Rocca trial had more to do with power than gossip

CELEBRITY gossip is a bit like chocolate. There are the few who find it too sickly sweet and wouldn't thank you for it

CELEBRITY gossip is a bit like chocolate. There are the few who find it too sickly sweet and wouldn't thank you for it. Then there's the rest of the world, who know they really shouldn't indulge, but what the heck, it's just too irresistible.

Indulging means not so much reading about the antics of the well known, as playing your part bin a fantasy. You follow the intricacies of their love lives, vicariously attend their parties and give a your verdict on their dress sense, but you know the fantasy is as fictive as any other soap opera.

For the gossip columnist only gives you an "in" by keeping you out with the insistence that they're all dahlings whose lives are too, too lovely."

Over the past fortnight, two key characters from Ireland's celebrity circle have moved from the media margins of the society columns to play centre stage on the news pages. Their glitzy images have been tarnished by the real life details of sex and violence, details which have sent the ratings soaring, as sex and violence always do, so that those who normally would care nothing for the lives of people like Michelle Rocca or Cathal Ryan have avidly joined in.

This all that glisters is not gold sense of glee was the spirit in which media and public took their seats in court and the rest of us sat in front of newspapers, radios or TV screens at the start of the Rocca damages trial. Near the beginning of the proceedings, Judge Moriarty had to issue a public warning against "undue levity". He needn't have worried. Laughter deserted us as the details of how the beautiful people really behave on a night out took us away of the fantasy into the mire.

THE Rocca trial has been many things to Irish society. A legal departure. A morality tale for our times. A case study of male violence and society's responses to it. A media blitz. And, most significantly, a further stage in the ongoing meltdown between private lives and public discourse in Ireland.

There has been criticism of the amount of media coverage given to from two quarters. Firstly, from those who have no interest in the dalliances of minor celebrities, who on hearing the very words "former Miss Ireland" or "high flying businessman" feel a severe case of the yawns coming on.

Secondly are those who lament the "tabloidisation" of our media, who think broadsheets should not have stooped to cover the trial because it wasn't in the public interest. This criticism is misplaced, not just because it takes a cod liver oil view of news as something which media executives pass down from on high and the public must take whether they want it or not because it's good for them.

The Rocca trial coverage was welcome precisely because it represented a broadening of the definition of what is newsworthy. Until now, Irish broadsheet and broadcast journalism have worked within an incredibly narrow definition of what is political, resisting ideas about the nature of power and politics which were raised at least 30 years ago. These ideas recognise that there are other forms of power than that residing in government, stockmarkets and armies, that power issues are also fought out in the realm of the personal, and maintained by cultural constructs like media and gossip, as well as more overtly political institutions.

Much that is fascinating in this trial derives from this other realm of power - the power of beauty, of money, of media celebrity and, most of all, the power struggle between the sexes. It is in the bedrooms of the nation as much as in public forums like the legislature that such power issues are played out.

The broadening of the news agenda to incorporate these issues is not a "dumbing down". On the contrary, it is essential that they are analysed in a forum which recognises their deeper significance, and in our society the only forum for that is the quality end of the media. Left to the tabloids, they remain in the realms of gossip and sensationalism, and a central segment of life as we now live it is ignored.

The legal significance of this trial can be compared to that of the scandalous British divorce trial brought by the Duke of Argyll in 1963 against his wife Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.

The Duke sued for adultery, citing four different men as correspondents and his evidence included Polaroid pictures of the duchess naked and having oral sex. The Duchess's face was not visible but she was identifiable, because she had kept on her instantly recognisable priceless pearls (as you do), but for years there was speculation about the identity of the headless man.

That trial represented a turning point because it was the first timed that the high jinks of the aristocracy got a public airing.

For many years afterwards, because the reporting of legal proceedings is exempt from libel, the most interesting pages in broadsheet journalism were often the court reports. They were the only way in which the private lives of public figures were revealed, and even that bastion of establishment England, The Daily Telegraph, carried them.

Thus began the process of media attrition which has warn away the edifice with which royalty and aristocracy once maintained the fiction of their superiority, the source of their privilege.

IN IRELAND, we have no monarchy or aristocracy. Our gentry are celebrities, sometimes people of genuine achievement but often products of gossip column puffery: fashion folk, pop successes, the more personally charismatic of our politicians, and yes, former Miss Irelands and high flying businessmen.

In the frothy world of celebrity soap, Rocca and Ryan were two central characters, their public images fitting perfectly into the mould of two of our favourite stereotypes. She played Beauty to his Prince Charming. Except he turned out not to be quiet so charming.

The full truth about the deterioration of the Rocca Ryan relationship can never be known. But what was revealed in the courtroom was a fascinating glimpse of personal power games played out against a backdrop of wealth. Fundamentally, this was a case about violence.

Rocca was assaulted. Her injuries included blood clots, cuts and lacerations on her head and face, a black eye, a broken nose, bruising and abrasions like scratch marks at the front of her right elbow, bruising on her neck, chest, legs and bottom.

The jury found Ryan guilty of inflicting these injuries and indeed he admitted as much saying that "to the best of his knowledge" nobody else was responsible.

That much is clear and agreed upon. After that, we are in the realm of her story against his. She says she believed she and Ryan were engaged to be married, that four nights previously they had had dinner with other people and subsequently spent the night together in a hotel room and "made love".

When she found him in bed with Sarah Linton at the party, she started screaming at him and calling him and Linton names. He pushed her across the room, knocked her to the floor and assaulted her. "At one stage he went AWOL completely and I thought I was going to die".

He says their relationship was over, that though they had spent all night together in the hotel four nights before, there had been no sexual contact, they were just talking, discussing "old times and what ifs".

On the night of the incident he woke up to find Sarah Linton - being dragged into the middle of the room by the hair and punched and kicked by Rocca. He had to defend Linton, he had to restrain a woman out of control. So he slapped her, held her by the neck to restrain her and removed her from the room.

During the trial mud was flung by both sides. Rocca presented Ryan as a man who became violent when drunk. His attempts to discredit her were more oblique and took the form of snide remarks which were as revealing of him as her.

Asked if it had not been provocative of him to bring his new girlfriend to a party, he replied that the "only provocative thing" that night had been Rocca's dress. At another stage, he spoke of how he was devastated by the attack on Linton, whom he described as a totally innocent lady - "and I must emphasise that word lady," he said. The inference was clear.

This became the theme tune of the defence in their summing up.

Wasn't she a lady? Wasn't she wholesome?" asked Garrett Cooney of Sarah Linton, recalling a British judge's admiration for Jeffrey Archer's wife's "fragrance".

The judge made it clear to the jury that if they believed she was to some extent "the authoress of her own misfortune" they might reflect that in a reduction of any aggravated damages. They awarded her £7,500, accompanied by a note that no aggravated damages had been included. Their conclusion was obvious: Rocca had brought her troubles on herself.

But is that the basis on which damages should have been assessed? Undoubtedly, Rocca's confrontation with Sarah Linton was wrong, but that was a matter for Linton to pursue if she wished.

Even if Ryan started out by protecting Linton, he undoubtedly went on to give Rocca a beating. This was a totally inappropriate response and she should not have to be blameless, or pure as driven snow, for the full weight of the law to be brought to bear on him.

The Rocca trial clearly demonstrates our society's ambiguity about what is normally called domestic violence. It is usual for court cases to be called after the defendant, not the plaintiff, but in this case Rocca too was on trial and she was found wanting.

"He gave her flowers, chocolates and multiple bruising." So ran the text on a poster campaign which ran a few years back, calling for zero tolerance of men's violence against women. We didn't hear anything about chocolates, and it was Cathal's daddy who brought round flowers, but multiple bruising is exactly what Michelle Rocca got. Multiple bruising and a broken nose.

The day after the assault, he told his father, Tony Ryan, what had happened.

It was the father, not the son, who rang Rocca to apologise. It was he who brought her flowers, who asked her not to involve the police or lawyers, who made himself available at the end of a phone, who told her he "always wanted Claudia to be a Ryan". Incredibly, some commentators have interpreted this sinister damage limitation exercise as "benign and paternal".

IT was also Tony Ryan who sent one of his Ryanair executives round with a legal agreement on money and access rights which also asked that Rocca would not go public on the assault.

"I just hated that guy standing there talking about my child," she said, the only time she cried while in the witness stand. "I knew I was a beaten woman."

It is in these details, even more than in the strength of a 15st man punching a woman half his size, that we see the imbalance of power in this relationship. For beauty has a certain currency - and for Michelle Rocca her face is her fortune - its worth was no match for the serious money.

Rocca may look a million dollars but any power she wields through that is very precarious. The cocktail dress that buys admiration and support when love is there can be used against her when it has gone.

This single mother has supported herself and her children through an intermittent variety of jobs - a bit of modelling, some PR work, a job in the family tile business, a brief sortie into television.

None of these could meet the financial demands of a society belle. For that she has relied on her relationships. At the moment, Van Morrison leases a mews house for her next to his in Ballsbridge and her job is promoting his work.

She lives in a world where you have discussions with the father of your ex partner about the possibility of him providing "a bit of a deposit" to buy a home.

When things went sour with Ryan, her only power over him was the terrible thing he had done to her and she decided to use it. By her own admission, she never thought it would go to court. But it did, and now the most private aspects of both their lives have become the property of us all.

What it must feel like to have publicly torn each other apart in this way is unimaginable. What it must do to their children is easier to imagine and awful to ponder. At that private level, as Ryan concluded, there have been no winners in this case.

But at the other public level, this legal showdown has been a lens through which to view the political nature of personal power struggles. Questions about the relationship between gender and power and class and power, have been taken out of their box marked "boring issues" and are being argued out, up and down the nation.

And that for those who look forward to the democratisation of Irish society is a victory of sorts.