Fair warning: What you are about to read is not objective journalism. Declan Ganley has been my friend, and my colleague, for thirteen years, give or take. When it comes to this subject, I have a conflict of interest, and it is very important to state that right here in paragraph one, so that you’re aware of it.
This morning, RTÉ apologised to Mr. Ganley, and paid him what both parties describe as a “substantial sum”, in respect of a Prime Time investigates programme aired by RTE on November 27th, 2008.
“Twelve years ago”, said Mr. Ganley, in response to the settlement, “RTÉ set out to destroy my reputation”. He is quite right that they did. I witnessed it first-hand.
In June 2008, Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty when it was put to the voters in what would end up being the first of two referendums on the same subject. Opposition to that referendum involved a number of groups – Sinn Fein, Coir, smaller left-wing parties, and, notably, Libertas, which was founded by Mr. Ganley, and for whom he was the leading spokesperson. I was the communications director for the Libertas campaign.
We were well funded, and professional. We used modern marketing techniques. Our arguments were not the traditional euro-sceptic approach to opposing European referenda in Ireland, but instead we ran an openly pro-European campaign. There is little doubt that we contributed substantially to the result – and it drove the Irish establishment mad.
How mad? Consider that on June 3rd, for example, Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell declared that he believed Libertas was getting its funding from “the CIA, the UK Independence Party or their friends in the US military”. Yes, that’s right – there were serious politicians in Ireland indulging in mad conspiracy theories that the United States Intelligence agency was trying to influence an Irish referendum through Mr. Ganley. That was not the only bizarre, and baseless, allegation. In the midst of the referendum campaign, with polls for the “yes” side slipping, a sort of utter madness came over establishment Ireland. Libertas was painted as nothing less than a pawn of some sort of international military-industrial conspiracy, and Mr. Ganley as some kind of international super-villain. Labour TD Joe Costello alleged, in words that would make even the most hard-nosed conspiracy theorist blush, that “links to the US Military establishment extend deep into the Libertas organisation”.
It was madness. And the voters, by and large, agreed. The referendum was defeated.
But in Ireland, defeat for the Government in such matters is only ever temporary. Almost immediately, plans were put in place to run the referendum again. Critical to the success of those plans, then, was to remove the threat posed by Libertas.
In about early October of 2008, some months after the referendum, I received a phone call from Katie Hannon, then working as a reporter for Prime Time. RTÉ was going to produce a profile of Mr. Ganley, she told me, and she asked whether our office would co-operate with it. Though suspicious of RTÉ’s intent, we agreed – on the grounds that by co-operating, we might at least get to nominate some voices to be interviewed, and include some material, that would balance out the editorial slant of the programme. There was never a moment when we suspected that we might be about to be treated fairly, but “unfair” is run of the mill, with RTÉ. What happened was significantly worse than that.
On behalf of Mr. Ganley, I arranged for RTÉ to interview his parents, his teachers from his school days, several of his long-standing colleagues, including some very senior people in the United States, friends, and former colleagues ranging from the Baltic states to California. All of them would have told the same, uncomplicated, story: That Declan left school at 18, went to London to work in insurance, and got his break in business by developing a proposal to insure the launch of European telecommunications satellites on Russian rockets. The answer to the Irish establishment’s question of “how did he make his money?” was never complicated – he made it by investing in the Russian timber business in the early 1990s, and importing timber to the UK from the former Soviet Union.
He then went on to found and build BroadNet (later acquired by Comcast), successfully winning wireless licences across ten European countries and deploying networks in the top 42 cities in Germany, the top 14 in France, across every town and city in Spain. Network licences from Prague to Paris, Olso to Madrid. In a total of ten countries in Europe. Rather than being some sort of US-backed outsider, he is someone who knows Europe very well – and someone with great respect for the EU and its single market, which had made that success possible. Several of the engineering team that worked with him on that project are still on his team today.
That story got one sentence in the RTÉ production.
But that’s because RTÉ wasn’t interested in telling that story. What they produced was, from start to finish, a hit job.
The music and style of the programme was drawn from the “Bourne” series of movies – which are, of course, about an international rogue assassin/spy. Lines were drawn on a map, linking Mr. Ganley to various exotic places across the globe – Russia, to Yugoslavia, to Iraq, to Latvia, to – cue dramatic music – the very heart of the pentagon itself.
Perhaps you don’t trust me that it was a hit job – I’m biased after all. So what did one of Ireland’s most pre-eminent journalists not working in RTE say about it at the time?
Writing two days after it was broadcast, the late Aengus Fanning, then editor of the Sunday Independent, wrote:
“RTE’s Prime Time on Thursday night purported to be a profile of Declan Ganley, the founder of Libertas and irritant of the European body politic. Instead, it broadcast an elegantly produced hatchet job”
The smears came thick and fast: perhaps the most absurd was the just asking questions tone of Katie Hannon as she asked, apparently keeping a straight face, “If [Libertas] isn’t a front for spooks, is it a tool for the neo-cons?”
As Fanning noted: “In place of analysis we had speculation and innuendo wrapped up in a sexy package of graphics, helicopter gunships, American flags and the roadside killing of an Albanian lawyer. It was accompanied by a soundtrack that was meant to sound sinister and then, for a final flourish, went silent as the credits rolled.
In case you missed the analogies, RTÉ helpfully subtitled the programme Citizen Ganley.”
The justification for showing the dead body of a man murdered, lying on the roadside, was that he had, at one time, met Mr. Ganley. The subtext was clear: Ganley met this man, and then he was murdered. We’re not saying Ganley had him killed, but is Ganley a tool of the neo-cons, and isn’t this the sort of thing that neo-cons do??”
It was, in short, the most despicable piece of journalism I have ever seen in my life. In the weeks and months afterwards, I lost count of the number of people who accused me of working for a murderer.
For over a decade, RTÉ have sought to evade responsibility for it. Ever since Mr. Ganley issued legal proceedings against them, almost ten years ago, they have sought to use every procedural tool in the book to avoid responsibility. In so doing, they drove up the costs for both parties – decade long legal actions in the high court are not cheap, for either side. The licence fee payer will now pay Mr. Ganley’s fees, and RTÉ’s.
Someone of lesser means than Mr. Ganley would have had to give up the ghost on this legal action many years ago, and allowed the libel to stand. The ordinary citizen – a PAYE worker like you or me – would have had to risk bankruptcy to clear their name.
RTÉ is supposed to be a public service broadcaster. That means, in short, that it is supposed to inform the public on matters of public importance, facilitate democracy, and remain non-partisan. But in this case, it sought to mislead, not to inform. It sought to influence democracy, not to facilitate it. And it sought to destroy someone, not to remain non-partisan.
In the years since the programme was broadcast, most parties have moved on. Katie Hannon, for some reason, is now an RTE star, even though this programme should be a stain on her reputation that can never be washed away.
A long battle through the courts has ended today, mainly because RTÉ knew, I suspect, that they did not stand a chance in front of a jury. They have agreed to pay a substantial sum in damages, plus the costs of both parties. You, the licence fee payer, will bear the cost of every penny.
Most people, of course, will never hear about the apology. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people watched the hit job back in 2008. Many of them will have forgotten the details. Many of them probably still look at Mr. Ganley and think “there’s something shady about that fella”, not even being conscious that the programme influenced them, as intended.
That was the objective, of course. RTÉ have paid the price for it, today. But it is not justice. In a just world, the people responsible for this would never work in media again.
The victims of this kind of thing from RTÉ are always from the same stock, of course. David Quinn had to sue them when they allowed a smear to be broadcast about him. Fr. Kevin Reynolds was called a rapist, and had to sue them. Sean Gallagher was the victim of a transparent, and successful attempt, by RTE, to rig a Presidential election. Kevin Myers was called an anti-semite on national radio. All of them won substantial damages, all of those damages paid by the public. When was the last time a Fine Gaeler had to sue RTÉ for libel? It’s always the same people – those who take a different view, on matters of controversy, from the establishment.
There have never been any consequences for people working in RTÉ. The costs, every time, are paid by the licence fee payer. The smear artists sail on, unaffected.
The licence fee should be abolished.