BROOKE GLADSTONE: This weekend, the movie Veronica Guerin hit theaters across the country. Cate Blanchett stars as the Irish journalist who, through assiduous reporting and extraordinary courage, tracked down and exposed the drug lords who had turned Dublin into a war zone in the mid-'90s. Veronica Guerin's story is the kind Hollywood loves to tell, a tale of how the bravery of the individual can win against the chaos of the criminal underworld. [TAPE PLAYS]
VERONICA GUERIN: There's always someone. You get used to them.
MAN: No, Ronnie. You get used to cold water; not bullets. This is madness.
VERONICA GUERIN: You'd do the same. If you saw those kids in the street, you would do the same.
MAN: Not if there was people shooting at me, I wouldn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sadly, Guerin's own story ends in tragedy with her murder in June of 1996. In the aftermath, according to veteran Irish journalist Ed Moloney, it wasn't her reporting but her death that spurred Ireland to pour more resources into the war on drugs and change its laws to pursue and impound the wealth of criminals. The result was a demonstrable drop in drug crime and many lives saved. Ed Moloney joins me now. Ed, welcome to On the Media.
ED MOLONEY: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were a reporter in Ireland during the time when Guerin was reporting. Who were you working for?
ED MOLONEY: Well I worked for both the Irish Times -- I was their Northern Ireland editor for a while; and then I moved over to the Sunday Tribune, again, working in the North. So I specialized in Northern Affairs, and that meant coverage of the war and the Troubles. I'd worked briefly in Dublin as a security correspondent, as was Veronica.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you read her stories, when you were there?
ED MOLONEY: Yes, of course.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One writer, David Sharrock of The Guardian, said that they were reminiscent of the 1940s True Crime stories in the U.S. He wrote "Her specialty was exposing the intimate details of a gallery of crime godfathers whose cover names came from the world of comic books - the general, the monk, the coach, the boxer, the penguin, even the tosser."
ED MOLONEY: That's right. She almost made the world of Dublin gangsterism and drug dealing into a soap opera that you would follow every week, but it was a very, very dangerous and deadly soap opera.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was Guerin's reputation among Ireland's journalists?
ED MOLONEY:Well, there is the reality and there is the myth. The myth has been created since her death. She's been posthumously shrouded in, in glory; awarded all sorts of prizes; regarded as an almost iconic figure -- not just in Ireland, but internationally. At the time, she was though quite a controversial figure, criticized on the grounds that her standards maybe weren't as high as they should have been and that perhaps she took too many of her stories at face value, especially from police and security sources who had their own particular axes to grind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One criticism that was made by Vincent Brown, an Irish Times columnist, not that long after she died was that Veronica's big mistake was to try to be a player, to try and solve crimes rather than just report on them and hold institutions to account.
ED MOLONEY: Yeah, I, I agreed with Vincent at the time that he wrote that article, and Vincent was my former editor and was also her editor. Essentially what was happening when she was covering the drug scene is that the focus was very much on the criminals, which is, you know, not unfair, and, and you know there is room for that type of story, but there was absolutely no analysis of the failures of the police in, in pursuing these drug dealers, and more particularly the reasons why they had failed to apprehend and, and put these people away. The drug problem in Ireland had been at least 15 years old by the time that Veronica Guerin was killed. The only people who were fighting against the drug dealers were the IRA who lived in these areas, and for a while the drug dealers were actually seen as part of the set of opponents to the IRA that ranged from the state right through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that afforded them a measure of protection, and so the police didn't go after them as zealously as they should have.
ED MOLONEY: Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But with respect to Veronica's reporting, as many people said in response to Vincent Brown at the time, if indeed the institutions that are supposed to govern and control these things aren't working, shouldn't reporters become players and help coax them into action?
ED MOLONEY: In theory, yes. You could make a very strong argument for that. But in practice what was happening was that the main reason why journalists like Veronica Guerin and other security correspondents for other Irish newspapers were not critical of the police, and it was because they were getting their information from the police. The police were their sources. And they weren't going to bite the hand that fed them. And that was what was fundamentally wrong here. [TAPE PLAYS]
VERONICA GUERIN: I don't want to blow my trumpet, but they know that Martin Kyle's [ph] the general, because, you know, what I write in the Sunday Independent.
MAN: Great, for your readers. But does it help me put him behind bars? Does it?
VERONICA GUERIN: We're on the same side, Chris. Now, I trained as an accountant, right? If I could have a look at these files, then I could go after those other wankers. Put some pressure on them.
ED MOLONEY: And in a sense, you could say that the police were culpable, because my own view at the time was that they were using journalists like Veronica Guerin to do their work for them, and that she was exposing these drug gangsters and, and lords, almost provoking them into hostility which led to her death, so you could present and assemble a case which says that the police actually killed her as much as the gangsters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about her employer? There is a clip in the film where you hear her editor trying to convince her to lay off. [TAPE PLAYS]
EDITOR: Write about fashion. Write about football. Write about anything you like, but stop this. You don't have to do it any more.
VERONICA GUERIN: I don't see myself covering the catwalks or, you know, doing a gardening column, Angus.
EDITOR: You've always wanted to write about politics, Veronica.
VERONICA GUERIN: Oh, come off it, really I am writing about politics. Drugs are political.
EDITOR: What if I told you I wouldn't publish your stuff any more? Hm?
VERONICA GUERIN: Ah, but you never would tell me that, would you, Angus?
ED MOLONEY:Yeah, see, that's one of the areas where Hollywood takes a great deal of liberty with the facts. The reality at the time was that the Sunday Independent was in vicious competition with Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times for readers, and the Irish Sunday market is huge; it's very lucrative, but it's also very, very competitive. Veronica Guerin was producing great stories, yet she was pushing herself to the very limits of safety, and as the film portrays, she was shot once and beaten up and harassed in all sorts of other ways. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that she was exploited and she was used.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As we've ticked off some of Veronica Guerin's shortcomings: she overused the police, she didn't criticize them enough, she was reckless with her own life, she was over-reliant on sometimes unreliable criminal sources --still, all in all, she effected a great change in Ireland. Would we be better off if in real life there were more reporters like Veronica Guerin?
ED MOLONEY: Yeah, except the problem that we're not talking about real life. We're talking about real death, and I come back to the point that I made. It wasn't her journalism that changed the way that Ireland dealt with this drug problem. It was her death. Scarcely a week or a month goes by without two or three fatalities and shootouts between drug dealers. The drug problem is still there. There are some problems, you know, that journalism and journalists can't solve, and these are societal problems that have to be faced up to. The principal function of a journalist is to ask questions about why are authorities, why the police in all their facets aren't dealing with the problem in the way that they should be dealing with it. It's not to run around chasing gangsters and, and confront them and get beaten up and shot by them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thanks very much.
ED MOLONEY: You're welcome. Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ed Moloney is a veteran Irish journalist and author of A Secret History of The IRA. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Tony Field and Megan Ryan, who was married this week; engineered by Dylan Keefe and Rob Christiansen, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball and Dave Goldberg. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program, download and MP3 and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org, and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.