Jobstown trial struck a modern, and very disturbing, tone

Video footage, ‘fake news’ claims and live tweeting anchor case in contemporary Ireland

Paul Murphy TD speaks to the assembled media as he and six others are found not guilty of the false imprisonment of former Labour party leader Joan Burton and her assistant in 2014. Video: Colm Keena

 

There was something very contemporary about the Jobstown trial.

For a start, the principal evidence presented by the prosecution was video evidence, much of it filmed by protesters on smartphone who were at the scene and who posted the footage on Facebook and YouTube.

There was also footage from Garda CCTV cameras, a Garda helicopter, and even footage taken by Joan Burton and her then assistant, Karen O’Connell, from inside the Garda car and Garda Jeep in which they were detained, first in one vehicle then in another, for approximately three hours, after an angry crowd surrounded first the Toyota Avensis they were in, and then the Jeep.

There was footage of the moment when gardaí formed a cordon to allow the two women to run from one vehicle to the other. The crowd surged up against the two lines of gardaí, which quickly collapsed. “Get the c**ts” someone could be heard shouting. The dash took approximately 30 seconds and, from what the two women said in evidence, was a particularly terrifying moment.

Across the western world since the economic crisis , people have been turning against centre-left parties and drifting towards the harder left and harder right. It was interesting to sit in court number 13 and see the former leader of the now much reduced Labour Party describe how scared she was by what happened in Jobstown on Saturday, November 15th, 2014, while Paul Murphy sat in the dock, listening closely, poker-faced.

His seat was the closest to the witness box, so he was just a few feet away from Burton as she sometimes struggled to hold back her emotions as she described being inside the Avensis while people hurled violent personal abuse at her. Bitch. Whore. C**t. People shouted that they wished she would die. A woman standing beside the car was, she said, beside herself with rage. Burton said she sometimes wondered where all the hatred came from.

Video evidence

The video evidence was sometimes used by defence counsel to challenge testimony from Garda witnesses, but each time the video footage was shown, especially if the volume was turned up, you couldn’t help but be convinced that what had happened on the day had been terrifying. The women said they were afraid of what would happen to them if the protesters had managed to pull them from either of the Garda vehicles. The proposition was made on behalf of the accused that they could have got out of the Avensis but chose not to. It seemed farcical.

Another very contemporary aspect of the trial was the role played by social media. Right from the moment charges were brought, a JobstownNotGuilty campaign was run online, despite the normal practice that people do not comment in the run up to, and during, jury trials. Astonishingly, Murphy even tweeted, and retweeted others’ tweets, from the actual courtroom. Just last Monday he published a retweet that contained a seemingly libellous observation about some of the evidence, while sitting in the courtroom a few feet from where Judge Melanie Greally was charging the jury.

A lot of the commentary that appeared on social media was shocking in its verbal violence and its unconcealed hatred. The JobstownNotGuilty page on Facebook posted a request on the day Burton was due to begin evidence, that people should not picket Burton’s home. This would not be helpful, it was stated, to which someone responded that it would be playing “into the bitch’s hands”.

The social media content, in its disturbing tone, seemed to mirror some of the shouting and venom that could be seen on the video footage. It was also easy to imagine it had bled into the courtroom. There was a strong attendance in courtroom 13 most days, especially when Burton and O’Connell were in the witness box. The mostly JobstownNotGuilty supporters often made their views of the evidence known by way of snorts and not-so-quietly whispered swearing. The lack of sympathy for the two women as they spoke of their ordeal was unsettling.

Its leaders claim moral authority to act on behalf of the people, thereby delegitimising any opposition, institution or dissenting voice

Another contemporary aspect of the trial was the social media campaign’s relentless attack on the “mainstream media”.There were repeated allegations of bias levelled against particular media outlets. Without a hint of embarrassment, these attacks were accompanied by hugely partisan commentary on the evidence as it unfolded, some of which was libelous, and some of which seemed to constitute contempt of court. It was hard not to think of fake news, and US president Donald Trump.

Hate speech

In a speech in Dublin on Friday the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, will explore the threat to the rule of law that arises from fake news, hate speech and populism.

Jagland defines populism as an emotional appeal that harnesses grievance against the establishment.

“Its leaders claim moral authority to act on behalf of the people, thereby delegitimising any opposition, institution or dissenting voice.”

During the trial the argument was put that Burton, then tánaiste, wasn’t welcome in Jobstown in November 2014, not by the community or its political leaders. The anger that resulted when she did choose to take up an invitation to speak at a ceremony for back-to-education graduates, it was argued, was her own fault.

One day in the courtroom, I overheard a middle-aged man observe that Burton had not come from a privileged background. “I know I shouldn’t say that,” he quickly added to his female companion.

The constitutional right to freedom of expression was one of the arguments with which the accused contested the charges against them. But watching the case it was hard to not to feel that the anger so much to the fore in the events of November 2014, and in the online campaign against the charges, was itself inimical to freedom of expression.

Which is another very contemporary phenomenon.

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