The truth drove Louise O’Keeffe, and the truth won
The truth does not disappear just because it is ignored
“Wronged as a child and challenged with lies, Louise O’Keeffe reached for the truth, a truth that could never escape her and emerge as something else. A truth that was brought to heel by the European Court of Human Rights.”
I was working late the other night, accompanied by a friend, waiting around to grab some quotes from people, when he asked, “do you ever just make things up?” No, I said, never. Making up what would seem like an unimportant anonymous quote would be the same as making up something a minister told you, which would be the same as giving a false opinion in a film review, or pretending you had a source for something when it was just rumour. It’s all the same. It’s the principle. You just don’t want to go there.
While we were talking about this, I recalled one of the first lecturers the journalist Eddie Holt gave my class in DCU. He was talking about truth. If you lie or are dishonest in journalism, he said, that lie or that remark that wasn’t fully right, or that opinion you feigned, will run away from you, it’ll take on a life of its own and go all sorts of places and possibly turn into something unrecognisable. Inevitably it will come back to bite you in the ass.
The truth, on the other hand, is steadfast. You can control it. When you put it out into the world, it comes to heel. Aged 18, and listening to Holt, it was decision time. Are you going to be the kind of journalist who is led by the truth, or the “kinda” truth? If you want to live with yourself, there’s no contest.
Every journalist knows the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night thinking, “I did get their name right, Didn’t I?” or “it was a hundred grand and not a million, wasn’t it?” You’re dealing with quotes and truths and figures and facts and feelings so much that getting everything right can create a low level of anxiety. Honest mistakes can happen, naturally, but it’s a whole different scenario if you’re purposefully misrepresenting something.
Of course, plenty of journalists don’t give a toss about these kinds of things. Reading reports from the phone-hacking trial in Britain and how some journalists engaged in such dishonesty brings any right-thinking person to despair because the truth was dispensed with so brutally.
You know the truth when you hear it. It rings in your ears. It’s why some speeches bring us to tears and others leave us cold. You know it when you see it, in the honesty of a particular painting, or the brutality of a particularly affecting photograph. Humans are so attuned to truth, that our minds fizz when we meet someone new and we subconsciously gather together all of their body language and quirks and intonations to create an instant judgment on their character.
What we’re searching for is: are they true or are they fake? In the media, arguments are constantly articulated on various issues. It’s up to the reader, the listener and the viewer to make a judgement and figure out what is true.
All too frequently, of course, media discourse is made up of polarised debates, within which no absolute truth can be extracted. Shouting at the radio and at the television becomes a common reaction, sometimes leading to switching off entirely.
Unfortunately for many politicians, for example, they have co-opted a language that has been based on avoidance, which means when discussing issues, they can sound disingenuous. “Sure they’d believe their own lies,” my late grandmother used to scoff when someone danced around the truth.
But the by-product of this muddled discourse means that when a real truth emerges, it pierces acutely. It invades the clouds we construct like crepuscular rays. Louise O’Keeffe fought for such truth. Wronged as a child and challenged with lies, she reached for the truth, a truth that could never escape her and emerge as something else. A truth that was brought to heel by the European Court of Human Rights.
Her commitment to the truth was so strong, so authentic, and so real, that nothing could stop it, because truth always outs. And with truth, comes dignity.
When Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised for the abuse O’Keeffe suffered in a State-run national school, she did not adopt the stance of the indignant, but of the dignified.
“The Taoiseach has apologised,” she said. “He has done so very graciously and for that I do accept the apology and appreciate that he did make it.”
It is hard to imagine the trauma O’Keeffe has gone through, both in the abuse she suffered, and the almost relentless case she had to fight in order to not only vindicate her own truth, but have that truth recognised by all.
The High Court dismissed her case against the Department of Education, deciding the State was not liable. The Supreme Court upheld that view. But O’Keeffe knew the truth was there. She didn’t fade into the greyness of a lack of accountability. The truth drove her, and the truth won.
The truth does not disappear just because it is ignored. In journalism, and in society, the truth should always be the first and last port of call. When all else fails, it is our only real guidance.