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'Ireland's Lost Babies' - another hatchet job from our ABC

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Tuesday, 18 November 2014


Our ABC has already been caught out once. On 5 June 2014 it ran the story

In County Galway, the remains of 800 babies and young children have been discovered dumped inside a disused septic tank.

The ABC was not alone in spreading this shocking tale, which was a gift-horse-in-the-mouth to journalists across the world seeking a sensational news story. The Sydney Morning Herald on 4 June, for example, similarly reported

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Bodies of 800 children, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers.

The story was exposed as "bullshit" on 30 June 2014 by none other than the ABC's own Media Watch programme, following investigation by the Irish Times. The problem is that the correction of the record (across the globe not just in Australia) got a lot less coverage than the original (thinly veneered) hoax .

To quote Paul Barry:

But ... how reliable was this story? And why were there no pictures of the bodies? Had good taste for once prevailed? Well no. You see no babies had been found. Nor indeed had the septic tank. Oh yes, and did we forget to tell you that those 796 children died of natural causes? With measles, influenza, pneumonia, TB and whooping cough topping the list. So how did this story get so out of hand? Well, if you're looking for a culprit, the Daily Mail Group's your man.

The Mail's article on 25 May said the remains of these 800 children were most likely 'Interred in a concrete tank beside the home.' So what was their evidence? A local historian Catherine Corless had collected death certificates for all who died at the mother and baby home between 1925 and 1961, when it closed. And after finding almost none of the children in cemetery records she'd concluded the nuns must have disposed of them.

The Daily Mail on 8 June went on:

The journalist (Martin Sixsmith) who wrote Philomena -about a woman's search for her son taken by Irish nuns- could hardly contain his horror: 'In nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent, I covered stories of mass graves in far-flung locations in Eastern Europe and Russia ... But never did I expect to be covering a mass grave from modern times on my own doorstep' ..." The story had lived up to an old saying by Mark Twain "a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

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Given this past mistake you would have thought that the ABC would have learnt to be more cautious with related stories. Instead the ABC was at it again on 10 November, when it ran (as a Four Corners' programme introduced by Kerry O'Brien) a documentary Ireland's Lost Babies,reported by none other than the BBC's Martin Sixsmith. This had previously been shown as a BBC2 programme on 18 September 2014, and O'Brien noted that it exposed "breathtaking abuse of power and moral authority". The 800 dead babies story got another run as a small part of the documentary, only this time they were reported buried in a mass grave rather than a septic tank. The ABC (using text authored by Sixsmith) summarised the programme as follows:

The movie Philomena told the story of Philomena Lee, who was forced by the Catholic Church to give up her son for adoption. It showed her journey with journalist Martin Sixsmith to find her child 50 years later.

....... he investigates the Irish Catholic Church and its role in an adoption trade that lasted more than four decades. He reveals how they forcibly removed children from their mothers. In some cases, they were kept in orphanages while other children were sent overseas for adoption.

Often the Church authorities accepted healthy donations from wealthy couples wanting to adopt children, raising questions about the ethics and the morality of the process. At the same time, Sixsmith finds evidence that the Church did not properly vet the new parents and as a result some children were abused or ill-treated. ........He confronts the people who effectively stole the children, demanding to know why they remain unwilling to help families get back together.

I previously wrote a piece in this journal to the effect that the movie Philomena was a distortion of the truth, though the original book by Sixsmith (guided by first-hand narrative from Philomena herself) appeared true. The problem is that many people take a movie that is "based on a true story" as historically accurate (and form opinion based on it), when such a movie itself may be far from true to the original story.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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