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Smoke without fire

On Friday, 4 June, The Irish Times published a report on its website with the following headline:

FF byelection candidate Deirdre Conroy alleges negligence in the wake of ski mishap

Ms. Conroy is the Fianna Fáil candidate in the forthcoming Dublin South by-election. The incident occurred in Andorra in January 2015. According to the newspaper, Ms. Conroy, then a travel writer with The Irish Independent, was one of six journalists on a trip paid for by ski-tour operators Crystal Holidays. Ms. Conroy’s right leg gave way on a run down the slopes causing her to fall and fracture her hip.

Local doctors placed a screw in her hip and femur. Later, she had to have a full left hip replacement in the Beacon Hospital in July 2015. In a statement of claim lodged in June 2016, Ms. Conroy alleges negligence on the part of the holiday organisers. In that filing, the newspaper reports Ms. Conroy as saying:

The injury had caused “significant interference with the enjoyment of everyday life”, leaving her with “ongoing and continuing pain”, a limp and difficulty sleeping.

The newspaper publishes photographs posted by Ms. Conroy on Facebook in 2019 showing her riding a horse (see above) and seated on a motorcycle.

In a statement to The Irish Times for this news report, Ms. Conroy states:

There is no doubt but that I would not have needed a total hip replacement had it not been for the fall I sustained whilst skiing.

… she believed her injuries were a “result of the negligence of the tour operator”, but the matter had yet to be heard in the High Court.

In the aftermath of the accident I was unable to return to many pre-accident activities and the injuries did cause very significant interference with my enjoyment of everyday life. I have never suggested in the proceedings that I was permanently debilitated.

The newspaper’s report states that Ms. Conroy was represented initially by Madigans Solicitors, the former law firm of Fine Gael Minister of State Josepha Madigan, but later switched to Boyle Solicitors. According to the newspaper, Crystal Holidays is contesting the claim and has denied that negligence led to the injury.

The Irish Times report was taken up by other publications later on the same day, including The Irish Sun which included the terms “compo case” (in capitals) and “compo claim” in its headline.

The Irish Times report appeared on the “Irish News” section of its website. “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” That quote, or variations of it, has been attributed to many authors. And if that was a sufficient condition for information to count as “news”, this report is news, because I can readily believe Ms. Conroy would have preferred not to see it in print — and many of us might want to read it precisely for that reason.

I suggest, however, that a report needs to be more than that in at least two ways to qualify as “news” in a proper journalistic sense.

First, the news must be true. The Irish Times report seems to tick that box.

The second is a box the report misses. Publication must serve a bona fide public interest. That many people might find the “news” interesting might be an explanation for wanting to publish it, but it is not a justification. Publication must serve some useful public purpose other than filling space, diversion or titillation. And, while Ms. Conroy’s status as a candidate for the Dáil legitimises her being subject to greater scrutiny than anonymous figures like you and me, this does not establish a carte blanche public interest justification for the publication of any and every detail of her life.

If you think otherwise, reflect on this. A few days earlier, Róisin Ingle reported in the same newspaper on a recent interview with Ryan Tubridy. Among other questions, she asked if he was currently in a relationship.

Mr. Tubridy’s response:

I respectfully close that down. I say that in a way that is really straight with you. Before I would have tried to evade or prevaricate and now I say that door is not going to open.

Ms. Ingle did not press the matter. But let’s imagine that the chapter and verse of Mr. Tubridy’s relationship status had been reliably disclosed to Ms. Ingle by other sources. Would Mr. Tubridy’s status as a public figure have justified her including that information in her article?

All citizens have the right of recourse to the courts. That Ms. Conroy has made a legal claim as such is not any more a matter of public interest than Mr. Tubridy’s personal relationship status. If and when her case is adjudicated by the courts, more details about it and the outcome itself may render it a matter of public interest. But, for now, it is not that.

The Irish Times does not say how Ms. Conroy’s claim came to their attention. Instead, the newspaper speaks vaguely of having seen her claim and of its contents “coming to light”. Did those contents come to light as part of a wider trawl of possible negligence claims by all candidates in the election or did the torch shine only on Ms. Conroy? Or were these papers fed to The Irish Times and, if so, by whom and for what purpose? Does the newspaper see itself as under a duty to publish the details of claims made by all who might legitimately be called “public figures” of some influence, including its own columnists and journalists? (Does it, heck!) The context around the presentation of this as a news story is at least as relevant as the content itself. The newspaper addresses none of these issues.

During one of his campaigns for election to Congress from Texas, Lyndon Johnson began to worry that his opponent might be running him uncomfortably close. Eventually, he told his campaign manager to spread the rumour that his adversary habitually “enjoyed” carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows.

“We can’t go round calling him a pig f***er!” his campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.”

“I know” replied Johnson phlegmatically. “But let’s make the son of a b**ch deny it.”

The Irish Times makes no direct accusation against Ms. Conroy, just presents a set of facts. But, a cluster of facts can promote an unspoken implication that puts its subject at least on the back foot. The newsworthiness and negativity lie in the smoke swirling around those facts, its thickness intensified by lingering public memories of “Swing Gate”. That is the nickname ascribed to the personal injuries claim made but withdrawn by then TD, Maria Bailey, arising from her fall from a swing type seat in a Dublin hotel. This connection is reinforced by the mention of Madigans Solicitors who also acted for Ms. Bailey. Why otherwise would the newspaper have mentioned this entirely incidental detail? And, of course, by Ms. Conroy’s nomination as a byelection candidate. Was it co-incidence or convenience that Ms. Conroy, like Ms. Bailey, is a woman trying to make her way in what is still largely a male domain?

But all that is still only smoke, not fire.

The only silver lining coming out of the publication of this story is that most other mainstream media opted not to take up the running and The Irish Times itself took it no further. Ms. Conroy’s candidacy in the by-election gave them a fig leaf of a newsworthiness reason to publish the story in the first place. But the common assessment is that she is unlikely to be in the final shake up for the Dáil seat. So, she is not a juicy enough morsel to warrant the sustained attention of the press pack.

That’s how things roll in contemporary “journalism”.



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