Covering a cover-up in the digital age

Kate Fitzgerald

Today marks a watershed for Irish media, but it’s not all positive – if Irish online journalism is truly to survive and thrive it will need to make sure that it adheres to the highest standards.

The watershed comes because of what is becoming another high-profile suicide – that of PR professional Kate Fitzgerald.

Kate suffered from depression and eventually took her own life, but not before making some serious allegations about the reaction of her employers to her illness in an anonymous piece written for the Irish Times and published in September.

Here’s where it gets sinister.

Kate worked for the Communications Clinic, a company owned by Terry Prone, her husband and son, and the article Kate wrote has been subsequently significantly altered by the Irish Times.

Terry Prone, you will remember, is Ireland’s first lady of spin and waffle. Her latest glorious achievement in the field of media training was the infliction of Gay Mitchell on the electorate as a boorish presidential no-hoper.

On Monday, Broadsheet.ie – sometimes funny, often irreverent – published a selection of links in an article about Kate.

By Monday afternoon, they noticed that the original Times article had been “butchered” (in the words of the late Kate’s mother Sally).

For whatever reason, three key paragraphs pertaining to her employers were removed from Kate’s original. You can read their account of what happened next here.

Now you may believe as I do that there is a sinister reason for that, that Ireland’s queen of spin and/or her cohorts may have decided that such a story about their heartlessness and incompetence in dealing with a sufferer of depression would be damaging to their brand- possibly even more so than Gay Mitchell’s inept candidacy was.

You may also believe that there is an entirely innocent explanation for why these three paragraphs have been removed by the Irish Times, and that the earth is flat and that gullible is not in the dictionary. It’s entirely up to yourself.

What will now follow is a test of Irish media mettle and practice.

Populated by hundreds of media types, the Irish twittersphere is alive with this story. From mainstream media, there is a deafening silence.

It should come as news to no-one that there are plenty of cosy cartels in the Irish media game (I recall one recent case whereby a Sunday paper gave over much space to a mea culpa by a radio personality that even Pravda would have balked at it, so soft was the interview and such was the easy ride given).

Nor should it be a surprise that there are those whose first call when they see their name in print or online is to their solicitor rather than the editor.

One particular sporting administrator manages to suppress almost any debate about his position or actions using this method – this I know because he has threatened a site I wrote for with legal action for simply criticising him.

But this case ensures that such – often public – figures will finally be held up to the light, at least in the digital sphere, and let us see for ourselves if they have a case to answer.

But we would do well to remember that the same journalistic rules apply online in the digital sphere as anywhere else.

The great Reuters correspondent Stephen Brown once told me that journalism is a trade, and that there are no short cuts- at its best, there is endless reading and fact-checking and corroboration needed before committing a single word to print.

Everything – especially for the world’s oldest news agency – has to be impeccable and above reproach.

So if those writing in the digital sphere are found to not have acted correctly, it will do real and lasting damage to what essentially are the green shoots of an independent Irish free press that is appearing online.

In short, the Irish online media have a massive responsibility to get it right.

What is for certain is that it is a good thing that this story is out there – it proves that the system is finally starting to work.

Am I worried about legal action? In a word, no. Put simply, I enjoy the same level of journalistic protection here in Sweden as Wikileaks and have no intention of putting myself in a similar position to Mr Assange when it comes to the ladies.

I am happy to publish the original Broadsheet.ie story, and to offer a right of reply to the Communications Clinic should they so wish. Anyone who has information relelvant to the development of the story can send it to me in confidence at philip[at]eblana.se where it will be verified before being published.

Note: In a break with tradition, this piece will not appear on journalist.ie in order to protect them from the possibility of legal action. Anyone wishing to pursue legal action based on any detail of this article is welcome to do so here in Sweden where it is published.

8 responses to “Covering a cover-up in the digital age

  1. It appears that the tragic passing of Kate Fitzgerald may be the catalyst that prompts closer inspection of The Communications Clinic, Terry Prone, her son Anton Savage, Her husband Tom Savage (Chairman of the RTE authority).
    Their connections to the political establishment, the media and “prominent business figures” scream conflict of interest and should be investigated in detail.

  2. So you’re posting from Sweden, and outside the reach of Irish law. And you aren’t reproducing this article on journalist.ie, which is within the reach of Irish law. And you’re wondering why the Irish media isn’t touching what you clearly regard as a potentially very expensive story.

    Have I missed anything?

    • Technically it’s not a case of me reproducing it on journalist.ie, and my refusal to allow them to publish it is to protect them from the threat of legal action. It’s run by private individuals, for whom mounting a defence over something written by me would be both costly and unnecessary.
      FOr the sake of transparency the situation in Ireland must change; people must accept that journalists have the right to investigate and report their behaviour, and journalists must accept that they need to adhere to the highest standards possible in each case.
      THere is a mechanism in Sweden by which anyone who feels that anything written about them that is defamatory can have it investigated- it doesn’t involve massive legal expenses either.

      • Could you outline how the system works in Sweden. Is this a court inquiry, an independent ombudsman setting up an inquiry into the facts of a story, or something else entirely? I’d be curious as to whether their system (or elements of it anyway, given differences in our legal systems) could be transplanted into Irish law.

  3. Gerard- I was looking for a decent translation of how it works. Hopefully I’ll have the time to write one during the day but basically it’s an independent ombudsman. It should be noted that journalists here are in my opinion are a lot more accountable for what they write- there is an enviable openness.

    Den- not a member of politics.ie but might join to see what was being said- and why the thread was locked.

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