Aileen Moynagh on her teenage stalker: ‘How could somebody so young do this?’

For months BBC journalist Aileen Moynagh was subjected to a stranger’s horrific threats

Even now, Aileen Moynagh is constantly looking over her shoulder. She rarely walks alone from her office – the BBC Broadcasting House building in central Belfast – to the car park, which is just across the road. “I don’t go alone if I can avoid it, especially at night,” she says.

A while back, she was staying in a hotel and the security lock on the door didn’t work, so she pulled a chair against the back of the door.

If I could take myself out of the story and just be the reporter, I would. But, sometimes, telling your own story is more powerful

More recently, the journalist was getting ready to record a piece to camera for BBC News outside court, and she noticed two “young boys, mucking about”. When she heard one of them speak with a southern accent, she froze. “Afterwards I was thinking, could that have been him?”

For a number of months, between October 2020 and February 2021, Moynagh was subjected to what a judge would later call “horrific” sustained online harassment and threats.

Her harasser, who was 16 when the abuse started, was given a six-months deferred sentence for the harassment against her last February, just before he turned 18. He was ordered to remain under the supervision of the probation service for the next 12 months in relation to threats made against a second journalist.

Moynagh gave a powerful victim impact statement during the case last December, in which she addressed the boy directly. It was the first time she had ever laid eyes on him. “I hope you’ll look back at this point in your life and see it as the day things turned around for you,” she said. “While I couldn’t have always said this, I don’t wish you any ill – I just want you to stop.”

She was surprised by how much it took out of her, she says now, drinking peppermint tea in a hotel near her workplace. “I thought, I broadcast – I will be fine. They give you the option of doing it privately, or the guards reading it.” But she wanted to do it herself. And then, “I could barely get through the first line.”

Moynagh has given careful consideration in the months since to the question of whether she wanted to speak further about the experience.

She is a reporter, and her job is to help other people tell their stories so that it might help someone else, or might act as the catalyst for wider societal change. On the other hand, she never wanted to be the story herself. “If I could take myself out of the story and just be the reporter, I would. But, sometimes, telling your own story is more powerful.”

She has also had to overcome the voices in her head that tell her that other people have had worse experiences.

Moynagh has struggled with a version of this dilemma before.

In 1998, the summer she was 17, she had a job in SuperValu in Omagh. She was there serving ice creams to children, on the afternoon of August 15th, a date forever seared into the memories and souls of everyone in her beloved town.

It took her until 2018, the 20th anniversary of the horrific bombing that took 29 lives, to finally tell her story, writing a piece for BBC online. “The strange thing is, the bang didn’t seem that loud to me. What I remember were the birds and the slates of the building blowing off the roofs. And then the silence,” she wrote.

Two of her own friends were among the 220 people hurt in the bombing and her dad's cousin lost a daughter, 17-year-old Jolene Marlow. Her school recorded an album for Jolene, and Moynagh wrote a song to her on it. But for a long time afterwards, she felt constrained from talking about it. "I didn't want to jump on the bandwagon," she explains. "I always felt I wasn't physically hurt. I had friends who were. I knew people who died."

Writing the piece was a way of making the point to other people in her community “that you should never say that just because you’re not physically injured, it didn’t have an impact. The mental scars are still there.”

That sentiment would come back to her many years later. She has experience of living in the long shadow of trauma, but the events that began in the autumn of 2020 have left a different kind of mark.

At the start I used to say it comes with the job but actually, I shouldn't. It shouldn't

It started with an innocuous enough chain of emails – 14 in all – which began on October 25th, 2020, purporting to be from a woman who wanted to tell a story about her son. “She said he had some social problems and a lack of empathy, and had been contacting girls online.”

The “woman” spoke about how maybe her son had gone over the top, “but ‘keep in mind this is a child we’re talking about’. I really thought I was talking to a mother about her son.”

The last one landed in her inbox on Monday, November 16th. That day, she was on the late shift and getting ready to go to work. Three hours later, she got a notification that she had been tagged in a message on Twitter. It was warning her about a fake Instagram account set up in her name. She followed the link. "It was my name, my picture and a very unpleasant, crude description. And then I opened my personal email and there was an email with a picture of me and [her partner]." The email read: 'Who the f**k is that? I thought we were mates?! I've been looking at you the past 4 months. This is a huge mistake on your part let me tell you that!'"

The picture had been taken from her private Facebook profile. "I just burst out crying."

Like many female journalists and politicians, she had previously had trolling and unwelcome personal remarks. “I’ve had a whole range, even things like, ‘What do you wear under your boots – bare feet or socks?’ At the start, I used to say it comes with the job, but actually, I shouldn’t. It shouldn’t. But in those cases, they were all one-offs.”

This was not a one-off.

Over the next few hours, there were several more emails about, or to, Moynagh, almost all coming from different email addresses.

Later that day, “another colleague got an email about me. I was copied on it.” It revealed some personal information, including that she was turning 40 in February and had no children. He said he had deleted the fake Instagram “out of respect for her, however that doesn’t mean that I’m not still angry” about the fact that she had a partner.

The same day, politician Michelle Gildernew received a number of worrying emails about Moynagh. The Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone was so concerned by the content she immediately reported it to the PSNI. Disturbingly, in these, he claimed to have met Moynagh twice. "He said he didn't intend to physically harm me, but he needed retaliation" because she was in a relationship, Moynagh says.

He described his response to the discovery she had a partner. “The natural emotion was intense anger and an internal feeling of betrayal . . . Retaliation is the obvious thing to do and I haven’t even started yet.”

He boasted that he had once cost a woman her job because of false allegations. The final four words were: “Aileen Moynagh is f***ed.”

Moynagh still had no idea who he was, but her mind was racing with possibilities. “I was thinking, we’re in Covid – where could I have met somebody?”

She had already spoken to an editor and now she reported it to the BBC’s information security team, who had an idea who it might be – an individual, based in the South, “who had previously contacted others”. Before Moynagh, it had mostly been “very low-level. Mine was sort of an escalation.” She was told that he gets bored, contact does seem to slow down, but it might take a little time. It was suggested that contacting the police would be a fitting action. She did report it and, on the same day, she moved out of the beautiful home she had renovated herself for five days. “That had been my safe place. And it was gone.”

There shouldn't be barriers to policing organisations either side of the Border sharing information

The court would later hear the harasser was a boy with complex issues and an "unhealthy interest" in women journalists. He had previously been cautioned about similar activities against two RTÉ journalists.

The abuse against Moynagh moved to Twitter and LinkedIn, where he set up as many as 150 different accounts. One of them was “@aileenmoynaghshusband”. He trawled her friends’ social media accounts, sometimes going back years earlier. As each notification arrived, she felt a pressure to screenshot the messages before he deleted them. How did it feel? “Exhausting,” she says now. “Absolutely exhausting.”

She still had no idea what he looked like “which is part of the reason I went to court. Because I can’t keep looking over my shoulder. But I also thought if I can do something that might help this young person so he doesn’t do it again, then why would I not?”

Since the boy was living in the South, the PSNI informally shared the information they had with An Garda Síochána. But to be of evidentiary use it has to go through Interpol, an additional layer of bureaucracy that Moynagh felt slowed everything down. For some reason, it never arrived in time for the case. "There shouldn't be barriers to policing organisations either side of the Border sharing information. Online abuse doesn't have any borders," Moynagh says.

In December, she took the decision to independently report the abuse to the Garda Síochána, who immediately took it seriously. She was worried about ruining his family’s Christmas, so agreed with gardaí that they would wait until January to approach him. But, by then, the country was in level 5 lockdown, which meant that nothing could be done immediately.

The last message she got arrived the night before her 40th birthday, in February 2021. “Happy birthday!” it said. “Just to let you know, my obsession with you has completely ruined everything for me, my mental health, my personal relationships, all I think about is you. I don’t blame you, I blame myself. So enjoy this weekend, enjoy the rest of your life. I don’t want to keep doing this to myself. This is the last you’ll hear from me. Goodbye.”

When I said to him in court that I hope this is the day things turn around for you, I meant that

“Of course I went into automatic worry mode. I contacted the guards, who went straight out to his house. They subsequently brought him in and questioned him.”

Her experience of dealing with An Garda Síochána was extremely positive. Before she stood up to make her victim impact statement, the garda who had been leading the investigation, Det Garda Ken McGreevy, gave her a Garda badge. “He said, I want you to have this when you’re making your statement, so you know the force is with you.” She still keeps it beside her bed.

The case came before the Children’s Court in Dublin in September 2021. During the months in between, there was no further contact. However, in court it emerged that, despite being warned by gardaí not to contact her, the boy had recently got the bus to Belfast and had been within a couple of hundred yards of her workplace.

“The contact had stopped and roughly six months later, he chose to get the bus to come to Belfast,” she says, incredulous even now. The revelation frightened her, and still does. “I dragged him to court. Is he going to be angry with me? Hopefully, this gets him the help he needs. When I said to him in court that I hope this is the day things turn around for you, I meant that.”

The court heard how the boy’s father had been trying to get specialist help for his high-functioning son since he was eight. He been approved at one point for a residential therapeutic placement, but the HSE funding was not available. Tusla now has a considerable plan of supports in place.

At one point – the day she gave her victim impact statement – Det Garda McGreevy told her the child’s father had requested to meet her. She agreed. “How hard must it be to have a child so young, obviously incredibly intelligent, who could have his whole life in front of him – and yet, this could change his life forever one way or another?”

Moynagh and the child’s father ended up hugging one another. “He came up to me, and he was so emotional. He was just like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ My heart broke. And so I ended up hugging him. I said I felt guilty for bringing him to court. He said this was ‘our last chance’ to get help for his son before he turned 18.”

Moynagh adds: “I said all along that I wasn’t the first person, but I wanted to be the last. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.”

In January, while he was awaiting sentencing, he admitted that he had become obsessed with a third female journalist in RTÉ, including making threats to “disfigure her” and travelling to her workplace. That journalist was not named in the proceedings.

In February, the boy was given a deferred six-month sentence to be reviewed in July, which means he has to abide by a number of conditions, including staying out of certain areas and not having unsupervised internet access. For the threat to the other journalist, he has to engage with the probation services for 12 months. Judge Paul Kelly described a psychiatric report as "quite alarming reading". It stated the boy showed no remorse; he was at high risk of reoffending, violence and continued stalking.

I felt sad for him as well. How could somebody so young do this?

In a statement she released afterwards, Moynagh said: “All organisations need to learn – including the BBC – how to better approach these situations from the outset. The BBC has accepted that its initial approach should have been better and is now actively working to put practices in place to help staff deal with harassment of this nature.”

Since then, she and other colleagues who have experienced online abuse have participated in a meeting with the BBC’s top management to share their experiences and “suggested where we felt things could be improved. Action has been taken and new policies are being worked on” to deal with online abuse, she says. “If sharing my experience puts plans in place that makes it better for someone else in the future, well that’s something positive I can take from having gone through this.”

One of the other reasons why she took the case was to make people think about “the power that they have in their hands with their phone”.

She would like the law to change so that social media companies cannot hide behind GDPR when a criminal investigation is under way. “Abuse online should be taken seriously and have consequences for perpetrators hiding behind a mobile or a keyboard. Unfortunately, abuse of this nature doesn’t always remain electronic,” she said in her statement.

“Today marks an end to a long, difficult journey,” she added, in which there “are no winners”. But she is not sure when it will ever really end for her.

“In one way, you feel silly that you’re so terrified of somebody who’s so young. But I felt sad for him as well. How could somebody so young do this?”

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