Credit: Colin Park via Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0

The remarkable holes in the Irish Times’ “migrant attack” story

On Saturday, the Irish Times chose to publish a story from veteran Social Affairs Correspondent Kitty Holland that is on its face both troubling and remarkable.

Holland reported that a group of “white Irish” men, armed with baseball bats and aggressive dogs, had launched an unprovoked attack on a “migrant camp” near Ashtown in North Dublin, leaving at least one of the residents of said camp – a young Polish man – with injuries.

The story is obviously and self-evidently important: News that vigilante gangs are attacking migrants in their tents and their homes with no other motive other than the one Holland reports – to get the migrants to leave – is clearly troubling, and might well provoke a major Government policy response. It might also cause many people to shift their political views in relation to the politics of the current immigration debate. In that context, it is not surprising that the Irish Times would choose to make it – as they did for much of the weekend – their top story on the Irish Times website.

But it is precisely the significance of the story that should really call into question the judgement of the Irish Times editors who allowed it to be published in its present form, when it is missing so many basic details, and where so many obvious questions about the incident are unanswered.

In the first instance, the Garda statement on the matter, included at the very end of Kitty Holland’s report, does not particularly lend credence to the claim that there was a dramatic armed assault on a camp full of migrants:

A Garda spokesman confirmed there had been an “incident on River Road. Gardaí responded quickly and engaged with those present. There was no report of any injuries and no formal complaints made at this time.

Contrast this with the headline of the piece:

“Men with dogs, sticks and baseball bat attack Dublin migrant camp”

It is fair, I think, to say, that if men with dogs and sticks and a baseball bat attacked others, and there were no injuries, then there was either immense good fortune involved, or interpretations of the word “attack” may vary.

But let us move on to the biggest question in the report: There is no doubt – none whatsoever – that the Irish Times had cameras on the scene. In fact, Holland’s report includes a video report from the migrant camp itself, showing what appears to be the camp before any attack took place.  There is footage of one man sleeping in a tent. There is a football. There is a pair of shoes, hanging from a branch. There is no evidence of any attack, or damage to any of the tents.

Now, we know three things, directly from Holland’s report, which pose questions:

The group of men arrived at about 12.45pm at the encampment, comprised of about 15 tents in a forest area, on the bank of the Tolka river on River Road, near the Ashtown pound…..

…..When interrupted by The Irish Times and asked why they were attacking the camp, the men – all white, Irish – alleged the residents had been involved in an assault locally.

……Gardaí arrived at the camp shortly after the men and dogs left, and spoke to those living there. One, a Polish man (20) told The Irish Times he had been hit several times with a baseball bat. Visibly distressed, he said his arm was not broken. “I have strong bones, but the tendons are sore”.

What we know is that the Irish Times was present before, during, and after the alleged attack. And we know from the footage of the area that the Irish Times had a camera present. And yet.

There is no footage of the attack. There is no footage of the attackers. There is no footage of the aftermath of any attack. The Irish Times, we are told, actually interviewed several of the attackers, but did not record them, or get them on camera. There is no evidence of anything other than the existence of the migrant camp itself.

I do not know the reasons for this, but as an editor myself, let me tell you: If Ben or Fatima or any other Gript reporter was on the scene of an incident like this and failed to get any publishable footage at all, they would be in the doghouse, to put it very mildly.

What is the explanation? This, from Holland on her personal facebook account, posted hours after these questions began to be posed, is the closest we get to an explanation:

Holland repeated this explanation this morning on RTE’s Morning Ireland. The explanation being, for clarity that the attack happened just as Holland and her crewman or woman was leaving. Presumably leaving no time to unpack the camera again and get any footage?

This might explain the absence of footage of the “attack” itself – but it does not explain the absence of any footage showing the “aftermath”.

Indeed, if as Holland reports she had time to interview the White Irish assailants, then her camera person assuredly had time to get his or her kit back in place to video them. As explanations go, this is deeply, deeply, unconvincing. And if such footage does exist, then it would do the trust of the public in journalism no end of good for it to be published. Holland claimed this morning that photos were taken of the men who carried out the “attack” retreating. But even if these photos are published – and it defies explanation that they have not been – they do not sound, as described, as if they are evidence of the article’s central claim.

Then, again, we have the Garda statement – no injuries, no arrests, no complaints.

And then, we have Kitty Holland’s follow-up, published this morning:

Gardaí told The Irish Times that their investigation into the incident over the weekend was continuing. None of the men who were at the camp when it was attacked could be contacted on Sunday.

At this point, it should be noted, we have no identified attackers. We also, now, have no contactable victims. There is one witness available to this incident, and one only – Kitty Holland. Nobody else has testified or gone on record as confirming that any attack took place at all. All the Gardai have said, remember, is that there was an “incident”.

As a reader and a publisher of news, all I can say is that enormous red lights about editorial process are flashing in my head.

And then, we come back to two other incidents.

The first incident that comes to mind is the Carlow School incident of 2019, where almost the entire Irish media (absent, ironically, the Irish Times) convinced itself that there was a culture of sexual harassment in a Carlow Secondary school based on what ultimately turned out to be one woman’s entirely false facebook post. The evidence being thin did not prevent the moral panic. The lesson of that incident should be that when it comes to emotive stories like that, and like this one about migrants being attacked, the discerning reader should really be demanding vastly more evidence than Kitty Holland and the Irish Times have chosen, in this instance, to provide.

The second incident is the incident that happened in Citiwest last week, where several men were taken to hospital after a purported riot in the facility.

In that latter incident, footage of the “riot” inside the facility was widely shared online, though not, of course, in the media. There was footage of Garda cars arriving. There was footage of ambulances. None of it recorded by journalists, but all of it readily available to confirm the basic story.

In this instance, by contrast, all anyone has to go on for evidence that an attack of any kind took place is Kitty Holland’s word. I would not presume to doubt her word, and believe she should be given the benefit of any doubt, but it is remarkable, in my view, that the Editorial Team at the Irish Times thinks that this is sufficient for such a major story, and that they would leave their journalist so exposed in this manner. Because in the absence of evidence other than the journalist’s word, there simply must be some doubt. Even if you assign – as we should – the most benign possible interpretation to Holland’s work, it is simply true that different people can see the same events very differently. That is why we almost always require more than a single source for a major story, in journalism.

But not, it seems, in this case.

In any case, there may indeed have been an attack exactly, word for word, as Holland describes. She is an experienced journalist, and this writer has no reason at all to doubt her word or her integrity. But the reporting of this incident, and the editorial standards of the Irish Times in publishing that reporting, are in my honest opinion both very, very, very shoddy.,

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