By William Hederman
Just before its main evening television news programmes this evening (December 7th, 2011), RTÉ will broadcast what campaigners are calling an “apology” for its coverage of the so-called “rape tape” saga. RTÉ have pointed out that it is in fact a “correction” rather than an apology, but it amounts to the same thing.
The station was ordered to broadcast this “correction” by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) because a report by its crime correspondent Paul Reynolds on July 28th 2011 was “inaccurate”, “unfair” and “harmful” to Jerrie Ann Sullivan. She is one of the women whose arrest last March led to a Garda sergeant and his colleagues joking about threatening to rape the women who were then in their custody.
What did RTÉ do?
RTÉ reported that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) had found that the recording of the rape conversation had been “altered” or “tampered with” in some way before being given to GSOC. In fact, GSOC had NOT said this. As the BAI have correctly pointed out, this coverage was harmful to Jerrie Ann, because it led the public to believe that she or people close to her had manipulated the “rape” recording in some way. Effectively, this coverage undermined Jerrie Ann’s credibility and undermined the case against the Gardaí in the “rape tape” case. It planted the idea in the public mind that the “rape tape” was not what it seemed to be.
Who is to blame?
Shell to Sea, other campaigners against Shell’s inland refinery project in Mayo and other critics of RTÉ are citing this as an example of RTÉ’s “biased” coverage of the Corrib Gas project. There is much validity to these criticisms, which form part of an analysis of the Irish State’s approach to its oil and gas resources that has been looked at previously on this blog (see second half of linked article).
However, there is another culprit in this saga. RTÉ must share the blame with those responsible for writing and releasing GSOC’s Interim Report in July. All students of public relations should have a look at GSOC’s three-page “Interim Progress Report” into the “rape tape” incident, released to journalists on July 28th 2011, and at how it played out in the media. By virtue of what it says and doesn’t say and of how it was covered, that report is an exemplary exercise in spin and misinformation, an apparent attempt to undermine the women who made the rape recording public. It did so primarily through two key pieces of misleading information.
1. Implication that recording was ‘tampered with’
GSOC’s July report implied (though didn’t say outright) something that was false, namely that the March 31st recording had been altered before being given to GSOC. RTÉ duly obliged and reported this implication as fact (headline: “Corrib rape remark recording ‘was tampered with’ ”).
GSOC gave this false impression by creating a confusion around the camera. It did this by selective reporting and by exploiting the facts: namely the fact that a separate video file on the digital camera had been deleted. GSOC’s report failed to provide any background about the circumstances of the deletion of this file. Its report simply said: “the significance of these deleted files to the GSOC investigation was not known.”
What the report should have said was that Jerrie Ann Sullivan and her university lecturers had provided detailed explanations to GSOC about why a file had been removed from the camera before it was handed to GSOC. It might also have mentioned that these people had offered to have the file deleted in the presence of GSOC officers by an agreed third party and that GSOC refused this offer.
Incredibly, the GSOC report is written in such a way as to suggest GSOC’s technical experts first became aware of the deletion of a file when they examined the camera. In reality, GSOC knew about the file deletion before being given the camera.
Obviously, GSOC could not know what the contents or relevance of this file was. However, a balanced and fair report would have made reference to the explanations they had been given and to the offers made for an agreed deletion process. Jerrie Ann and her lecturers say they went to great lengths to explain to GSOC that the deleted file was a recording of an academic research interview made several weeks before the rape comments incident (the camera belongs to NUI Maynooth). As such, the recording was covered by academic confidentiality. When the academics explained this to GSOC and offered to have the file deleted by an agreed third party in GSOC’s presence, GSOC refused the offers. Not only that: according to the academics and to Jerrie Ann, GSOC officers threatened them with criminal proceedings for failing to co-operate with GSOC.
The Interim Report makes no mention of any of this.
To journalists not reading the interim report closely or to news media willing to run with GSOC’s spin, it seemed as though GSOC were saying the recording was tampered with. So that is what the public ended up hearing from RTÉ – that the “tape was tampered with” and maybe the “rape tape” was not what it seemed to be. GSOC succeeded in getting this meme or piece of false information into the public mind, and now RTÉ is being forced to take the blame.
2. The rumour that ‘the women said rape first’
The second piece of information fed into the public domain by the GSOC interim report was the bizarre rumour that the two arrested women had used the word “rape” before or during their arrest. Jerrie Ann Sullivan has always categorically refuted the suggestion that she or the other arrested woman used this word, but what is more important is how this rumour came about and why GSOC gave it such a central role in its report.
This rumour was circulated by anonymous Garda sources in the days after the original story broke in April. Dublin Shell to Sea’s spokesperson, Caoimhe Kerins, has described receiving phone calls in early April from crime correspondents, asking her about this rumour. (See this Indymedia article for more detail: Business as usual for Gardaí – trying to smear women in ‘rape tape’ controversy)
Kerins assured the journalists that the rumour was rubbish and, accordingly, they decided not to publish it. Ten weeks later, on June 19th 2011, Jim Cusack published this rumour as fact in the Sunday Independent. Jerrie Ann Sullivan complained to the Press Ombudsman and in October he found that Cusack’s article was “significantly misleading” because it reported an unconfirmed rumour as fact.
Some six weeks later, the same rumour made another appearance, this time in the GSOC Interim Report. The report quotes an unnamed Garda detective, who makes a vague report of having heard someone shout “rape”, though s/he was “unsure of the exact words used”… as s/he said his/her back was turned. Jerrie Ann says she told GSOC that this rumour was untrue. Again, the report makes no reference to Jerrie Ann’s account.
In fact, the report makes no mention of anything Jerrie Ann told GSOC, despite the fact that GSOC interviewed her for four-and-a-half hours. They also interviewed several of her academic supervisors from NUI Maynooth. GSOC exchanged extensive correspondence with Ms Sullivan and her supervisors. Despite this, no reference is made in the Interim Report to anything any of them said. The only quote from the investigation included in the Interim Report is that one from the unnamed detective.
I used the word “bizarre” above to describe this rumour, because the decision by GSOC to include a reference to it in its Interim Report is truly baffling. Even if it were true that the women had said “rape” before their arrest, what would this prove? That the women were somehow to blame for a senior Garda and other Gardaí, on duty, in uniform, in a Garda car, making jokes about threatening to rape their prisoners?
The only explanation for the prominence given to this rumour is that it served a useful role in the PR exercise that was designed to deflect attention away from the Gardaí, to mitigate their behaviour and to undermine the people who made the Gardaí look bad by making the recording public. The Interim Report must raise questions about GSOC’s independence as a watchdog.