At a media seminar on Brexit organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), chaired by Conor Brady.
Editors Sebastian Hamilton (Irish Daily Mail), Fionnan Sheahan (Irish Independent), Ian Kehoe (Sunday Business Post) David Nally (head of TV current affairs at RTE) and Paul O’Neill (The Irish Times) gathered to discuss covering Brexit.
Anthony Sheridan, of Public Inquiry, speaks on deferential attitudes in Irish media towards politicians and other power-brokers, with reference to John Lee’s recent work with austerity architect Brian Cowen.
A well-informed, objective media is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy. Journalists in a healthy democracy do not just report news and current affairs; they also have a duty to be rigidly impartial in their analysis of events.
Disturbingly, Irish journalism comes nowhere near the standards necessary to robustly challenge the State and its agents particularly when it comes to political corruption.
The recent publication of Hell at the Gates by journalists John Lee and Daniel McConnell is just the latest example of the disquietingly close and frequently grovelling relationship between the media and those who wield power within the Irish political system.
John Lee, writing about an interview he conducted with former Taoiseach Brian Cowen as part of his research for the book provides us with good example of this cringing, extremely deferential type of journalism.
The headline gives a good indication of the tone of the article: An astute, self-aware, intelligent man.
It’s said of Lyndon Johnson, that he was at his best with an audience of one. I think this applies to Cowen. He uses your first name, looks you in the eye, is exceptionally articulate and sharp. In the fog of war that engulfed Ireland during his years at the top, much of this was forgotten. Yet he understands why that is.
He spoke about how he felt the day he became Taoiseach, the enjoyment of appointing a cabinet and the brief summer of calm before all hell broke loose.
Bright man that he is, he knew there were claims about him that he had to confront. As the interview progressed I merely pointed to where we were in the chronology, and without pause he would take on the issues that he has been given so much time to think about over those preceding four years. He happily accepted he had made a mistake in not addressing the nation.
Before making further comment on the article, I want to express my opinion of Brian Cowen, an opinion that I believe is held by the majority of Irish people.
At best, Cowen is a political idiot. I do not say this as an insult (although it obviously is); I say it because it’s a simple fact. Cowen is nothing more than your typical Fianna Fail backwoodsman, gombeen politician who never had to do anything courageous or visionary to reach the apex of political power.
As a privileged member of one of the many political family dynasties that have plagued Irish politics since independence he was effectively handed power following the death of his father.
He was literally enthroned as Taoiseach by the disgraced Bertie Ahern who was forced to resign after his true pedigree was exposed at a tribunal.
But when Cowen, for the first and only occasion in his mediocre career, was called upon to show courage and vision in leading the nation he failed miserably.
As one editorial put it: The worst Taoiseach in the history of the State.
And yet a stranger reading John Lee’s article could easily conclude that Brian Cowen was a politically intelligent, insightful and courageous man whose overriding mission in life was to promote the best interests of the Irish people.
A stranger reading the article would not see what most Irish people see.
That Cowen is a loyal member of the most corrupt political party in Ireland, the party that promotes the interests of property developers, bankers and other members of the golden circle that feed off the wealth of the Irish people.
A stranger reading the article would not see that Cowen is a loyal member of the party principally responsible for the economic disaster of 2008 that destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens.
However, a stranger who informed himself of Irish history over the past several decades would immediately recognise the rampaging elephant in the room – which is:
The Irish political system is seriously corrupt. In reaction to this political corruption a significant percentage of Irish citizens have rejected the legitimacy of the State and are in open rebellion.
A disturbingly large proportion of Irish journalists are either blissfully unaware of this dramatic shift in the political landscape or are willing collaborators in defence of the corrupt system.
Either way Irish journalism is suffering from a serious malaise that is not only bad for the profession but is having a very serious negative impact on Ireland and its people.
Niall Breslin, aka Bressie, before the Joint Committee on Health and Children in January
Fiona Kennedy, who has clinical depression and borderline personality disorder, yesterday wrote the following on the Facebook page of her Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers blog:
I AM SICK OF HEARING ABOUT BRESSIE AND JIM BREEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They aren’t actually the only people in the entire country who understand mental health issues. Also, as an aside, depression isn’t the only mental health issue that affects people, and it’s not just young people who experience difficulties either. Despite what the media may think.
There. I said it.
(I’ve had a very long day, I’m very tired and my patience threshold is below zero)
Later, Fiona wrote:
That was an hour ago. I’m even more tired now, but having driven in and out of town to collect Hubby, I’m also wired, and I’ve had time to think.
On reflection, there is a whole lot more going on than simply being pissed off at two people who are doing one of the most crucial thing that needs doing to get the ball rolling on changing our mental health services – talking. Raising awareness. Letting people know that asking for help is ok.
But that’s where I hit a pitfall, and I think that’s at least part of where my frustration is coming from. It’s not what Bressie and Jim Breen are doing that’s the issue, it’s the media portrayal of it.
Both of them are talking about what they know, and they are both authentic, articulate, inspiring speakers. But what they know is a small piece of the puzzle.
The media (and this is all very much just my own opinion) can’t or won’t see beyond that. Mental illness isn’t just depression and suicide, in as much as physical illness isn’t just cancer. There are such a broad range of issues, and within that range, hugely varying degrees of severity and need. Every single person is different.
We could also be forgiven for thinking that difficulties only arise with the under 25s. Again, I’m not discounting the value of the work that’s being done here, god knows if I’d had more awareness when I was younger then things might have turned out very differently for me.
We absolutely need to get to kids when they’re in school, we absolutely need to work on breaking down the stigma around mental illness. I would love to think that this whole palaver with our mental health services is something my kids will never have to contend with.
But what about those who are over 25? Or even over 18? I posted a piece last week by a 17-year-old reader who faces a very uncertain future once she turns 18 and transitions from child and adolescent to adult services.
What about those of us who are that bit older, who aren’t hearing the message in school or college? Or those who don’t have ready access to social media? What about workplace mental health? Or those who aren’t working? And what about our older generations? Who is the voice for them?
I think that’s what my issue is. Both these men are giving voice to a particular section of the population, and they are doing it quite remarkably well. But, (and again, just me!!) there are two key issues with this:
This is a very sanitized version of mental illness,
There’s a glaring gap when it comes to the rest of us.
One of my readers posted this comment in response to my little rant, I think he sums it up nicely:
‘Thanks for saying this, Fiona. We are doing a mental health awareness programme at work and it is just about depression. Yes depression is a terrible thing but so are BPD, Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, and every other mental illness. Surely we wouldn’t talk in terms of physical illness as being cancer? So why treat mental illness differently?’
‘As for celebs being the spokesperson for mental health, fine. But I would rather have as my spokesperson the woman who sat in the psychiatrist’s waiting room the other day; who had to bring her young child to the appointment because she couldn’t afford childcare; who told me how she had no idea how she was going to pay the electricity bill, let alone find money to do the grocery shopping; who was trying her hardest but who looked as if life had finally beaten her. This is the real face of mental illness’
Maybe it’s even more than that. Is it how we talk about it? The fact that we talk about ‘mental illness’. We would never say ‘I have a physical illness’. We’d say ‘I have the flu’. We’re making huge inroads in talking about it, but we’re still dancing around the edges.
I don’t know, I don’t know where I’m going at this stage. I’m tired, and I’m hugely frustrated by everything that’s happened with our mental health services on a national level, particularly in the last week, and on a personal level, for the last……….well, long time.
I just want to see open, honest, real conversation about this. About depression. About bipolar. About borderline. About schizophrenia. About all the other countless illnesses that affect us.
From top: Panel on last night’s Tonight with Mick Clifford, and graphs from early findings of a study by the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University
Last night, on TV3’s Tonight With Mick Clifford, the show’s panel discussed the media’s impact on the general election.
The panel included director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University, Jane Suiter; our own Julien Mercille; Sinead Carroll of the Journal; and John Devitt, from Transparency International Ireland.
At the beginning of their discussion, Ms Suiter presented the preliminary findings of an unfinished study by FUJO which is looking at the coverage of the election by the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Journal.
She explained that the study’s findings to date are solely based on coverage up to a week before the election and that the final week has yet to be investigated. She also said FUJO will be looking at the coverage of RTÉ and TV3.
Several graphics from the study were shown (see above), prompting Ms Suiter to explain:
“The [Irish] Independent was taking the Government line of ‘Stability v Chaos’ so ‘stick with [Enda] Kenny and it’s stability, go with [Gerry] Adams and it’s chaos’, whereas the Irish Times weren’t taking that line because they were saying, ‘well no it’s Kenny versus [Micheal] Martin’ so it was kind of the old choice that we’re used to. And then the Journal just took a very, sort of straightforward one between the three of them.”
Further to the study’s findings presented by Ms Suiter, the panel discussed the coverage as a whole.
From the discussion…
Julien Mercille: “I think there is maybe some differences between the various outlets but, by and large, the mass media gave a very favourable view for the Government. I mean you didn’t have much of a challenge to the Government parties. You did have that, maybe in a tactical way but not in a fundamental way. Take, for example, the best issue to illustrate this is healthcare. We know it’s the number one issue for voters. Exit polls show, and polls before, this is probably the most poorly reported issue in the whole country, healthcare. There isn’t a single article that calls for an Irish NHS for example which is the thing we need. It’s cheaper…”
Mick Clifford: “I saw a few…”
Mercille: “…and it’s also better for health.”
Clifford: “Absolutely but I saw a few of them, I have to say, I saw…”
Mercille: “Oh really?”
Clifford: “I did.”
Mercille: “Calling for an Irish NHS? Maybe once every now and then, but that’s not very…”
Clifford: “Well, universal health care, they didn’t necessarily say…”
Mercille: “It’s very different, it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing at all. It could be but it doesn’t have to be.”
Clifford: “Right and there’s one other thing there that I would suggest and that is that, despite that being shown, in previous elections and admittedly this turned out to be different, in previous elections, people concentrated on the economy, they concentrated on tax cuts and spending increases..”
Jane Suiter: “But actually they didn’t because we…”
Clifford: “Not in this, no, but in previous..”
Suiter: “Yeah, well in the previous election, it was all about the bailout and the Troika programme, that was the whole focus of it but actually in this one, in many, actually the focus was on party politics. So which party is up and down in the polls? Which party is going to go into coalition?”
Clifford: “Rather than the issues?”
Suiter: “Rather than the issues. So there was actually very little focus even on macro economic issues or on on micro, on tax and spending…”
Talk over each other
Mercille: “There were articles about Enda Kenny and his wife, as if this was any way important…”
Clifford: “Aaah Julien…”
Mercille: “Nothing, it is true. Nothing about..”
Clifford: “Enda Kenny and his wife.”
Mercille: “Nothing about the main policies, such as healthcare, poverty, the fact that Ireland is a tax haven. You didn’t have much of that. It was all about the person and the looks and all that.”
Sinéad O’Carroll: “Because we didn’t know, we knew that there wasn’t going to be anyone that would run away and be able to get an easy majority, we knew there was no-one able to get that magic number, so it did become, then, a game of looking at who was going to go in with who and, because no-one was giving definitive answers, that became the narrative.”
Clifford: “Was that to the detriment of, was that to the detriment of examining policies?”
O’Carroll: “I think so, absolutely, and I think, but I think also, there was, the Irish Times had a really beautiful feature on their, online, and they had absolutely every issue covered and you went into it and you could see the party policy on every single issue. Not many people talked about that feature that they had.”
Suiter: “The other interesting thing was how little focus was on any of the smaller parties or the Independents.”
Clifford: “John [Devitt], did you find it balanced, imbalanced? Or how?”
Devitt: “Well, it’s difficult to say but I think the broadcasters appeared not to have planned much of their coverage of the election, they were led by the news cycle. So, in the first week, we had wall-to-wall coverage of the Kinahan-Hutch feud and the shooting in the Regency Hotel, in the second week there was a lot of talk about fiscal space and Kenny and Adams grasp, or lack thereof of financial, their own financial data and then, in the last week or so, there were two days coverage of the Taoiseach’s comments around whingers in Castlebar. So it appeared there was little focus on, as you say, on the issues themselves.”
Devitt: “In Cork there was coverage around, or there was a lack of coverage in the national media, about and interview I think, on Cork local radio [Red FM] of Enda Kenny and there were allegations by the, was it Neil Prendeville, he had alleged that Kenny’s advisors, or his media handlers were putting him under pressure to wrap up a rather intense interview with the Taoiseach. We didn’t see that kind of questioning of Martin or Kenny elsewhere in the mainstream media.”
O’Carroll: “There’s a certain politeness, I think, that goes along with Cabinet ministries, positions and with the Taoiseach and I think, obviously, I think sometimes a lot of people, say the Vincent Browne style questioning, if you’re not answering a question, you don’t get away with that. I think, in other studios, people do get away with not answering a question because the impoliteness isn’t there and I think that is to the detriment of getting answers to questions.”
Mercille: “I agree. It’s also to do with the ideology. I mean Gerry Adams will be questioned a lot, whatever he is…”
Clifford: “Should he be questioned more than the other leaders?”
Mercille: “Not at all, I mean he’s not in power, he didn’t make the policies, he didn’t create the mess we have. He could be questioned, he should be questioned on other things, if you like, but I mean the imbalance is just blatant. I mean people were even saying, my god, if the Indo keeps going like that, they’ll backfire on their own terms..”
Clifford: “Just to make a few distinctions here. I think, and I think it is fair to say, and I think an awful lot of people feel that the Independent group in particular covered Sinn Fein in a manner that perhaps a lot of people felt was imbalanced. That doesn’t mean that the whole of the media did that. That’s the first issue…”
Mercille: “Well the media is very…”
Mercille: “The Indo was more explicit and I’m actually more comfortable with that because, actually, there is a view there and you can disagree with the Indo’s view. Sinn Fein is never covered positively in any media, any mass media, except for exceptions all right. You see the problem with Sinn Fein and the coverage is that let’s say when Gerry Adams was on Sean O’Rourke, people were making fun of his math and all that. Fine, you want to talk about the issue of economic policy, fine, but then you have to criticise Enda Kenny and Fine Gael for their austerity.”
Talk over each other
Clifford: “Hang on there’s a difference between, hold on, there’s a difference between criticising somebody for their grasp of the issues, and criticising somebody for the nature of their policies. Absolutely you…”
Mercille: “Well Fine Gael doesn’t understand economics because if you understand economics, no, if you understand economics, if you understand economics, the first thing you do is not austerity in times of recession.”
Clifford: “I know, that’s one side of it. That’s a different issue, that’s one side of an argument.”
Mercille: “It’s a more important point than not knowing about the math of this budget or something.
Mercille: “The reason Sinn Fein is attacked so much is because it’s the only force in this country that can challenge the establishment. Whether you love Sinn Fein or you hate them.”
Clifford: “Oh, so Sinn Fein are not the establishment?”
Mercille: “They’re much less establishment than Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.”
Mercille: “Oh you think? Oh really. When’s the last time they were in Government?”
Clifford: “They’re in the Government in the North, they’re the biggest party in the…”
Talk over each other
Clifford: “They’re the biggest party in the local elections…”
Mercille: “I’m not saying they’re a bit part of the establishment. But they can challenge Fine Gael and Fianna Fail much more than let’s say…”
Clifford: “You’re suggesting that questioning Sinn Fein has absolutely nothing to do with other elements, apart from their socioeconomic position?”
Mercille: “Do you have other aspects you could question? You could talk about the North, if you like, you could talk about anything, you could talk about nationalism, you could talk about Gerry Adam’s past. That’s all fine. But you have to do it, not in a double standards way. If you want to talk about the economy, fine. But then talk about austerity. If you want to talk about…”
Clifford: “Has it not been talked about?”
Mercille: “Not in the right way. It hasn’t been challenged, the media endorsed austerity all the way, across the board and they’ve said it explicitly themselves.”
Clifford: “Jane, just to, in fairness, because it is an issue, I’m not singling out one party but it is an issue as to whether or not Sinn Fein got a fair shake. What do you think?”
Suiter: “Yeah, absolutely, in the other ones, because the coding we used is coding that’s been used in Greece and in Spain and in Portugal and in Germany, so it’s developed in a pan-European group. And when we looked at it, and looked at the tone of coverage, there was a negative tone of coverage for Gerry Adams compared with the other leaders but it was driven by the Indo. And the tone of coverage for Gerry Adams, in the Journal and in the Irish Times, was neutral. It wasn’t positive, but it was neutral. And the tone of coverage for all of the leaders, in all of the newspapers was broadly neutral.”
O’Carroll: “A lot of talk was about how they [Sinn Fein] wanted to abolish the Special Criminal Court and I think a lot of people might have thought that that was kind of at the forefront of their manifesto. It was in fact mentioned once on page 46 of their manifesto. It is, you have to put it to them when it’s, exactly…”
Clifford: “Because, a couple of weeks before it…”
Clifford: “Slab Murphy was convicted… Gerry Adams introduces the Special Criminal Court..”
O’Carroll: “I’m not saying that that was something that was done in error. I’m just saying it’s a manner of the news cycle, that’s how it happens. So it wasn’t a vendetta about picking out something that may not have been on the top of their agenda and making it so in front pages, it was because it happened to come up.”
Devitt: “I think broadcast media, in particular, have a responsibility to manage the election coverage very carefully and not be so reactive to the news cycle. Print media also need to be very careful, or more careful I should say…”
Clifford: “The broadcast media though are restricted by the BAI and they have to literally measure balance…”
Devitt: “Oh absolutely but, by the same token, they were still very much led by what was in the newspaper, in the news, that day…”
Clifford: “The actual topics, yeah.”
Devitt: “And when you look at the questions that were asked of the leaders during the three debates, on RTE and on TV3, they were still very much led by what was in, or influence by, what was in the newspaper that day.”
O’Carroll: “Well it’s not only what’s in the newspapers, it’s what’s people, in general, are talking about and what people have questions about.”
Devitt: “Well, I mean there were issues like climate change or corruption – which was a big issue just in December – that were barely mentioned during the leaders’ debates.”
Suiter: “Or Repeal the 8th wasn’t mentioned much in the leaders’ debates. I think a big thing is that fact that the smaller parties, and Independents, weren’t covered much by the, you know, we saw in the poll afterwards…”
Clifford: “It’s a proportionate thing though..”
Suiter: “No, but they have a huge proportion of the vote now, as we’ve seen and they didn’t get it and, the same thing in the leaders’ debates. They had a huge proportion of the vote and they weren’t there.”
Media surround Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams this morning outside the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin
By presenting voters with a stark choice between “stability” and “chaos” elements of the establishment media went too far in General Election 2016.
Ciaran Tierney writes:
Has there ever been a General Election campaign in Ireland before in which the role of some elements of the mainstream media seemed so clear? Not to report the truth, or to compare policies, but to cheer on the establishment parties and spread an irrational fear of change.
For months now, we’ve been told that this election is giving us a choice between “stability” (voting for the parties who either bankrupt the country or imposed austerity on thousands of us) and “chaos” (God forbid if those upstarts from Sinn Féin or the small left wing parties came within a million miles of power).
Sometimes the mask slips, and you wonder whether Irish democracy is any better than the kind of electioneering you would find in modern day Russia or even North Korea.
Such as when the nation’s biggest selling newspaper gives over its main story to attacking Sinn Féin policies for three days in a row. That’s not balanced election coverage, that’s naked propaganda.
There is nothing wrong with challenging a party which has a sinister past, especially if they are a rising force on the brink of gaining power for the first time in the Republic.
But where is the investigative journalism into the policies of the Fianna Fail party which caused the economic crash less than a decade ago? Are they really ready to return to power?
And where is the acknowledgement that, by going into power with the DUP and embracing the peace process, Sinn Fein have actually come a long way in the space of a few years?
Where is the analysis of why the Labour Party abandoned their core voters (and all their principles) or why Fine Gael think it’s perfectly acceptable to punish so many for the sins of so few?
The same newspaper sent a representative, a crime reporter, onto the nation’s most popular chat show at the weekend.
He managed to insult hundreds of thousands of people on Friday night by suggesting that anyone who supports Sinn Fein’s position on the Special Criminal Court is a drug-dealer, a killer, or a thug.
People have a right to be concerned at the prospect of former terrorists going into Government, but blatant scare-mongering is another thing.
…It was hard not to see his Late Late Show appearance as a hatchet-job on Sinn Fein just a week before the election.
On the day after his TV appearance, thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital to protest against austerity. The Right 2 Change march merited just one paragraph, and not a single photo, in one of the nation’s biggest selling Sunday papers the following day.
Six days before the election, thousands of people insisted that austerity was still a big issue. They said that the march was about so much more than Irish Water. But a Rupert Murdoch-owned ‘paper decided their march did not merit any coverage, even though so many of them took over the city centre.
Across the city, another editor was putting together a piece which suggested ten different reasons not to vote for Sinn Féin. Which was fair enough, but you’d be waiting a long time for ten different reasons not to vote for the party which bankrupted the country in the first place.
Sadly, the people who cover politics in Ireland largely move in the same circles as the political masters they write about. They broadly share the same views, seeing nothing wrong with the bank bailout or Ireland’s failure to stand by our Greek cousins when they sought debt relief last year.
To support Syriza in their hour of need would have involved challenging the status quo and an admission that the Irish were wrong. And nobody in the Irish Government wanted that.
So we get “fluffy” pieces from the campaign trail, in which reporters get access to our leaders as long as they play by their rules.
…In this election, we should be grateful for social media. The landscape has been transformed.
When people see videos of 100,000 people marching through Dublin city centre on Facebook, getting next to no coverage on national television, they begin to ask about pro-Government “spin”.
More and more, people are beginning to ask questions about the information they are being fed.
We see Irish Water protesters being labelled as the “sinister fringe” on the TV news, but the only footage we see of Gardai beating up protesters is away from the mainstream media.
On Facebook or Twitter, you can see photos of thousands upon thousands marching through the streets of the capital to protest against austerity, even if those images rarely end up in the national newspapers or on TV.
You can see the establishment politicians make fools of themselves, by trying to defend the indefensible in unguarded moments on Twitter.
You can find out about the parties’ policies by accessing their websites and avoiding the scare-mongering among some elements of the media.
By all means, question the policies of left wing groups such as PBP-AAA and Sinn Fein. A hung Dail, with so many Independents, is a scary thing. Perhaps they would lead Ireland to ruin. Fianna Fail certainly should know – they led Ireland to ruin only five short years ago.
People don’t like to think they are being brainwashed or led a merry dance by those who have hidden agendas or a vested interest in holding onto power.
There is some vile stuff out there on social media, but it’s only there that you get a real taste of the anger running through the housing estates and parts of rural Ireland over the past five years. That anger rarely gets a look-in on national TV or our newspapers.
We have so many sources of information in 2016 that people can see right through the “spin”, in a way which would have been unthinkable before the advent of Facebook and Twitter.
That can only be a good thing, when we’re sometimes faced with the kind of propaganda which would not seem out of place in North Korea or Cuba.