Investigative journalist Gemma O’Doherty has garnered a reputation as a tenacious old-school reporter. She’s currently championing the case of Mary Boyle, a six-year-old Donegal girl missing since 1977. Rashers Tierney caught up with O’Doherty after her appearance at the Journalism In Crisis conference in the University Of Limerick back in April.
In your keynote to the conference, you said the role of a journalist is to be an “outsider” and to go home after a day’s work in the Dáil. Could you explain what you mean exactly by this?
Good journalism can’t be done in a pack. That’s what happens in Leinster House and within crime reporting. We have very close connections between the police, power and the press in Ireland – incestuous relationships – and that is really damaging to the public interest and democracy.
When you have reporters and editors out socialising with guards, that is the wrong way to go about journalism.
That’s when journalism turns into PR and we have an awful lot of that in Ireland. We saw in Britain and in the Leveson Report how these toxic relationships between power, the police and the press are so harmful to the public interest and in particular to people who have been through traumatic experiences and who were victimised by the press.
You spoke about certain people in RTÉ seeing it as their role to rehabilitate people who had been disgraced in the eyes of the public. Can you point to some examples?
For example, the likes of Bertie Ahern has been wheeled out recently to comment on the formation of government and there would be large cohorts of Irish people who would believe that he didn’t fully disclose his own private business dealings and that he left office in disgrace and was also responsible, with his colleagues, for a lot of the economic pain people are suffering.
And yet he is wheeled out as this great statesman whose opinion is one that we should all be listening to. RTÉ also wheel out yesterday’s men and women who have been rejected by the electorate and are ignoring the new voices that have been voted in by the public as people they want to see bring about change that is needed.
We have a lot of new TDs in the Dail now but I’m not hearing their voices particularly strongly on RTÉ or other establishment outlets, and there is something very wrong with that.
You’ve been moving into documentary filmmaking as a method for investigative journalism. What’s prompted this?
Print journalism is sadly on the decline and this is an obvious route for reporters like me. There’s this notion that investigative journalism costs a lot of money, I disagree with that. In Ireland, there are so many stories that haven’t been told, so many victims who have never had the chance to tell their story, be they victims of state abuse or very vulnerable children in foster care, being left in vulnerable situations.
So really nowadays a journalist like me, for example, who’s worked mainly in print it’s very, very exciting that we have the opportunities through the internet to get our stories out directly.
Irish people are telling us their stories, victims who have not been believed by the establishment media, by the gardaí, who have had doors slammed in their faces – we can now tell their stories through the internet and we can cut out the middle man, and it usually is a man, stopping us from telling these really important stories of public interest.
You made that point in Limerick about the myth of the cost of investigative journalism, possibly as a reaction to some of the fatalism in UL. Is a bus fare and good shoes all you really need?
We have to see what these people are learning in journalism college. Are they being taught the old fashioned characteristics like being dogged and putting the public interest first rather than licking up to those in power? Are those characteristics being drummed into them?
You know to be tenacious and to fight for your story and to have rat-like cunning and all the old Fleet Street traditional qualities but combining that with your smartphone, your iPad or your Mac, using the facilities on those tools to just reach out directly.
Every single village and town in Ireland has a story that has not been told. And it will be a story of huge public interest…. and that’s a lot to do with the fact that our mainstream media are simply not allowed to cover many stories of corruption.
It’s not expensive and if you’ve got a really important good story you can get it out there and if it’s good, it will spread and that is the big fear of the internet among those who would try to silence people who are exposing corruption. That is their big fear and they don’t know how to contain it.
The downside of Twitter and Facebook is that it has caused too many journalists to turn into commentators and there’s not enough reporters just out doing old fashioned digging.
So that’s an area we have to watch, so that the internet doesn’t become a talking shop for journalists. That it is used to tell other people’s stories through the internet, stories that affect the public.
The cops have served warrants and seized journalists’ AV material, photos from demonstrations etc – Eamon Farrell of PhotoCall Ireland said it was an effort to turn the media into “an extension of the eyes and ears of the state” – how much of a game changer is that?
Journalists see how vulnerable they are and if they don’t have support of management behind them, when disgraceful things like that happen and gardai attempt to seize their material, they are in a very vulnerable position – but they are also very grown up people, they need to stand their ground.
They need to make choices, is it journalism they want to be in or is it PR? Journalists themselves need to start standing up for the profession when they are targeted by elements within the state, even if they don’t have the support of their bosses, or else get out of the profession. One thing that struck me recently was the assault of a cameraman in Talbot St, I believe it was an RTÉ cameraman. He was allegedly assaulted by a garda. There should have been an enormous outcry from RTÉ management but I didn’t hear it if there was.
I challenged RTÉ on that. I challenge RTÉ on an awful lot on things but I never get any proper answers. Journalists need to stand up against those who would destroy our profession and turn it into spin doctoring. They are not doing that. I know when I was fired, there was virtually a tiny handful of people within the profession who supported me. Most of them were from Britain ironically Journalists only have themselves to blame in many regards for what is happening to the profession and that so many of them are now ridiculed in the public eye.
Illustration by Daniel Greenhalgh.