herald

Friday 15 December 2017

Andrew Lynch: There are important principles at stake over Sargent story

This has gone beyond a joke. A week on from the resignation of Trevor Sargent, nobody is now talking about the unlawful behaviour that drove him from office.

Instead, the journalists who broke the story are being treated like criminals -- a complete reversal of justice that tells you everything you need to know about Dermot Ahern and his unfitness for the office he holds.

A full-blown garda investigation is now under way into how the letters that Sargent wrote to his local station in Balbriggan, asking for a courts summons against one of his constituents to be withdrawn, came to be printed in this newspaper.

Mobile phone records, emails and interviews with the people involved have all been demanded.

Bizarre

The whole affair is reminiscent of some eastern European state under communist rule, where politicians controlled the media and journalists who wrote something the government didn't like were liable to find themselves behind bars.

What exactly is the point of this whole bizarre exercise?

Dermot Ahern is not even trying to pretend. The Minister for Justice has openly admitted that he wants to have this inquiry carried out because he wants it to publicly clear him of any involvement in leaking the documents concerned.

This is not just juvenile behaviour, it is politically stupid as well.

It is quite true that some hot-headed members of the opposition levelled some reckless accusations against Ahern on the day that the story broke.

Within 24 hours, however, events had moved on and nobody was making such claims any more.

As a politician who revels in his tough-guy image and is well able to dish out personal abuse when it suits him (as we saw during his deplorable performance during the Willie O'Dea debate), Ahern should have been man enough to let the matter drop there.

Instead he has been acting like a spoiled child, portraying himself as a wounded victim and demanding public apologies from anyone who'd even dared to mention his name in connection with the letters.

When these were not forthcoming, he not only approved the garda inquiry but took the unprecedented step of promising to publish its results as soon as possible.

We already knew that this minister's attitude to press freedom was not exactly a liberal one. His proposal to introduce a new law of "blasphemous libel" has threatened to turn the country into an international laughing stock, something more appropriate to an episode of Father Ted than a 21st-century democracy.

Even so, Ahern's reaction to the Trevor Sargent story represents a new low even for him.

If the Trevor Sargent story had been libellous -- or even just wrong -- the Herald would have had to take the consequences.

Harassing

Instead, every single detail has proved to be completely accurate -- making it the sort of scoop that should be winning media awards, not bringing down the forces of the State on top of a respectable newspaper in a distinctly intimidating manner.

There are important principles at stake here.

Everybody recognises that the gardai have important and difficult work to do, but harassing innocent journalists should never be part of their job description.

Even now, at this late stage, Dermot Ahern should call off his attack dogs -- because frankly, this joke isn't funny any more.

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