The international news cycle of recent months has obsessed over the twin calamities of Brexit and the US presidency. It’s a measure of how deep another crisis is – caused by the treatment of Garda whistle blower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe – that both stories have been pushed aside from Irish front pages in recent weeks.
With such a high volume of coverage in an intensely competitive media environment, it becomes challenging for the wider public to discern facts from opinion. This is particularly the case as calls for ‘heads to roll’ become increasingly shrill.
As is often the case in moments of crisis concerning public service workers, these calls generate more heat than light, and the term ‘public servant’ once again finds itself being turned into a casual insult. We’ve seen it happen before, most especially at the height of the economic crisis, when public servants became the focus of widespread rage, fuelled by a desire to pin the fault of the crisis on someone, anyone.
Last week, we saw that desire to identify a culprit focus its attention on the child and family support agency, Tusla. Reports that Sergeant McCabe’s name appeared on a Tusla document included details about the manner in which this may have occured.
This included allegations that it was the failure to delete information from a standard reporting form template that led to Garda McCabe’s name appearing on a Tusla report document. The social media response was as swift and brutal as you’d expect.
For my own part, I was curious to see if this information could be true. I asked one of my colleagues working with IMPACT members in Tusla to enquire about the standard reporting form. I’ve since had a chance to look at the template, and I’ve been able to satisfy myself that there is no text with a default allegation that requires deleting and/or editing. It’s a standard reporting form with tick boxes and spaces for ‘free text’ to be written by the social worker, or other professional, filling it in.
But the damage has been done, and Tusla staff are now bearing the brunt of media outrage that has sought a culprit as the crisis intensifies.
The week before last I was asked by a journalist about how staff in Tusla were feeling about the allegations made in an episode of RTE’s Prime Time broadcast the night before. The programme outlined the circumstances around the existence of a Tusla report making allegations against Sergeant McCabe. At that point in time I was unable to answer. I hadn’t spoken to the officials who work directly with Tusla staff.
Since then, I’ve been made aware of the distress and anger of social workers in Tusla who feel that the manner in which the story has been reported places the blame on Tusla staff. One recent piece of correspondence from a social worker in the mid-West described the experience for her and her colleagues as “extremely distressing” and morale in the agency as “very low”.
The same correspondence highlighted how social workers were continuing to do their work in a very challenging environment, as they do throughout the year, despite the noise and opprobrium raging on the airwaves, in the press and, without any fact-checking boundaries, in the wildfire of social media opinion. This doesn’t make the work of child protection any easier.
Until the tribunal, chaired by Mr Justice Peter Charleton, gets underway, the currency of opinion is going to trade much quicker than the facts, fuelled by a blame culture in search of a culprit for a crisis that started when one public servant tried to do his job with selfless honesty.
Niall Shanahan, communications officer