First Word:
The Battle for the Truth

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
October / November 2003

“I vow that the eyes of justice, the eyes of this journalist will not be shut again. No hand can deter me from my battle for the truth.”

–Journalist Veronica Guerin

℘℘℘

While Veronica Guerin starring Cate Blanchett (see cover story) may be the movie of the fall season, the real Veronica Guerin was anything but Hollywood. She was a dedicated journalist, wife and mother. So dedicated to her job, in fact, that in six years she became Dublin’s most celebrated investigative reporter through a series of articles exposing the drug barons of the city’s underworld.

On June 26, 1996, she was shot dead in her car by an unknown assassin.

Though many admired Guerin’s journalism, others thought her naive and reckless. People didn’t always understand why she put herself in harm’s-way by forcing face-to-face-confrontations with some of the most notorious criminals in Dublin.

The reason is simple. Ireland’s libel laws.

There is no definition of defamation in Ireland’s libel laws, some of which date back to the 17th century when they were used to suppress any word or deed in opposition to the (English) King. In contrast to the U.S. where the plaintiff must establish malice, in Irish law the plaintiff does not have to show that he or she suffered any loss or damage. Irish juries, perhaps in response to centuries of British suppression (let’s blame the British), routinely give large awards to plaintiffs in libel suits against the media. In fact, it’s become somewhat of an “establishment” hobby to sue for defamation in Ireland, and almost always the plaintiff wins.

Guerin tried to circumvent the laws by referring to the gangsters by their street names and on January 30, 1995, the day after she published an article profiling “The Monk,” a man suspected of masterminding the largest robbery in Ireland’s history; she was shot in the thigh by an unidentified assailant who attacked her in her home. She was still determined though. “No hand can deter me from the battle for the truth,” she said. But with her bosses at Independent newspapers being warned by counsel that Guerin’s stories could open them up to major lawsuits, she was forced into confronting the gangsters face-to-face to try to get “on the record” responses.

Guerin spoke about the problems facing journalists in Ireland and the need to change the libel laws when she was in New York in 1995 to accept an International Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

(For further reading check out “Gag Reflex: Ireland’s Libel Laws Muzzle A Free Press” by Michael Foley, posted on the web).

She also expressed her outrage that a fellow Independent journalist, Liz Allen, had been found guilty under Ireland’s Official Secrets Act, for publishing details of a bank robbery.

Amendments, which allow for more freedom of the presses, have been made to the government’s Official Secrets Act, but no changes have been made to the libel laws, which continue to frustrate Ireland’s journalists.

It would certainly be a fitting tribute to a brave journalist if the attention Veronica Guerin receives encourages the public to put pressure on the Irish government to change the more draconian aspects of the laws.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., it sometimes seems that the media could use just a touch of Ireland’s restraining libel laws. A quick perusal of supermarket tabloids finds the most outlandish statements leveled against those in the entertainment business. And it’s not just the tabloids.

Bing Crosby’s reputation was ruined by two books published after his death — one written by his son. I must confess to being one of the many fans turned off by the the allegations leveled against the entertainer. For years I have not been able to watch a Crosby movie without thinking, “Yeah, but….” Thankfully, a new book by Gary Giddins is helping to set the record straight and is debunking some of the stories that so badly damaged Crosby’s reputation (see Bob Lydon’s “Redeeming Bing,” page 58).

We hope that you will find both the Guerin and Crosby stories and the many others in this issue worthy of your attention. Guerin’s story in particular is a reminder to all of us in the media of our responsibility to continue to seek out the truth.

Sláinte ♦

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