From top: Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly’s home in Greystones, County Wicklow; Anthony Sheridan
In 2018 Stephen Donnelly Fianna Fáil TD was refused permission to erect a fence around his home. In 2021 a fence was erected around his home at taxpayer’s expense.
Just two things changed between 2018 and 2021- Donnelly became the Minister for Health and sometime between the end of January and early February this year, a number of incidents were alleged to have occurred at the Minister’s home.
The story broke on February 20 when Irish Examiner journalists Paul Hosford and Aoife Moore reported they had received an anonymous tip-off that a security fence had been erected outside the Minister’s home as a result of the incidents.
An unidentified source said the fence was erected after items were thrown at windows and left on the minister’s doorstep.
An unidentified spokesperson for the Minister declined to comment except to say the fence was for security reasons.
The story was accompanied by an outraged editorial condemning the alleged attack on the minister’s home.
So, what have we so far?
An anonymous tipoff followed by an unidentified source, followed by an unidentified spokesperson alleging, without providing any evidence, that at some point in the recent past, persons unknown threw items at the windows of the Minister’s home and left items on his doorstep.
In other words, what we have so far is – hearsay
Later that day Ms Moore was interviewed by Damien O’Reilly on RTÉ Radio One’s Brendan O’Connor Show where RTÉ had upped the language surrounding the story from ‘incidents’ to ‘an attack’ on the minister’s home.
Unfortunately, Ms Moore did not provide any additional information but did expand on what she did not know – some examples.
“Is there any evidence that this is related to his work?”
“It appears it is but we can’t go into detail.”
“Do we know what was thrown at the house?”
“We don’t know.”
“Did it involve an individual, a group, was it over a prolonged period?”
“We don’t know. The advisor didn’t really want to go into it in any more detail. I think they would rather if the story was a private family matter.”
So here we have a journalist reporting an [alleged] attack on a government minister and happily accepting that such a serious event can be treated as a private family matter.
Ms. Moore was however very supportive and even emotional on behalf of the minister, saying:
“He has three young children…and obviously he’s up in Dublin for a lot of the time…and of course he’d be really concerned about his children and his wife. It’s just really rotten to be honest. I think everyone is really disgusted that politicians can’t go to work without having to worry about the safety of their families.”
Staying with the emotional angle O’Reilly/RTÉ linked this alleged attack with the perfectly legitimate, peaceful protest held outside the then Minister for Health Simon Harris’ home in 2019.
Ms. Moore was also happy to go along with this linking of two completely different stories:
“He [Harris] had a very young baby at the time, his wife and daughter were at home, it was very scary.”
O’Reilly concluded the interview with a strong note of outrage:
“Who would want to go into politics when you hear stories like that?”
That appeared to be the end of the story but then, curiously, a full seven weeks later, on April 9, the story was resurrected when Newstalk journalist Ciara Kelly interviewed Minister Donnelly in his constituency in Greystones Co Wicklow.
Listening to the interview it was clear Ms. Kelly is a great admirer of the minister, excitedly telling listeners that both of them were locals and even attended the same school.
The form of the interview was very similar to that on RTÉ between journalist Aoife Moore and journalist Damien O’Reilly. Very friendly, no challenging questions and buckets of sympathy for the minister for the alleged attack on his home.
“Does it frighten you that your family is being swept up into all of this?”
Donnelly: “Obviously, but I don’t want to get into it too much details for reasons you’ll understand.”
If Ms. Kelly did understand why a government minister would want to keep the details of an alleged attack on his home secret, she wasn’t telling her listeners. Just as journalist Aoife Moore was happy to accept that such an attack could be treated as a private family matter.
Ms. Kelly’s co-presenter Shane Coleman concluded the piece in a similar manner as Damien O’Reilly did on RTÉ by angrily asking:
“Why would anyone go into politics and subject themselves to such abuse?”
So here we have five journalists reporting a story as fact without any real evidence. Apparently cooperating with anonymous sources and the minister to keep details of the story secret and expressing strong support and sympathy for the minister’s unsubstantiated claims.
Journalists cannot retain credibility when they publish stories without corroborating evidence. Respect for their profession is also seriously damaged when they take sides, particularly when they take the side of a government minister who stands to gain from such media support.
Anthony Sheridan is a freelance journalist and blogs at Public Enquiry.