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Where do the press and Fine Gael stand on the intimidation of Village and its whistleblower?

We live in a democracy and a free press is supposed to be important.

So why have the mainstream media been silent when Village, a small, serious, independent magazine and its whistleblower, Chay Bowes, have been threatened and bullied by perhaps the most powerful political party in the State, Fine Gael, and perhaps the most powerful man in the State, the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, past and future Taoiseach?

A report in the  Business Post last Sunday, 8 November, by its respected Political Editor Michael Brennan, contained the following:

“There have been mutterings on the Fine Gael side in government about whether Bowes has thought through what impact all of this might have on his healthcare businesses. But he said he was going to proceed with making a complaint to the Gardaí about Varadkar for leaking of the GP contract”.

This seems to be intimidation of Bowes, probably primarily for saying he will lodge a criminal complaint. Intimidation is of course a crime.

Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999 says that a person:

“(a) who harms or threatens, menaces or in any other way intimidates or puts in fear another person who is assisting in the investigation by the Garda Síochána of an offence…
(b) with the intention thereby of causing the investigation or the course of justice to be obstructed, perverted or interfered with, shall be guilty of an offence”.

Who is doing the threatening?  “The Fine Gael side in government”.  That is more than just a group of hand-rubbing backroom boys.  

The Fine Gael side.  In government.

Outside of a banana republic Fine Gael must be asked to account for itself.  It must state who speaks for “the Fine Gael side in government”, it must ascertain if the intimidation is authorised at the top level and it must, in a democracy, remove anybody associated with these threats, all the way to the top of the organisation and its leader,  Mr Varadkar if necessary. The whole party is implicated because no attempt has been made by anyone in it to correct or investigate the Business Post report, in the three subsequent days. Naturally, Village will be making a complaint.

Meanwhile, on two occasions now under the veil of Dáil privilege Mr Varadkar has abused Village magazine.  Twice he has called it a “fringe publication”.  There is no interpretation of the word, whose connotations all but the politically naïve know well, that would fit Village which is a left-wing, sometimes-though-not-always-dull, magazine that covers news, politics, environment, media, culture, and foreign affairs in a serious-minded and evidence-based way. Cursory perusal of the current magazine or of Village’s website would prove this to anyone who bothered.

Varadkar also solemnly told the Dáil he would be deterred from  suing the magazine as that would be like suing someone on Twitter.  I am the author of the relevant pieces, and the magazine’s editor.  The magazine has never sheltered behind any of the normal protections for small investigative media: offshore corporate registration, editor a person of straw, etc. Most people who have sued Village magazine have sued the editor as well.  In my 12 years as editor Village has never paid anyone anything for defamation but I do have sufficient means to be a mark for the costs of litigation if we did lose a case. Varadkar’s allegation is inaccurate and an abuse of Dáil privilege.  He should withdraw it from the Dáil record. 

More sinister still than the Tánaiste’s cynical mischaracterisation of the magazine, and his idle threats to sue, is that in the important Dáil debate of confidence in him on 10 November, he complained that Village is “unregulated”.  That suggests one of the country’s leaders considers that it should be regulated beyond the long-standing commitment to the Code of Conduct of the Press Ombudsman/Press Council clearly flagged on the inside page of the magazine. Believing, and implying in parliament, that a solution to your prolonged political discomfiture is “regulating” press that you do not like but choose not even to sue, is sinister in a democracy.  We heard a lot about the influence of Donald Trump yesterday.  Here is its definitive incarnation.

It is extraordinary that none of the press or broadcast media have expressed any concern about this.

Not one of the reports of the vote of confidence in Varadkar, whose importance was itself denigrated in much of the press, even mentioned it.

But then Village’s evidence-driven pursuit of Mr Varadkar’s illegal leak of a confidential draft IMO-negotiated GP contract to his friend, the head of a rival organisation, has been distorted by some of the mainstream media, some of the most established of which have never referred to the WhatsApp screengrabs that grounded our reports – as they apparently do not have the wherewithal to assess their probative value. The screengrabs, it is Village’s case, showed a) criminality and b) lying, from the Tánaiste.

Illustrating the distortion is some of the press coverage of our  9 November release of a trove of information from Varadkar’s friend O’Tuathail suggesting their relationship was closer than Varadkar stated in the Dáil.  That information  needed to be released in full. 

I was involved with the publicisation of James Gogarty’s allegations which led to the establishment of the long-running planning tribunal (1997-2012).  Fully 19 years after he made substantiated allegations (to me and others) that were verified by the tribunal many of the substantiated allegations/findings were overturned in the High Court in 2014 on the sole ground that he should have been examined about allegations that did not stand up as well as those that did (as it was relevant to his credibility).  

Village showed evidence, and stated, that Matt Ó Tuathail, like most people whose information highlights wrongdoing is not entirely reliable; and he has anyway latterly turned or been turned (a matter for another day) under pressure – definitively proving that unreliability. 

 Village simply suggested that evidence of ten meetings was enough to prove that the Dáil had been misled by Varadkar who had solemnly declared “two or three”, especially when it was clear that Village did not have, and could not he expected to have, information about the existence of all meetings between the two.

Village put all the information into the public domain. That is a proper and fair approach when dealing with people whose information highlights wrongdoing.

In summary this issue is still live. The press must recognise that the intimidation of Village is an affront to democracy, that the intimidation by Fine Gael of a whistleblower is a crime, for which its leader must account, and that the most established media are ignoring the nub of Village’s allegations. No wonder the public have no faith in the mainstream media.

Village has no faith that Irish media will take this seriously.  It is to be hoped that international media with a focus on Ireland that take these things more seriously such as the Guardian; and institutions with a remit for a free press such as the NUJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the International Press Institute; and institutions with a remit for protection of whistleblowers, like Transparency International, the OSCE, and the OECD  will address these issues seriously.

Michael Smith, 11 November, 2020.