Journalists are supposed to be against abuses


OPINION:THE BEST in Irish journalism was recognised last week in the National Media Awards 2009. Happily, colleagues in this newspaper took four awards, while the overall award went, deservedly, to Shane Ross and Nick Webb of the Sunday Independent for their exposé of the goings-on over expenses at Fás.

There can be few more satisfying rewards in any walk of life than being acknowledged by one’s professional peers.

Just before the ceremony on Wednesday at Trinity College Dublin started, several mobile phones beeped. Monica Leech had just won her libel action against Independent News Media’s Evening Herald, and the jury had awarded her a whopping €1.87 million in damages.

A jury of our peers as citizens had judged the Herald’seditor and reporters to be so wrong that they hit the paper’s parent company for the largest libel sum awarded to date by an Irish jury.

Since then, much of the heavy breathing in the media has been about the size of the award. There are, for sure, legitimate points to be raised when one compares the amount given to Leech to repair the damage to her reputation to, say, the amount awarded to the victims of extreme injury, such as the loss of two limbs. €1.87 million for implying, wrongly, that Leech was having an affair, and €180,000 for loss of both legs – the amounts seem out of kilter. But in not addressing the bigger picture, the media is missing the larger point. Many fellow citizens believe we in the media think we can say anything we like and get away with it. They think we target people unjustly, with little thought of the pain we inflict on them and their families.

You know what? They are largely correct, but the brush is applied across all media, as though we are all the same.

The Monica Leech story began with Ireland on Sunday, a paper that has since become the Irish Mail on Sunday, stablemate of the Irish Daily Mail. Ireland on Sundayreported in November 2004 that Leech had been retained by then environment minister Martin Cullen to give PR advice. The Heraldlatched onto the story and, in November and December 2004, pursued it (and Leech) with vigour. The reports dripped with insinuation, and at least one photograph was digitally doctored to reveal more of Leech’s leg, thus supporting the original insinuation.

Would the Herald’sapproach have been the same had Monica Leech been Michael Leech? I doubt it. As Leech said after her victory: “It was the oldest, dirtiest little plot in the book – a woman can only progress and produce any worthwhile work, and secure any worthwhile work, through some relationship with a man.”

The Heraldstill cannot bring itself to apologise, to say it was wrong – something that evidently irks Leech. Instead, the paper has focused on the amount of the award – “a major blow to the freedom of the press”.

The Irish Daily Mail, which reportedly settled its own case with Leech on behalf of Ireland on Sunday, thinks the rest of the media should row in behind the Herald. The Mailfront page report said Leech had “pocketed” €1.87 million, suggesting that she, and not the Herald, had done something wrong. Inside the paper, above a smiling picture of Leech, a headline read: “Pleased with yourself, Monica?”, thus implying, again, that she, not the Herald, did wrong.

The next day, a self-serving piece bemoaned Leech’s “blow against press freedom” and the absence of other media to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the Heraldin its darkest hour”.

Journalists should not stand “shoulder to shoulder” with abuse of power. That’s what we’re supposed to be against, damn it, and if it takes an over-the-top libel jury to put manners on some of us, then so be it.

Commenting on the jury’s decision, Monica Leech explained it in part by saying: “We all have an inbuilt decency button.” And, she might have added, juries expect those in the media to know where their decency button is, and to press it at times.