The O’Reilly case and the Irish media July 23, 2007Posted by franklittle in Crime, media, Media and Journalism.
Today, Joe O’Reilly is beginning his life sentence in the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise following his unanimous conviction on Saturday evening bringing to an end an almost three year campaign for justice by the family of his wife, Rachel, whom he murdered in October 2004 at their family home. Outside of his Mother who still insists on his innocence, there can be few people not glad to justice being done, who are not satisfied at the result.
It also brings to an end one of the most interesting intersections of crime and media in Irish life that we have seen over the last few years. There have been no murders, no crimes, in recent Irish history that received similar levels of media attention not merely over the course of the trial, but in the years since the murder took place. There were 66 murders or manslaughters in 2006, 54 in 2005 and 45 in 2004, the year Rachel O’Reilly was killed.
Some achieved a limited prominence in the media such as the murders of Baiba Saulite, Anthony Campbell, Dennis Donaldson or Donna Cleary. Most, the victims of inter-gang warfare in Limerick or Dublin, were forgotten by all but their families and the Gardaí after a fortnight. None achieved the prominence of the Rachel O’Reilly murder. In only her case has the victim achieved such a status that she is regularly referred to in the media by her first-name only.
I have been trying to remember over the weekend when I became aware that her husband was the killer. I don’t read the Evening Herald, which was to the fore in identifying him as the killer, and I didn’t follow the story when it cropped up elsewhere in the media. Yet at some point I became aware that it was ‘known’ who the killer was. A consensus had emerged not in the corridors of the Irish media, but at watercoolers and dinnertables across the country long before O’Reilly was arrested and charged with the crime.
Writing in the Sunday Tribune yesterday, former Evening Herald crime correspondent Mick McCaffrey, made a number of interesting comments. The Herald, and McCaffrey in particular, probably wrote more about the trial than anyone else, and were the first and the most vociferous in pointing the finger at the husband. I find what he says about the appetite for news about the murder interesting:
“Every time the murder appeared on the front page of the Herald, sales went through the roof. The amount of times Rachel’s photograph was splashed on the front page of the paper became a bit of a running joke among journalists and ordinary members of the public…..
“We eventually got permission (To show pictures of O’Reilly in handcuffs after this arrest) and the frontpage poster edition was one of the biggest-selling copies in years.”
Why was this murder so different? At one level it had a couple of things we’re not used to in Irish murders. It had a clearly identified guilty party at an early stage. The story was less about ‘who’ killed Rachel because we ‘knew’, but about whether he would be caught. The steady closing in of the net around O’Reilly contributed to the build-up in interest. It also had sex in O’Reilly’s affair with Nikky Pelley.
But was there something else? A number of weeks ago Tomás Ó Siocháin, TG4’s Programme Editor, began a speech on the media by reading out five names, the last of which was Madelaine McCann. The first four, only one of which I vaguely recognised, were the names of four children of similar ages who have disappeared in Ireland over the last two to three years. “Why,” Ó Siocháin asked, “are we able to remember some victims and not others?”
He pointed to the distinctions between the McCann case and those of the other children, many of whom were the children of immigrants. Madelaine was white, female and pretty. Her family, those advocating and fighting on her behalf, were middle class, English speaking and media literate. The media, once identifying a story for which there seemed to be unlimited interest, became fixated on it to the detriment of other stories that might have had a better news value.
Can the media obsession with the O’Reilly case be explained similarly? Is this at the heart of why the murder of Donna Cleary, a working class single mother shot by a gangland thug, is more important than the murder of a middle-class married woman by her husband? Is it the reason why the murder of Baiba Saulite, an immigrant to this country and a single mother, by gangland figures allegedly operating on behalf of her estranged husband is slowly being forgotten?
And if so, what does it say not merely about the Irish media, but about those of us who consume it?