Stephen Collins: Treatment of Pat Carey by the media shameful

Carey’s reputation casually shredded without having been informed of complaint

Pat Carey at the Dublin City Count Centre at the RDS on during ther 2011 General Election. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Pat Carey at the Dublin City Count Centre at the RDS on during ther 2011 General Election. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The Irish media is fond of demanding the highest standards of behaviour from politicians and other leading national institutions but, increasingly in recent years, elements of the media appear to have abandoned basic standards decency.

The treatment of former minister Pat Carey in the past few days was a shameful example of how far standards have been eroded with unproven allegations being bandied about by sections of the media in advance of a Garda investigation.

A man’s reputation was casually shredded before he had even been informed by gardai that that a complaint had been made about his alleged behaviour decades ago. Whether there is any substance in the claim is something gardaí will now have to establish.

While Pat Carey was not named in the initial reports, his name was quickly in circulation in media and political circles a very short time after the story first appeared in a newspaper and was given wider ventilation by the national broadcaster.

A clearly traumatised Carey felt obliged to issue a statement on Thursday night even though he had not been named in any of the reports. He said that rumour and innuendo surrounding the newspaper article published under the headline “Former Minister investigated by gardaí over child abuse claims” had left him with no option but to go public.

In his statement Carey absolutely and unconditionally denied any impropriety during his 30 years as a teacher, community worker and in his public life and said he was distraught to first learn of these matters on the front page of a national newspaper.

He resigned from prominent roles in a number of voluntary organisations as well as from the position of Fianna Fáil director of elections for the forthcoming campaign.

The damage so casually inflicted on the reputation of a highly respected figure is something the media needs should reflect on but there is probably little prospect of that happening in a world of cut throat competition.

In the past there would have been no question of the media reporting on and effectively identifying a person at the centre of a Garda investigation at such an early stage.

It used to be standard practice that a person was only named in connection with an alleged breach of the law when they were charged in open court. Even at that stage an individual remains innocent until proven guilty but is obliged to endure the inevitable reputational damage that a court appearance entails.

Just because he is a highly respected and well-liked political figure does not of course mean Carey should not be the subject of a thorough Garda investigation into a serious complaint. He deserves to be treated in exactly the same fashion as any other citizen who is the subject of a similar complaint.

However, he has been dealt with in a very cruel and different manner to the norm only because he is a politician. This is not the first occasion on which the rule book of fairness and decency has been thrown away by the media just because the person involved is a political figure.

In January 2013 wide publicity was given to the fact that Socialist TD Clare Daly had been arrested for allegedly driving while over the alcohol limit.

In the event it turned out that she was not over the limit and the gardaí and the media were left with egg on their faces but there was no justification for reporting the event in the first place.

The media industry has long campaigned against the strictness of the libel laws in this country but given the way it has behaved in a number of high-profile cases over the past few years it is difficult to argue in that reform would lead to better and fairer reporting.

One of the features of Irish public life over the past few years has been the growth of a truculent anti-politician mood. There are many reasons for this and it is arguable that politicians have brought it on themselves by the behaviour of some of them as revealed in a variety of judicial tribunals.

Nonetheless, the health of our democracy requires some level of understanding by the public of the challenges and choices faced by politicians in the course of their everyday work. Constant denigration of everything they do has helped to promote a nihilistic public mood which could over time prove to be very dangerous.

Much of what passes for current affairs coverage in the media no longer involves serious exploration of the issues and the choices facing society and amounts to little more than politician-baiting.

Look at the way Roscommon TD Frank Feighan was abused and effectively hounded out of standing for re-election because he supported the reorganisation of the health service at his local hospital which was widely regarded by health professionals as the rational way to proceed.

In his case is was not so much the traditional media but elements of the voting public in Roscommon who engaged in such a level of intimidation through social media that left the TD feeling he could not stand for election again.

With an election campaign due to get underway early in the New Year is it too much to hope for that the debate will focus the real choices facing the country in the coming years?

Robust debate will be important to enable voters to judge the qualities possessed by various political leaders but with luck personal abuse will be kept to the minimum.

The media will play a big role in determining if that happens.

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