The tragic suicide of Kate Fitzgerald, and the posthumous editing of a piece that she wrote for the Irish Times, has been the subject of much controversy over the past week.
25-year-old Fitzgerald had a long history of depression and had already attempted to take her own life when she sent a piece to the Irish Times describing the reactions of those close to her as they struggled to come to terms with her bid to end her own life. Crucially, she was critical of the behaviour of her employer, which she dubbed bullying and unsupportive, after she returned to work.
When the Irish Times published her powerful piece it unusually did so under a nom de plume, to protect Ms Fitzgerald’s privacy – and, by extension, the privacy of her employer. Then, in a follow up piece last week, foreign editor Peter Murtagh named Fitzgerald as the author of the piece and revealed that she was already dead by the time it was published. In fact, he had been the last person to speak to her when he rang her to confirm that the newspaper was going to publish it.
“The [person] with whom I was chatting sounded clear, calm and comfortable with what she was saying. Not unstable, just normal.
“She had well-thought-out views on a difficult subject about which she wrote well, with the authority of personal experience,” he wrote, before identifying her real identity to readers for the first time.
While Murtagh never explicitly named Fitzgerald’s former employers, pr company the Communications Clinic, his article linked back to her original piece and, once that happened, the company was inadvertently identified, leaving the newspaper vulnerable to a lawsuit. After all, there wasn’t a shred of evidence for the allegations that appeared in the original piece and because of Fitzgerald’s death, no way now to back up the claims that were made.
In short, the newspaper had no option but to edit the original piece and remove the sections that referred to the Communications Clinic – a decision for which they have been roundly lambasted by those, including Fitzgerald’s mother, who have accused the Irish Times of “butchering”, what amounts to, Fitzgerald’s suicide note.
Some of those now loudly complaining, presumably, are the same irate people who have considered marching on RTE, carrying pitchforks and burning torches, following its horrible libel of Fr. Kevin Reynolds. Evidently, some feel entitled to pick and choose who is defamed in this country and, while a parish priest gets our sympathy, a PR company gets it in the neck.
The backlash against the newspaper, for simply taking measures that will prevent it from a potentially costly defamation action, has been so great that its new editor, Kevin O’Sullivan, today published an op-ed piece that, in truth, said very little. He maintained that the purpose of the initial piece was raising awareness about suicide and said it provided a valuable insight into the turmoil felt by people in Fitzgerald’s position.
All of this is true, and Fitzgerald’s piece was the rare stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of article that makes you pause and really think about the subject matter, but then O’Sullivan copped out by glossing over the fact that the newspaper posthumously edited the piece.
“After publication of the piece on Kate’s life some further details of her final months emerged. This led to an Irish Times decision to edit the initial piece and to publish a clarification in Saturday’s editions. In my view, this was necessary in the context of fairness,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, an apology to the Communications Clinic, printed on Saturday, baldly stated “significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”.
Nowhere, in O’Sullivan’s piece does he expand on what, exactly, in Fitzgerald’s original piece was untrue and what “emerged” about Fitzgerald’s final months. And why did he need to go into any of that anyway, casting a cloud over Fitzgerald’s last months, when the very fact that the newspaper was left open to a defamation action was a perfectly reasonable reason for editing her piece?
The reaction on its Facebook page, where people have labeled the newspaper “despicable”, “gutless”, accused it of “two-faced hypocrisy”, and have almost universally vowed to stop buying it, suggests that O’Sullivan still has some explaining to do.
While the Irish Times hasn’t covered itself in glory here, and alarm bells should have started ringing once the decision was taken to name the anonymous author considering the content of her piece, the hysterical outrage from people with no comprehension of libel laws has gotten out of hand.
Fitzgerald obviously read and liked the Irish Times, otherwise she wouldn’t have sent that newspaper her final piece of writing, and its publication, Murtagh’s follow-up piece, and her family’s appearance on a Saturday night chat show has at least raised the issue of suicide and prompted a debate – something that this society desperately needs, especially as swingeing budget cuts will inevitably impact mental health services.
With Fitzgerald’s final message now in danger of being lost beneath the self-righteous din of vitriolic abuse being leveled at the Irish Times, it’s time to accept that newspapers can’t willy nilly print whatever they want, no matter who the author happens to be, and instead focus efforts on keeping the issue of suicide on the national agenda.