Sargent resignation story may have implications for press freedom

Sad news for Junior Minister Trevor Sargent who has provided yet another milestone for the Greens being the first Green Minster to resign following inappropriate behaviour.

Sargent resigned his ministry last week following the publication of a letter he wrote on  Department of Agriculture headed paper to a junior garda requesting that a prosecution against one of his constituents be dropped.  Deputy Sargent claimed in the letter to the junior garda that it would be ‘wholly inappropriate to charge…….’

He broke the law under the 1974 Prosecution of Offences Act.

It subsequently transpired that the local Garda Superintendent, having been informed of the approach by his junior staff member, contacted Mr. Sargent claiming it would be more appropriate to contact the Superintendent rather than an individual Garda.

What is intriguing about this case is that Trevor Sargent sent a second letter attempting to intervene and influence the case, this time to the Garda Superintendent.

Trevor Sargent has paid a high price for his lack of restraint to his constituent’s query.

However, what is disturbing about the latest developments in the story is the acquiring of a Herald journalist’s telephone records to ascertain how the story was leaked.

This latest development in the Sargent resignation story reminds me of the Susan O’Keefe case.  In 1990, O’Keefe, a World in Action journalist, was threatened with prison in Ireland for refusing to reveal her sources. She had investigated scandals within the Irish meat industry in two television documentaries in 1991, setting in motion the three-year Tribunal of Inquiry in Dublin, which found that much of her criticism of the industry was substantiated.

The Tribunal, though, demanded that she name her informants, and when she refused to do so, she was charged by the Irish Director of Public Prosecutions. The case became a cause célèbre in Ireland, and in January 1995 she faced trial for contempt of court but was cleared of the charge. She was honoured in the 1994 Freedom of Information Awards for her stand.

Of course, the Sargent  letter leaking story is nowhere on the same par as the O’Keefe story, but it is disturbing that a journalist’s sources, in this case, the phone records, can be acquired so easily.

It would appear to be common knowledge,  whether true or not,  that there is a widespread culture in the Gardai of leaking stories to the press to influence public opinion and court case outcomes.


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