A fact. It seems like the simplest, most unshakeable thing in the world. But so few people seem to understand what it means. A fact is something we know to have taken place.
Something that somebody says happened is an allegation. It stays an allegation until some evidence or testimony is produced that confirms it. That is how the law works. That is a fact.
In the flurry of internet postings about Kate Fitzgerald’s sad last days, facts are sadly lacking. That is largely because in Kate’s last article for the Irish Times, facts were lacking. She wrote it under a pseudonym, one assumes, for a reason. She didn’t want to embarrass her employer or her friends, perhaps. She certainly didn’t name any of them. However, she made at least one serious allegation, that her employers acted “illegally”.
As long as her employer remained unknown, that allegation was not an issue. Her employer was The Communications Clinic, as every dog in the street now knows.
The minute that information became known, Kate’s allegation became legally actionable. By the time it was published, she was dead. Without Kate to testify that her allegation was true, the Irish Times could not put it to The Communications Clinic and they could not hope to eventually face their accuser. In Ireland, the dead have no legal reputation to protect. Until a court finds otherwise, The Communications Clinic is entitled to its good name. Like it or not, that is the law. That is a fact.
The anger at this reality is palpable, but it is not immediately clear from where it all comes. Some of it is intemperate and misguided — commentators on broadsheet.ie and the Irish Times Facebook page have confused Kate’s story with the case of Karagh Fox, a woman who claimed she was bullied by the Communications Clinic. The case settled out of court.
Others accuse Peter Murtagh of “outing” Kate as the anonymous author, when it was her parents who contacted him. Many demand that Kevin O’Sullivan, the editor of the Irish Times, reinstate allegations for which he can provide no evidence. Craziest of all, others still suggest that Terry Prone runs some sort of Illuminati-like PR agency that controls, unchallenged, the Irish political and media landscape. The mob suggests that the Times, having given into unproven pressure from the supposedly unaccountable Prone, can redeem itself by giving in to pressure from utterly unaccountable Facebook members.
We are into the territory of people believing in conspiracy over cock-up and, frankly, it’s not credible. Nor, unfortunately, is it easily combatible. The web has, yet again, made somewhat an ass of the law.
Be in no doubt, the Irish Times has botched the handling of this from start to finish. Reading between the lines of Hugh Linehan’s post today suggests they are well aware of it. But it is possible to do the right thing, legally, ethically and journalistically and still be painted as the bad guy in the minds of the public.
“Explaining is losing” is bullshit. Some reasonable commentators are finally emerging and as Hugh pointed out there are most certainly lessons to be learned. A refresher course in when to use pseudonymous sources and a seminar in jigsaw identification, for starters. But no amount of mob rule, no matter how emotive the issue, should sway the editor to reinstate an article he is not convinced is factual.
Anyone who wants to continue the vitriolic campaign against the Times, I suggest they go read this post from Colette Browne. It may remind you of the more important message at the centre of all this.
Purely in the interests of disclosure, I worked for the Irish Times a decade or so ago, and with Hugh Linehan specifically. He’d be the first to tell you he had no influence on my opinions