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The Irish Times and abortion.

By Ruth Cullen

The Irish Times was once seen as the paper of record. But its coverage in some social areas like abortion shows it to be more engaged in agendism than journalism, less a paper of record than a paper of advocacy.

Cynics, of course, would say with AJ Liebling, “freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one” but they can’t have it both ways – a prominent message from the editor on the Irish Times’ website declares the centrality of its ethos of accuracy. Village has documented elsewhere the systemic failures of the Irish Times even to correct errors once they are pointed out to it.

The great Guardian editor CP Scott noted that “opinion is free, facts are sacred”. Drawing this distinction, and only applying opinions once the facts that drive them are definitively proved, is the great tradition for serious newspapers. The problem for the fragile Irish Times in the information era is that being treated seriously requires consistent presentation of both sides fairly. Any failure to do this leaves a track record of taking sides and opting not to present fairly the side with which it disagrees.

The newspaper’s bias can be measured in two ways; on the one hand, by what it covers and the way it covers it, and, on the other hand, by what it covers up.

Take the coverage of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. The Irish Times unabashedly led a rush to judgment in which Savita’s death was conscripted as dramatic proof that the Government must bring in abortion legislation at once. It was a rush to judgement because the facts of the case were not known at that time, but it opted not to let the absence of facts stand in the way of using the tragedy to push for abortion.

In making this choice it accepted as collateral damage the significant long-lasting harm which its emotive, later to be discredited, charges would inflict on Ireland’s international reputation as a recognised world-leader in safeguarding the lives of pregnant women, and indeed in treating them properly and with dignity.

Nor did the emergence of the facts prompt a correction of the record by what used to claim to be the paper of record. Even when the details in the HSE Report, the evidence given at the Inquest, and the 13 missed opportunities identified in the HIQA Report, established beyond doubt that Savita’s death was due to lapses in the management of sepsis, the Irish Times opted not to correct its misleading slant but continued to use her death to push its ‘right-on’ abortion narrative.

In his editorial review of 2013, Irish Times Editor Kevin O’Sullivan puffed up Kitty Holland’s role in breaking and driving the ‘story’ but omitted any mention of the contradiction between the Irish Times’ ‘take’ and the evidence of flawed sepsis mismanagement. Holland even won the accolade of journalist of the year for her efforts, perhaps betraying systemic dysfunctionality in the newspaper industry.

On Friday, 23rd August 2013, with the legislation safely in the bag, the Irish Times’ front page lead story headline ran, “First abortion carried out under new legislation”. The triumphalist subtext was – now that we have legalised abortion, look, already a woman’s life has been saved!

The following day, however, it had to start a crawl-back as it emerged the story was incorrect. Mind you, it made the retraction a bit less embarrassing by sliding the admission of the cock-up down to the fifth paragraph, but in the end it had to publish the following correction: “The hospital has pointed out that the case described in the article did not happen”.

There was a bottom of the barrel quality to the obstinate clinging of the Irish Times to its pro-abortion spin on Savita’s death in the face of the mounting evidence that the real cause of her death was deficient sepsis management. The same desperation to show that it had been right all along produced this rush to claim that a woman’s life had been saved by an abortion under the new law it had campaigned so hard to bring in.

Kitty Holland has again taken a lead role in covering and interpreting the recent case of Ms Y. The Irish Times had no difficulty publishing an interview with the vulnerable woman at the centre of this case but showed a strange reluctance to follow the progress of the second human being involved, the baby, who thankfully survived.

The coverage was premised on the view that abortion is a medical treatment for suicidal feelings, implying that had the case been dealt with earlier the abortion would somehow have been appropriate. The narrative was that many opportunities were missed to provide the woman with best medical care, but what they mean by best medical care is abortion. However, the psychiatrists’ evidence at the Oireachtas hearings on abortion showed that there is no medical basis for this view.

The list of curious incidents in which the Irish media did not bark on medical problems arising from abortions stretches back decades.

Take the C Case involving a minor in State care brought to the UK for an abortion. The Irish Times inflicted on its readers several weeks of one-sided coverage pushing the case for her abortion. But, some time later when she went public to speak of the harm and hurt she had suffered from the abortion, and her profound regret at having undergone it, the fearless voice of the Irish Times was surprisingly silent.

Or the tragic case of  a woman from Ireland who died in 2012 in a London taxi immediately after an abortion in a Marie Stopes clinic. Here was a story about the life and health of a woman in pregnancy where the poor woman actually lost her life because of an abortion. Why did this merit only a fleeting mention in the Irish Times? Why was there no hue and cry, no outrage, no Irish Times investigative reporters camping outside the Marie Stopes clinic in London looking for answers, for who was responsible? This woman’s horrible death received only token coverage from the paper.

These questions are all the more relevant because only a year earlier another woman from Ireland nearly lost her life, again in a London Marie Stopes abortion clinic. On that occasion Dr Phanuel Dartey was struck off the General Medical Council in England for his part in that botched abortion. The Irish Times completely ignored this story.

A consistent pattern comes into focus when we sidestep the editorial amnesia and place each instance in the context of decades of politicised journalism by the Irish Times stretching from the X Case, through the European Court of Human Rights cases, to the Expert Group on Abortion and the two sets of Oireachtas Hearings that took place before the abortion law was passed.

The more we see the bigger picture, the more we are left with the question, does the Irish Times only ‘do’ coverage which shows abortion in a good light, censoring anything that shows it up in a bad light? And which takes priority in its coverage of such issues, then, protecting the lives and health of women, or protecting the reputation of abortion and its providers?

A glaring example of this bias was the failure by the Irish Times to ask the questions raised by the undercover investigation of dubious practices by counsellors in IFPA clinics published by the Irish Independent.

Here was clear evidence of counsellors advising women, if they suffer complications following abortion, to lie to their doctors, saying they had had a miscarriage, advice described by the Master of a Dublin maternity hospital as “life-endangering”.

The Irish Times reached for its forty-foot barge-pole. It didn’t touch it. But wasn’t this a grave issue where the lives and health of women in pregnancy were put at risk?

Sometimes the tendentiousness of the Irish Times’ attempt to photoshop history becomes painfully obvious. In a recent opinion piece (26th August), Fintan O’Toole painted a snarky picture of those who in 1983 led the campaign for Article 40.3.3, which afforded constitutional protection to the unborn. He achieved this effect by leaving out the salient fact that its twelve patrons comprised six professors of obstetrics and gynaecology, including Masters of a number of maternity hospitals, not to mention a further one thousand doctors who gave their names in support of the proposal. He tried, however, to give the impression that the constitutional amendment was brought about by shadowy figures and secret societies though in fact the proposal was discussed publicly for over a year and received the overwhelming support of the public in the referendum that followed. A newspaper that was confident of its values and views would not need to resort to setting up straw men to knock down, but would facilitate a balanced exchange of sincerely held views.

Last year, former editor of the Irish Times Geraldine Kennedy wrote an opinion piece for her old paper where she stated that Pro Life Campaign spokespeople William Binchy and Caroline Simons “derided and abused” former Attorney General Peter Sutherland in 1983 over his opposition to the wording of the abortion referendum. As well as being an extremely serious charge to level, it is entirely untrue. William Binchy or Caroline Simons never derided or abused the former Attorney General. Indeed Caroline Simons didn’t become involved in the pro-life movement for almost a decade after 1983.

The Irish Times has an approach to writing about this issue that’s anything but fair. The tongue in cheek minute-long Youtube called ‘The Irish Times Way’, uploaded at the height of last year’s abortion debate, captures brilliantly the one-sided way the Irish Times looks at things.

Just before TDs voted on the abortion law in 2013, the Irish Times published new poll results showing, they claimed, an historic sea-change in the public’s support for abortion legislation.

Of course the Irish Times has been running regular abortion polls for years claiming rising support for abortion legislation, and as always the message in the answers hinges on the message woven into the questions asked. The questions the Irish Times’ polls ask are permanently jammed on pro-choice autopilot. And so it was this time too. As the poll questions were scrutinised more closely, it turned out that nearly identical results had been obtained in a 1997 poll also conducted for the Irish Times. This did nothing to quell their ‘sea-change’ analysis.

As recently as October the Irish Times’ political editor, Stephen Collins, was spinning another poll to draw an ostensibly objective conclusion: “The significance of the poll is that it suggests the next referendum on abortion will involve moves to liberalise the law. In the past, pro-life groups have campaigned for another referendum to ensure abortion could never be legalised”.

We can be fairly certain that the Irish Times will not be commissioning an opinion poll any time soon asking people would they support abortion in the case of threatened suicide if the medical evidence showed abortion was not a treatment for suicidal feelings – because this might actually prompt a real debate and expose the Achilles heel of the new abortion law.

Another intriguing window into the Irish Times groupthink on abortion was provided in tweets by their main abortion reporter, Kitty Holland. On 23rd May this year, just before the European and Local elections, Cora Sherlock, Deputy Chairperson of the Pro Life Campaign, tweeted a list of pro-life candidates. Kitty Holland responded:

“@CoraSherlock @prolifecampaign worth a look if you’re pro choice.. Know who NOT to vote for. Thanks @CoraSherlock @Cora Sherlock!”

Another exchange concerned an address given by Lynn Coles of Women Hurt, at the National Vigil for Life in May this year. She spoke about a young woman she knew who had taken her own life immediately following an abortion only a week before the Vigil. Kitty Holland was present at the Vigil and heard her speak, and was near enough to Lynn Coles afterwards to interview her had she wished, but did not do so. Cora Sherlock tweeted Kitty Holland:

“@KittyHollandIT So will you be doing a feature on her right to highlight how abortion often leads to suicide – opposite of what gov said?”

Kitty Holland replied:

“@CoraSherlock  Not sure if one v sad case proves or disproves anything. I’ll try to get Lynn Coles no. tho up to my eyes on homelessness at mo”

The irony is that the whole Irish Times spin on Savita’s death which she helped spearhead was based on the very premise that one sad case proved something had to be done. She never followed up on the story about the young woman who lost her life to suicide just after an abortion.

The onesidedness must leave the neutral observer wondering is the Irish Times so patronising as to think the public cannot be trusted to hear both sides of the story and make up their own minds? The Irish Times appears to be afraid to put all the facts before the public in case they might end up disagreeing with it. •

Dr Ruth Cullen is a spokesperson for the Pro Life Campaign, but writes in a personal capacity.

(Oct 14)