Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Planning and dealing with reporters

One other yarn I had last week was about the residents of Creighton Street in Dublin agreeing to withdraw a planning objection for the tidy sum of 1.6m euro.

Understandably a lot of people don't like reporters calling them up. In this case one resident who I asked about the deal to withdraw the appeal from An Bord Pleanala was particularly belligerent on the phone. "I'm not talking to a person who claims to be a journalist," he warned me.

Fair enough point I thought so I offered to meet him in person and show my credentials. But this was met with a "I'm not helping you find out anything," before he hung up.

Despite the hostility from the residents I got the details about the settlement from another source in time to do the story. So I don't know what is the best tactic for a normal Joe Public who comes on to a hack's radar for some reason or another to do with a story.

I suppose it depends on how much information the journalist has as to whether the ostrich approach works when Joe Public's preference is not to be the centre of a newspaper story. For the Creighton St story I think the residents I called might have helped themselves if they'd explained why they'd done the deal. It would have given more balance to the story anyway. A journalist would say that though.

The refusal to talk option does work sometimes. There is one story I'm working which is dynamite stuff but the guy at the centre of it, who I'd need to talk to to confirm the details, has told me there is no way he'll talk. I'm not sure how to proceed on that one because after two abruptly terminated phone calls and one email I think any more contact could reasonably be considered harassment.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Roscommon and paying double for music

Last week's incest and neglect case in Roscommon is the most disturbing case I've covered. Barry Andrews, minister for children, was quick to react and by Saturday the HSE announced it was to hold an "independent" inquiry with a report due in six months. How the HSE allowed the six children to remain in that house when social workers were visiting them regularly is difficult to believe and a full explanation is needed.

While Andrews has moved quickly on this it is amazing that the HSE or his department didn't brief him about this case before it came to court. He only heard about it through media reports last Wednesday. You also have to wonder how independent a four person inquiry which contains two HSE officials will be. These are two reasonable points that Alan Shatter, Fine Gael's spokesman on children, has made.

Mairead O'Shea in Roscommon reported from the mother's trial for us in the Sunday Times as we covered the the legal issues and fallout surrounding the case in a focus piece.

There are restrictions over what can be said about parts of this case because of pending legal action.

One person I spoke to in the area from which this family lived was the local priest.

He told me: “People would know there were problems but nothing like what came out [in court]. People round here are no different from other country people. They would help if they knew there was a problem but you don’t interfere with a family unless you’re invited in. The children served mass and I certainly never noticed any difference with them and other children.”

One of the neighbours Mairead interviewed told us that because people knew social workers were involved with the family, people presumed any difficulties were being addressed.

By being aware of that we put our faith in that system and felt that this isn’t happening without anyone knowing,” said the woman.

From the political rhetoric from last of week it seems the biggest knock on effect of this case may be that it seals the argument for the need to have a referendum which could give children's rights a firm place in the constitution.

The shadowy "right wing Catholic group" who supported the Roscommon mother's quest to keep her family together in 2000 have finally given those (such as children's rights groups) who want a change in the constitution a shocking case to illustrate their argument. We actually don't know how much the current constitutional position of the family as a sacred institution hampered the HSE's attempts to take the children in to care. It may have been down to a lack of resources for social workers or simply a bad decision based on the mother's promise to improve but that doesn't matter now.

In other news, hard pressed small businesses are being taken to court for not paying their music licenses for playing radios or CDs by Phonographic Performance Ireland (PPI). The biggest gripe companies have is that most of them are already paying the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO). PPI collects for the record companies and IMRO collects for the artists basically. There is a growing area of litigation in enforcing intellectual property rights in Ireland which I find interesting.

Last year Hollywood studios tried to get in on the act by charging toddlers for watching Disney movies in playschools. They shot themselves in the foot though by not registering their collecting body with the Irish patent office. The recent Thomas Roddy case shows how UPC are losing millions through the prevalence of "dodgy boxes".

PPI are taking the government to court later this year for allowing hotels to have an exemption from public copyright charges in their bedrooms. PPI is also heavily involved in the legal tussle with Eircom down in the four courts over the downloading of music from the web.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

First post


I've been meaning to start a proper blog for some time now.

My first attempt, robohack.journals.ie, is lying in a state of disrepair and neglect and I can't figure out how to pull the damn thing down. I began that blog in 2006 after John Breslin, boards.ie founder and lecturer, gave a talk to my postgraduate journalism course in NUI Galway on the merits of blogging.

Enthused by John's passion for blogging I set one up myself and started putting up a few articles I'd written for college assignments. Once I started working full time for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times I found I didn't have time to blog.

Almost three years on, and hopefully more time efficient, I'll have another go.

I usually read about four or five blogs regularly and have just discovered Michael O'Toole's impressive new blog on the life of an Irish crime reporter.

Michael's post on death knocks reminded me of my first such assignment down in Monageer in 2007 and the inspiration for this blog's name. Thankfully my line of journalism, which mainly covers legal disputes, doesn't involve too many such knocks on doors in times of tragedy.

In 2007 though, I and hacks from every other paper in the country descended on Monageer after Aidan Dunne apparently killed himself after first killing his wife and two small children. The first person I spoke to in the tiny village was Fr Bill Cosgrave, the priest who raised the alarm when his calls to the family home went unanswered.

After waiting for the rest of the congregation to leave after morning mass I approached Fr Cosgrave. It was three days after the bodies were discovered and the priest was now very familiar with journalists.

"I guess you would be a newspaper man?" he asked.

I had to think about it for a second. I'd been in the job a year but had never been called a "newspaper man" before.

After interviewing the priest over breakfast and getting directions for Poulpeasty, where Aidan Dunne's family lived, I headed for the dreaded death knock. Pulling up outside the Dunne family's remote house I could see the yard was filled with cars and there were lots of people moving about inside. Trying to decide whether to go in, I could only wonder why I was doing the kind of job that requires you intrude in a family's grief at a time like this.

Eventually though I went in and said hello. It turned out the family were very keen to chat and to defend Aidan Dunne's reputation which was already in shreds. In fairness they probably spoke to every paper in the country that week so in that respect it was an "easy" first death knock.

Anyway, about the blog. I hope to maybe give a flavour of what it's like working for a Sunday newspaper in Ireland. Despite the stress of deadlines and the long hours I love working as a journalist. I'll be honest and say if this blog attracts a bit of attention from people who want to tip me off to a story then that would be great too. There's always another deadline coming round the corner.

There are actually quite a few hacks blogging in Ireland now. The first one I came across was Adam Maguire's. Since then the Irish Times have got in to it in a big way.

Looking at some of their blogs it reminds me of the second reason I've been putting off starting a blog. I think journalists have to be very careful about being too opinionated in their blogging especially if it can lead to accusations over the balance or fairness of their reportage.

I don't think Deaglan DeBreadun is particularly opinionated in these pieces (by the way Joanna Tuffy, the Labour TD, is obviously a big fan) but voicing views in a public forum, especially on a divisive topic, leaves a journalist open to accusations of being pro one side or the other. It's a tightrope reporters must walk if they want to blog with some conviction and flavour while not harming their stance as an unbiased journalist.