Last April, Irish Independent investigative journalist, Gemma O’Doherty, reported the story that the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, had had penalty points wiped out after incurring them. The Commissioner told the paper that a fixed penalty points notice had been wiped off after he had been caught breaking the speed limit by a traffic camera in 2007.
The then Deputy-Commissioner had been travelling in his own Renault car while on his way to a security meeting. Under legislation, all Gardaí are exempt from exceeding the speed limit if they are on duty, regardless of whether they are travelling in their personal or official vehicles.
The story came days after two whistle-blowers reported on the 189 complaints of quashing of penalty points after examining the Garda PULSE system. An inquiry subsequently set up by Callinan, however, found that no corruption had taken place but that some Gardaí were excessive in their use of power in wiping the points.
The ensuing furore over this story, and the recent revelations by the Garda whistle-blowers, have set the nation talking. Questions were raised in the Dáil and the Seanad and examples of politicians having their points quashed were used for point-scoring across the aisle. It brought into question the rules regarding ‘discretion’ that Gardaí have when deciding whether or not to issue penalty points. The media highlighted stories involving the Justice Minister and members of the United Left Alliance. O’Doherty’s story had helped set the stage for a national discussion.
However any spoils she could expect from breaking such a story were not met. Before her story was published, O’Doherty ventured to the home of the Garda Commissioner to double check that the person who had had their points quashed was in fact him. She knocked on the door and asked the Commissioner’s wife whether it was they who lived there. Mrs Callinan responded with a yes. For undertaking this action, O’Doherty was hauled in by Independent News & Media senior staff who phoned her to ascertain why she had done such a thing as knocking on the door of the Commissioner’s house to check the facts. Editor of the paper, Stephen Rae, branded O’Doherty a “rogue reporter” and her article was not published for over a week. The story was eventually run by the Independent after TV3 heard about it. However, as The Phoenix reports, the article published was “sanitised by senior heads”.
“We must ask ourselves why the stories reported on by The Phoenix, The Irish Post and Guardian have not been touched by RTÉ, our state broadcaster, and the so-called ‘paper of record’, The Irish Times.”
Subsequently, O’Doherty’s position as travel editor of Saturday’s ‘Weekend’ magazine was taken away from her, and when she enquired about this airbrushing she was told that Rae had ordered it. Some weeks later, O’Doherty was told she was being made redundant because of a restructuring for the “digital era”. If she did not take voluntary redundancy, she would be made compulsory redundant. Refusing the voluntary redundancy, O’Doherty was given notice of compulsory redundancy.
Gemma O’Doherty had been an investigative reporter at the Irish Independent for 16 years and was also senior features writer. Her reporting won both her and the paper numerous awards, and her investigating contributed greatly to the re-opening of the case surrounding the murder of Fr Niall Molloy. She was the only journalist to face redundancy over this restructuring, after having her title taken from her on the alleged orders of Stephen Rae.
Rae had been editor of the Independent for around 8 months, having received the position the previous September. He had previously been the editor of Garda Review, which describes itself on its website as being the “official magazine of the Garda Representative Association (GRA)” and says that it publishes the “contemporary news and views of the Force”.
There has been a tangible silence in the Irish media about the whole affair. Neither RTÉ nor The Irish Times have reported on O’Doherty being forced out but members of the Seanad and the Dáil have. Senator John Gilroy has sought a debate on the freedom of the press, directly referring to the lack of media coverage regarding the case. Speaking to this paper, Senator Gilroy said that “whenever an investigative journalist is forced out, it is a matter of public concern”.
Other senators followed his lead, speaking in the chamber of freedom of the press and O’Doherty’s work in assisting the re-opening of the Fr Molloy case. Words followed too in the Dáil, where Deputy Clare Daly had much to say about the treatment of whistle-blowers after she accused Alan Shatter of trying to down play one of the Garda whistle-blowers. She also made a startling judgement on why the media had been so slow to cover the story by asserting that Stephen Rae, editor at the Independent, had had his points wiped also. At the time of writing, Deputy Daly could not be reached for comment.
The London based Irish Post followed up on the story, with reporter Robert Mulhern coming across Rae’s phone number and confronting him over whether it was he who had had penalty points wiped. The incident concerned a Stephen Rae who accrued penalty points at 6.37am on 5th November 2009 at the N11 in Belfield, before the points were terminated. When Mulhern called Rae’s home number and asked whether he was the Stephen Rae whose points were terminated, Rae replied, “no comment”.
This story has also been picked up internationally, with Ray Greensdale reporting on both it and the forcing out of O’Doherty in the Guardian; asking “why is the Rae story, like the story of the firing of Gemma O’Doherty before it, being ignored by the Irish media?” The Phoenix also reported on Mulhern’s questioning of Rae, and is the only Irish media outlet following the story.
The initial story surrounding O’Doherty’s report on the Commissioner has given way to a much larger debate on what is deemed to be in the public interest and the status of the freedom of the press in this country. We must ask ourselves why the stories reported on by The Phoenix, Irish Post and Guardian have not been touched by RTÉ, our state broadcaster, and the so-called “paper of record”, The Irish Times.
Transparency International has also reported on the forcing out of O’Doherty by calling for her “reinstatement, and for the introduction of editorial policies that protect the independence of investigative journalists”. The group has made warnings in the past about the potentially chilling effects of legal threats against Irish journalists during a meeting with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, who expressed concern about the threat of litigation towards Irish journalists in her report to the UN General Assembly.
Questions have been raised to Minister Shatter by Deputy Joe Higgins, quoting The Irish Post report on Rae and asking whether the minister whether he found it “outrageous and doesn’t it smack…of a grotesque abuse of power?” Shatter responded by saying he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding the termination of employment of anyone in Independent News & Media, as he was not aware of them.
Various questions are raised from this whole debacle, chief among them being why does the Irish media continue to ignore both the forcing-out of O’Doherty, an award-winning investigative journalist, and the allegations by The Irish Post that Stephen Rae receiving penalty points which were then wiped?
It’s being discussed in the Oireachtas and yet not a sound is heard about it outside of the international media and The Phoenix. There are questions to be asked about the media landscape of this country when it comes to power.
When the media found out that Minister Shatter had been told of Deputy Mick Wallace’s alleged avoidance of penalty points they jumped on it, and to their credit highlighted the importance of the fact that Shatter found out via the Commissioner. When issues arise like that, even if innocent, they must be questioned. Anything less is a disappointment. Gemma O’Doherty questioned, and for that she was forced-out.