Journalists give conflicting accounts at Charleton tribunal

Charleton tribunal: summary of evidence for week ending 8 June 2018

Article commissioned by Sunday Independent

Listening to journalists during the past week, Mr Justice Peter Charleton noted several times that he did not want to be an Irish Leveson reporting on the state of Irish media.

Journalists and barristers have danced around the issue of journalistic privilege, as the tribunal seeks to find out whether reporters were “negatively briefed” by former Garda press officer Supt Dave Taylor about Sgt Maurice McCabe.

Taylor says that he was directed to run the smear campaign against McCabe by then garda commissioner Martin Callinan in 2013 and 2014, and that Callinan’s successor Nóirín O’Sullivan was aware of the campaign. Both former commissioners deny this.

The alleged smear campaign took place against the background of the penalty points scandal, culminating in appearances before the Dáil public accounts committee in early 2014 by Callinan and McCabe.

Retired assistant commissioner John O’Mahoney had previously headed an internal garda inquiry into McCabe’s complaints. “Commissioner Callinan never spoke to me in any derogatory manner about any of the whistleblowers,” O’Mahoney recalled.

O’Mahoney did not know who the anonymous whistleblower was at first, but it was confirmed as McCabe after Garda John Wilson was caught copying penalty notices and said he was working with the sergeant. However, because McCabe had gone to a confidential recipient, O’Mahoney said he felt “precluded” from speaking to him during his inquiry.

Irish Examiner journalist Michael Clifford was “floored” the first time he heard allegations of sexual abuse against McCabe in 2014. The DPP directed no prosecution following a garda investigation into an allegation made in 2006 by Miss D against McCabe, saying that no offence had been disclosed.

“Out of the blue, this thing comes along,” Clifford told the tribunal. “The general feeling was there wasn’t any foundation to it, he wasn’t guilty, but that was still there,” Clifford said. He investigated and satisfied himself the allegations were without foundation. A second source “very familiar with politics” repeated the allegation the following year, and he heard the rumour a third time from Irish Examiner editor Tim Vaughan. In each case, Clifford told his informants the rumour was groundless. None of the sources were garda officers. Vaughan said his source was someone familiar with the Dublin media scene.

Newstalk courts correspondent Frank Greaney and RTÉ journalist John Burke both said they received no briefings about McCabe from Supt Taylor. Irish Daily Star crime correspondent Michael O’Toole and Irish Times crime and security editor Conor Lally also said they did not receive smears or negative briefings.

Irish Mail on Sunday editor Conor O’Donnell and Irish Daily Mail group editor Sebastian Hamilton likewise told the tribunal they were not given negative briefings about McCabe. O’Donnell said one of his reporters, Debbie McCann, was sent to see if she could interview the D family after hearing a rumour in early 2014, but the family was not willing to speak to her.

“We had a duty to investigate it, and we did. Nothing came of it, and we printed nothing,” O’Donnell said. Hamilton said that editors in the Mail group were independent, and would not need his approval to run a story.

Hamilton also said journalists had a duty of confidentiality to protect their sources, “a duty we owe to the profession of journalism and to press freedom to not reveal sources”.

Charleton noted it took the Mail group five months to respond to requests for information after the tribunal was set up last year, “while at the same time you’re thundering in your editorials about how important tribunals are.” In reply, Hamilton said the he was “concerned about any breaches of journalistic privilege.”

Debbie McCann, like other journalists during the week, told the tribunal she was not given negative briefings about McCabe. But there were several heated exchanges as she cited journalistic privilege when asked about conversations with Supt Taylor.

Charleton was at a loss to understand where any issue of privilege arose, since Taylor had waived his right to journalistic privilege, and since McCann has said no garda smeared McCabe, that must logically include Taylor.

Taylor’s phone records showed numerous contacts with McCann, but she said could not answer questions about these contacts, or she would never be trusted by any source for the rest of her career.

In response to a question from Michael McDowell SC, who represents McCabe, McCann that a garda who gave her information about the 2006 investigation into McCabe would not be smearing McCabe, as this was factual information.

“In my job I ask questions all the time, and I don’t consider the person responding to my questions [to be] maligning someone,” McCann said.

McCann said that she had not told a colleague, Alison O’Reilly, that she was given information by Taylor, or by her father, a retired garda superintendent. She would not discuss her sources with anyone else, and never discussed her work with her father. McCann also said she did not know Callinan or O’Sullivan.