Hatred, Malice, Bad Faith And Me



[John Waters (top and Patsy McGarry]

Further to Pantigate, etc., etc.

Seán O’Rourke played a (pre-recorded) interview with John Waters on RTE Radio One’s Today With Seán O’Rourke this morning.

Grab a tay.

Sean O’Rourke: “Now the past three months have been a time of upheaval in the life of journalist and author, John Waters. It began in January when he was described as a homophobe on RTÉ’s television’s Saturday Night Show. The station apologised and paid him €40,000 in defamation damages, unleashing a torrent of criticism of RTE, of John Waters himself, and of the Iona Institute, whose members were also compensated. More recently, John Waters resigned as a columnist with the Irish Times, saying that the highly toxic of illiberal antagonism towards particular viewpoints exists at the heart of the paper’s editorial operation. That’s what he wrote in a long article in the current issue of Village magazine. So when he came into studio, I first asked John Waters if he’d any regrets at all about threatening to sue RTE and then taking the money?”

John Waters: “No, I don’t because all I did was I sent, I got my solicitor to send a letter requesting an apology, a clarification for what had happened. And there was a lot of prevarication which followed on that. And, because of that, we lost the first opportunity for an apology which is the most critical moment, the week afterwards. So things escalated from then and this society offers as a means of recompensing somebody who’s being defamed, just two things. One of them is an apology done in the quickest possible time and the other is damages. And therefore the process which requires, which arose, occurred because of the prevarication of RTÉ. This could have been sorted out on day one with an apology and a minimal cost, a donation to charity, to St Vincent De Paul, that’s all that was asked for. So I’ve no regrets about that. And I never will have regrets about defending my reputation because it’s vitally important for a commentator, of any kind, to preserve the one thing they have, which is their reputation, their credibility in the public sphere.”

O’Rourke: “And you’re emphatic that if RTÉ had been prepared to include the following, which you quote in your, or which you reproduced in your article in Village magazine this month. There would have been no more about it. “We accept that it is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues, without characterisations of malice, hatred or bad faith”.”

Waters: “Absolutely right. I mean, it’s vitally important that it be seen that I’d intervene, my job was to intervene in public debate and have controversial views and have robust views and if you can be portrayed and presented as being motivated by malice or hatred in what you say, then you’re entirely disabled as a commentator. And, so for that reason, it’s vitally important that I preserve my, the sense that I have, that I actually contribute intellectually debates, on the basis of my understanding of the issues, not because I hate particular individuals or because I hate any particular kind of individual, that’s indispensable to my role as a public commentator.”

O’Rourke: “But, at the same time though, as I said earlier in the introduction, a torrent of criticism, of RTÉ in the first instance, for caving in to what was seen as pressure from yourself, and the Iona Institute and others, and not standing up for robust debate.”

Waters: “Well you see I think, this word debates keeps coming up. But there’s no right to defame as part of debate. I’ve been writing columns for the Irish Times for 24 years. If I defame somebody I’ll be sued. And if we lose a case, I’ll probably have got fired. But there’s no right, there’s no free speech right to defame someone, just steal somebody’s reputation because how can you answer this kind of charge?”

O’Rourke: “Well, right of reply the following week, you were offered that…”

Waters: “A right of reply can work, if there’s an allegation put forward of a factual nature which you can respond to ad seriatum. This was not that kind of allegation, it was simply part of a smear. It wasn’t, and interestingly it wasn’t the first time it happened. This arose a couple of years ago during the Presidential election campaign when, if you recall Seán, there was a controversy about [Senator and former Presidential candidate] David Norris and an interview he had given to Magill magazine. At the time, which, back in 2002, when I was the consultant editor, and I became embroiled in that, defending Helen Lucy Burke’s position because she was attacked that time. And I was called a homophobe on a programme on TV3. Now I raised this issue with the programme in question, I asked for an apology and the apology was given immediately, so there was no money changed hands, there was no question of money. I didn’t even ask for my lawyers fees. So the same could have happened this time if RTÉ had acted with alacrity and with a degree of gravity with regard to what had actually happened.”

O’Rourke: “You wrote as well that, in the aftermath of this, or at the height of it maybe, I don’t know, maybe it’s still going on, it became unsafe for you to walk down the street. Really?”

Waters: “Yes, I felt that, whether that was objectively true in the sense that, obviously a lot of this can occur in one’s mind but, at the same time, there were a number of incidents which were disquieting, you know people would come on..Mostly, I would have to say, they kind of, a dominant note of these was the cowardice of the individuals concerned because they almost invariably came up to me on bicycles and start roaring ‘homophobe’ at me, or ‘f-ing homophone’ or whatever and then scooting off. And this kind of thing happened several times so gradually it got to me, I didn’t really want to go into certain places. I didn’t want to go into Dublin, I don’t have a great time in Dublin anyway, to be honest but I did feel in myself that I was becoming changed and that worried me as well because the nature of my job is I have to be able to look people in the eye, to actually stand up and defend my positions and if I find myself under this kind of barrage of assault, then I have to consider my own position and my position as a public commentator.”

O’Rourke: “We’ll come back in a few minutes to what happened in the Irish Times itself but, apart from what went on there and the abuse that would have been hurled at you occasionally in the street, what else did you have to deal with? And you mentioned Twitter?”

Waters: “Well I outlined in the, I gave some flavour in the Village article about the kinds of emails I was getting and these were absolutely vile, you know, very short, always a certain pattern: short, very often in capitals, you know expletives, splenetic language, the word homophobe always there, terrible personal commentary about my family life perhaps, or about my appearance, all that kind of stuff. And there was like hundreds of these and I began to notice a pattern in this which was really astonishing. That, even though in the public domain in the Dáil, this came up in the Dáil and the Seanad, it came up in RTÉ, it came up in lots of places and it was being talked about for, particularly for about a week or two all the time and yet I noticed in that period, there was a certain pattern. That the one day – on a Wednesday, say – I would get 20 or 30 of these emails, and I would think, this would go on, then on Thursday, there would be none. And I’d think: it’s finished. But then Friday morning, I’d get another one and then on Friday, I’d get 20 or 30 more, so it seemed to me there was a certain orchestration about this whole thing that was actually, that there were people actually working hard to send these messages to me.”

O’Rourke: “Well you were criticised as well by the Minister for Communication, as well as his other responsibilities, Pat Rabbitte. Basically saying, look if you’re in the public square having a debate, you gotta be able to take it as well as give it.

Waters: “I’ve said it before, you know, Pat Rabbitte is entitled to express his opinion, just as anybody else is but I think Pat Rabbitte might be better off looking after his job as Minister for Communication. This was nothing to do with his job as Minister for Communications.”

O’Rourke: “Well, except for the national broadcaster, for which he has responsibility, shelled out over €85,000 in compensation.”

Waters: “That’s a legal matter and is entirely a matter for the people in charge of the national broadcaster and it’s contingent on the legal peculiarities. It is not a political question.”

O’Rourke: “Coming to the Irish Times, now you’ve identified, by my count, five people who were critical of you. Either openly, in print or tweeting openly, or using a nom de plume or maybe by what might be called a passing innuendo in various pieces they wrote. Now we don’t have time to go into every detail but you wrote a letter of resignation after a fellow columnist, Fintan O’Toole, had a go at you, which you say was utterly cowardly and disgraceful. Why would you use it, why would you speak in those terms? Why would it prompt you to resign?”

Waters: “Because it was part of a sustained campaign, it goes back actually to something that had happened earlier on. Because remembered the accusation was made that I was a homophobe, now on RTÉ, and it would say that I had been campaigning on the issue of gay marriage and that I had been more or less, it was insinuated that I’d been on TV and radio every day of the week. Now anybody in RTÉ can simply, by, within 30 seconds can ascertain how often I’ve been on radio and television, talking about gay marriage because the answer is I’ve never been on, I’ve never been on any programme. Many times I’ve turned down invitations to appear on Prime Time, the Frontline, all these programmes, who’ve asked me to go, because they assume they know my position on gay marriage and I can assure you, they don’t. But there was one time where I did outline my full position on gay marriage in an email to a colleague in the Irish Times, Una Mulally, who actually about five days before the Rory O’Neill interview on The Saturday Night Show, asked me, because she said she was writing a book, and I sat down and I wrote, even though this woman had attacked me numerous times, I sat down, I wrote her a 2,000-word email, outlining in full my position on gay marriage. In which I said, inter alia, that I actually don’t think I am against gay marriage per se. That I have a question because I have campaigned for many years on the question of the relationship between fathers and children and the rights and the lack of rights pertaining to those relationships and I’ve been asking why is this, this situation not being fixed when all these other issues are being dealt with and so I said my problems relate to this problem, this issue. I also said that I got no support from Catholic organisation, from Catholic bishops or priests or popes or anybody like that…”

O’Rourke: “In asserting the rights of fathers..”

Waters: “That’s right. So I outlined in full my position. And when this erupted then a week later with Rory O’Neill and The Saturday Night Show, I thought to myself, well at least, one colleague in the Irish Times has a full account of my actual position and will be in a position to enlighten the public and put an end to all this smearing. But nothing happened. And nothing happened. And nothing happened.”

O’Rourke: “But you could have always written a column about it yourself, surely, but that’s another story.”

Waters: “That’s another story, but wait a minute. This is vitally important. A week later Una Mullaly did write a column which put me in with Vladimir Putin and, you know, queer bashers in Nigeria and all the rest of it.”

O’Rourke: “Well I think she made a reference to the fact or it was done on her behalf by a subeditor, because she didn’t write it originally, to the fact that you had sent a solicitor’s letter to RTÉ. The context was the background that you said..”

Waters: “But that adds another sinister element to it: why is a subeditor adding my name to an article.”

O’Rourke: “Bertie Ahern might say for completeness sake I think is the short answer to that.”

Waters: “Well, that’s one way of spinning it but the actual fact. I would say there’s another explanation. That, because, for completeness sake, there was another name they could have added to that article and they didn’t because another colleague had also sent a solicitor’s letter to RTE, Breda O’Brien, and her name was not included.”

O’Rourke: “Ok. But coming on then to Fintan O’Toole, he basically said look columnists are in a privileged position and that they shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have taken the action that you did.”

Waters: “Well, Fintan O’Toole spoke about an episode which occurred where he was written about in the Sunday Times, where it was said in a profile that he had driven away from a public engagement, protest about austerity or some such, in a BMW. And he said that this wasn’t true, he didn’t have a BMW and that he can’t drive. And he rang the editor in the Sunday Times and so on, to complain. And he says he didn’t sue. But he did ring the editor of the Sunday Times and the Sunday Times immediately agreed to issue an apology the following week. And Fintan doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion, from that, that, if I had, the same thing happened for me, we wouldn’t have been in the situation we were either.”

O’Rourke: “But why then, at midnight I think you say in this [Village] article, why then did you submit your resignation to the paper? On the basis of this comment?”

Waters: “Not because of Fintan. I’ve nothing against Fintan at all. I have a great admiration for Fintan but this is what I resigned for: that I was told in relation to the Una Mullaly article that my options were to either, quote “go the legal route or write a letter to the editor”. In other words a columnist of 24 years is reduced to writing a letter to the editor, to defend himself. Meanwhile the dogs of war are unleashed, week after week after week, to attack me, who has been a columnist for 24 years. Now, I think that’s outrageous.”

O’Rourke: “But hold on a tick now. That’s a very strong statement. The dogs of war are unleashed to attack you week after week after week. Aside from what Fintan O’Toole wrote in his columns, aside from the reference, I think it was a film critic made some reference which you could say was an innuendo directed at you..

Talk over each other

Waters: “There was also an editorial, it was an editorial in which it was suggested that people who are opposed to gay marriage may well indeed be homophobic. Now that’s..”

O’Rourke: “You are not opposed to gay marriage. You’ve just said that so therefore it wasn’t referring to you.”

Waters: “Well, they didn’t admit that. They didn’t publish that. They didn’t publish. Well, of course people reading the article knew who they were talking about. Because this allegation had been made…”

O’Rourke: “Well maybe you were drawing things to yourself or on to yourself that don’t actually necessarily apply.”

Waters: “Well, who do they apply to?”

O’Rourke: “People who are opposed to gay marriage?”

Waters: “Well why were they talking about it at this moment when there was a controversy going about Rory O’Neill’s interview. This is totally disingenuous, Seán.”

[Talk over each other]

O’Rourke: “No, but I’m just putting it to you, it was a matter of intense public argument for whatever reasons it was that, the airwaves were thick with it, there was lots of stuff in the papers and so forth. Surely, the paper and its writers were entitled to make their comments on it?”

Waters: “And was I not entitled to be invited to actually, you see this goes to something much deeper, which goes right back to something that I’ve experienced as somebody who has a dissident voice in the Irish Times, has been a dissident voice in the Irish Times. Any time I mention certain subjects to do with say God, faith, transcendence, any of these questions which are big questions of me, not necessarily from a Catholic point of view but from a general human point of view. My article would be subjected to a tsunami of hatred at the comments, in the comments at the end. Many times I asked that these be moderated, that they be suspended, that something be done about them. And I was told to go take a hike. So the idea…”

O’Rourke: “And other people would have had to endure similar opprobrium, be they columnists in the paper or…”

Waters: “Well, yes, other people, for example Breda O’Brien, yeah. But all the other columnists were receiving high fives and approval from the same people because there is a culture, an ideological dimension to this. And this ideological dimension goes to the heart of the question here. This isn’t about personalities. It’s not about Fintan O’Toole, it’s not about Patsy McGarry, it’s not about Una Mullaly, it’s about a culture, the culture in a newspaper that’s changed. I went to the Irish Times in 1990. But actually the first time I went into the Irish Times was four years before that when Douglas Gageby was the editor. He invited me in one afternoon, on the 28th of January, 1986, it was the day of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. And I was sitting in with Douglas Gageby, at his desk in the newsroom, and he asked me to join the Irish Times. I didn’t want to at that time because I had a job, I was editor of In Dublin but I came in a few years later. Now that newspaper, Douglas Gageby was a great, great man, a great editor who fearlessly defended the right of people to have dissenting views but I want to talk about what’s happening now. Because, you see, the Patsy McGarry thing is really interesting.”

O’Rourke: “You better explain that. Now I have to declare an interest, I’ve know Patsy McGarry for 40 years, he wrote a very nice piece about a member of my family a few months ago and, you know, he’s somebody I would have known fairly well. He chose, as is his perfect right, not to engage in debate with you, as indeed the paper. But he had this Twitter account, with very few followers, it seems, certainly at the start, in which he used a nom de plume. Now you describe that as a very kind of a sinister development, that he was taking potshots at you, not in an open way?”

Waters: “Well of course he did but the point is not about Patsy McGarry. Patsy McGarry was a friend of me too, of mine.”

John Waters: “But I want to talk about what’s happening now. You see, the Patsy McGarry thing is really interesting..”

Sean O’Rourke: “Yes you’d better explain that. Now I have to declare an interest. I’ve known Patsy McGarry for forty years, he wrote a very nice piece about a member of my family a few months ago and you know he’s somebody I’d have known fairly well he chose as has the perfect right to do not to engage in debate with you as indeed did the paper but he had this twitter account with very few followers, it seems, certainly at the start, in which he used a nom de plume, now you described that as a very, kind of a, sinister development that he was taking pot shots at you, not in an open way…”

Waters: “But of course it is. But the point is not about Patsy McGarry. Patsy McGarry was a friend of me too, mine too, as you know…”

O’Rourke: “Yeah, but have you not built this up in a whole way, John, now he actually put his own name and home phone number onto this twitter account.”

Waters: “Yeah but this is one of the things that is being fudged and I want to address this because its very important, people are now saying well, he was completely open, but he wasn’t, if he was completely open why did he as soon as I…”

O’Rourke: “Well he left a trail, he left his paw marks over it…”

Waters: “Yeah but he didn’t know, when he set up the account, over a year ago, he didn’t know what he was doing really and he put down a certain trail but then he went on later on to attack me and attack others seemingly oblivious to the fact he had actually left this trail and in fact you had to dig deep to find this trail…”

O’Rourke: “Well actually you didn’t John, I’m looking at one here from p20 of the Village magazine and the word used is thomas 59.”

Waters: “Yeah but where does it come from, where do you think that comes from? I found that.”

O’Rourke: “But hold on, here is what you found. You found Thomas59 which was his twitter account and then at Thomas his home phone humber.”

Waters: “But his name is not Thomas. But why did he then, when I finally told the editor about this on the 21st February and finally seemed to act on this why was his first tweet ‘One has been rumbled by H20 but does one care? No.’?” But it’s not about Patsy McGarry. it’s about the fact when I drew this to the attention of the editor nothing happened for a week or more and then when something happened it’s almost like a quiet word was had, listen, back off for a while there Patsy, you know, he’s on to you and then it went on…”

O’Rourke: “You for whatever reasons decided, well you’ve explained them, to resign from the paper…”

Waters: “To some extent I’ve explained them.”

O’Rourke: “That is precisely what to some extent may have played into the hands of your biggest critics within the paper. Surely the thing to do was not so much threaten to leave but threaten to stay. You had one of the best platforms in Irish journalism.”

Waters: “Yes.And that’s why I wanted to alert the Irish people to what had happened. I wanted to say this is important. This is important enough for me to give up a position like that. This is what is at stake here. Your freedom is at stake. The Irish Times is not just a private, institution. Hang on Sean now, this is very important. The Irish Times is a bulwark of Irish democracy, it belongs to this country, it belongs to our democracy and democratic discourse, so what happens at the Irish Times isn’t just a domestic matter, it’s a matter for the nation and the people, and what I want to do is draw the people’s attention to what is actually happening not just at the Irish Times but generally in our media where it seems to me that a mob, on Twitter, is dictating what actually is important in Irish media.”

O’Rourke: “But here’s the thing, you had the perfect platform, you had a column in the Irish Times to explain all that to people, why didn’t you just write it?”

Waters: “Because I found it increasingly intolerable, the lack of support I had from senior editors, the condescension I was meeting every day from people I was dealing with in the Irish Times, from senior editors.”

O’Rourke: “But you didn’t even have to go in there you could email the column in as people do and you could simply express your views and put it up to them.”

Waters: “Why should I have to endure this kind of abuse from people simply for expressing my opinion which is my own honest opinion?”

O’Rourke: “Because you’ve a huge number of followers out there perhaps who agree with you and are now really disappointed that you’ve left the paper?”

Waters: “I’m saying to them you know, wake up, there’s something happening you need to be aware of, that your newspapers your media are being taken over, the chanting mob on twitter has been able to dictate for example last week….”

O’Rourke: “But they can’t be controlled the editor of the Irish Times can’t control those people the only person who can be controlled….”

Waters: “You can control what happens in your newspaper.”

O’Rourke: “Look It was fairly robust, there’s no doubt about it, you were being got at, you were being slagged you were being mocked by people.”

Waters: “This has happened me many times.”

O’Rourke: “Tim Pat Coogan had a great phrase to describe people who were annoying him. Dust under the chariot wheels…”

Waters: “And that was my attitude for many years but when you have a friend of many years who has turned against you by a culture internal to the Irish Times, then it’s time to ask what in hell what’s is going on here.”

O’Rourke: “Yeah, but you and Patsy McGarry had previous. You criticised some of his work in your columns in the Daily Mail, I think you famously had a bit of an argy bargy with him….”

Waters: “No. You’re quite wrong, Sean You’re quite wrong I did not criticise Patsy McGarry in any personal way at all. I criticised journalism I had a theme in my columns..”

O’Rourke: “Well a bit like other stuff maybe he felt that there was stuff that you wrote that was identifiable or traceable to him?”

Waters: “Well I remember a piece I wrote, it was about about the Eucharistic Congress and it was about the way in which the event was being covered by the media which for the first few days focused on the empty chairs and then disappeared while the Congress grew and grew and became a very rich and vibrant event and this wasn’t reported at all and I did write a column on it and he called this disloyalty to my colleagues… You see it’s the extraordinary thing about journalism, you can criticise any one outside, you can criticise politicians or bankers or whatever but if there’s any criticism about journalism per se this is disloyalty. now that’s precisely the charge that people like Patsy McGarry levelled against the Catholic Church…”

O’Rourke: “So is this an irrevocable parting of the ways between yourself and the Irish Times?”

Waters: “Yes.”

O’Rourke: “Do you not think there are people who feel let down, I won’t say feel let down because they’ve no right to feel let down because you’ve taken the decision but they’re disappointed that your voice is no longer going to be there in the paper.”

Waters: “Well then, they have a remedy and there are various remedies and one would be to write to the editor of the Irish Times and ask him what the hell is going on in the newspaper… there was an episode last week.. the Irish Times was forced to issue an apology in its leader column arising from a cartoon that occurred in the Irish Times by Martyn Turner. I want to say two things about this. First of all the comment in the cartoon was on the pretty anodyne side compared to a lot of the stuff that’s been sneaking into the paper in recent years and completely anodyne in comparison to some of the comments that are on on the online posts that I was talking about. The second thing is that Martyn Turner had the courage to put his name to his cartoon and yet the Irish Times sees fit to issue a half page virtually apology by way of a leader and yet the editor cannot even acknowledge an email from me on a subject which I regard as far more serious for the paper, an anonymous invertebrate tweeting from the bowels of Monkstown against his colleagues…”

O’Rourke: “Well we can argue the toss about that and I think we’ve had a fair exchange about it, it was very traceable the twitter account…”

Waters: “It wasn’t traceable, I found it by accident.”

O’Rourke: “Well what could be more traceable than putting his home phone number on it?”

Waters: “It was by accident, I’ll tell you about this, Sean, it’s very important, he put it there and then he thought it couldn’t be found, that’s the truth…”

O’Rourke: “But sure how could you not trace a home phone number?”

Waters: “But a home phone number, who would recognise a home phone number?”

“But sure there it was 280 whatever….”

Waters: “But why didn’t he put his name on it?”

O’Rourke: “Well I think it was done as a matter of convenience…”

Waters: “And why did he tweet one has been rumbled by H20?”

O’Rourke: “Because he had.”

Waters: “So what you are saying is contradictory. Sean, you cannot have it both ways.You cannot defend Patsy McGarry on the basis he was being open and honest…”

O’Rourke: “I’m saying he left a very … I’m saying he left a trail that was very easy to track.”

Waters: “Yes he left a trail. No, it wasn’t easy to track him, let me tell you that. A complete accident…”

O’Rourke: “A phone number?”

Waters: “Who would recognise a phone number?”

O’Rourke: “All you have to do is check it out. Dial it and see what happens”

Waters: “Well dial it yeah, but who uses phone numbers nowadays? That’s an old phone number.”

O’Rourke: “Well I think it is still a phone number to his apartment.”

Waters: “But his name is not Thomas.”

O’Rourke: “Well he just put it there as a convenient way of using twitter.”

Waters: “If you want to make strong comments about people the convenient and the decent way to do it is to put your name on it. I put my name on my articles.”

O’Rourke: “Yeah, but there were only five followers.”

Waters: “But that’s not the point, the point is that this is being encouraged in the Irish Times which purports to be engaged in divergent discussions about things in an open and transparent manner.”

“I think a lot of people may be asking themselves – is there any way back?”

Waters: “Back where?

O’Rourke: “To the Irish Times for you. Because they did ask you to put the original resignation letter on hold.”

Waters: “Look I am a journalist I am a writer. I have a position. I am prepared to put my name to any articles that are commissioned from me. I am not prepared to be abused in this manner. The Irish Times owes it to itself to reassure the public that it is capable of maintaining the high standards set for it by Douglas Gageby which have slipped dramatically and drastically in the recent past.”

(Photocall Ireland)