In trawling for ideas for regulating Britain’s unruly press, the head of the government inquiry, Lord Leveson, pinched a few ideas from Ireland. Its Press Council offered, he thought, a reasonably sophisticated system for maintaining standards of fairness and balance in its media.
But the Press Council hasn’t stopped the Irish press from being incredibly unfair and slanted in its coverage of the death of Savita Halappananvar. Without a minimum of professional integrity no regulatory system will be fool-proof against this kind of abuse.
The Irish Times headline “Woman ‘denied a termination’ dies in hospital” on November 14 ignited an international firestorm. The story became the best-read article in the newspaper’s history. Media around the world condemned Ireland’s “backward” no-abortion policy.
The story which generated this frenzy is now beginning to unravel – but there have been no mea culpas from Ireland’s blinkered press.
Kitty Holland, the journalist who broke the news, has admitted at least twice that her narrative was misleading and that she had papered over the ambiguity and uncertainty about the facts of Savita’s illness and death.
Not that she has been shy about admitting it. Only three days after the news of Savita’s death broke, Ms Holland published a column in the London Observer reflecting on her scoop. Without blushing, she wrote, “Whether the fact that Savita had been refused a termination was a factor in her death has yet to be established”.
Yet to be established? Her original story gave millions of readers around the world the firm impression that Ireland’s ban on abortion had murdered Savita. With a measure of grim satisfaction, she wrote:
“If she had been Irish, perhaps the international reaction would have played out with an underpinning sense that, well, that is what Ireland does to its women. But the line from Newsweek to Channel 4 News to New Delhi TV has been: ‘Did Irish abortion laws kill this Indian woman?’”
As time goes on, Ms Holland’s story keeps unravelling. Marc Coleman, of independent radio station Newstalk 106, quizzed her last Saturday. Coleman pointed out discrepancies in reports by the Irish Times as to when Savita was started on antibiotics in Galway University Hospital where she died on October 24. She responded:
“All one can surmise is that his (Savita’s husband Praveen) recollection of events — the actual timeline and days — may be a little muddled… we only have Praveen and his solicitor’s take on what was in or not in the notes… we’re relying all the time on their take on what happened…”
Of course, mentioning the solicitor is a red herring. His recollection can only be of what Praveen told him after the event.
Under Coleman’s patient prodding, Ms Holland admitted that she is sure of nothing. Savita’s death may, in fact, not be connected with abortion at all. She told him:
“Oh, I’m not satisfied of anything. I’m satisfied of what he told me, but I await as much as anyone else the inquiry and the findings. I can’t tell for certain — who knows what will come out in that inquiry? They may come back and say she came in with a disease she caught from something outside the hospital before she even arrived in, and there was no request for termination.”
Reporting Savita’s death was undoubtedly in the public interest. Ireland has the lowest or second-lowest maternal mortality rate in the world, even though it has banned abortion. In a country where it happens so rarely, the death of a foreign woman was certainly news. But Holland’s real interest was not the tragedy of a young mother dying in a distant land in her first pregnancy. It was driving her agenda for legislative change.
If Lord Leveson is searching for a model of press regulation which delivers unbiased media coverage, he is unlikely to find it in Ireland.
Questions about Holland’s version of events were raised soon after the initial report and the Irish Government began an immediate inquiry on a number of levels. None of this precluded the Irish Times or other media from pursuing their own further investigations.
None of them did.
For many in Ireland this all sounds very familiar. It is the same “group think” which corrupted the reporting of the national broadcaster, Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) in the “Reynolds affair”.
Fr Kevin Reynolds, a retired missionary priest, was falsely accused of fathering a child in Africa last May. An independent investigation revealed incredibly sloppy journalism which was passing for serious investigative reporting. In that case the team from RTE’s investigative flagship was identified as having fallen victim to “group think” in the aftermath of the clerical abuse stories which the media has been feeding on over the past few years.
The death of Savita has fed into this culture. Clearly the Irish Times saw it as the perfect pretext for overturning Ireland’s pro-life legislation. Against the background of the hysteria the Government is now planning legislation which could overturn Ireland’s existing pro-life laws. If this happens there can be no doubt but that a total failure of ethics within media organisations will have driven it there.
Lord Leveson’s ideas for press regulation in the UK go futher than Ireland’s model. Understandably there is great reluctance to accept his recommendations – but Ireland’s recent media history, where truth has been trampled under foot by the ulterior agendas of the media herd, does a great deal to undermine the more benign and self-regulatory system applying on that island.