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Credibility Gaps
Irish Times Apr 27, 1996 by Eddie Holt

IT'S the extent of the gap that disturbs. Between the accounts of life in Goldenbridge orphanage, as told by Dear Daughter and Prime Time, there is a chasm which has not been bridged. Of course, there would always be a gap - subjectivity, memory, anger, fear, the differences in tone between the accuser and the accused - all of these we can take, into account. We hear them in trials and arguments all the time.

But, even allowing that there are (at least) two sides to every story, the gap between Louis Lentin's documentary and Ursula Halligan's interview with Sr Xaviera is disturbing. It's just too great. Either Christine Buckley is hysterical or Sister of Mercy, Sr Xaviera, is, to be merciful, in denial. Television has now presented both sides of a horror story and the result is deeply unsatisfactory.

Ms Halligan's interview with Sr Xaviera lasted just 17 minutes. Old, and thereby partly protected by the appearance of vulnerability, the nun presented an image which visually contradicted the charges about to be made against her. This was not a wimpled dominatrix in her prime. It was a grey-haired, elderly woman expressing measured sorrow and taking refuge - validly or conveniently, depending on your perspective - in foregrounding the context of the period: the Ireland of the 1950s.

So, we now have a story with typical 1990s disingenuity - everybody is a victim. But we know that life is more complex and subtle than that. Certainly, we know that there is the question of degree of victimhood. After death, of course, it is traditional in this society to allow all but the most maligned in life, the benefit of the doubt. On the grounds that the story is, in some way, closed, life's raging bastards become "poor `oul divils" in the coffin. The theory is civilising but the reality is often not quite so neat.

Damage limitation PR plays on such sentiments. It is not comfortable to think of a 78-year-old woman as a tyrant or even as a retired tyrant. Faced with such an image on screen, viewers naturally recoil from distaste at the feeling that the bully in themselves is about to be aroused. The impulse is to disengage from the story rather than risk feeling like a persecutor.

You could hear the terrible conflict in Ursula Halligan's voice. She had hard questions to ask - which, creditably, she did - but her tone was the tone of the therapist. As a reporter, she wanted the story; as a young woman, aware of (perhaps, inculcated with) the respect traditionally accorded to nuns and the vulnerable old, she could not be confrontational. This gap between content and tone resulted in a sort of "soft toughness", a paradox which, in substantially negating itself, made discerning responses very difficult for viewers.

Such a scrambling of the story was in the interests of Sr Xaviera, her order and her supporters. It was, by extension, in the interests of the traditional power structures in this country. In principle, the right of reply was fair and just. But, unchallenged by her accusers, Sr Xaviera (and her advisers) were afforded a suspiciously PR-ish defence.

It is true that a TV confrontation between Ms Buckley and Sr Xaviera would risk becoming an emotional circus, eliciting base voyeurism among viewers. But Louis Lentin might have been included to defend his documentary, because, as the issue stands now, it is desperately unsatisfactory. RTE has screened programmes in which the gap is just too great. Savage beatings, a scalding, institutional terror and other horrors denied, either took place or did not take place.

Such extremes are not, in essence, a matter of perspective. Motive, result, memory, context of the times and all the rest cannot be discounted. But neither can these be proffered as adequate explanations for the gap. We know the 1950s were cruel that the State failed unfortunate children. But this 1990s TV tale which just does not add up is equally disturbing. We don't need witchhunts, but the truth, unsullied by PR, would be good. The media - RTE in particular - has a duty to bridge the gap.