‘Magdagate’: A case study in how media corrects itself

This article first appeared in the Irish Times

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”, Winston Churchill apocryphally said. In modern times, information (and misinformation) spreads even faster. But although new technology advocates claim the internet allows the system to self-correct faster too, the saga of Magda shows the truth is more complex. Gerard Cunningham reports.

The message was posted to the party’s online account at the weekend by a staff member, and later deleted from the online microblogging service ‘as the tone was inappropriate’.

One of Jimmy Harte’s tweets about ‘Magdagate’. The Senator has since apologised and deleted the offending tweets

On Wednesday, Morning Ireland carried an interview with Donegal Labour senator Jimmy Harte about a story in the Irish Independent. Just before 9am, Harte commented on a report of a translated article in a Polish newspaper with “Magda” (not her real name). Harte was quoted offering to pay for Magda’s flight home to Poland, although he also told RTÉ he did not believe she was typical of the Poles people he knew.

Within five minutes, John Murray spoke to a Polish caller Zbyszek Zalinski, a Polish researcher on the show, who found the original article on the web, and pointed out several errors. Magda had not called Donegal a “shithole”, this was the opinion of emigrating locals, and far from comparing life to a massage, she was learning massage therapy with FÁS, re-skilling to re-enter the labour market.
Murray later posted a translation online, although the story and correction were not reported or linked to on the News section of the RTE website.
By lunchtime, the Polish ambassador issued a statement on the “danger of an anti-immigrant atmosphere”. Online publication TheJournal.ie updated their story following the John Murray interview and twitter reaction, and was first to post the ambassador’s statement. The Irish Times and Examiner also reported it. The Independent added a link below the original story, on which online comments were disabled.
The story took a bizarre turn after Newstalk’s George Hook interviewed the Polish ambassador. Independent Monaghan county councillor Seamus Treanor phoned the show, and ignoring all that had gone before, complained about Poles “flying into this country to collect their dole money”.
Northwest correspondent Eileen Magnier did do a report from Letterkenny dole queues tied in to the latest unemployment figures from the CSO, but didn’t refer to the story. Vincent Browne’s viewers learned Thursday’s Independent would carry “The Polish Interview”, as parts of the original were “inaccurately translated”.
Sometime after 1am on Thursday Jimmy Harte began using his twitter account, which he had previously confined mostly to occasional football commentary and links to media reports about the Donegal senator, to respond to criticism.
Harte responded robustly, and appeared particularly offended that someone had called Donegal a “shithole”.
He said he did not “take lectures from the Dublin 4 set”, and told one tweeter he was “xenophobic, anti-Donegal.”
One commenter was told he was a “sad person”, another “you are a waste”, and a third to “get a life”.
When asked if the senator was “only in from the pub”, the response was he was “working late, don’t be smart.”
Perhaps the most bizarre exchange came when a Dublin-based critic was told “U look like Dunphy. And you are a FF lackey I’m told.”
The same tweeter was told “With a face like yours I would nt (sic!) advertise your pict.”
Calls to Harte’s mobile on Thursday redirected to his office, where a spokesperson said he was on his way to a Galway conference.
“I’m totally unfamiliar with what happened,” the spokesperson said. “I haven’t been talking to him today.”
“I know there’s something happened because people have been calling,” she added.
Twentyfour hours after first he reported on the story, John Murray spoke with “Magda”.
“How is it possible for somebody to publish something that is not true?” she asked him. “It’s not just mistranslation.”
Postscript: Harte has since apologised for his Twitter comments. Norma Costello, co-writer of the original Irish Independent report, has also apologised for her role in the story.