How Patrick Cooney scooped the Sunday World

The Sunday World published a libelous article on Patrick Cooney after the editor had been informed that the basis for the article was false.
The £28,000 libel award to Patrick Cooney against the Sunday World was the result of a combination of unprofessional journalism, editorial strife withhin the paper and managerial timiidity.

The case has done more than the best efforts of the Coalition Government in 1976 to stifle the press here and has blunted innquiries into those issues related to Cooney's reign in Justice.

The Sunday World story was written by an anonymous freeelance political journalist who was the mainstay of the "Senator" column until recently. Joe Kennedy, the first editor of the Sunday World and perhaps the person most responsible for the paper's initial success, edited the column even after he became managing editor of the company in order to launch a new evening paper.

The libelous column which was published on October 2,1977, was preceded by two other columns in the same vein written by the same freelance political journalist.

The first of these appeared on July 24, 1977 and predicted the publication of the Amnesty reeport on allegations of Garda bruutality, which was common knowwledge at the time. The story went on to state: "I gather that the name of a most senior minister who authorised a most senior pol ice officer to use whatever methods he liked on prisoners and guaranteed him that there would be no investigation of any kind, no matter what occurred, may feature prominently in the reeport".

That story ended by denying emphatically that Patrick Cooney was the Minister concerned.

There was never the slightest possibility that a senior ,Minister would be named by Amnesty Innternational as having given any innstruction to a senior police officer. Amnesty at no stage had any eviidence of this and would never have been in a position to receive evidence ot this. A phone call to the Amnesty office in London

In September 25, 1977 the "Senator" went even furrther: "I can tell you this morning that we are about to witness in this country the biggest series of trials arising out of the activities condoned or ordered by Governnment Ministers that has ever occurred.

"I can also say that Ireland's leading constitutional lawyer has drawn up an indictment concernning activities while in office of Coalition Ministers. In the case of some of the accusations any or all Coalition Ministers could be accused though it might not be that all were fully aware of what they were condoning.

"It is expected that a Bill of Indemnity might be requested to cover all actions taken by or on behalf of Ministers from 1973 to 1977 on the lines being planned in Britain to indemnify actions by Ian Smith and his Ministers since 1965.

"Were Jack Lynch to agree, prosecutions would likely be thwarted though some lawyers claim action might still be taken against former Ministers under ths European Convention of Human Rights .... "

That column ended with what must now read as subl ime irony: "when you read fu rther details of what is happening in other jourrnals, remember you first heard about it here ... As usual".

This story was published after the editor, Kevin Marron had been assured that its contents were almost entirely "rubbish". Kennedy was on leave when it arrived in the Sunday World office and Marron asked reporter Eamon McCann to check the piece.

McCann interviewed the most obvious "leading constitutional lawyer" in th is context, Sean McBride, and was assured that the report was nonsense. McCann made some further inquiries with Government contacts and reportted to Marron that the story was untrue.

Nevertheless, it was published. Kennedy vetted the October 2, 1977 story, from the same freeelance political journalist, when it came to the office, not knowing that his story published the preevious week had been found to be oaseless by one of the paper's own reporters. The October 2 story advanced the fanciful tale even further:

"I can say this morning' that Jack Lynch certainly does not want members of the previous addministration put on trial. But his dilemma is that matters are enntirely out of his hands.

"Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists and powerful individuals concerned with human rights in many parts of the world have the facts. It is not as if things could be kept under wraps.

"Paddy Cooney is anxious that no such inquiry be held. He probably knows most of the facts than most others ...

"Those who most tried to stop the Watergate inquiries in America ultimately turned out to have much to hide. None can ever hope to hold political office again. Those who were lawyers were stopped from carry ing on that trade later.

"I feel sure that those who want to stop enquiries into the I rish Watergate act from the very best of motives and have nothing to hide ..... "

Kennedy sent the article to be typeset and he then laid out the page. However when the final page make-up was being done it was found that there were gaps on the page. A sub-editor scanned the copy, saw the names of Nixon and Cooney and placed thei r photographs at either end of the. heading "Is this to be Irish Waterrgate?"

That section of the paper was printed on a Thursday morning and Kennedy saw one of the first print outs when he arrived in his office that afternoon. Believing that the publication of the phoroograph would libel Cooney, he immediately ordered that the presses be stopped and that Cooney's picture be removed.

The sub-editor, unsure of Kennedy's authority to order the stopping of the presses, enquired of Marron whether to comply. Marron said no, partly because he was peeved at Kennedy's usurpption of his authority and partly because he didn't want to waste the pages already printed.

It is doubtful if the publicaation of the Cooney picture made any difference to the defamation. The story had clearly implicated Cooney in the possible trials and had suggested that as he didn't want an inqu iry he had much to hide. It also, by implication, callled into question his future status as a lawyer.

The almost unbelievable asspect to the story -is that the editor of the paper knew that the basis for the article was untrue - viz. that there was a possibility of trials involving sen ior ministers, that a Bill of Indemnity was under consideration, and that innternational bodies might name the senior Coalition ministers as havving condoned or ordered Garda brutality. Also, it seems incredible that neither Marron' nor McCann bothered to mention to Kennedy that the previous story from the same journalist was nonsense.

Cooney's solicitors reacted immediately and in the following Sunday's paper, October 9, 1977, there was a page 2 "clarification" which attempted to maintain that as the July 24 column had stated emphatically that Cooney was not the person likely to be named as the senior minister who ordered a senior police officer to use whattever methods he liked on prisonners, then it would be clear to readers of the October 2 column that Cooney was not the person being referred to.

It was a fatuous defence, as the September 25 and October 2 articles referred to Ministers in the plural and the October 2 article had named Cooney as probably knowing most of the facts as most others, wantinq to stop an inquiry and implying that he, like those who tried to stop the Watergate inquiry, had much to hide.

Cooney's lawyers offered an out-of-court settlement of £10,000 damages plus a full apology but the Sunday World lawyers advised against acceptance.

The Sunday World then starrted to assemble a file on Cooney involving the fingerprint affair, the allegations of Garda brutality and prison conditions and there were rumours of the greatest poliitical libel case in history. The proospect became even more alluring when it became known that forrmer Fianna Fail Attorney General, Colm Condon, would lead for the defence.

In the end, both the manageement of the Sunday World and the lawyers chickened out of a confrontation and attempted to argue the ridiculous - that the column didn't defame Cooney.

There are serious issues arising from Cooney's period in Justice but now the Sunday World has effectively blown any possibility of an inquiry into these.

Last month we had occasion to commend Marron's editorship of the Sunday World and the cou rage he has often shown on issues such as house-building methods of large construction firms, and security issues generallly. He comes badly out of the Coo ney case but perhaps he and other journalists will learn the lessons of attempting expose using hint and anonymous smear journalism.