Cullen tells seminar of treatment by media

Press Council chairman Prof Tom Mitchell, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism Martin Cullen, Hayes Solicitors chairman Andrew O'Rorke and Mr Justice Peter Kelly at yesterday's seminar on Media, Society, Defamation - A New Era.

Press Council chairman Prof Tom Mitchell, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism Martin Cullen, Hayes Solicitors chairman Andrew O'Rorke and Mr Justice Peter Kelly at yesterday's seminar on Media, Society, Defamation - A New Era.

 

MINISTER FOR Arts, Sports and Tourism Martin Cullen has spoken for the first time of his “horrendous” treatment by the media after he was wrongly accused of having an affair with a Waterford businesswoman.

Mr Cullen said defamatory media coverage of groundless allegations almost destroyed his life, that of his family and the businesswoman, Monica Leech.

“It was like waking up every morning and being raped,” he said of his treatment at the hands of the media. Nothing could ever undo the damage done by the lies that had been written about him, he told a conference on defamation law yesterday. “I have never recovered from it and probably never will.”

He said his children had been forced to change school three times and suffered horrendous bullying. His young daughter suffered unbelievably and one of her teachers tried to humiliate her in class.

When his sons tried to defend his honour they had the “daylights” beaten out of them. One journalist had bullied his 11-year-old daughter into letting him into the family home, from where he had rung his former wife and abused her in front of the child.

He said a Bebo site dedicated to him had received one million hits, yet no one could stop it.

Long after it was established that the story was untrue, the media continued to perpetuate an image of him as a buffoon and someone who abused his position. Last year, five people nearly died when parts of the helicopter in which he was travelling fell off yet he was portrayed as the villain, and someone who spent all his time flying around the world.

In fact, he had used a helicopter just four times in five years and was one of the least frequent flying Minister in the State.

Mr Cullen said the media had also perpetuated the story about him and Ms Leech with just a photograph. This purported to show him in a dress suit and Ms Leech in evening wear going to a function. However, the photo had been doctored because in the original Ms Leech’s husband was standing behind her and Brian Cowen also appeared.

Mr Cullen said he had no issue with the media questioning and criticising issues in a forthright and even satirical way. However, the values of responsibility and decency were slipping away from the way it operated. With the advent of 24-hour news, there was greater pressure to get stories out, even if there was uncertainty about the truth. It wasn’t enough to say that just because someone was a public figure the media had a right to act intrusively.

He said he found himself on his own after he came under scrutiny. Colleagues worried about being “tainted” by the affair while other politicians were anxious to be promoted if he had to resign.

The two people who showed the greatest humanity were Mary Harney, who on political grounds had the least reason to give support, and Bertie Ahern, who was “very fair”.

Now that the political establishment was the subject of such public odium and the church was collapsing, the the only pillar of society left was the media. It had a “grave responsibility” to present stories in a factual way.

Mr Cullen said the rule of thumb among politicians was you couldn’t survive if you appeared on the front of the Sunday newspapers for three weeks running. Yet he had spent 13 weeks in a row on the front page of the Sundays. No amount of apologies or money could undo the damage that had been done, he said.