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Limerick hospital prayer: How the media helped spread a lie

In many ways it is hard to blame the campaign group “Together for Safety” for lying as brazenly and openly as they did about the purpose and timing of prayer vigils at University Hospital Limerick. They are, after all, a campaign group, pursuing a political goal. So, when they claimed that “pro-life” campaigners had been “leaked” the times and dates of abortions in the hospital so that they could intimidate women seeking abortions, they did so in pursuit of a goal: They wanted laws brought in that would criminalise any display that might be thought to be anti-abortion near any facility that might be carrying out abortions. This is the purpose of their group. It is why they exist. Their job is to make claims that push politicians into action on their behalf.

The claim that they made gained tremendous traction: The Irish Independent’s Star “campaigning journalist”, Ellen Coyne, amplified it to the nation. The politicians in the Oireachtas jumped on it, and repeated it ad nauseum. The “fact” that pro-lifers were nefariously intimidating women – and perhaps co-operating with sinister elements inside University Hospital Limerick to do so – was cited by Ivana Bacik, and many others, as evidence of the need for new laws.

The problem is this: The claim was false. And it was provably false. Indeed yesterday, my colleague Gary Kavanagh, working on his own, with barely any resources, comprehensively proved it false. The central claim was that abortions and protests were happening on the same days, and that pro-lifers had scheduled their protests to match up with the abortions. But information provided under Freedom of Information legislation shows that this simply is not true: The abortions and the protests were not even happening on the same days.

There is an old saying that a lie makes it halfway around the world before the truth even gets its shoes on. That is certainly the case here. Gript is a small outlet. Many of those who heard the original claim will never hear the truth. The Irish Independent, which amplified the original accusation, will assuredly not amplify the facts, now that they have been revealed. Those politicians who described the original accusations as “troubling” and “concerning” will, assuredly, not even acknowledge the fact that the accusations were false. It is a reasonable bet, in fact, that at some point in the coming months, these accusations, though debunked, will be repeated in support of the very legislation they were intended to inspire.

In some debates, alas, the truth does not matter. And that is the biggest single failing of the modern Irish media.

When you talk to journalists about journalism, and their role, they tend to present themselves as the guardians of democracy: We take no sides, they say; we simply try to establish the facts and put them in the public domain. That has never been true. Journalists are as prone to ideological and political bias as anybody else. They value relationships with sources, and they have their own policy preferences.

In Ireland, the media is made up almost exclusively of people who share a similar world view to those who made this false claim. Because they tend to believe pro-lifers to be backwards, slightly cruel people, there is little to no natural scepticism when claims of malfeasance are made about pro-lifers. Illegally accessing medical information from a hospital so as to facilitate the intimidation of women? Well, it sure sounds like something those people might do. Little did it matter that the claim was, from the start, highly implausible.

All of this could have been investigated much earlier. The Government, for example, had the information which Gript published yesterday. The Minister for Health could, quite easily, have cleared the names of the pro-life prayer group at the centre of this case. How hard would it have been to simply state “My Department has reviewed internal documents which show that these protests did not coincide with abortions”? In order to get the information that we published yesterday, Gript had to go through the office of the information commissioner, after our Freedom of Information request was turned down. The state had the information which exonerated the prayer group, they just did not want it to become public.

What to make of the motivations for that? One assumes they arose in part because the Government didn’t care that the prayer group was being traduced, and in part because it actually suited them to have the group traduced.

The prayer group themselves have always insisted that their events are not actually related to abortion at all: they say – and have witnesses to support the fact – that they have been praying in that spot, at that hospital, for years – long predating, in fact, the legalisation of abortion. They gather to pray for the sick, for expectant mothers, and for all those who, they feel, could use a prayer.

To some people, this may feel ridiculous and antiquated and worthy of scorn. That it feels that way is because many of us lack the faith in god that inspires these people to do what they do. Perhaps look at it another way: They believe, sincerely, that they are helping those that they pray for, and they take time out of their day to gather and ask for help for others. There’s a nobility and decency in that, even if modern culture refuses to see it.

These people did not deserve the lies that were told about them by the Together for Safety campaign group. They did not deserve the allegations of wrongdoing tossed at them by capricious politicians. They do not deserve the silence they will now get from a media which tattered their reputation.

And none of those who perpetrated this smear – for nakedly political reasons – deserve the public’s trust. The whole episode has been a disgusting indictment of the state of Irish civics.

This piece was first published on Gript.

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