Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

How a strong union would protect truth in the media

News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch giving evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee

Once upon a time, Bishop Eamon Casey was God's gift to the tabloid press. I wonder how he has been reacting to the scandal at the News of the World (RIP). A sigh? A smile? A snigger?

Dr Casey was a vivid and colourful figure back in 1992 when he fled the Diocese of Galway just ahead of a posse from the papers. The fact that he was a father in more senses than one was about to be splashed across every news outlet in these islands. So he skedaddled with a wad of diocesan funds to tide him over 'til he figured out his next move. (The money was later repaid in full.)

At the time, the flight of Ireland's most ebullient bishop was regarded as a shocking event, certain to inflict significant damage on the Catholic Church. Nowadays, of course, it's would be seen as no more than a venial sin. They were consenting adults, what's the problem?

But back then, it was a peach of a yarn. Every newspaper was on red alert for a lead. Casey's former lover, Annie Murphy, was a Yank. A fluster of hacks high-tailed it to New York, San Francisco etc, to sift for clues in Irish saloons. But author Gordon Thomas was to win the chase: he and Irish Independent photographer Charlie Collins managed to track the fugitive prelate to the town-land of Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Collins took a snap of Thomas striding towards the bishop with his hand outstretched. Thomas contributed a lively account of his conversation with Casey, and also quoted extensively from Mother Delfina, superior of the Sisters of Charity convent where "Padre Sean" was holed up.

The "gently smiling" nun told of the padre retiring to his room of an evening, where he'd sing plaintive Irish ballads. "We do not understand the words," Mother Delfina was said to have said. "But the songs sound very lovely - lovely and sad."

The bishop didn't give as good quote as Mother Delfina, but confessed to Thomas that it had been a very trying time for him, that he regretted the hurt he'd caused, that he hoped he'd be able to return to Ireland in the future. Thomas sold the Irish rights on the exclusive to the Independent, the British rights to the Express.

Others from the hunting hack-pack now abandoned the false trails they'd been following and galloped pell-mell towards Cuernavaca, hoping for a few left-over crumbs from Thomas's cornucopia of quotes. Mother Delfina told them that she'd never spoken to this Gordon Thomas in her life.

On the following day, Bishop Casey phoned RTE and, on the lunchtime news, declared that he hadn't spoken to any Gordon Thomas either. The cock-a-hoop Indo and Express had come a cropper. But only one of them was to concede that the story was fraudulent and say sorry. And herein lies the lesson.

On the day following Casey's RTE denial, the father of the Indo's NUJ chapel, Kevin Moore, called a meeting in the newsroom. Charlie Collins confirmed that neither the nun nor the bishop had made any of the statements ascribed to them. The chapel, appalled by the dishonesty and at the potential damage to their own reputations as journalists, voted unanimously to send Moore and the chapel committee to management to insist that the story be repudiated and an apology made to readers. In face of a united front from their journalists, management agreed. The story was formally withdrawn next day.

Not so at the Express. The Thatcherite assault led by Murdoch at News International had busted union organisation on most of Fleet Street. There was no organised expression of the interests of journalists and journalism on the Express any longer, no forum where concerns about journalistic practices tolerated by management could be aired and debated. Anyone - or two or three - who spoke up about dodgy behaviour would have been on their own. The smashing of union organisation meant, too, that, increasingly, journalists were working on short-term contracts - six or 12 months being the norm. The renewal of a contract was dependant on the journalist having made no waves, showed no sign of trouble-making. And there was nowhere for a journalist being treated unfairly to go.

Without an organised expression of the distinctive voice of journalism, standards of behaviour will always be as vulnerable as the journalists themselves.

Without a union to back journalists dismayed by dishonest methods and distortion of truth, there can be no effective defence of standards. This was the position ordinary journalists at the News of the World found themselves in.

The most constructive response to the amoral ruthlessness of News International would be an all-out effort to reunionise the newspaper industry and write the NUJ's code of conduct into newsroom conditions of employment.

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