When does an offbeat and mildly amusing news item suddenly turn into a tragic one?
When the subject kills himself.
It happened on Thursday. Padraig Gaffney, a 29-year-old Irishman living in Australia, made the headlines of news sites from New Zealand to the US. He had pleaded guilty to causing AUS$500,000 in damages to a Melbourne hotel one drunken night last year.
The court proceedings from his case were detailed, describing a weekend trip for Gaffney and his then-girlfriend gone terribly awry.
In the early morning hours of April 21, Gaffney, intoxicated and wearing only his underwear, left their hotel room to wander the halls. He urinated on hotel property, banged on doors, and activated a fire hydrant valve that flooded the first seven floors of the building. No guests were hurt, but they did have to be evacuated and re-located.
Gaffney was quoted as saying “I’m sorry, so, so sorry,” that he couldn’t “remember a goddam thing” about the night. “I’ve ruined my life,” he said.
“People who go out for the night and drink too much can ruin themselves completely."
He was fined AUS$10,000 for criminal damage. It was also revealed that he and his girlfriend, to whom he’d been planning on proposing, had since parted ways.
From Wednesday into early Thursday, the story was everywhere in the Irish media, and beyond. We at IrishCentral reported it. The Irish Times ran it, as did the Independent. It was covered in The Daily Mail and in the Irish and UK versions of The Mirror. A few Australian sites picked it up, including the Irish Echo. So did Joe.ie, The Herald.ie, the list goes on.
Then the news broke that Gaffney had been found dead. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed it had offered consular assistance to his family. Gaffney, originally from Lanesborough in Co. Longford, was the youngest of six children.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back it still shouldn’t be too hard to imagine the interest with which the first article on Gaffney’s case, published in Australian newspaper The Age, was met by editors and writers at the publications mentioned above.
An outlandish but relatively harmless offense in the grand scheme of things, the story would be easy to cover and certain to draw readers. Not to mention, there was also great potential for pithy leads and punning headlines.
And so they emerged.
“Oh, Crikey! Drunk Irishman says life was ‘ruined’ after flooding seven floors of a hotel and causing $500,000 damage.”
“Drunk Paddy’s $500k flood of tears.”
“Have you heard the one about the drunk Irishman who urinated in a hotel hallway and flooded the building causing $500,000 worth of damage? A court in Melbourne has.”
“Obviously in no time to stop and look for a bathroom he decided to go for a pee right there on the ninth floor.”
“What started as a romantic getaway ended as the worst and most expensive hangover ever for Longford man Padraig Gaffney.”
“It must have been the hangover from hell.”
One section heading by the Herald simply read “UNDERPANTS.”
We have no way of knowing, for now at least, how Gaffney spent the last few hours of his life. Suicide (still not officially confirmed but widely inferred) might have been on his mind for some time. Or the court proceedings may have been the final straw for the guilt and shame he was evidently wracked with, believing he had “blackened his own reputation and tarnished his family’s name.”
The judge who handled Gaffney’s case said he did not see “any malicious intent” behind his offense and described it as “a stupid act that he would never have contemplated had he been sober.” But that did not seem to make much of a difference to Gaffney himself.
The possibility (no matter how conspicuously self-important it is) that Gaffney went home, turned on his computer or phone, and couldn’t deal with what he saw written about himself – it’s there and it can’t be ignored.
And I think some of us in the media are feeling a bit guilty.
There have already been comments about The Age’s initial article and how its blatant racial stereotyping of Gaffney as an Irishman is indicative of a much larger problem in the Australian media.
That might be true, but what about the rest of us who hastily moved to delete or edit our stories?
Soon after news of Gaffney’s death broke, Joe.ie deleted its coverage entirely (the old link currently directs to a 404 error).
The Australian Irish Echo removed its first article about Gaffney’s “drunken escapade,” publishing instead a “Tragic postscript to flood damage court case.”
It could be argued that this was the right thing to do out of sensitivity for Gaffney’s family, and maybe it was. But it was also cowardly; a quick escape from taking ownership.
The Irish Times and the Independent – also longstanding print publications – did leave their initial online articles live and unaltered. Only The Daily Mail and The Ladbible have yet to follow up at all, though that isn’t entirely surprising.
As reports of Gaffney’s death emerged, the tone with which he was treated quickly changed across the web – here included. The man who had been the butt of so many hangover jokes became a tragic figure.
Gone was any direct mention of the actions that landed him in trouble.
In none of those headlines was he a “drunk Irishman” anymore. There were no more clever puns or asides.
All that was left were the basic facts and that quote, now weighted with significance, that Gaffney felt he had ruined his life.
Isn’t it strangely fickle that the very things for which he was first so ‘news-worthy’ were suddenly no longer a part of the story?
Isn’t it tragic that that his death was the catalyst for respect?
You can argue that upsetting people is an occupational hazard of reporting, that those initial articles were only stating the facts of what he did.
But the problem with so many of the pieces written prior to Gaffney’s death is that they were not straightforward reporting. They were flecked with sarcasm, written with a raised eyebrow and a nudge, telling readers to 'take a look at this drunk idiot.'
There is a time and a place for sarcasm and slagging, provided we consider where to draw the line. Just because we have the ability to go back and change our words does not mean that we don’t have to be careful.
Overcompensating in retrospect doesn’t make up for anything.