Real story behind that Norris interview

Fri, Jun 3, 2011, 01:00

‘Magill’ felt Norris needed to be protected from his own foolhardiness

FOR APPROXIMATELY a year in 2001/2002, I was “consultant editor” to Magillmagazine, then undergoing a substantial makeover.

My role involved general creative input and supporting the newly appointed young editor, who had day-to-day editorial responsibility but would occasionally refer trickier issues to me.

One afternoon, in early January 2002, I took a telephone call from Helen Lucy Burke, an occasional contributor to Magill.

I had never, to the best of my recollection, spoken to her before.

She was best known as a restaurant critic, and had contributed a number of such pieces to Magill.

I admired her writing style but, to be frank, couldn’t see the point of restaurant reviews.

I knew her by reputation: honest and direct to a fault, and fearless when it came to doing her job.

The purpose of her call was to ask my advice. On the basis of a commission from the editor, she had conducted an interview with Senator David Norris about his life and perspectives, and was now deeply concerned about some aspects of that interview.

I gathered that she was a friend of Norris but had been shocked by things he had said on the subject of paedophilia. At my request, she read me several extracts from the transcript of the interview.

I remember being astonished by the content. I do not recall the verbatim quotations but, in any event, these were similar or identical to the content of the interview later published in Magill.

One quotation made references to “classic paedophilia” in ancient Greece, Norris asserting that there was “something to be said” for the approach in which a young man was introduced to sexual behaviour by an older man.

I also recall something to the effect that he, Norris, would have relished such an entanglement when he was younger.

In another quotation, he proposed that there was a spectrum of child abuse, with the example of a Christian Brother putting his hand into a boy’s pocket being at the least serious end of that spectrum.

In another extract, Norris seemed to be saying that sexually abused children might suffer more from the investigation of their abuser than from the abuse.

The thrust of his argument seemed to be summed up in two phrases that also featured in the Magillarticle, to the effect that there was “a lot of nonsense” and “complete and utter public hysteria” about paedophilia.

My first response was that Burke must have misinterpreted Norris’s arguments, because he seemed to be engaging in inappropriate casuistry and hair-splitting on an explosive and sensitive subject.

He would need to be crazy, I told her, to say these things in public.

She was emphatic that she had not misunderstood him, and said that she had taped the interview.

She said they had had a heated argument about it and he had refused to back down. After transcribing the interview, she had called him to read him the extracts she found problematic, but he said, “Yes, that’s fine.”

In the several years I had known Norris, we’d had some public jousts on various public issues, but I had always found him personable and engaging.

I felt instantly that the interview had the potential to land him in very hot water, possibly even to bring an end to his political career.

I had no wish for this and felt that he needed to be protected from his own foolhardiness.

I suggested to Burke that she write up the article with the quotes included, and call Norris again, explaining to him the context in which his remarks would appear and offering him another opportunity to amend or retract them.

I also told her that she should tell him she had spoken to me and that I had expressed in the strongest terms that, in his own interests, he should reconsider.

Some days later Burke called me again and said that she had done as I requested and that Norris after proposing some minor amendments – which she had incorporated into the article – had pronounced himself happy for his views to go into print.

“So be it,” I said.

For several days after publication, no other media organisation picked up on the interview, and Magill received no communication from Norris.

Although the interview was in my view sensational, I proposed that no attempt should be made to promote or draw attention to it, and the editor agreed with this approach.

When the interview was finally picked up a week later by Ireland on Sunday, I heard Norris on radio claiming that he had been misrepresented.

However, he contacted neither me nor the editor of Magillto complain about the Magillarticle, or about any aspect of how Magillor Burke had handled the matter.

I recall these events because, last Tuesday, I was referred to in an RTÉ Radio 1 Livelinediscussion as the editor responsible for the publication of the controversial 2002 interview with Norris.

This is true, to the extent I have described.

I have had no communication with or from Burke since 2002.