Adjacent to the Newseum in Rosslyn, Va., is a memorial to 1,227 journalists who were killed in the line of duty. Stroll through the glass-and-metal spiral and you will find the name of Veronica Guerin, an Irish crime reporter who was shot dead in her car by two motorcycle-riding assailants on June 26, 1996. Guerin, a 36-year-old reporter with the Dublin-based Sunday Independent, had written more than two years’ worth of stories exposing gang activity in greater Dublin; members of those same gangs are assumed to have been her assassins.
An interactive computer exhibit adjoining the memorial in Rosslyn tells visitors that around the time of Guerin’s death, she had been scheduled to address an international conference on journalists in peril. A mere 48 hours before the conference was to begin, Guerin became a grim statistic. The epitaph at the Newseum concludes with a summation of her philosophy: “She went after ‘the crims,’ she said, because ‘they are destroying lives and they are practically untouchable.’”
Sympathy for Guerin is widespread. In Ireland, her death inspired a wave of revulsion and sadness that prompted the Dail, or parliament, to toughen a number of criminal laws. In America, viewers of 60 Minutes watched as correspondent Steve Kroft spun a paean to Guerin—a report that was specifically mentioned when the news program won a Peabody Award that year. And as recently as May, the Newseum itself ran huge advertisements in the Washington Post featuring Guerin as an example of how “news fulfills a fundamental human need: the need to know.”
It is somewhat jarring, then, to note that the Newseum is appropriating Guerin’s legacy at precisely the moment when a revisionist examination of Guerin’s life—by fellow Irish journalist Emily O’Reilly—is arriving in American bookstores. (It was released last year in the United Kingdom and Ireland.) According to O’Reilly’s account, Guerin was manipulative of her sources and shady about her qualifications and work habits; moreover, O’Reilly alleges, she was out of control and had dubious ethics. Ultimately, O’Reilly argues, it was Guerin’s own recklessness—combined with the willingness of her employers to exploit that recklessness—that led her to her death.
Guerin partisans have savaged O’Reilly’s book—in places, rightly so. Still, her account serves as a important corrective to the spreading journalistic morality tale. With merely a glance, a reader can tell that O’Reilly’s book takes a maverick approach: Its cover image of Guerin is distinctly different from the lively, warm, almost cherubic face that accompanies most other accounts of her life and death. Instead, O’Reilly’s book has a photograph of Guerin looking steely, like a cutthroat CEO—in other words, like someone who was not quite the innocent victim people have assumed her to be.
Inside the book, O’Reilly envisions Guerin less as a Woodward or Bernstein than as Sid Hudgeons, the Danny DeVito character in the movie L.A. Confidential. Like Hudgeons, Guerin wrote for an exciting yet somewhat trashy publication. Like him, she fraternized with questionable characters in order to get a scoop. And like him, ultimately, she got killed for knowing just a little too much.
Guerin’s journalistic career began in earnest as she was turning 30. Before that, she had worked in accounting (the family business) and served as a strategist for Fianna Fail, Ireland’s biggest political party. As a cub reporter, Guerin wrote business stories, but she eventually switched to the crime beat. In time, she would make infamous such criminals as “the Monk,” “the Coach,” “the Boxer,” “the Viper,” “the Penguin,” and, most notably, “the General”—Martin Cahill, who later became the subject of a motion picture released earlier this year.
Even a critic like O’Reilly flat-out calls Guerin a “brilliant journalist,” not just for her sensational gangland stories but also for her work on more mundane subjects. O’Reilly acknowledges that Guerin cultivated an astonishing number of sources throughout Irish society—in politics, in the business world, in law enforcement, and in the underworld. Moreover, O’Reilly uncovers no evidence that Guerin’s articles were factually inaccurate—certainly no more inaccurate than the work of any ordinary journalist. And O’Reilly agrees that Guerin was a dogged, hard-working reporter whose ideals were largely altruistic.
But O’Reilly uncovers in Guerin an undercurrent of deception running right back to her pre-journalistic career. “[H]er brilliance,” O’Reilly writes, “stemmed from a personality which lacked the normal controls of personal and professional behaviour. A woman who would dare to forge the signature of the chief executive of a semi-State company; a woman who would rifle through a senior politician’s files; a woman who would lie about her professional qualifications in order to advance her career, would go to equally extraordinary lengths in pursuit of highly dangerous criminals.” These allegations are laid out in detail, although the author’s sourcing is incomplete (in part because Guerin seems to have been good at covering her tracks). While these charges are undoubtedly serious as well as sensational, they ultimately seem less relevant to an analysis of Guerin’s career than her somewhat better-documented breaches of journalistic ethics and good sense, which are explored elsewhere in the book.
Guerin’s journalistic sins ran from bad to worse. Her typical MO was to badger sources into talking, in a manner O’Reilly calls “abrasive, even abusive.” In the case of Martin Cahill, that meant coming to his doorstep every day for six weeks, sometimes twice a day. Eventually, Cahill gave in and blabbed. Another time, Guerin allegedly went to the home of a police critic, turned on her tape recorder, and “‘berated’ the individual until he broke down and admitted telling lies. She then passed the tape on to the Gardai [police], suggesting they might like to use this evidence against him.” “By this stage,” O’Reilly contends, “Veronica was no longer just a journalist. She was a reporter, detective and private investigator all rolled into one.”
Guerin’s sloppiness also endangered her sources. She sometimes published titillating information that had such limited circulation within the criminal community that gang members could easily find, and punish, the sources who had informed her of it. Once, Guerin wrote an article about a woman who had been harassed by drug dealers. Guerin decided to publish not just the woman’s story but also the fact that Guerin had passed her own detective work on the case to the police. In one fell swoop, Guerin succeeded in making just about everyone a fat target for retaliation.
In the year or so before her death, O’Reilly charges, Guerin obliterated any distance between herself and the criminals she was writing about, endangering not only herself but her family, too. She allegedly took her youngster, Cathal, to at least one impromptu doorstep interview with a murder suspect. She interviewed at least one notorious criminal in her own home, unbeknownst to her husband, who entered as the interview was under way. And, after being turned down numerous times for an interview, Guerin even staked out the isolated compound of alleged gangster John Gilligan, sneaked by a series of electronic gates, drove up to his house, and confronted him in person.
At that point, Gilligan allegedly attacked her and forced her off his property; he later acknowledged only “threatening” her with death and, in absentia, her son with kidnap and rape. The sympathy for Guerin’s bruises, both physical and psychological, obscured her readers to what should have been seen as ill-conceived, and probably illegal, trespassing upon a dangerous man’s private property. (Gilligan later became the chief suspect in Guerin’s murder and fled the country.)
Despite such misadventures, Guerin did not write her own obituary singlehandedly. O’Reilly argues—again, persuasively—that her newspaper, the Sunday Independent, must bear some of the blame for her death, rather than basking in the reflected glow of her anti-crime crusade, as it has been doing in the months and years since the murder.
Unfortunately, O’Reilly provides too little context about the recent history of Irish journalism for the American reader to make an independent judgment of this assertion. Still, the picture she paints is not pretty. Much like certain American magazines—except even more—the Independent had taken on a brash and sometimes outrageous tone, and its journalists were encouraged to write self-indulgent articles about their own lives.
“If you wrote your thousand words of rant in fifty minutes, without any reference to documents or clippings, without talking to anybody, and then sent it in, you would be published,” said one former Independent journalist who now works for a rival paper. In addition, you would be “given half a page with a cartoon of the individual you were writing about; it might be flagged on the front and you would receive calls from [top editors] within hours of when it came out and you’d be a star and you’d probably get five hundred pounds for it.”
If O’Reilly’s sources are correct, Guerin—a reporter much in need of editorial guidance—received little such assistance, but plenty of help in self-marketing. In an effort to juice her work, the newspaper played up her celebrity appeal—and her sex appeal—to create a long-running girl-meets-gangsters saga. Its editors encouraged her use of first-person accounts; they ran her picture alongside many of her stories; and they even published a photograph of Guerin’s home after it had been entered by an attacker who shot and wounded Guerin in the thigh, a year and a half before her death. (Images of the injured but recuperating Guerin naturally galvanized both her editors and her readers to keep Guerin on her hazardous course.)
To be sure, O’Reilly’s book, despite its usefulness as a corrective to the prevailing sentiment, is seriously flawed. Though O’Reilly is reasonably upfront about her sources’ biases, most of them either speak anonymously or reveal themselves to have an agenda—which makes it hard to deem them trustworthy. (The author, it should be noted, is herself an editor at a rival paper, the Sunday Business Post.) Often, she risks her reputation as an astute journalist to stake out a more polemical case than the evidence seems to justify. For instance, she seems bent on convicting the Independent for what amounts to homicide when the charge of manslaughter seems more appropriate; Guerin was, after all, a competent, and exceedingly determined, consenting adult (even if that description does not extend to her unfortunate surviving son).
O’Reilly’s highly personal tone also rankles; one gets the sense that the author protests too much about having been friendly with Guerin when she was alive. Elsewhere in the book, O’Reilly even entertains the bizarre notion that Guerin might have shot herself in the leg “in order to promote her image as a crime reporter extraordinaire.” Such loose speculation—when added to the other scandalous tidbits scattered through the book—provides the sort of dirt that seems not very far removed from the journalistic sins O’Reilly ascribes to the Independent.
Perhaps the book’s most bothersome flaw is that O’Reilly shortchanges the positive consequences that followed Guerin’s unfortunate death—the public outrage, the new anti-crime laws, and the increased vigilance by ordinary Irish citizens regarding the ravages of urban crime. The book as it is written—focusing almost exclusively on the negative—portrays Guerin’s life only incompletely.
Still, even if only a fraction of O’Reilly’s damning evidence is correct, the truth is depressing. Guerin’s tragic flaw appears to have been not so much the hubris of challenging powerful criminal syndicates—though that charge is certainly true. Rather, her sin is that of narcissism. She and her editors willfully mistook the dangerous business of crime reporting for the fancy, lucrative work of celebrity journalism. The result, alas, was a much more complex—and thought-provoking—legacy than institutions like the Newseum can ever fit onto their memorial plaques. CP