Press Watch 05-04-2007

Crime reporting: hiding behind anonymous sources and the ‘scumbag theory'March was another bad month for crime correspondants, especially at Independent Newspapers. On Monday 5 March, the Irish Independent's lead story focused on the story of Derek O'Toole, who died after being struck by a car driven by an off-duty garda. The Independent told us that “it is understood the 24-year-old victim was known to gardaí and had a number of previous convictions”. This claim turned out to be completely untrue and, naturally, caused great offence to the victim's family.

Then on Friday 9 March, the Evening Herald's front page announced: ‘Pregnant garda drops dead.' Over the following days, more accurate details of the story leaked gradually into the media, culminating in the Sunday Independent headline ‘Garda who lost wife and son in childbirth shot John Carthy.' The decision to highlight this fact on the day of the burial was considered to be grotesquely insensitive by the Garda and by the public at large. The following week's Sunday Independent devoted half a page to readers' letters excoriating the newspaper, including ones from the Garda Commissioner and the Garda Representative Association, alongside a mealy-mouthed apology by editor Aengus Fanning.

Meanwhile, on Friday 16 March, a jury took just over an hour to find a man not guilty of making death threats to Sunday World “crime editor” Paul Williams.

After the verdict, Williams was quoted by the Sunday Independent describing the acquitted as a “major player in Dublin's crime underworld” and complaining that “the law prevented the jury hearing a lot of the background on this guy”.

Editor Aengus Fanning added a plea that “everyone who values our democracy and freedom should support him at this difficult time”.

Taken together, these three stories provide a neat synopsis of all that is wrong with crime reporting. The first big problem is that almost all the information comes from anonymous sources, based on information held by gardaí that is not in the public domain. Thus, there is no way for the claims to be independently verified and such claims, being anonymous, are eminently deniable when they turn out to be wrong. The Garda frequently claims that material carried by crime reporters is invented, yet many of the details can only have come from Garda sources. Also, it is generally true that people are much more cautious about claiming that something is “known” when they are putting their name to it and might have to back up their claims. Gardaí make mistakes like everybody – not all of their prosecutions result in convictions and not all of their suspicions lead to prosecutions. Much of the material that is reported as fact by crime reporters is little more than the beliefs of individual gardaí and, as was the case with Derek O'Toole, such beliefs aren't always justified.

However, crime correspondants enjoy huge license in reporting such hearsay due to the fact that they are often writing about people who are not in a position to sue them – either because they are dead or have criminal records. Reporters such as Williams specialise in providing lurid details about the lives of people who have no ability to correct any inaccuracies – and when it comes to the battle between facts and salaciousness, facts lose out every time. His writing straddles the line between fact and fiction, including descriptions of things that he couldn't possibly know, such as the state of mind of the protagonists.

Where details are independently verifiable, they often turn out to be riddled with basic errors.

Beyond its unreliability, crime reporting also frequently ignores all considerations of privacy. The Garda, as a security force, is in a position to provide all sorts of private details about individuals to the press, information that most people would rather keep in the private domain. Yet the press will, by and large, publish any information that is likely to boost sales, even when there is no public interest in doing so and when the information is not remotely relevant to the case. How is it relevant whether a man who is killed in a traffic accident has been convicted of a crime in the past? How is a woman's occupation or her husband's occupation and past deeds relevant to a death in childbirth?

Paul Williams' response to the aqcuittal of the man who was accused of threatening him was telling. He blamed the law for not allowing him to give “the background on this guy”. The reason that the law rules out such ‘background' is that it's not relevant to deciding whether a particular person committed a particular act. Natural justice dictates that evidence must be provided that an accused committed an act, not just that he's a bad guy capable of doing bad things. Yet that is the standard modus operandi of crime reporters, who generally subscribe to the ‘scumbag' theory of crime. Some people are scumbags and it's their duty to go out and do battle with them. The unspoken subtext is that somebody who is “known to the gardaí” probably got what was coming to him, regardless of what actually happened.