sure will be into the future.

Because of the gravity of the responsibility that all elements of the media have, they must think in terms of the veracity of what they’re saying, the truth in the real sense of what it is they’re trying to print and be able to stand back and understand whether something is meaningful and needs to be known in the sense of the greater public wanting to read the story.

If you want to perpetuate a story you can often do it without ever printing a word. You can do it by a photograph. I want to refer to one photograph which I’m sure you are all very familiar with because it keeps repeating itself. I think practically every newspaper has used it. That was the photograph that was printed of me in a dress suit and Monica Leech in evening wear going to a function, which was to bolster the notion that there was something going on. Of course, the truth was that it was a doctored photograph. Standing behind her was her husband, but that was never allowed to appear in the public domain. Ironically, the other person in the photograph was the present Taoiseach and then minister for finance Brian Cowen. If all of that was shown, it would have killed the story straight away.

So that photograph has continued to repeat itself but it’s not a true representation of what happened. Her husband was cut out of the photograph standing beside her and Brian Cowen was cut out standing on the other side. A simple photograph perpetuated a lie in a very simple way that made my position an impossible one.

When you’re under the gun, so to speak, of an assault, where you know that it is an untruth, you’re on your own. Your colleagues tend to not want to be tainted. “Maybe is there some truth in this” , so they run in one direction. Other colleagues are anxious to be promoted and they’ll go in the other direction.

Your friends become very uncertain because of the way things are presented. You’re left with maybe one or two people that you hope will come to the rescue. The irony is two people showed the greatest humanity to me in the difficulty I was in. One was Mary Harney, who had the least reason to support me given our political and historical connections. There was enormous humanity in her approach to the whole issue. The other was Bertie Ahern, who was very fair. I’d say I wouldn’t be standing here today if they hadn’t given me the time and space I needed.

Now that we have seen the political establishment come under such odium in the public domain and the church is equally collapsed, the only real pillar left in terms of communicating with Irish people is the media. In that sense, the media have a grave responsibility to act in a way that at least presents a story in a factual way.

Yes, be critical if you like. What I dislike is the way the story is presented as half-truths or untruths or uses some element of the truth to write another story which has very little relationship to an actual sentence and that appears as an entire article in a particular newspaper.

One former minister said to me if you’re hit for three weekends in a row in the Sunday papers in a hard way you’ve no chance of surviving. That’s the rule of thumb in the UK, everywhere. I spent 13 weeks in a row on the front page of the Sunday newspapers, all about a lie.

The despair you find yourself in is absolutely incredibly, it’s absolutely indescribable. You want to run screaming down Kildare Street shouting, “I’m innocent, I’m innocent.” You want peace. You want to be able to get a night’s sleep. You want to be able to wake up the following morning with some hope that the following day will be different.

During that period the only way I could describe it to myself, it was like waking up every day and being raped, as a man.

That was how it felt – and I use those words very carefully – but that was actually how I felt. As it progressed I said to myself I don’t feel like that. I actually go to bed every night knowing that I was going to be raped the following day. That was how I actually felt during the whole period that I was put through because of those articles.

What happened then is that you start to get followed. Your family gets followed. Your mother and father get followed. Your brother and sister get followed. Your neighbours get intimidated.

There was a knock on my former wife’s house one day, and my then 11-year-old daughter was at home. There was a journalist at the door and that journalist bullied his way into the house with that 11-year-old child. He made her phone her mother on her mobile, and that person abused my former wife down the phone in front of an 11-year-old girl in the most ghastly way. It was appalling. She was actually at the checkout in the supermarket so you can imagine a woman out shopping trying to deal with this.

These are all things that happened that are the truth. I say it not to seek sympathy. I say it because you as journalists have an enormous responsibility. While it’s nice to talk about the law in almost abstract terms there is a humanity behind all this. Real people are hugely affected by something that is inaccurate, wrong and sometimes deliberately wrong. And you can never, never repair that damage. An apology is not going to repair it. Money may seem compensation but it doesn’t repair the damage.

I wouldn’t know much about Bebo sites but my daughter came in and told there was a whole Bebo site about me and there were at that point one million hits to that site. You can imagine the graphic stuff that was on it. I never saw it. I could not bring myself to, but you can imagine the kids and their formulation of ideas about who this person is.

It becomes impossible and you never catch up with it. You never get to the end. You can’t stop it because of all the different elements of media involved.

When this Defamation Bill was being formulated I didn’t like it. My view of it is it gave more to the media than it did to the individual. The individual is an ordinary individual up against a corporate entity which is the media.

I remember when I sat down with Andrew O’Rorke to lay out the consequences for me of losing the case. They were pretty horrendous.

I still think to this day the system is loaded against the individual. It’s not the journalist who will lose everything; the corporate entity will protect him or her.

I’m firmly in favour of a privacy Bill and if I could in my time in politics see a privacy Bill brought in I will do so. That’s not to say that the media have no right to print x, y and z, or to be critical. I have no issue with that but the media at times can continue to perpetrate an image.

Most of you know that I was nearly killed in a helicopter crash. It wasn’t the door that fell off; half the helicopter actually fell off. I didn’t lean on the door, by the way. My point is that five people were nearly killed that day. It was a quite extraordinary outcome but in the portrayal of it, suddenly I became a villain from nearly being killed in a helicopter accident.

I don’t know why the story should emerge in those terms other than it continues to perpetuate the view of a buffoon, a person who abuses his position in public life, who spends all his time flying around the world, that I take the helicopter home every weekend.

All untruths, but most people believe this. The irony is that I was the lowest user of helicopters in the State. In the last five years I was in a helicopter four times. I can’t stand them.

Society is changing. There’s nothing left that ordinary people believe in but the media.

In my view, if the media do not pull back from some of the extremes they have gone to, they will find themselves in the same position as other pillars in society have in recent years. I think that’s a grave responsibility. I think that is something that has to be faced up to. I think there have to be rules. It isn’t a love-hate relationship with the media and the politicians, there should be mutual respect.

I’ve been in politics since 1983 and I’ve seen the changes. It’s a very different world in the relations between the media and the individual and it’s gone too far in the other way. If we are to be criticised I’ve no problem. Criticise me away for any policy I’ve introduced; I’ve no issue. But you have to understand in the media that the consequences are not [on] your target. The consequences are often borne greatest by those around you and they’re usually the children.