The Irish Times and the Tuam Babies story: Is it even possible to sensationalise 796 dead children?

I note on Twitter that the features editor of the Irish Times stands over Rosita Boland’s article “Tuam mother and baby home: the trouble with the septic tank story“.  It seems to me that Adrienne Corless has completely debunked it and I think that saying “I’ve looked at Adrienne’s post and can’t accept her criticisms” is pretty weak. As for the suggestion that the Irish Times had somehow found “new info”, I’ll leave that to Simon McGarr.

Given that it took the Irish Times thirteen days to give the Tuam story any degree of prominence and then only did so to try to undermine the researcher whose work had exposed a monstrous crime, a more cynical daily purchaser than me might think that having missed or ignored what eventually became a global story has left the Paper of Record with a severe dose of sour grapes.

One very strange thing. On Twitter, Irish Times features editor Conor Goodman calls Rosita Boland’s article “A careful analysis of one aspect of the story: namely other media’s overstatements“. But except for its quoting of international media headlines, Ms Boland’s article doesn’t actually instance a single Irish media report. Not one.

Just out of interest, who in Irish media was guilty of “overstatements”? Given that most of Irish media were very slow to cover the story at all and only reacted with a national story when Irish social media had already made it an international story, the list of suspects is short enough.

Let’s take a look at how the story unfolded. This is by no means intended as an exhaustive timeline of the first fortnight of the Irish media’s coverage of the Tuam Home story, but rather a purely subjective sketch. If I’ve missed anything major, please let me know. (I’ve rather vainly included a piece I wrote, mainly because a Tweet from Graham Linehan sent it into the stratosphere…)

Sunday 25th of May: Alison O’Reilly breaks the story nationally in the Irish Mail on Sunday.

Sunday 25th of May: On their Facebook page, rabble.ie posts a short synopsis of the story.

Tuesday 27th of May: Nicky Ryan covers the story in thejournal.ie.

Wednesday 28th of May: Philip Boucher-Hayes speaks with Catherine Corless on Liveline.

Wednesday 28th of May: Fedayn posts an opinion piece on rabble.ie.

Thursday 29th of May: Philip Boucher-Hayes returns to the story on Liveline.

Saturday 31st of May: An opinion piece by me is carried in thejournal.ie.

Sunday 1st of June: Carol Hunt has an opinion piece in the Sunday Independent.

Tuesday 3rd of June: The story is covered in the Washington Post.

Tuesday 3rd of June: The story is covered in the Guardian.

Thursday 5th of June: The matter is discussed in the Dáil.

Thursday 5th of June: Susan Lohan has an opinion piece in the Irish Examiner.

Friday 6th of June: President Higgins tells RTÉ News that he is “appalled and saddened” at reports that 796 children died in the Tuam Home.

Saturday 7th of June: The Irish Times deigns to cover the story.

Tuesday 10th of June: Minister for Children Charlie Flannagan announces Commission of Investigation of mother and baby homes.

So is the Irish Times saying that it was international media which sensationalised the story? Certainly some of the international headlines were wrong to say that 800 dead babies had been found in a septic tank. Does that undermine the entire story? Well, thanks to Catherine Corless, we know that 796 children died, and many died horribly, in the “care” of the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam. We know that at least some of them are buried in a septic tank.

Was it hysterics on Twitter who sensationalised the story? I’ve felt guilty because I know I was one of those on Twitter and elsewhere using the phrase “dumped in a septic tank”. But then, it was a septic tank. And if the Brides of Christ really did put those poor children in an unmarked grave, in that septic tank, then it might be emotive but by God “dumped” is also an accurate word.

I can’t help but wonder whether the Irish Times was actually scandalised by the fact that it was a British-owned tabloid which broke this story. Is it the case that this isn’t the usual “Old Media versus New Media” spat so much as “Old Media versus New Old Media”?

Finally, as someone who has actually paid for a copy of the Irish Times pretty much every day for the past quarter of a century, I feel entitled to ask the Irish Times this last question: Is it even possible to sensationalise the deaths of 796 children in the care of Church and State and the fact that at the very least some of them were, yes, dumped in a septic tank?

I’ll leave you with Catherine Corless. Talking to the Irish Times.

Donal O’Keeffe

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7 thoughts on “The Irish Times and the Tuam Babies story: Is it even possible to sensationalise 796 dead children?

  1. Thanks Donal. An admirably restrained forensic account of the very strange reporting/non reporting of this immensely important story by Ireland’s premier newspaper. Regards Thom.

  2. Worth noting Donal that the story had been covered twice (at least) in the Connacht Telegraph Donal, the first time in the mid-nineties, and also as recently as March (I think) this year – though it appears they failed to grasp the significance of the mass graves.

  3. Only catching this now, Donal, as Ive been away. You’re bang on! The Irish media didn’t “sensationalise” this story – they all but ignored it until after it broke in international media.
    The absence of local stories to fact-check against led to international media taking their “facts” directly from social media speculation, some of which was ill-informed. No Irish media outlet did any old-school investigative journalism – knocking on doors, talking to people, checking the public records. The Tuam Babies story is a story of the failure of journalism. Investigative journalism is an essential safeguard of rights and truth and it seems to be dead or mortally wounded.

  4. Even the Child Abuse Commission didn’t delve too deep into the deaths in the ‘regulated’ Industrial Schools. Some contentious deaths were looked into but nothing at all into the many mass graves that these institutions produced over their lifetimes. One institution reported 77 deaths – this figure was later revised to 100. And that same institution revealed that they (apparently) stopped a doctor who was doing ‘medical experiments’ on the children. The Commission left it at that and didn’t ask further questions on what the heck that doctor was doing …..

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