The story behind the story

 

What were the circumstances surrounding the death of Liam Lawlor? And how did the Sunday newspapers get it so wrong? Paul Cullen and Chris Stephen report.

Thursday, October 20th

Liam Lawlor takes a 12.40pm flight from Dublin to Praguewith Czech Airlines, arriving at 4pm.

Friday, October 21st

He travels on to Moscow in the company of Julia Kushnir, who works as a legal assistant for a two-partner law firm in Prague. She often acts as a translator for western businessmen. In Russia, he will talk to some local business people about a property deal.

On the way to the airport he talks to his son Niall in New York, his last conversation with his family. "I'm gonna get the Russians in a headlock, get a deal with them," Lawlor jokes with his son.

Niall says later he had "a strange feeling". "Dad, I love you," he says. "Son, you don't know how much I love you," comes the reply.

Early Saturday, October 22nd

Lawlor and Kushnir arrive shortly before midnight at Moscow's main airport, Sheremetyevo. A Russian developer has supplied a Mercedes and driver, Ruslan Suliamanov, to pick them up.

The big black Mercedes heads south through the clear chill air, then into the Leningradsky Shosse, a wide boulevard leading to the Kremlin. Their destination is a mile short of that, at the five-star Marriott Grand hotel, one of Moscow's smartest and also most secure. President George Bush stayed there recently.

At 12.55am, according to one report, a drunk careens on to the road, forcing the car to swerve. Its side slams into a lamppost, killing Lawlor and the driver instantly. Kushnir, in the back seat, is thrown forward and bangs her head.

Police are quickly on the scene. The two bodies are taken to the Skhodnya Morgue, 20 miles outside the city, while Kushnir is rushed to a hospital for suspected concussion. A few hours later, she is released and driven to the Marriott.

News of the crash reaches Ireland by a circuitous route. A shell-shocked Kushnir wants to pass on the news of her client's death. But she doesn't know him well and has no contact details. She is unfamiliar with the city and it is early in the morning at the weekend.

She rings a Czech friend in Prague. This woman's husband is friendly with Enda O'Coineen, an Irish businessman based in the Czech capital.

"All she could remember were two drunks [ crossing the road], the brakes, crashing, then waking up in hospital. She was totally distressed and shaken," O'Coineen recalls later.

He contacts the Irish Embassy in Prague, which in turn informs diplomatic colleagues in Moscow.

Saturday mid-morning

By now, garbled versions of the incident are making their way to Ireland. There is talk of Lawlor being seriously injured and rumours of a well-known Irish businessman having survived the crash.

The Irish ambassador in Moscow, Justin Harman, and his team wrestle with the local police bureaucracy to verify the story. They are told the officer in charge won't be available until Monday; eventually, a Sunday morning meeting is arranged.

By mid-morning, it is clear that Lawlor and the Russian driver have died in the accident. Steps are taken to inform his wife, Hazel, in Lucan, Co Dublin. "How will I ever manage without him?" she responds.

At the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis in Killarney, the phones are buzzing. Shortly after noon, the Taoiseach's programme manager, Gerry Hickey, tells journalists the news. Ahern is reluctant to confirm it, saying the details are still sketchy.

The news destroys Fianna Fáil's plan for maximising ardfheis media coverage. One journalist recalls: "The handlers had worked out this carefully coordinated strategy for the ardfheis and now, with Liam's death, it had all gone pear-shaped".

Saturday afternoon

Newsrooms throughout Dublin scramble to cover the story. The Department of Foreign Affairs is unable or unwilling to provide more detail. However, around 3pm, the Minister, Dermot Ahern, confirms Lawlor's death, and tells two journalists the woman in the car is a translator.

No Irish newspaper has a staff correspondent in Moscow (although The Irish Times has a freelance correspondent there) so the Sunday papers try to establish the facts using correspondents working for British papers.

The news editor of the Sunday Independent, Ciaran Byrne, who used to work for the Observer, asks that UK paper's correspondent in Moscow, Nick Paton Walsh, to confirm the reports about Lawlor. Based in Russia for more than three years, Paton Walsh is a former British young journalist of the year and was shortlisted for foreign correspondent of the year in this year's British press awards. The Sunday Independent carried his dispatches from the school siege in Beslan last year.

Paton Walsh rings what he later calls "an official police spokesperson" in Moscow. Over three conversations, two of which he tapes, he says he confirms Lawlor's death and relays to the Dublin paper the spokesperson's view that there was "a possibility" the woman in the car was a prostitute; in contrast, Sunday Independent sources say the information it received from Moscow was that it was "more than likely" she was a prostitute.

Paton Walsh's byline - along with Byrne's and assistant editor Jody Corcoran's - appears on the final article, although he asserts later: "I had no hand in drafting the story, or suggesting its news value". The story says Lawlor was killed in the company of a teenage girl described by police as "likely to be a prostitute".

"It landed like a bomb in the newsroom," a Sunday Independent source recalls. "The mood was triumphalist, the testosterone was pumping. There was great pride in the story; everyone believed it was true." Another source recalls feeling they were taking "a bit of a risk. But we were 95 per cent sure".

On being shown the headline on a computer screen, editor Aengus Fanning clenches his fist, saying "great story!".

The article says the crash happened in Moscow's red-light district and quotes the police saying the absence of baggage belonging to Lawlor or the woman showed that the car was not coming from the airport.

In fact, they had baggage and Moscow has no "red light district". Prostitutes hang about most of the big boulevards, with Unesco estimating their numbers at up to 10,000 on any given night. Leningradsky has its share of these women, but no more than any main city thoroughfare.

Saturday evening

Early editions of the Sunday Independent hit the streets in Dublin, with the front-page headline "Lawlor killed in red-light district with teenage girl".

The newspaper goes into marketing overdrive. The print-run is increased and arrangements are made to send 2,000 additional copies to Killarney, where the ardfheis is continuing. Euphoric editorial staff text journalistic colleagues at the conference with the gist of their "scoop".

Other Sunday newspapers learn of their rival's angle. Their editors must decide whether to "lift" the Sunday Independent story - an increasingly common practice in journalism - or verify it independently. The latter option presents some practical difficulties; it is Saturday evening, a few hours from the printing deadline, and Moscow is three hours ahead of Irish time. The Department of Foreign Affairs, resorting to its usual reticence on consular matters, is of no help. An official tells one journalist: "Even if we knew who the woman is, we wouldn't tell you".

Most Sunday papers run the prostitute angle to the story, using remarkably similar language to that in the Sunday Independent. The editor of the Sunday Tribune, Noirín Hegarty, later says her newspaper "verified" the story with two separate sources; other editors have yet to explain their actions.

Sunday, October 23rd

At least six newspapers carry versions of the prostitute story. The Observer claims, under the byline of its Belfast-based Ireland editor Henry McDonald, without providing any supporting information, that Lawlor "visited brothels and sex clubs in the Czech capital" and laundered cash for Dublin criminals. Paton Walsh's byline is not used, although he is the source of the assertion that "Lawlor may have been travelling with a young prostitute".

Sunday afternoon

Daily newspapers follow up the story for their Monday editions. Calls to Moscow police that morning fail to substantiate the Sunday Independent story. The Irish Times is told by a spokesman for the force involved, Department Four of the traffic police, that no details of the woman had been forwarded to him by investigating officers.

Journalists, wary of the possibility of a cover-up, try to reach Kushnir, but she checks out of her hotel.

Diplomats continue their efforts to ascertain the facts; finally, they see Lawlor's passport, stamped with a four-day visa, issued shortly after midnight at Moscow airport.

Police officials show them the two travellers' luggage; it is clear both came from the airport.

Dermot Ahern instructs his diplomats to brief journalists off the record on the facts of the case.

Niall Lawlor flies into Dublin from New York, travels to the Russian embassy to pick up a visa and heads out on the next flight to Moscow. By nightfall he arrives in the Russian capital and visits the scene of the accident on the busy highway into the city. "It doesn't look like a red-light district to me," he tells The Irish Times.

Monday, October 24th

The backpedalling starts. On radio, the Star's political correspondent John Downing apologises for the Star on Sunday's errors, saying its story was wrong. Michael Denieffe, managing editor of Independent Newspapers, goes on the lunchtime news on RTÉ to apologise and promises a full investigation. He also talks to Joe Duffy on Liveline, which receives hundreds of calls condemning the coverage.

Sunday Independent editor Aengus Fanning issues a statement apologising unreservedly to the Lawlor family - though not to Kushnir - but does not give interviews.

In London, the Observer insists in a statement its story reported "accurately and in good faith comments made by the Moscow police". "We have not received a complaint about the story, or been made aware of any evidence which contradicts it. Naturally, if presented with new evidence we will investigate further."

Moscow police show Irish diplomats Kushnir's passport, which shows she travelled from Prague. Acting on advice received in Moscow, Kushnir is put in contact with a Dublin firm of solicitors, which is instructed to seek an apology from seven Sunday newspapers.

Minister for Justice Michael McDowell responds to the controversy by promising legislation to set up an independent press council by Christmas.

Tuesday, October 25th

The Observer says in a statement that "serious discrepancies" have emerged in the police account given to Paton Walsh. It apologises for the inaccuracies in the story and the distress caused.

Paton Walsh tells The Irish Times his police contact had stressed "it was only a possibility the girl was a prostitute".

Kushnir, now back in Prague, is being advised by friends of the Lawlor family. She switches lawyers; her new representatives, Lynch & Co in Galway, promise a statement the following day.

Liam Lawlor's body is flown home to Ireland.

Wednesday, October 26th

Kushnir, still traumatised, opts not to make a statement until next week. A Star reporter and photographer track her down in Prague, and take her picture in the few seconds when she opens the door to tell them she has no comment.

Lawlor's body rests in Somerton, his home in Lucan.

Thursday, October 27th

The Star runs Kushnir's picture on its front page, her face still bruised and scarred from the accident. Lawlor is buried. Niall Lawlor stoutly defends his father's character and attacks the media for its "cruel and vicious" coverage in recent years.

Postscript

Earlier this month, after Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan (correctly) wrote that a businessman had "bunged" the politician almost £100,000 (€127,000), Lawlor circulated a characteristically waspish attack on the journalist and the Sunday Independent owner "Sir Anto O'Reilly".

The last of his many letters to a journalist ended with some counsel that sounds even more ironic now than when it was written: "Keep up the accurate reporting".

Aengus Fanning and Henry McDonald were contacted in the preparation of this article but said they were unable to comment