Masterclass in spin by Garda Ombudsman

The independent Garda watchdog produced a report about the Corrib Garda ‘rape tape’ that misinformed the public and undermined the women who brought the recording to public attention. By William Hederman.

It was one of the most extraordinary news stories of 2011. On March 31st, Gardaí in north Mayo arrested two anti-Shell campaigners and seized a video camera. The Garda sergeant and colleagues then inadvertently recorded themselves joking about threatening to rape and deport one of the two women in their custody before handing the camera back. The recording was posted online, where it was listened to by more than 100,000 people within days. It provided a disturbing glimpse into the minds of some of the very people to whom women are expected to report rape. However, the saga took a more worrying twist four months later.

In late July, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), which was conducting a ‘public interest’ inquiry into the incident, announced it had sent an “Interim Progress Report” to the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter. Shatter published the report and, within hours, widespread media coverage had implanted several key pieces of false information in the public mind.

This three-page report should be compulsory reading for students of PR and political spin. By cleverly juxtaposing several half-truths and omitting most of the crucial information, it created an impression that all was not as it seemed with the ‘rape tape’. It serves Garda interests by undermining the women and creating an impression that these Gardaí might have been victims of Shell to Sea shenanigans.

Back in April, the ‘rape tape’ had provoked public outrage. The official Garda response was contrite: the Garda Commissioner apologised and reassured “victims of sexual crime” that they should continue to report those crimes to Gardaí. Behind the scenes, it was business as usual for Garda ‘sources’. Personal details of the two arrested women were leaked to the press (the women had initially hoped to remain out of the public eye). A reporter turned up at the family home of one of them, Jerrieann Sullivan. She said her parents were “extremely upset” by this. Meanwhile, Caoimhe Kerins of Dublin Shell to Sea says she received tip-offs from two crime correspondents that Gardaí were spreading a rumour that the women had shouted “rape” during the arrest. Kerins assured them it wasn’t true and the journalists didn’t print it. The rationale of Gardaí seemed to be that this rumour would mitigate the Garda behaviour in the public mind: a disturbing echo of the old notion that a woman is to blame for rape.

This smear finally found its way into print 10 weeks later, when Jim Cusack published the rumour as fact in the Sunday Independent on June 19th. Sullivan complained to the Press Ombudsman and in October he ruled that Cusack’s article was “significantly misleading”.

Some Gardaí and their allies had been seeking revenge. But surely GSOC would act more fairly and impartially? The signs were not promising. On April 17th, the News of the World quoted a “source” at GSOC, claiming Sullivan was refusing to hand over the camera. She says she was “shocked at how a supposedly independent public body could feed journalists with information that undermined a witness in its own investigation”.

In fact, there was a short delay in handing over the camera, because of a dilemma facing Jerrieann Sullivan and lecturers at NUI Maynooth, where she was doing an MA degree. The camera belonged to the university and contained a research interview she had recorded three weeks before the “rape” recording. The interview was subject to confidentiality agreements with the participants: academic guidelines meant the confidentiality of the interview had to be protected.

When GSOC demanded the camera, the university academics explained their predicament to GSOC and repeatedly offered to have the older file deleted in the presence of GSOC. However, they say GSOC ignored all offers and issued threats of criminal prosecution against Sullivan and her lecturers. A spokesman for GSOC told Village he could not comment because, “This is an ongoing investigation of a criminal nature and we are bound to protect the confidentiality of that investigation.”

Jerrieann Sullivan was forced to hire a solicitor. She says that he was, in turn, threatened by GSOC “with a fine or imprisonment for not handing over the camera”. A statement from seven academics – Sullivan’s course directors at NUI Maynooth – describes GSOC’s attitude to Sullivan and the other woman (who has managed to remain anonymous) as “consistently hostile, recalling past treatment of the victims of sexual violence”.

Nine days after the story broke in April, the older file , containing the recording of the research interview, was deleted from the camera in the academics’ presence, and the camera given to GSOC. The possible motives behind GSOC’s approach became clearer when the Interim Report appeared. The deletion of the older file was cleverly exploited to give the false impression that the recording of the rape comments had been “tampered with”.

The Interim Report makes no mention of Sullivan’s and the academics’ explanations, nor of their offers to reach a compromise. It simply reports that files had been deleted from the camera, implying that this was mysterious: “The significance of these deleted files … was not known”. The report is misleading by implying that GSOC first became aware of the file deletion when examining the camera, whereas in fact Sullivan and the academics insist the file deletion had been explained to them in a series of oral and written communications, involving university authorities and solicitors. When this was put to GSOC, the spokesman pointed out that the interim report “doesn’t say that the recording from March 31st was interfered with.”

The report also appears to weigh in behind the insidious Garda rumour that the women said rape first. Jerrieann says she was questioned by GSOC for almost five hours, but her testimony is not referred to in the report. The only person quoted in the report is an unnamed detective, who makes a vague report of having heard someone shout “rape”, though they were “unsure of the exact words used”… as they say their back was turned. Jerrieann says she told GSOC categorically that neither of them used the word “rape” during the arrest. There is no reference to her version of events in the Interim Report.

GSOC’s spin was perfectly pitched: extensive news coverage of the Interim Report led with the (totally false) suggestion that the recording had been “tampered with” – although GSOC had been careful to stop short of directly stating this as fact. The smear rumour about the women saying rape first also featured prominently.

RTÉ reports on July 28th by Paul Reynolds were so misleading, the BAI ruled in December they were “inaccurate”, “unfair” and “harmful” to Jerrieann. The station was forced to air a correction. Despite the ruling, the misleading reports are still available (as Village goes to press) on the RTÉ website under the headline, “Corrib rape remark recording ‘was tampered with’.”

As Village goes to press, eight months after the Interim Report, GSOC has not issued a final report on this investigation.

It appears that people who embarrass An Garda Síochána are, at least on this occasion, experiencing repercussions: not only via the traditional route – anonymous Gardaí briefing crime correspondents – but also from the very body charged with independent oversight of Gardaí.

William Hederman is a photojournalist and a campaigner. He blogs at
The Interim Report has been published here on the Village website