By Jennifer O’Connell
Jean Treacy didn’t have a hope. The primitive courtroom sketches were never going to cut it.
Even if the gardai had whisked her out of the Central Criminal Court in a UFO, it was only a matter of time before the one-time mistress of Eamonn Lillis was gazing out at us from newsstands under those carefully groomed eyebrows.
Treacy was always going to be hot property. In the early days of the trial, journalists from some newspapers descended on her home town, handing out business cards to shoppers, and offering substantial financial rewards to anyone who could produce a picture of her.
When they discovered they were not even going to be able to photograph her coming and going from the court, they were incensed.
“We’re talking about a very serious constitutional imperative that the administration of justice takes place in public. If there is a shielding of a particular witness in any circumstances, how then do we look at the evidence?” a furious Star editor, Ger Colleran, demanded to know of listeners to Today FM.
The Sunday Mirror raged: “It is not within [the gardai’s] gift to act as chaperone or taximan to witnesses.”
I am not entirely unsympathetic to Colleran’s viewpoint, any more than I am convinced of the need for garda resources to be expended on the protection of an individual who is not facing any perceptible security threat.
And if I’m honest, I was as curious as anyone else to see what she looked like.
Not so curious that I bought the Sunday tabloid which first published her picture, but not so uncurious that I was able to look away when RTE news flashed the same image up – entirely gratuitously, or so it seemed – during a report on Lillis’s last day of evidence last week.
It’s hard to look away when you think you know as much about someone as we believe we know about Treacy: a massage therapist who was willing to embark upon an affair with a client; a grown woman who had sex in the back of a car parked at the Pavilions in Swords; a girl who spent her days off with her married boyfriend, and her evenings putting the finishing touches to her wedding invites; a poised young woman whose voice never shook as she gave evidence at the trial of her former boyfriend for the murder of his wife. Jackie Collins could not have invented her.
But the sheer quantity of salacious detail that emerged over the past few weeks made it all too easy to forget something else: she wasn’t the one who was on trial.
Whatever you thought about her behaviour, or her morals, or her professionalism, she stood accused of absolutely nothing.
This is a fact which appeared to have been overlooked by several media outlets in the heady aftermath of her picture finally landing on their newsdesks.
The papers which didn’t get the picture first made up for it made up for it by heaping on the details: the town of her birth; the name of her school; the nature of her first job; the names of her parents; her parents’ occupations; the number and gender of siblings she has – even the name of a recently deceased relative of hers.
Martin Cullen would probably liken the experience for her family to being raped. Those are not words I would choose. But I can imagine that they certainly felt – and feel - violated.
Having indulged in it myself, I can appreciate the curiosity about the appearance of Jean Treacy – a curiosity which, ironically enough, was probably fed by the unprecedented garda efforts to shield her.
But what possible justification can there be for this level of intrusion into the lives of her family?
I doubt that the lofty arguments about the administration of justice being constitutionally bound to take place in public were of much comfort to them, as they tried to get on with their lives now everyone knows that – yes, their Jean is that Jean.
Last week brought another, less dramatic - but no less upsetting for those involved - example of an unacceptable press intrusion. Melanie Schregardus is an air traffic controller who also happens to write a blog, which once touched upon her experiences in the tower.
Last Sunday, she was shocked to get a call from a friend, sympathising about the article in a tabloid newspaper. “I had no idea – I though you were happy in your job,” the friend said.
Schregardus had no idea either. She hadn’t spoken to any newspaper. She loves her job. What she had done was written a frank and occasionally humourous post on her blog about what it was like to be one of the country’s first female air traffic controllers over ten years ago.
She knew nothing about the article, which appeared in the newspaper in the aftermath of the air traffic controllers’ strike. It plucked some quotes from her blogpost and magicked it into a piece which ran under the banner “The Male Chauvinist Pigs of Irish Air Traffic Control”.
It was a salutary tale about being careful what you blog, but it was something more than that, too.
Like most journalists, my kneejerk reaction to calls for stronger privacy legislation is to say that we are already hamstrung enough by the punitive defamation laws which operate in this country.
However sympathetic you might feel to the intrusions suffered by Brian Lenihan or Martin Cullen, they at least are public representatives who have chosen to conduct their lives under the media spotlight. In both cases, there was an argument – albeit a thin one – that the compromising of their privacy served some wider purpose.
But what wider purpose is served by the intrusion into the lives of Jean Treacy’s family, or that of Melanie Schregardus?
For them, pursuing a libel action is not likely to be an option – partly because of the costs involved, but mainly because there’s no real defamation in either case. Neither do they have the kind of platforms open to them enjoyed by Ministers Lenihan or Cullen – access to a wide range of other media; the opportunity to make their views known at conferences.
They can, of course, go to the Press Council, which finally got statutory recognition under the Defamation Act this month.
The Council, together with the Press Ombudsman, has been in existence for two years now – a period which has coincided with intense competition within the media industry.
The Press Ombudsman, John Horgan, recently promised that his office would offer “complainants and publications alike the possibility of resolving the vast majority of complaints without recourse to the courts or to legal advisers.”
Critics have complained that the council has no real teeth; that the voluntary guidelines it offers don’t go far enough. If the first few weeks are anything to go by, this year should give them plenty of opportunity to test that hypothesis.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on January 31, 2009