Freedom carries responsibility

Speaker's Corner
“Brave journalism is a noble thing and is necessary to keep democracy and justice flourishing”


The arrest last Wednesday of former Evening Herald journalist, Mick McCaffrey, in relation to the use of leaked information from an inquiry into the Dean Lyons case caused a national stir. It is rare for a journalist to be questioned by gardaí for eight hours in relation to a story published under his or her byline, so naturally it provoked much interest. But the level of debate one would have expected to accompany such interest did not materialise. Instead there were screams of outrage and a tacit acceptance that McCaffrey was right and the rest of the world – and specifically the Gardaí, the Department of Justice and the Minister for Justice – was wrong.
Brave journalism is a noble thing. It questions, it exposes, it challenges, it effects change. Brave journalism is necessary to keep democracy and justice flourishing; democratic systems and justice systems cannot be relied upon to do that on their own.
What Geraldine Kennedy and Colm Keena chose to do in The Irish Times last year when they exposed payments to the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern was brave. They knew there would be consequences, but they placed the public interest ahead of such concerns. The people had a right to know that their country’s leader was implicated in wrongdoing. That little was done about it afterwards is an indictment of others, but in no way devalues the importance of The Irish Times stance.
What Mick McCaffrey did last August, when, it is alleged, he used leaked information from a draft report of an inquiry into the Dean Lyons debacle in a story in the Evening Herald, was not the same thing. It was good journalism in the sense that he got the story ahead of his competitors, but it was not brave. And it served the Evening Herald’s circulation interest far more than the public interest.
The findings of an investigation by George Birmingham, SC  into the Dean Lyons case were circulated in the form of a draft report to the parties affected last August. This draft was to allow the parties affected to comment on it and make corrections where there were inaccuracies. When this process was completed, the final report was to be made public. Under the Commission of Investigation Act 2004, it is an offence for any person who receives a draft report of such an inquiry to disclose its details or pass it on to another person. This is to ensure the integrity of the process.
The final report of the Birmingham inquiry was published three weeks after Mick McCaffrey’s Evening Herald story appeared, and there is no reason to believe that its publication was expedited by the appearance of the story, that its contents were altered in any way by the story or that any further truths were uncovered as a result of the story.
Yet the outcry that greeted his arrest last week would lead one to believe that he had been censured for publishing details of a cure for cancer. He wasn’t. He was arrested and questioned – not charged – for an offence under an official act. What alternative did the Gardaí have? If they ignored the breach, they would have given a licence to every other potential leaker to do the same thing, thus making the section of the Act that makes leaking information an offence useless.
The Dean Lyons case revealed a shocking failure in duty and a shocking level of corruption on the part of the Gardaí, as did other cases before that and as have other cases since. But neither their failures nor the inconsistencies of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice in relation to the whole area of leaks to the media makes what Mick McCaffrey did right. They are separate issues. It cannot be a case of ‘if they can get away with it, why shouldn’t we’.
Nor is it fair to invoke the ‘freedom of the press’ argument. A free and independently-functioning media is invaluable, as already stated, but that freedom carries with it a high level of responsibility. Breaking laws and overstepping boundaries should only be done in exceptional circumstances.