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Why crime correspondents need a well-developed scepticism towards State institutions and the police in particular
Eamonn McCann, 22 Jun 2000
There was an interesting sign of garda nervousness, if not guilt, over the death of John Carthy, in the Sunday Independent on June 11th.
Mr. Carthy was the disturbed young man shot dead in April by a member of the Garda Emergency Response Unit after a two-day siege of his family home in Abbeyara, Longford. He was struck by four bullets, the final shot fired into his back.
Mr. Carthy s mother had called gardai after her son who was suffering from depression but was a popular and well-integrated member of the local community had discharged two rounds in the garden of the house from his legally-held shotgun.
RTE s Prime Time last month highlighted public concern about the circumstances of the killing. As a result, garda commissioner Pat Byrne invited a number of FBI officers to assist in the investigation. The FBI presence, it was explained, would provide an independent element in the inquiry.
The FBI officers left Ireland without speaking to any member of the Carthy family or, as far as the family can discover, any civilian at all.
The Sunday Independent story purported to reveal details of the investigators report. According to this account, the gardai have been exonerated.
Gardai refused John Carthy s request to be allowed to speak to his solicitor, Michael Finucane? Not so. It was just that they couldn t find Mr. Finucane s phone number in the directory and didn t think to call enquiries.
Gardai wouldn t allow Mr. Carthy cigarettes even though they knew he was an addict? Not exactly. They did fetch cigarettes but, in accordance with internationally-recognised siege negotiation procedure, refused to pass them to him unless he made an unspecified matching concession, which he wouldn t, or at any rate didn t.
Gardai didn t call in medical professionals to assess or counsel Mr. Carthy? Well, the trained Garda negotiator thought at first that medical advice wasn t needed; then, when Mr. Carthy s psychiatrist arrived from Dublin, gardai did not feel it safe to allow the doctor into the house as they were unsure of his patient s state of mind.
And so on, disposing point by point with the complaints voiced by the Carthy family, their neighbours and civil liberties groups. If the Gardai had bought space in the Sunday Independent to push a version of events favourable to themselves, they could scarely have come up with more effective, written-to-format copy.
Public reaction to the report when it is published will have been coloured by this account of events. Threat to unarmed gardai has already been given the status of front-page fact. The force has good reason to be thankful to the journalist who put her name to the piece, crime correspondent Liz Allen, and to the Sunday Independent.
And not for the first time. The Veronica Guerin case provided a striking precedent.
On November 27th 1998, Paul Ward was convicted of Ms. Guerin s murder despite the no-jury Special Criminal Court having thrown out a confession which gardai claimed he had made during interrogation. In a scathing attack on the gardai concerned, the three judges declared that investigators had shown a conscious and deliberate disregard of the accused s basic constitutional right to fair procedure and treatment.
The court nevertheless found Ward guilty on the basis of the uncorroborated evidence of supergrass Charlie Bowden.
So, although the gardai had gotten a result, they were left with a lot of explaining to do. Specifically, if they were to continue to insist that they hadn t rubbished Paul Ward s constitutional rights, they had to explain how his confession had, in the event, been extracted.
Two days after the judgement, Ms. Allen and the Sunday Independent supplied the answer: the gardai had read Paul Ward s mind.
In a piece headed The patient gardai who can read minds , Ms. Allen explained that the Special Criminal Court had failed (understandably, many may feel) to appreciate how these exceptional interviewers went about their work.
These gardai are different , Ms. Allen reported. They possessed an unidentfiable quality. As for the officer to whom Paul Ward had made his confession: Nobody knows what it is that enables (him) to connect with criminals who ignore other interviewers.
However, a long-time detective colleague was willing to have a stab at it: He s got a knack for getting inside people s heads It s the indefinable quality which defines what he is a unique kind of guy.
Readers were invited to ponder the possibility that he d acquired his ability to enter other people s heads from a senior colleague, who could read your mind.
Ms. Allen did confess that Nobody I spoke to could put a finger on what makes (the garda interrogators) special something in their eyes or something in their minds
The piece was memorable mainly for its blithe irrationality. The conclusion any common-sense journalist would have drawn is that if the gardai couldn t come up with something more plausible than unidentifiable qualities, old fellows who could read minds and younger fellows defined by the indefinable, they must have something huge to hide.
But then, common-sense journalists are one thing, crime correspondents are different kettles of fishiness altogether.
Crime correspondents , plural, because Ms. Allen, in fairness to her, in penning these pieces, was not acting out of the ordinary or showing herself as less objective than her equivalents on other Dublin papers or in broadcasting outlets. For a number of years now, almost all crime correspondents have seemed to accept that the job specification includes part-time PR work for the police.
It s not just in Ireland. In Los Angeles this year, as in Philadelphia last year, investigative and polemical journalists have had to fight their colleagues on the crime beat in order to get stories of police corruption into print.
Nor does the problem arise only in relation to the reporting of crime. In many areas of journalism, specialist practitioners develop a positive relationship with the professionals in the same field, and find some sense of common purpose. But the tendency is particularly marked in crime coverage.
It is generally assumed that crime is a bad thing, combatting crime a good thing. (This assumption is itself open to question. Or, to be more exact, it is based on selective definition of what constitutes crime. But for the moment, we might let that pass.)
Operating according to this pre-set perspective, crime correspondents come readily to believe that they are not just reporting but contributing to a fight against crime , that they and the gardai are involved on the same side in an on-going conflict, agents of the same moral force, adopting the different methods appropriate to their different jobs but essentially pursuing the same ends.
The sense of solidarity thus engendered may be strengthened further by the fact that the journalist will generally be reliant on police contacts for stories to an extent which is not true in any other area of journalism.
In all of these circumstances, a crime correspondent who comes into the job without an already well-developed scepticism towards State institutions and towards the police in particular can drift into a role in which he or she operates as a partisan outrider of official interests rather than a chronicler and disinterested analyst of events.
In this way, pieces which might properly be published as columns of conservative opinion come to be printed as news.
This is one of the key mechanisms whereby police corruption and abuse of power is covered up and allowed to continue.
I can t imagine how I missed this before... Did you know that, whereas St. Francis of Assisi s feast-day is October 4th, the feast of his stigmata is September 17th?
Yes. His miraculous wounds have their very own feast-day, marked in Franciscan monastries the world over, where, every September 17th, all food is served on skewers.
St. Francis was the first-ever stigmatist. Prior to the day in 1224 when he noticed the wounds of Christ erupting on his body while praying for more recruits for his order on Monte Laverna in the Apennine Mountains, stigmata had never been heard of.
More than 80 percent of stigmatists who have since been authenticated have been women. I know people who could mine a thousand words from that before breakfast.
Aromatherapists might get mileage from the fact that many stigmatists give forth perfume. The Toledo stigmatist Juana of the Cross exuded such a heavy scent of roses that people brought into her presence tended to fall into a coma so deep that doctors could carry out major surgery without them feeling a thing. Isn t that amazing?
Lucy of Narni smelled of tulips.
All this and more is to be found on the MGM website advertising the new and reputedly appalling Patricia Arquette film, Stigmata. That s except for the bit about the Franciscans serving food on skewers, which I ve just made up.