Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rush to Judgement: Ireland's McAlpine Scandal

A disastrous case of mistaken identity, a man appallingly smeared as being that most hated of beings, a paedeophile on twitter as the BBC's flagship news programme flails around like a punchdrunk boxer from one editorial crisis to another and shamefaced apologies once the galloping excitement of a hot story fades away to reveal that it was built on extremely rickety foundations. Surprised? Not me.

Those of us who keep an eye on the Irish scene are familiar with the case of one Father Kevin Reynolds.

In May 2011, RTE, the Irish state broadcaster ran a report on its Prime Time Programme imaginatively entitled Mission To Prey which alleged that Reynolds had raped a girl during his time as a missionary in Kenya, fathered her child and was paying her financial support. Both mother and child were interviewed by the programme.

Reynolds swore that he was innocent, even offering to take a DNA test before the programme aired to demonstrate conclusively that he wasn't the father of the child concerned but RTE rejected his offer. It had to be true. Reynolds was a Catholic priest, after all and we all know what they get up to once they strip off their cassocks.

Sometime after the programme had aired and the mob had had its fill of denouncing priestly paedophiles two separate and independent DNA tests confirmed that Father Reynolds was not the father of the child but by then the damage had been done. Reynolds had been removed from his home and parish ministry, his name demolished.

RTE broadcast an apology to Father Reynolds - stop me if this is sounding familiar - and Reynolds went on to win an out of court settlement with the broadcaster.

In the aftermath of the Reynolds debacle the Irish media indulged in ritual hand wringing. Why had such a catastrophic error been made, how could it have occurred. At least part of the explanation was the climate of suspicion which hovered over Catholic priests, religious and institutions whereby all allegations of child abuse were treated as being proven whether or not they'd been tested against evidence. In a reverse of the usual liberal principle that people are innocent until proven guilty, priests like Father Reynolds were presumed guilty of any allegation levelled against them. This was a climate which had been nurtured by close to two decades worth of increasingly lurid splash stories of clerical sex abuse, dubious claims about canon law, theorising about Vatican-orchestrated cover ups, infuriated editorials and opinion columns which raced from assuming a particular Catholic clerical problem with child abuse to speculating about the reasons for the supposed problem. By 2011 the Irish clerical abuse witch hunt juggernaut was hurtling forwards at full speed; anyone putting themselves in its path by counselling caution was unlikely to be paid much attention. All the conditions for the broadcasting of a defamatory story were present.


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It may be difficult for people to remember the atmosphere around the Jimmy Savile story a month ago. It can fairly be described as excitable. Newsnight had declined to air a report about the late entertainer, editor Peter Rippon said for sound editorial reasons. The commentariat wasn't satisfied with that explanation, neither clearly was the Newsnight journalist who had made the canned report, Liz Mackean. The commentariat raged, a committee of MPs hauled George Entwhistle to parliament to answer questions about the decision not to run the report. Revelations about Savile's activities tumbled from the tabloids day after day, scores of BBC veterans insisted that Savile had a reputation for untoward behaviour with teenage girls, Paul Gambaccini went even further saying that Savile was a necropiliac and the NSPCC declared that Savile may have been the most prolific offender it had come across.

Few people paused to consider the mysterious story of a faked police letter which had undermined the original Newsnight report or to ask how appropriate it was for the NSPCC to make such a breathless statement before the police had concluded their enquiries into Savile. And blogger, Anna Raccoon, who'd been a resident at Duncroft Approved School in the 60s when Savile was said to have used the place as a service stop catering to his taste in young girls but couldn't recall ever having seen him there found the news media distinctly uninterested in what she had to say. It didn't fit the narrative, it didn't advance the speed of the child abuse witch hunt juggernaut.

All the conditions for the broadcasting of a defamatory story were present.

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