28 January 2010 Edition
Sunday Tribune's treatment of abuse allegations deplorable
BY AISLING O’SHAUGHNESSY
During an interview on RTE radio with Pat Kenny last week, the Sunday Tribune’s Northern editor, Suzanne Breen, complained that Sinn Féin’s public release of the details of the extent of Liam Adams’ involvement in the party had “spoiled her story” – perfectly summing up the newspaper’s approach to the recent abuse allegations.
The use of distortions, lies, and manipulation by sections of the Irish and British media in politically motivated campaigns against republicans is not new or surprising. But to use these means in a campaign that seeks to exploit the pain and trauma of survivors of rape and child abuse for political reasons is particularly despicable.
The women who have recently spoken out about experiencing child abuse and rape have acted with strength and courage. They have every right to recount their experiences publicly through the media and to be listened to. They have every right to feel anger and frustration that they are still fighting for action to be taken against their alleged abusers, in some cases many years after raising the allegations.
The PSNI, Public Prosecution Service and Social Services urgently need to take the appropriate actions in order to provide justice and closure for these women. These agencies, which have the statutory duty and the capacity to bring about justice for victims of abuse and sexual assault, must be held accountable for their failure to have resolved these cases.
Victims and survivors of abuse also have the right to tell their stories publicly without fear that their experiences will be exploited for media sensationalism or political purposes, and without the fear that the media will breach their legal rights.
All of us – victims and survivors, and members of the general public – have the right to expect that the media will treat the issue of sexual abuse with the highest ethical and professional standards.
The Sunday Tribune has tried to portray itself as being a champion of the rights of abuse survivors. But its actions tell a different story and show very clearly that the paper does not have protecting the rights, interests and wellbeing of survivors at heart.
Constructing a cover-up
As part of a series of articles written since last December’s UTV Insight programme aired, in which Áine Tyrell publicly voiced allegations of rape and sexual abuse against her father Liam Adams, The Sunday Tribune has sought to construct a story portraying Gerry Adams’ role in responding to allegations against Liam as being a ‘cover-up’ – despite the fact that Gerry has repeatedly outlined the series of actions he took to support his niece and to support the investigation and legal case against Liam.
The paper has further alleged that there was a policy in place among the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership of covering up allegations of rape and sexual abuse levelled against republicans.
In its effort to manufacture this ‘conspiracy’, the Sunday Tribune has breached the legal rights of an alleged victim, defamed several individuals, and breached numerous ethical and journalistic principles and standards.
The paper has:
- Breached the statutory right of an alleged victim of sexual abuse to anonymity.
- Disregarded considerations of legal issues surrounding pending police investigations and possible future trials of suspected abusers.
- Suggested Gerry Adams’ public disclosure of child abuse by his father of his siblings was a publicity stunt.
- Stated that Gerry Adams was previously aware of allegations of abuse against an elected Sinn Féin representative and failed to take action, when the alleged victim had told the paper prior to the article’s publication that this was not the case.
- Claimed that a person accused of abuse was “currently” a Sinn Féin public representative. A simple phone call to Sinn Féin would have informed the Tribune that the party had suspended the accused member without prejudice pending any investigation by the PSNI after it was made aware of the allegations last year, and informed Social Services of the case in writing.
- Published a totally false and defamatory front-page headline on 17 January claiming ‘Gerry Adams ignored two more rape victims’.
- Consistently refused to offer the right to respond to allegations to Gerry Adams, other Sinn Féin activists it accused of complicity in cover-ups, and Sinn Féin as a whole before publishing unsubstantiated allegations in the paper, then failed to retract such allegations after they had been shown to be untrue.
- Deliberately tried to link in readers’ minds the endemic sexual and physical abuse of thousands of children in Catholic Church-run institutions, and the systematic cover-up over six decades by the Church and state, with the allegations of sexual abuse against republicans.
Treatment of victims
The Sunday Tribune’s treatment of this issue has been sensationalist and exploitative. The paper has shown a callous disregard for the rights and wellbeing of victims and survivors and their families.
By far the worst aspect of the Tribune’s campaign against Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams has been its treatment of the woman who was interviewed by the paper and alleged being abused by the individual the paper referred to as “X”.
The woman said in a public statement issued by Madden and Finucane solicitors that she did not wish to be publicly identified as a victim of sexual abuse and that her legal representatives informed the Sunday Tribune of this before the publication of the article.
After assuring her “unequivocally” through her solicitors that she would not be directly or inadvertently identified as an alleged victim of sexual abuse, the Tribune acted in total disregard of the woman’s expressed wishes and legal rights and published information that made her easily identifiable within her local community.
The woman said the paper had “manipulated” her and the publication of the article was a breach of her statutory right to anonymity and human right to privacy. She said this had caused her “immense hurt, upset and distress” and that she is now taking legal action against the Sunday Tribune.
Madden and Finucane said in a statement that they had also “highlighted that any reporting of the nature that was proposed could prejudice the prospects of a successful prosecution [of the person accused of abuse]” prior to the article’s publication.
In its 24 January edition, the Sunday Tribune responded by unashamedly stating it had acted correctly. It refused to print the woman’s statement saying that she had been “manipulated” by the paper and instead attributed the word to Sinn Féin. On RTE radio Suzanne Breen made wild and ridiculous claims that the woman had decided she did not want to be identified because she was being “threatened” by Sinn Féin.
What is irrefutable, disgraceful and utterly hypocritical is that the alleged victim took legal action to prevent her identification prior to the publication of the article and the Sunday Tribune ignored this.
If the Sunday Tribune were actually committed to the rights of victims and survivors of child abuse, as it professes to be, it would understand the significance of the legal and human right to anonymity of victims of sexual abuse, and respect this right.
The newspaper selectively printed correspondence from the alleged victim’s brother that supported the paper’s accusation that Gerry Adams had been informed of the abuse allegations by a member of the victim’s family but had failed to act. What it didn’t print was the brother’s subsequent clarification that Gerry had not in fact been informed. Nor did the paper print any evidence that it had bothered to try to verify this claim. Basic journalistic procedures such as verifying claims with their sources are evidently not necessary during a witch-hunt.
The Sunday Tribune has also decided that Gerry Adams’ family members who are victims of childhood sexual abuse are not entitled to public support or to their rights and needs as abuse survivors, but instead should have the disclosure of their experiences dismissed as being a mere public relations exercise.
This difficult personal disclosure by Adams was made in the interest of speaking openly and frankly about abuse and challenging the culture of concealment that surrounds it. The disclosure, collectively decided by his family, was made in the context of his niece going public with allegations of abuse against her father and because Gerry’s family experience has informed his position on dealing with abuse and was directly relevant to the case.
These actions demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt the Tribune editor’s lack of genuine concern for victims and survivors.
‘Spoiling the story’
The front-page headline ‘Gerry Adams ignores two more rape victims’; the allegation that Gerry had been aware of abuse allegations against a Sinn Féin representative and failed to act; and the allegation that the accused person was currently a Sinn Féin public representative – all of these false and very serious allegations made in the 17 January edition of the Tribune could have been avoided had the paper contacted Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin.
Similarly, the Sinn Féin activists named in the article discussing the experience of Ms Cahill should have been offered the opportunity to outline their recollections and role in the case in the paper.
But, as Suzanne Breen explained in the RTE radio interview with Pat Kenny, putting these allegations to Sinn Féin and allowing the party to respond would have “spoiled the story”.
She was indignant that Sinn Féin had published the findings of party National Chairperson Declan Kearney’s report on the extent of Liam Adams’ involvement in the party on 15 January and claimed the party was trying to spoil her story for the coming edition of the Sunday Tribune based on the list of questions the paper had sent to Gerry Adams.
Sinn Féin had already informed the media before even receiving these questions that the findings of the National Chairperson’s report would be made public the following day, immediately after they were reported to the party leadership bodies.
Nevertheless, Breen used this “spoiling the story” line to justify why the Sunday Tribune had failed to put the allegations made in the 17 January edition to any of the several Sinn Féin members it levelled such serious and defamatory charges against for them to respond to.
This cynical and sensationalist approach demonstrates again the true nature of the Sunday Tribune’s handling of these tragic cases – as being a politically motivated attempt to smear an individual and a political party, with little consideration for establishing the facts.
The Sunday Tribune and Suzanne Breen have tried to compare the handling by Sinn Féin of allegations of sexual abuse against Liam Adams and two other people who were involved in republicanism with abuse and cover-ups by the Catholic Church.
Writing on the Liam Adams case in the Belfast Telegraph on 5 January, Breen said: “It’s a cover-up that rivals anything the Catholic Church could conduct.”
This is not only a wildly inaccurate, dishonest statement; it is also exploitative. Ireland as a nation is still reeling from revelations of the pain, grief and trauma caused by abuse that was uncovered in the Ryan report last year. The inquiry heard from more than 2,000 adults who had been sexually, physically and emotionally abused as children in 216 Catholic Church-run institutions over six decades, and it found evidence of a systematic policy of cover-up by the Church and state.
The experiences recounted by Áine Tyrell and the two other Belfast women interviewed by the Sunday Tribune provoked genuine horror among us all.
However, the Sunday Tribune’s attempt to invent a cover-up policy among republicans that could be compared with the institutionalised Catholic Church and state cover-up is transparently exploitative of this hugely emotive issue and does not have any basis in fact. This is deplorable, morally bankrupt journalism.
Sections of the media have handled this issue in a way that potentially discourages other victims and survivors from coming forward in future for fear that their experiences may be manipulated for political purposes.
The Sunday Tribune claims it would “pursue any political party with equal vigour” if allegations of sexual abuse were made against members. As the paper’s actions over recent weeks have demonstrated its poor journalistic and ethical standards, as well as the politically motivated nature of its campaign, I seriously doubt this.
A serious discussion on this issue would start by acknowledging that child abuse is experienced across all sections of Irish society, regardless of class, religion or political background. It would acknowledge the specific experience in the Six Counties during a period of conflict, where the nationalist community widely, and with good reason, distrusted the police and other statutory agencies with the responsibility to protect children and take action against alleged abusers.
If abuse allegations were referred to individuals during the conflict who lacked the necessary knowledge, skills and professional training as to how allegations should be dealt with and how to meet the needs of victims, the chances are they would have been dealt with inadequately.
The culture of concealment, shame and secrecy that surrounds sexual abuse and means that victims are reluctant to raise allegations publicly was compounded in the North by the lack of a civic policing and justice system.
These facts and this context have been ignored in much of the media’s coverage of the recent abuse allegations.
The Sunday Tribune and other media outlets have failed to investigate the role of the statutory agencies charged with protecting children from abuse and prosecuting those responsible for it.
Broadly speaking, investigating the failures of these agencies, holding them to account and determining how child protection can be strengthened is the obvious way forward for those of us who are interested in preventing child abuse and prosecuting abusers.
The Sunday Tribune’s website has refused to publish several comments I have submitted criticising their treatment of this issue. So let me say this here: we have experienced attempts to demonise and smear this community many times before. We reject and resent the insinuation that we don’t cherish our children and their safety, and that we don’t value the rights and wellbeing of women.