Recently, a letter appeared in a local paper from a resident of an estate near the University of Limerick.
It described an appalling incident in which drunken students teased a small dog by repeatedly throwing a ball onto the road until eventually, the dog was run over and killed.
The story made the national papers, national radio and sparked a wave of vitriol against the perpetrators as outraged citizens came to the posthumous defence of the trusting little animal so cruelly duped by the privileged university brutes for their own twisted pleasure.
However, there was one problem with the story that the Limerick Leader ran. Despite inflammatory headlines (Dog lured to its death by University of Limerick students in drunken game), the letter writer had never actually witnessed any incident involving students and a dog. The letter stated that her brother-in-law had seen what happened. However, the brother-in-law has so far not come forward, and neither have the owners of the dog, reputedly murdered so cruelly. For that matter, neither has the driver who was reported to have run over the little dog as it chased the ball thrown by the jeering, drunken students.
Now. I’m not saying the story is untrue, but what I am saying is this: so far, not a single witness has confirmed it in public.
Despite this, a lynch-mob mentality sprang up, including a ludicrous Facebook page entitled Petition to expel the UL students who lured a dog to its death. You’d have to wonder what motivates whoever set up that page.
Not to be outdone, The Journal ran a similarly unquestioning piece, also accepting without corroboration that the details presented by the Limerick Leader were accurate, and were duly rewarded by a flood of comments calling for an assortment of punishments to be inflicted on the unidentified assailants in the unconfirmed incident. A rather ugly sub-text in some of the comments was a hostility towards third-level students, and this was what led me to wonder about demagoguery in general.
The papers and Journal.ie all saw an easy opportunity to inflame public opinion and they grabbed it. After all, who doesn’t love a trusting little dog chasing a ball? They were rapidly followed by the Irish Examiner, who ran a similarly unquestioning article entitled Drunk youths lure dog to death. The source? an unverified letter to the Limerick Leader by someone who had witnessed nothing.
Yet, the journalistic community are the very first ones to remind the rest of us how careful they are to double check their stories before publishing.
It reminded me of the unfortunately-named movie, Wag the Dog, where an unscrupulous PR man invents an American hero soldier missing in a non-existent war and stirs up a fanatical campaign to bring him home safe and sound.
Of course, it might well turn out that there was a dog, and a bunch of drunken students, but that is not the point. As matters stand right now, there is no evidence to support the assertions made in the letter to the Limerick Leader and yet they went ahead and published anyway. Now that’s populist demagoguery for you, and while the story today is about a dog, who knows what story about an alleged crime by an immigrant might not be flavour of the week next time?
Let’s learn the lesson, folks. Don’t whip up rage until you have facts to support you.
I think professional journalists call it “standing up the story” but what would I know?
The story grows fresh legs with the arrival of a new letter, unsigned and clumsily written, which purports to be from a student who was present. According to this version, the dog followed the students’ ball onto the road where it was struck by a van which failed to stop. The Limerick Leader say they are 99% certain that the letter is genuine and they hope the student will come forward to be identified publicly, but given the hysteria stirred up by the ludicrous Facebook campaign, it would probably be unwise of that student to put their name in the public domain, for fear of being attacked by a member of the lunatic fringe.
If the letter is true, it puts a new and worrying complexion on matters because the implications are that a routine mishap was misconstrued to imply sinister intent, and furthermore, that the papers went with that construction, despite having no evidence to support it.
What will happen if somebody comes forward and confirms that they were the student who kicked the ball?
Will the witness, who so far has not come forward, now emerge and state that this student acted with malice and that the incident was not simply an unfortunate and common mishap?
Will the student so accused seek in turn to vindicate his or her good name via the courts?
My guess is that this thing is going nowhere, but meanwhile, a parochial non-story has now gone worldwide, sullying the name of our town for no good reason, since there is still not a single shred of evidence that the dog’s death was deliberate.