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Broadcasters speak of targeting by political machines
Broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan Pic: RollingNews.ie

26 Sep 2022 / justice Print

Broadcasters targeted by 'political machines'

Broadcasters Miriam O’Callaghan and Stephen Nolan have spoken of being subject to online political ‘machines’ driving an agenda on current affairs that is often at variance with genuine public opinion.

Presenter Stephen Nolan said that such ‘machines’ are often turned on young BBC journalists in order to intimidate them, speaking of his “genuine fear” for junior reporters.

“Young journalists who are speaking truth to power have no chance if they are getting battered by a social media campaign,” he said.

Nolan told of being threatened with a political machine if he continued with particular news stories. 

Online ‘trolls’ are often organised groups of political operatives, creating ‘mythology’ about the direction of public opinion,  he noted.

“It’s not [public opinion] it’s what these political operatives think,” he said.

RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan said she experienced exactly the same thing in the Republic, particularly on ‘big’ news nights, such as leaders’ debates.


“It’s distorted,” she said, acknowledging it required toughness to withstand such intimidation. 

Employers often don’t know what to do if a member of staff is being attacked, Stephen Nolan added.

“Who has the responsibility? Where does the public money go, does it go to protect the member of staff, or is it for that young individual to protect themselves?” he asked.

Speaking at the Law Society of Northern Ireland’s centenary conference (23 September), RTE’s Miriam O’Callaghan told of suffering from a ‘nasty’ side of social media.

Efforts to get multiple false posts taken down ran aground and O’Callaghan was repeatedly told that the untrue material “did not breach guidelines”.

“What are the guidelines, because the guidelines are clearly broken, that’s what I would say,” she added. 

While overall social media may be a force for good, it also needs to be controlled, O’Callaghan said.

Tech giants must take responsibility for the material that is published on their platforms, she said.

“They are responsible for what happens on their platforms and Governments need to call them to account. They haven’t done it yet,” she added.

"Social media companies need to cop on and be responsible," she said.

Stephen Nolan also spoke about how he was subject to a sustained anonymous trolling campaign, by a person who used anonymous Twitter accounts to make defamatory remarks.

The troll later apologised and agreed to pay a six-figure damages sum.

Nolan’s troll was ‘close to government’, he said, but the broadcaster declined to name him, despite a ‘campaign of lies’, because the troll had a family unaware of what was going on.

Trolls are cowards

O’Callaghan said that trolls can be defeated because they are cowards, and they will back off if confronted.

“Go to court and try to win your case,” she advised.

Nolan described a doorstep meeting with his troll, who turned deathly pale.

The broadcaster added that he found it very lonely being trolled and often wondered what it would be like for someone who didn't have resources, or access to a good lawyer.

"Who are these people that say 'it doesn't brach our guidelines'," Nolan asked.

Law Society of England and Wales President I Stephanie Boyce spoke of her experience at the hands of anonymous trolls, following a stance taken by that body rebuking the British Government in respect of verbal attacks made on lawyers.

Despite police involvement, the perpetrator was not traced due to a lack of resource allocation.


Boyce found it very frightening and was advised to escalate personal security arrangements, she recounted.

“They hid behind a keyboard, because they could get away with it. This individual was being racist, and was blatant about it,” Boyce said.

Music manager Louis Walsh spoke of his distress at a serious libel by The Sun for which he received substantial damages.

He also commented that young musicians are now judged by how many social media followers they have, and not by how many records they have sold.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland