18 December 2005

McDowell vendetta disguises hidden agenda

Sunday Business Post

18 December 2005
By Vincent Browne

Columnist Kevin Myers made a good point on the Frank Connolly affair in The Irish Times last Thursday.

He said that “due process'‘ had no place in journalism - that is ‘due process' as applies in the criminal justice system.

As journalists, we do not require someone to be convicted of an offence before we fix the offence on them. For instance, Frank Connolly, in writing about the €30,000 Ray Burke received from JMSE, did not wait until a court proved that the money had been handed over.

Of course, we do - or should - apply a ‘due process' of our own. For instance, we make every reasonable effort to establish that what we write is true and we should hear all sides of the case in almost every instance.

But the ‘due process' mentioned in relation to the allegation concerning Connolly is nonsense journalistically.

It is also a nonsense, incidentally, to contend that, in the media arena, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

Did Connolly regard Burke as innocent of having taken the €30,000 from JMSE because the allegation had not been proved in court?

It is entirely appropriate to apply the same standards of accountability to Connolly as he would apply to anybody he writes about.

Where people in the public arena refuse to answer questions about their public actions - or their alleged public actions - we are entitled both to report that and to draw obvious inferences.

Therefore Connolly's refusal to say, for instance, where he was in April 2001,while on leave from The Sunday Business Post, is a relevant fact to be reported.

We are entitled to draw inferences from his refusal to answer that question, as we would have been entitled to draw inferences from Burke's refusal to answer questions about his funding while he was a public figure.

Myers made some of these rather obvious points on the way to justifying McDowell's conduct in this affair. In so doing, he avoided every one of the obvious issues that arise concerning that conduct.

Had McDowell confined himself to commenting, however stridently, on the known facts concerning Connolly, there would not be a problem.

However, what he did was to put into the public domain a document from a Garda file and to represent this as proof of criminal conduct by Connolly.

Also he used ‘intelligence' from that file - and perhaps otherwise - to state that the Garda Siochána and the Colombian police force believed that Connolly had travelled to Colombia in April 2001 on a false passport and that, while there, he had assisted Farc terrorism and had boosted the coffers of the IRA for subversive purposes at home.

It is questionable whether a minister for justice should have recourse to a Garda file, given the improper use to which such material might be put. It is quite certain that a minister for justice should never disclose the contents of such a file.

We have no less an authority for that proposition than McDowell himself, who said on the Pat Kenny radio programme in September 2003: “I am not supposed to just throw out into the public domain facts which haven't been proven in court against people.”

There is good reason for this. Much of what is on Garda files is false - and inevitably so.

Some of the material comes from informers who have an animus against the person concerned or a motivation for supplying false information.

Some of the information is speculative, a lot of it hearsay.

Some, as in this instance, is based on information received from other police forces whose reliability is very much open to question.

Some such information is fabricated by the gardai themselves, as we have come to know through the Morris Tribunal. In other words, it is thoroughly unreliable.

The only context in which such information should be disclosed is in the context of a trial where the rules of evidence can determine its admissibility and test the reliability of the information.

McDowell himself acknowledged this in 2003.

To put this information into the public domain without the safeguards attendant on a trial, as though this information could be relied upon, is despicable.

McDowell's characterisation of the false application for a passport as ‘proof ‘ of misconduct by Connolly is a case in point. It is no such thing. All it proves is that a bogus application was made by someone, and perhaps that a photograph was used which bears some resemblance to Connolly. Were such ‘evidence' presented in court, it would be tested. Its use in apolitical vendetta outside a court process is disgraceful.

The further use of Garda ‘intelligence' based almost entirely on Colombian ‘intelligence' as proof of criminality and subversion by Connolly is shameful. Do we not know by now that Garda ‘intelligence' is unreliable and do we not know the worthlessness of Colombian ‘intelligence'?

The blackening of the reputation of a citizen, under cover of Dáil privilege, by a minister for justice, based on such ‘evidence', which he knows - or should know, or at least suspect is entirely unreliable - is a gross abuse.

What is most disturbing however - and this was not mentioned by Myers, even though it is an entirely obvious point – is McDowell's motivation in all this.

The minister has claimed that it is his duty to safeguard the state against subversion and, when he has evidence of subversion, it is his duty to speak out and expose it. The reality is that he has no duty to speak out in such circumstances.

He certainly has a duty to ensure the police force, along with the legal and penal systems, are adequately resourced to deal with subversion.

He may also have a duty to use his office to rally support against subversion by speaking out against subversion and alerting the public to its dangers. But a duty to disclose information from Garda files in the fight against subversion?

Nonsense, as McDowell himself implicitly conceded in 2003, and as his record, and the record of previous ministers for justice, testifies.

No other minister - in times when subversion was a real threat - ever resorted to the disclosure of Garda files.

McDowell's motive is to bring about the closure of an independent, well-funded investigative agency, the Centre for Public Inquiry.

The PDs have had the centre in their sights since its inception, devising an array of bogus justifications for their antagonism. Amid all the posing as angels of accountability, in reality they hate the prospect of a truly independent, effective inquiry agency.

McDowell's assault on Prime Time is a further example of that.

The PDs would prefer the fawning adulation of ‘investigative' reporters, who never found out anything that wasn't in their postbox, or of columnists who revile other journalists for ignoring obvious issues and then go on to do the same themselves.

sbpost@iol.ie

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