– Charles Péguy
Those with whom I’ve been bundled over the course of the past three months would have good reason to accuse me of draft-dodging on the gay-marriage issue. I had been avoiding becoming embroiled in that issue, not least because my views on the subject are rather complicated. Contrary to what Rory O’Neill implied on the ‘Saturday Night Show’ of 11 January 2014, I had not been regularly appearing on television panels with the view of destroying his happiness.
Having named me as one of the people attacking his happiness – ‘The obvious ones’ – O’Neill went on: “I mean, what astounds me is that there are people out there in the world who devote quite a large amount of their time and energy to try and stop people, you know, achieving happiness and that is what people like the Iona Institute are at”. Apart altogether from the ‘homophobe’ slur, this was objectively untrue, at least in as far as it related to myself, and I state this merely as an irrefutable fact. Only three or four days earlier, I had declined an invitation from ‘Vincent Browne Tonight’, to talk about a recent statement by former president Mary McAleese about gays and the Catholic Church. In fact, although I had been a regular guest on Browne’s show on RTÉ Radio One up until about a decade ago, I had only once appeared on his TV programme. One of my reasons for declining to appear was Browne’s consistently aggressive dismissiveness of any or all of my arguments concerning fathers and children.
Smears about me and homophobia began three years ago, during the early stages of the 2011 presidential election, when the retired journalist Helen Lucy Burke went public with her concerns about an interview she had conducted with presidential candidate david Norris a decade before. Burke immediately found herself targeted by gay-rights activists and journalists seeking to prevent her airing these concerns which related to Norris’s alleged views on paedophilia. On seeing this, I wrote about the issue in my Irish Times column, recalling the facts of my own involvement, as consultant editor of Magill in 2002, in working with Helen Lucy Burke to try to persuade David Norris to withdraw his comments about paedophilia from the interview before publication. My writing on this subject led to a scurrilous article in the Irish Times, in which I was accused of being part of a smear campaign against David Norris, which in turn led to me being called a homophobe by a guest on the ‘Vincent Browne Tonight’ programme.
Recognising the use of the word ‘homophobe’ as a long-standing instrument of censorship I immediately consulted my solicitor, Kevin Brophy, who made contact with both organisations. The Vincent Browne programme agreed to broadcast an apology; the Irish Times essentially refused to apologise and more or less told me to sue if I wanted to. I decided not to, on the grounds that I was continuing to work for the newspaper, and TV3 had issued a reasonable and timely apology. In neither case had I raised any issue of damages, nor, in the case of TV3, did I seek even my legal costs. (In the recent controversy, RTÉ could have saved its licence-payers €85,000 plus legal costs, had it responded as TV3 did on that occasion.)
The following weekend, the Irish Mail on Sunday carried an interview with Christine Buckley (recently deceased), the former institutional abuse survivor and campaigner. She said “Senator Norris does not appear to see the moral dilemma in abusing a child, the psychological impact, the emotional impact, the shattered life”. As a supporter of David Norris in his battles on behalf of homosexuals, she said, she felt a sense of betrayal.
Although I had been called a homophobe for similar interventions, Christine Buckley was not accused of homophobia – the interview was simply ignored by all other Irish media outlets. Until then, it would have seemed unthinkable that any contributions of hers on the subject of paedophilia would be ignored – but this one was.
‘Homophobia’, of course, is a multi-faceted word. It has been widely used by gay rights activists as an instrument of attack and demonisation. The word also has strong connotations of an imputed aversion towards, indeed hatred of, homosexuals based on a fear of same-sex attraction which the person exhibiting the prejudice may detect, and seek to suppress, within himself.
But it was Brendan O’Connor, not Rory O’Neill, who introduced the word “homophobia” – and went on to invite O’Neill to name names on the ‘Saturday Night Show’.
It was when O’Connor asked “Who are they?” that O’Neill replied: “Well the obvious ones… Breda O’Brien today, oh my God banging on about gay priests and all, like the John Waterses and all those people, the Iona Institute crowd. I mean I just, I just, feck off and get the hell out of my life” (applause from the audience).
The defamation entered in with the acquiescence of O’Neill in O’Connor’s proffering of the word “homophobic” and this was in only the slightest degree mitigated by the fact that O’Connor’s motive appeared to be to defend me against the accusation he detected O’Neill to be making. “I don’t know. I don’t know”, O’Connor interjected. “I know one of the people that you mentioned there which is John Waters. I wouldn’t have thought that John Waters is homophobic[?]”.
If Rory O’Neill had offered any remotely germane evidence of his opinion – that, for example, I had spoken or written anything that he, however implausibly, was deeming “homophobic” (for example, if he had dragged up the now notorious ‘satire’ quote in which I suggested that the preoccupation with gay marriage indicates a wonky prioritising of concerns relating to family while father-child rights continue to be ignored), RTÉ might have had at least a presentable defence of honest opinion. He didn’t – he cited nothing I had said or written at all – and so RTÉ was left utterly defenceless.
I remember one occasion I was myself on the ‘Saturday Night Show’ when Brendan O’Connor seemed to be rushing headlong through the pretty lengthy agenda. He also appeared to be somewhat preoccupied during the interview, looking away as though distracted by something and leaving me talking to his ear. Afterwards I asked him what had happened, and he said: “I had a voice in my ear telling me to move on!”.
The question is: where was the voice in Brendan’s ear during the Rory O’Neill interview?
I made contact by text with Brendan O’Connor before the end of the programme telling him that I believed the interview had been defamatory. Later that night, both O’Connor and his producer Larry Masterson texted me to tell me I could come on the show the following week to respond to what O’Neill had said. Since this would have amounted to me going on to protest against an accusation that had been made without substantiation or evidence, I would have been reduced to responding by, for example, listing my gay friends, or telling about the numbers of gay people whom I’d helped in relation to children or whatever – in effect analogous to issuing assurances that I’d stopped beating my wife. On the Sunday, my lawyer wrote to RTÉ asking that urgent attention be given to removing the defamatory content from the repeat of the programme going out that evening, and that the programme be taken down from the RTÉ player. The repeat went out unedited.
I took a telephone call from Larry Masterson a few days later, in the course of which it emerged that he (and undoubtedly others) had spent the previous couple of days trawling the internet in search of evidence retrospectively to validate what Rory O’Neill had said. He made a reference to an interview with a college magazine from which about half-a-dozen half phrases would later be extracted in an effort retrospectively to substantiate the charge of homophobia against me, utterly ignoring that the substance of the interview was to do with the neglect of the mutual rights of fathers and children. In general, though, he appeared to believe the trawl had not been a great success.
That Wednesday, in consultation with me (and also, I believe several members of the Iona Institute – of which, for the avoidance of all doubt, I am not now and never have been a member), Kevin Brophy drafted an apology which was sent to RTÉ’s lawyers.
When a controversy broke out some two weeks later about the payment of damages, RTÉ claimed that this apology had been “too long”. However, they did not raise this objection at the time.
In due course it became clear that they had a mysterious difficulty with the final sentence of the apology, which for me and the others was crucial to the issue of proper redress. It read: “We accept that it is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues without characterisations of malice, hatred or bad faith”.
Over the coming 10 days or so, Kevin Brophy was to submit several variations on this apology, all of which were rejected. All wordings proposed by RTÉ, apart from being lame and laden with weasel words, notably excluded any approximation of that final sentence. This was puzzling, since the sentence amounts to no more than a summary of RTÉ’s public responsibility.
RTÉ’s first draft of a proposed apology arrived after 5pm on Friday January 17th, the latest conceivable hour, rendering it difficult for me to liaise with Kevin Brophy or him to liaise with his other clients. It amounted to no more than an expression of regret that we had taken offence. I instructed my lawyer to tell them that, if the ‘apology’ was broadcast in that form, it would make things worse. Thus did RTÉ fritter away a full week in which the matter could have been disposed of with minimal cost.
The following day I texted Bob Collins, Chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) of which I had been a member since its inception in 2009, resigning.
On the Monday RTÉ’s attitude hardened and it started engaging in crypto-philosophical debate about the rights and wrongs of the issue. The tic-tacking concerning the apology continued also. I instructed Kevin Brophy to inform RTÉ that, if they wished to debate the matter, they could do so in front of a judge and jury. It was at that point that they began to take the matter seriously. They agreed an apology and settlement with Iona and I was asked if I was prepared to accept the new apology as drafted. I said I was not entirely happy with the new wording, but in deference to the Iona members agreed that it could go ahead provided adequate dam- ages were paid. RTÉ at first made me an offer of €30,000, and, following a brief negotiation between the lawyers, it was agreed that I would be paid a sum of €40,000 in damages. I was informed that a total of €45,000 would be paid to the members of Iona.
Damages are the way this society has decided to compensate citizens for injury to their reputations. There is no other measure of the gravity of something except the wholeheartedness of an apology and the quantum of money paid in damages. Still, if RTÉ had behaved with courtesy and good faith from the beginning of the negotiations, the mat- ter would have been settled a week earlier, as with the TV3 libel in 2011. I would have received no damages, nor, as several times in the past, would I have asked for any.
The most immediate and arresting aspect of the deluge was the hundreds of emails that started to arrive. rather than extend the following random selection the consideration of separate paragraphs, I’ve run them together, separating discrete emails with asterisks:
“You’re a fucking homophobe.* Have the decency to apologize to Panti, and then drop off the face of the earth. *Fuck you, you worthless piece of shit. And, fuck, you are damn ugly too. Cut that dirty long hair, you homophobic asshole.* Hi John Just wanted to tell you everyone in Ireland thinks youre a bastard. Sinead O Connor is better off having nothing to do with you. You are a piss stain.* I hear you’re a homophobe now John. Any chance of a few bob please? * You sir are a not just a bully but a coward.”
And so on and on.
After a few days of this I noticed certain patterns. The emails consisted entirely of abuse. On a Wednesday there would be 20, on Thursday none at all, on Friday 20 more – even though the level of related activity, including social media commentary, high-profile international celebrity interventions and invective in the public arena had remained constant throughout the period.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I now regarded it as unsafe for me to walk down the street. The number of incidents in which I was personally confronted or abused was no more than a handful, and yet the anxiety they provoked created a sense of helplessness that I had never before experienced as a journalist or public figure.
I have avoided comment-threads on newspaper articles, particularly those under my own Irish Times column. I also don’t Tweet or read blogs online. This has suited me in the past, as it meant I received feedback only from people brave enough to attach their names to their correspondence.
However avoiding the online cesspit became impossible during the frenzy #Pantigate unleashed. Facts had no place here and there were three things that everyone “knew”: Rory O’Neill was a hero; RTÉ should not have paid out damages; John Waters/Breda O’Brien and the members of the Iona Institute were homophobes. end of “debate”. Anyone who disagreed with these points was a homophobe too.
The media coverage was in the main disgraceful. It was as if there was not merely just one side to this story, but that the identities of the good guys were self-evident from the outset, and those of the bad guys equally so.
But I can say that the only times I have encountered a negative personal response were in Dublin, southside Dublin, invariably from people who seemed to have no more than slogans to work with and always hurried away after flinging their quantum of abuse.
Otherwise, most people seemed to be only vaguely aware that my name had been associated with something to do with homosexuals.
I don’t think it should be necessary, when writing abut important controversial issues, to continually restate one’s position in order to safeguard against disingenuous characterisations. But, in the times we have arrived in, it appears that one cannot assume anything, and must constantly be on guard against distortion and dishon- esty. So, for the avoidance of all doubt: I have nothing proscriptive to say on anything to do with the personal or sexual life of any human being. I believe such matters are private and should remain so. What people do between the sheets – whatever their sexual orientation – with other consulting adults is none of my business. I have never expressed any negative opinion on homosexuality in any form whatever. I grew up not just listening to the music Lou Reed and David Bowie, but avidly following their cultural crusades – at a time when the mainstream press in Ireland was way behind in such matters. I have written about such figures many times. I think it axiomatic that gay people should be regarded as having equal entitlement to respect and protection in society. I think it tedious that I have to state this in such explicit terms, since it has long been obvious from many things I’ve written.
The weird thing is that, before the ‘Saturday Night Show’ of January 11th 2014, if you’d put my name together with the word “gay” into the searchbar of the Irish Times archive, you would have firstly encountered, along with several pieces I wrote about the David Norris “Greek pederasty” controversy of 2011, three topics. You would have encountered, for example, the piece I wrote in 2009 posthumously restoring the reputation of a gay man, Finbar Dennehy, who had been smeared by several newspapers which claimed he had died as a result of ‘bizarre sex games’ when in fact he had been brutally murdered.
The searchers might have come across one of the pieces I wrote in support of J Mcd, the gay ‘sperm donor’ who spectacularly won his case in the Supreme Court in December 2009, vindicating his own standing as a father, but also winning the most emphatic endorsement of the rights of a single father in the history of the Irish State. This man had been abandoned by the LGBT community in Ireland. Why? Because he found himself in conflict with two lesbians, for whom he had naively agreed to supply his sperm on the agreement that he would be enabled to have a relationship with his child.
Or they might have come upon a column of mine from March 2013 defending Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, who had been outed as gay by the British ‘liberal’ newspaper the Observer in relation to several consensual historical relationships with seminarians and younger priests.
I argued that there is a need to distinguish between the right of gay people to practice their sexuality and the issue of gay marriage: “It’s true: although liberal media persistently insinuate that opposition to gay marriage is ‘homophobic’, many gay men and women themselves oppose this development.
“Hence”, I concluded, “there is not ipso facto a conflict between Cardinal O’Brien’s exercising of his homosexual tendencies and his opposition to gay marriage”.
For nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve written an average of two articles per week – say, 2,500 pieces in all. Yet in the search for evidence against me, all that could be unearthed were half a dozen half-phrases in an informal interview for which I was supposed to be sent quotes for approval, but was not. And these phrases were delib- erately manipulated and carefully removed from their context to the advantage of their undoubtedly ‘colourful’ character. Surely if I were the vicious homophobe that the baying mob have labelled me, I would have used my columns over the years to campaign against homosexuality, gay marriage and the ‘happiness’ of gay people like Rory O’Neill?
On Monday January 6th, five days before the interview with Rory O’Neill on the ‘Saturday Night Show’, I received an email from Una Mullally, who had recently become a regular columnist with the Irish Times. I had never met nor spoken to Ms Mullally, though I had been aware that she had engaged in frequent attacks on me while a columnist with the doomed Sunday Tribune some years before.
In her friendly email to me, Mullally claimed to be looking for dissenting voices for a book she was writing about the movement for marriage equality in Ireland.
I responded as follows:
…In principle, I’m not really bothered about what’s called gay marriage. I do hap- pen to believe that marriage is, ipso facto, something that happens between a man and a woman, but this is a position in principle, and in reality what is nowadays called marriage has long since moved beyond this. My remaining issues relate only to children, which is to say adoption. I believe we have inverted the pyramid of adoption logic from a provision designed to provide a child who had lost his or her parents through death or other calamity with a home situation approximating to a normative family, to something that is really calculated to commodify the child for the benefit of couples who wish to “have a family” though they cannot have children of their own. My objection to this sustains regardless of whether the couple in question is heterosexual or homosexual.
…. You may be surprised to hear that I don’t have any theological objection to gay marriage. I have disappointed many’s the TV and radio researcher in this regard. I’ve refused almost all requests to become involved in this debate, partly because my position is not what people expect and partly because of the bullying which has characterised the discussion from the beginning.
… My argument is fundamentally (as it were) about the maintenance of the blood link between parent and child, which is really transcendent of the marriage issue per se. I have a child but am not married, and I have never accepted any“suggestion by anyone or by society that I have an inferior right to a relationship with my child on this account. I’ve won this argument at the personal level and I’m happy now to other measure leave it at that. In fact, now that I think if it, I’m probably better suited for filing under “Anti-marriage” than under “Anti- Gay Marriage”…
I certainly don’t make these arguments from any of the conventional positions, least of all a Catholic one – although it’s no secret that I am a Catholic…
But nor am I convinced by conventional arguments about the effect gay marriage will have on the “institution of marriage” as we know it. I don’t buy the idea that gay marriage will of itself be socially destructive”.
On January 20th a friend referred me to an article by Una Mullally in the Irish Times. I was stunned by the contents of the arti- cle, which included my name in relation to the ‘Saturday Night Show’ interview. There was a reference to a recent statement by the Russian president Vladimir Putin, when he said that gays were welcome to come to Moscow for the Winter Olympics, but should “leave the children alone”.
Una Mullally wrote: “Teachings of the Catholic Church on homosexuality are homophobic. Hopefully these teachings will evolve, as other teachings have. Most of the prominent voices in the Irish media who oppose marriage being extended to same-sex couples represent a Catholic point of view, organization, or the Church itself.
At the time of writing, the performer and businessman, Rory O’Neill, has received four solicitors’ letters from associates of the Iona Institute objecting to a brief discussion of subtle homophobia in Irish society on Brendan O’Connor’s ‘Saturday Night Show’ on RTÉ. RTÉ also received legal correspondence including a letter on behalf of columnist John Waters leading them to remove the programme from the RTE Player.
I immediately called Denis Staunton, the deputy editor of the Irish Times, and said I had been alarmed by the splenetic and defamatory context of the Mullally article and by its inaccurate linking of me and the Catholic perspective. I said it repeated the ‘Saturday Night Show’ defamation and lumped me in with Putin and some of the most egregious episodes of homophobia in the history of the world. He said he had not been on duty the previous night and had not yet read the article. He then proceeded to do so as I waited. Having read the article, he appeared to be genuinely shocked and said that he would not have published the article had he seen it beforehand. He said he believed the word homophobia should be used “sparingly”. I said to him that the word had a “demonic aura” about it and he agreed. He asked me what I proposed to do and said, “Of course it’s open to you to take the legal route but naturally I’d much prefer if you didn’t”. He proposed that I write a let- ter for publication on the Letters page. I was taken aback by this and said that it might look odd if a columnist in the Irish Times was reduced to responding to an attack by another columnist by means of a letter. He said it was now Irish Times house policy that columnists not be seen to be sniping at one another in their columns. At about 3.30pm he called me back and said he had spoken to Una Mullally, who told him she hadn’t named me in her article. Staunton said that it appeared that a sub-editor had added my name – as I understood him, to provide full disclosure in view of the fact that I was an Irish Times columnist and my name had already been mentioned publicly in this context. Staunton did not, however, explain why my fellow Irish Times columnist Breda O’Brien’s name had not been added to the article, even though her name had been mentioned publicly also.
I considered the matter carefully and decided that there would be no point in trying to convey even the essence of what had occurred in a Letter to the editor. I therefore decided to place it in the hands of my lawyer, with a view to obtaining a published apology in the Irish Times.
A lot has been made of my history of winning damages in libel actions, with strong implications that I have been trigger-happy with solicitors’ letters at the slightest criticism. This is nonsense. In view of the customary strategy of prevarication adopted by media organisations faced with requests for apologies, I find it easier to deal with these matters through my solicitor. In all cases where I have issued proceedings, the false allegations had been of the utmost gravity and had not been treated as such by the offending media organisation. In all cases, moreover, I won the argument, including one occasion when I was awarded significant damages by a jury following a 10-day trial. In all cases, however, I had given the organisations in question ample opportunity to address my complaints by issuing speedy apologies without any necessity to pay damages or costs.
It is interesting to observe how the gay marriage campaign has been joined by a number of high-profile, self-styled liberals. Invariably this category of individual is one with which I have come into conflict in the past, as these were the loudest voices of excoriation and silencing I encountered when I tried to raise the issue of the rights of children and fathers to have legally protected relationships.
When I first made these arguments, almost two decades ago, I was accused of attacking feminists and their ‘achievements’ for women.
Of course, when I responded to the less- than-liberal fulminations, they accused me of being “angry”. Indeed, on one occasion, the then CEO of Amnesty Ireland told me that his organisation would have supported me had I not been so angry. I asked him if there were any other recorded instances where Amnesty had rejected a potential client on this ground.
Among those who regularly attacked me was my fellow Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. In 2001, Fintan broke a long silence on the issue of fathers and children with a disgraceful piece in his Irish Times column in which he used a tragedy of the previous weekend, following which a man and his child were found stabbed to death, to condemn those who had highlighted the unjust treatment of fathers in the family law system.
It did not surprise me, then, that Fintan was to take the opportunity afforded by the ‘homophobia’ controversy to stick the boot in again.
Although I had gathered from the deputy editor that the house policy of the newspaper rather severely limited my options in responding to Una Mullally, the same policy did not appear to have been conveyed to Fintan O’Toole who, perhaps a week after my solicitor had written to the Irish Times asking for a retraction and apology for the Mullally assault, wrote a column under the heading “Columnist’s position comes with obligations”. He related a ludicrous story where the Sunday Times outrageously (apparently) suggested that he drove away from an engagement – as MC at an Irish Congress of Trade Unions rally against the bank bailout – in a 5 series BMW. “The implication”, he wrote, “was pretty clear: I was a hypocritical, champagne socialist, stirring up the masses from a position of wealth and privilege”. Fintan went on to demonstrate how wrong the story was: he didn’t own a 5 series BMW or any kind of car. He couldn’t drive and had gone home that evening, as always, on the number 13 bus.
The profile, he said, was a gold mine. “I had hit the libel jackpot”.
But then Fintan remembered something: he is a national newspaper columnist, who occupies “a position of enormous privilege” in the scheme of protecting free speech.
In Fintan’s case the Sunday Times’ Irish editor ”agreed pretty quickly that the article was inaccurate and indefensible. It was taken off the paper’s website and a retraction was published the following week”.
Fintan was spared the terrible conundrum of having to decide what to do if the editor had told him to go take a running jump at himself, or sought to initiate a philosophical debate about the gravity of being accused of being able to drive. Fintan did not say what he would have done then.
Yet, a little further down, Fintan appeared to acknowledge that the decision about whether to proceed with a legal action for defamation depends on the nature of the response to the initial complaint: “the threat of a possible libel action is implicit in these affairs”. In other words, he appeared to be implying, without admitting it, that if the editor of the Sunday Times had not been so accommodating, events might well have taken a different course.
I agree with his assertion of the journalist’s duty to protect freedom of expression. That’s why I believe that, when necessary, journalists as much as others should exercise their full legal entitlements when nothing else succeeds: for only in this way is it sometimes possible to protect one’s voice from bullies and liars who seek to take advantage of the alleged ‘privileged’ positions of their opponents by claiming a right to demonise and defame them with impunity.
Fintan went on: “If, for example, you want to be free to call the National Women’s Council “feminazis” or suggest that atheists are not fully human, you need a robust sense of where the limits of acceptable polemic lie”.
It was here that I became fairly sure that Fintan was talking about me.
I used the word “feminazi” twice in total, and the word “feminazism” once, in my Irish Times column, always in a general context to summon up a particular kind of man-hating feminism and its impact on culture. I have never used it to describe any individual or organisation.
Equally wearisomely familiar, and equally unfounded, was Fintan’s accusation that I had described atheists as “less than human”.
It never happened.
Yet it is ‘remembered’ so well that even the Literary editor of the Irish Times has become certain that I said or wrote it.
In my Irish Times column on November 20th 2009, I wrote as follows: “religion, rather than just another ‘category’ is the guiding hypothesis that makes sense of the whole… . What is called secularism, there- fore, strikes not merely at specific religions, or even religions in general, but at the very capacity of humans to be human”. readers can decide for themselves if this is the same thing as stating that atheists are ‘less than human’.
More intriguing than even his poor memory is the way Fintan characterised the role of newspaper columnist as a “privilege”. Unlike Fintan, who received a university education at the expense of the State (luckily, if I’m wrong about this, it’s okay, since Fintan never sues), I came to journalism the hard way. Before I earned a decent week’s wage as a journalist, I spent six years working for next to nothing, honing my craft while driving a mailcar to keep body and soul in the same dimension. I regard myself as privileged to be breathing, to have been given life, to have a beautiful daughter, a beautiful girlfriend, even a beautiful Alfa Romeo. But I am not ‘privileged’ to have been writing a column in the Irish Times for the past 24 years. That’s been my job – no more and no less.
The ‘homophobe’ deluge might have been bearable if the Irish Times had behaved with a scintilla of integrity during it. Instead, it seemed to join gleefully in the witch-hunt, publishing a series of outrageously one- side articles directed at me or the Iona Institute, sometimes carrying splenetic or sarcastic asides in articles which had noth- ing to do with the controversy. There were also frequent attacks on me by Irish Times ‘colleagues’ on Twitter, most notably the Consumer Affairs editor Conor Pope, who had been tweeting in a derisive fashion about me, which I believe to be in direct contravention of the Irish Times social media policy. Following an intervention on my behalf, the deputy editor Denis Staunton instructed Pope to remove these tweets, which he did. On February 7th, a review of a movie by the paper’s film critic donald Clarke included the following sentence: “Given recent, unhappy developments in domestic discourse, there could hardly be a better time for a film about a homophobic jerk – partly fictionalised and entirely dead, so he can’t sue”.
Nothing was done to discourage or inhibit the attacks. This was the newspaper for which I’d worked for 24 years. These people knew me and knew how far off the mark the depiction of me as a homophobe was. everyone sat there enjoying the spectacle of me being savaged.
On February 4th, in the wake of Fintan O’Toole’s utterly cowardly and disgraceful attack, I resigned as a columnist with the Irish Times by sending an email to Denis Staunton at midnight. Staunton was my sole point-of-contact in the newspaper, the editor having all but ignored me since his appointment in 2011.
Following a discussion between Denis Staunton and Kevin Brophy, I agreed to put my resignation “on ice” and continue with a five-week leave period I’d negotiated to work on two books I was writing.
I believe I would have eventually withdrawn my resignation, as Denis Staunton indicated he wanted me to do, had it not been for what happened next.
Perhaps the most sinister development over the course of the entire saga was the unearthing of the phantom tweeter, Thomas59. This individual was first brought to my attention by two friends of mine, who are a lot more internet-savvy than I am. At that stage he had just five followers, though this had increased to 12 at the time of writing.
Thomas59 had a lot of pretty coruscating things to say about me, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute, and was a follower of PantiBliss, Rory O’Neill’s Twitter handle. On January 18th, he tweeted @PantiBliss: “don’t worry Panti… the same crew do it all the time. It’s about intimidation… can’t win the argument? Send a solicitor’s letter”.
On January 26th, he tweeted:
“Let’s face it folks. Neither blacks, Catholics or gays should be allowed marry. And I’m not a racist, a bigot or a homophobe. Just reasonable”.
On February 5th, he tweeted:
“Panti in Wednes Indo. Won’t happen in Times. Complaints from Breda O’B and legal action by J Waters over Una Mullally Panti article January 27 (sic)”.
On February 5th:
“Beginning to wonder whether a part of me, just a part… might be “ Ionaphobic. Can this be cured
On February 9th he tweeted:“By the Waters of Babble- on-and-on… I lay down and wept…and wept…and wept… floodwaters….”My internet sleuths followed Thomas59’s tweets back to the point when he initiated his Twitter account. There they found that, either carelessly or naively, he had given away his true identity in several ways, including by supplying his work email address for someone he was requesting to contact him. He had also neglected to disable the GPS facility on his mobile device, which meant that, every time he tweeted, he revealed his precise location – sometimes his flat in southside dublin, sometimes his local public house, and sometimes the offices of the Irish Times on Tara Street, Dublin. Thomas59 was revealed in all his glory as a longtime senior correspondent with the Irish Times.
It was clear that Thomas59 was not au fait with Twitter, and was under the impression that he was completely anonymous. He seemed to relish how this allowed him to leak classified information, most notably when he tweeted Conor Pope – who was not a follower of his and did not appear to know who he was – to inform him that I had sent the IT a solicitor’s letter to the Irish Times following the Una Mullally article of January 20th. This was puzzling: if he wanted to acquaint his colleague of this important development, why not just pick up the phone or send a text?
More than anything else, these tweets confirmed the existence of a highly toxic climate of illiberal antagonism towards particular viewpoints at the heart of the Irish Times’ editorial operation. The Thomas59 tweets also left beyond doubt that this supposedly objective correspondent was encumbered by an outright ideological bias which ought to disqualify him from writing as a reporter on some at least of the matters he was required to cover for the newspaper.
On February 14th I sent a comprehensive portfolio on Thomas59 in an email to the editor of the Irish Times, Kevin O’Sullivan and Denis Staunton. I drew attention to the implications for the reputation of the Irish Times as a voice of diversity and balance in Irish society, revealing the identity of the individual in question. I supplied texts of numerous tweets by Thomas59 and indicated the identities of several of his ‘followers’, including Fintan O’Toole.
Thomas59 continued to tweet. On February 20th he tweeted: “O dear. New poll says 76% Irish people favour same sex marriage. Breda O’Brien, John Waters, Iona Institute heading for Uganda”.
Having received no response from the editor or his deputy, I emailed again on February 21st. The following day, February 22nd, Thomas59 tweeted: “One has been rumbled by H2O. …but does one care? Non. Who wants such cruel friends?”.
Over the next ten days some of the most noxious tweets relating to me were deleted – gradually and almost imperceptibly – from Thomas59’s Twitter feed.
What was somewhat perplexing from my point of view was that the individual I now knew to be the author of these tweets had been a long-time friend of mine. In fact, it was I who tipped him off, many years ago, that there was a job going in the Irish Times that might suit him.
He even put me up in his flat for a couple of weeks one time when my house was flooded by a burst pipe.
He attended my mother’s funeral in September 2012, following which we exchanged friendly emails and even met for a coffee. After that, we had no engagement for about nine months, when we had a brief telephone conversation, during which I asked him if he would be available as a guest lecturer at a forthcoming course in journalism I was conducting, which invitation he said he would be happy to accept.
At my mother’s funeral, this individual embraced my daughter, my girlfriend, my sisters and me, and briefly, with considerable apparent piety, touched my mother’s dead hand as she lay in her coffin. This is the gentleman who afterwards sent me several unctuous emails, talking about his family’s long relationship with mine. Since those emails were sent, no fresh difference of opinion had arisen between this person and me.
The only observable provocation for this extraordinarily toxic development in our relationship had been Rory O’Neill’s statements on the ‘Saturday Night Show’ and the fallout that ensued.
It is clear to me that such attacks were provoked out of the deeply noxious atmosphere of antagonism which had been allowed to fester towards me for many years inside the Irish Times, growing exponentially worse in the years since Kevin O’Sullivan became editor.
His craven paralysis on this entire issue, and in particular his failure to enforce the company’s own alleged policies and social media guidelines, if only to protect the credibility of his newspaper, must call into question his stature and even his continuing tenure as editor.
I have reflected deeply on the conundrum of whether or not to reveal the true identity of Thomas59. I had some reservations about doing so, not least because I believe this individual is acting out of character, having come under the sway of stronger personalities within the Irish Times. But, for two reasons I have decided that naming him is the more honest course. One is that, in order to spell out the full implications for the Irish Times, I need to give such a degree of detail about him that his identity would become obvious to virtually anyone who is familiar with the newspaper. In this context, my failure to name him would then appear somewhat coy. The second reason is that I believe such pseudonymous dishonest activity, on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet, is fairly widespread behaviour among journalists nowadays, and needs to be exposed.
For this reason, I say with a heavy heart that Thomas59 is the Twitter alias of Patsy McGarry, religious Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times.
I have now resigned from the Irish Times with many regrets, but nevertheless certain of the importance of protesting at the present drift of the newspaper towards an ideological orthodoxy that threatens its role as an esteemed journal of record and a bulwark of Irish democracy.
Over the years I’ve been involved in many intense debates in Irish life. That’s part of my job as a commentator. But, apart from the particular unpleasantness of the “homophobia” frenzy, there was also the fact that, this time, uniquely in my career, I was being targeted for things other people were saying I had said rather than anything actually said or written by me. And the nature of the frenzy – in social media, on blogging websites like broadsheet.ie, politics.ie and thejournal.ie, and most shockingly of all throughout the mainstream media – was such as to conceal this ungainsayable fact from the general public.
Anyone with the slightest concern for the health of Irish democracy must regard the deluge of hatred more or less stoked by the ‘national broadcaster’ and the Irish Times, and agitated in the lawless world of social media into a tsunami of bullying, with the utmost dismay. By far the most worrying aspect, however, is that, unless urgent action is taken by those with the power to take it, there may soon be no audible voice left to raise itself against the corrupted clamour of the unrecognised, unaccountable fifth column now directing every twitch and nuance of our public life. What is at issue is not, as some propose, the validity of any particular argument, but the capacity of the collective conversation much longer to accommodate any kind of argument at all •