To Journalists

at

gemma

Gemma O’Doherty at the University of Limerick last week

 

The opening address at last week’s Journalism In Times Of Crisis conference at the University of Limerick was given by Gemma O’Doherty.

Gemma was fired from the Irish Independent while investigating the quashing of then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan’s penalty points.

Gemma told the conference:

“I’d like to thank Henry Silke and University of Limerick for organising and hosting this important conference. Reporters who work at the coalface of investigative journalism in Ireland need the support of our colleagues in academia, especially when it is so lacking within the media itself.

These are very difficult times for journalism in Ireland.

Those of us who investigate corruption in public office make ourselves and our sources extremely vulnerable to those in power who would intimidate us, monitor our activities, threaten our safety and try to silence us.

In return, we receive almost no support.

We work in an era where a culture of fear and timidity stalks many of our newsrooms. It has bred a generation of journalists who behave less like dogged agents of the public interest and more like compliant diplomats and spin doctors constantly looking over their shoulders and towing the party line.

They have forgotten or chose to ignore the true function of our still noble vocation: to hold power to account, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to defend the public’s right to know, to seek the truth and report it.

In this new media landscape where many Irish journalists can no longer do their job without fear or favour, the greatest loser is democracy. A robust, independent, adversarial press is the lifeblood of a functioning democracy and a free society.

In Ireland in 2016, we have nothing close to that.

When Enda Kenny came to power in 2011, he promised a new era of integrity, accountability and transparency. But as a journalist, when you ask questions of a state press office, you hit a brick wall, more often than not.

I would argue that press freedom and the ability of the media to hold power to account is more compromised today than at any other time in the history of the state.

This has no doubt contributed significantly to the crises we have in policing, health, housing and water services.

This new era of cowering journalism has come about largely, but not only, because so much of the media has been allowed to fall into the hands of so few.

The fact that many of us now refer to the biggest owner of Irish media as ‘Redacted’ speaks volumes. One big voice has far too much power and prominence in our small country.

Not all media moguls exert the chilling effect that some do over their newsrooms. I spent most of my 17-year career at INM working for Tony O’Reilly. He invested in decent journalism and good writers. He understood newspapers, and while he was not perfect, by and large he left editors to get on with it.

And then there is Denis O’Brien.

Denis O’Brien, who attempted to bring in a so-called journalists’ charter that challenged the right and duty of reporters to engage in adversarial journalism.

Denis O’Brien who was reported to the United Nations for making legal threats against journalists.

Denis O’Brien who last year managed to silence most of the Irish media from reporting a speech in our parliament.

Denis O’Brien who threatened to sue a website whose sole purpose is to engage in satire, that most precious form of free speech.

Is it healthy for democracy that someone who takes such an interest in silencing our right to speak be in control of so much of our media? I don’t think so.

I don’t make any distinction any longer between RTÉ and the O’Brien-owned media. If anything, I would hold more disdain for the state broadcaster because it is failing its public service remit so blatantly and really does deserve the name it is more commonly known as on social media: ‘RTEBIAS’.

It seems to disregard the fact that it is accountable to the public who pays so that it may exist.

There are so many examples of this, it has almost become the rule rather than the exception.

We saw it in its often farcical coverage of the general election which undoubtedly affected the final poll; in its bizarre reporting of the Mairia Cahill case, Slab Murphy and the Special Criminal Court; in its failure to cover allegations about Finance Minister Michael Noonan and his role in the foster care scandal; in its refusal to cover cases of gross corruption in our garda force including the cover-up of children’s murders.

There is no doubt that a culture of institutionalised complacency now dominates RTÉ where some presenters earn more than David Cameron and Barack Obama, and certain journalists see themselves as celebrities, appearing on the cover of Hello-style magazines and red carpets in designer dresses.

When they are not interviewing each other, they’re rolling out the same clique of voices and seeking to rehabilitate people who’ve been disgraced in the public eye.

At the time of my firing, I was immersed in many stories about corruption and wrongdoing in the criminal justice system. I was working with bereaved families whose loved ones had been killed in violent circumstances.

These families were alleging grave wrongdoing in the gardai but when they approached certain journalists in establishment outlets, they said their cases were not being taken on board and they got the cold shoulder.

In most cases, their stories were compelling but the families were left with a sense of abandonment that the very people who should have given them support failed them.

In doing so, they also failed the public interest.

One of the cases I’m investigating is that of Mary Boyle.

Ireland’s youngest and longest missing person was six when she was murdered during a visit to her grandparents’ remote farm in Donegal in 1977.

The authorities have failed to bring the chief suspect to justice amid allegations of garda corruption and political interference in the case.

In March, her twin sister Ann and I visited the US Congress to lobby for justice for her as that door has been firmly shut here.

Despite countless requests to RTÉ to cover this important visit, they refused to inform the public about it over the airwaves.

Was this out of fear that it might bring the Phoenix Park into disrepute and shine a light on corruption in the gardai? One has to wonder.

So what is the effect of an obedient, cowardly media on society?

Joseph Pulitzer once said that a cynical, mercenary press would in time produce a people as base at itself.

There has certainly been an attempt by some segments of the media to dumb down the population, and when citizens start to challenge authority and engage in dissent, they refuse to report those challenges fairly.

A vivid example of that has been the bizarre coverage of the Irish Water movement and the so-called ‘sinister fringe’.

[This] week, a journalism conference in Kerry will be opened by Noirin O’Sullivan who has presided over a litany of scandals in her time as Garda Commissioner. Joan Burton and Frances Fitzgerald are among the other speakers. That really says it all.

We need to smash the cosy cartel that exists between the press, power and the police in this country because it is so damaging to the public good.

I would like to mention some notable exceptions in the Irish media who do try to prioritise the interests of democracy in their journalism: The Sunday TimesIrish Examiner, Irish Daily Mail and Irish Times, and, of course Broadsheet and Phoenix.

But trust in media is understandably on the wane because the public know that so many of the issues that matter most to them are being skewed or ignored.

However, there is a bright side to all of this. This is a very exciting time to be a journalist.

As many traditional newsrooms become more focused on protecting plummeting revenues and their friends in power, investigative journalists are finding new ways to tell stories and release information and high quality content into the public domain by cutting out the middle man.

The internet has been our greatest resource in this regard.

In my own area – corruption in the criminal justice system – we have seen how documentaries like ‘Making A Murderer’ can have such a huge impact and do a lot of public good in the process.

Publicly-funded investigative websites are beginning to challenge old media where editors hold off running stories for fear of upsetting the establishment and denying the public their right to know.

Here in Ireland, a team of our finest investigative reporters have set up a new website called Righttoknow.ie to push for transparency and accountability in public life.

We must embrace this change and realise it is for the betterment of our profession and society.

But we also need to start looking at our media colleagues and asking how the journalists of the future will protect the public interest. Will they be boat-rockers who challenge authority and dig until they get answers? Will they have the tenacious rat-like cunning that proper editors once demanded of their reporters? Will they chase yarns as if their lives depended on it?

Hopefully all of the above but it is the job of our universities to nurture those characteristics in them.

I’ll finish with the words of Joe Mathews, a former reporter with the LA Times, when he spoke about how the public interest was so endangered by the crisis in journalism.

‘Much of the carnage of the ongoing media industry cannot be measured or seen. Corruption undiscovered. Events not witnessed. Tips about problems that never reach anyone’s ears because the ears have left the newsroom. With fewer watchdogs, you get less barking. How can we know what we will never know?’

Our profession is on its knees, but it is worth fighting for. We have a duty to fight for it. We need to stand up for courageous journalism whose primary focus is the public interest.

We need to read it, to buy it, to support it, because without it, the health of our democracy will remain in terminal decline.”

Previously: Meanwhile In Limerick

Are You A Journalist?

Women in media conference (sponsored by The Irish Times, April 15 – 17)

72 thoughts on “To Journalists

  1. Tish Mahorey

    She is being mocked and harassed by a lot of young members of FF and FG who as it turns out are just as conservative and underhand as their political forefathers (usually literally their forefathers).

    Those who are her critics are clearly part of the problem, part of the cover up, part of the status quo and don’t want it to change.

    The amount of vitriol thrown at her is surprising, considering what she is doing is investigating corruption and cover ups of murders. There is more than one orchestrated campaigns against her and I admire and respect her resilience.

    Being an enemy of the state in this country is just as bad as anywhere else if not worse. They will follow you, arrest you for crimes you didn’t commit just so your name is in court records, tell lies to your neighbours and work colleagues, black list members of your family from promotion if they work for the state, tap your phone, intercept your post, e-mails, etc.

    And it’s not paramilitaries or terrorists I am talking about. It’s people like Gemma just doing their job, or Gardaí who try to expose criminality within the force, or members of political parties who challenge the ideology of centre-right politics (Nicky Kelly jailed without a jury for a crime he knew nothing about).

    Ireland is a nasty nasty place for people who get close to the centre of activities of political criminality.

    1. Clampers Outside!

      Fupp, fupp and double fupp, I left my best tinfoil hat at home and am having to make do with what I found in the bin …and smells like taco sauce…. hmmmm crinkled aluminium….

        1. Cowenwatch

          Clampers, have a look at the number of UNSOLVED murders that Gemma is trying to shine a light on before you pass judgement. The parents of one dead girl won’t even talk to Gemma about it. There can be only two reasons for that. One: they want to be left in piece to mourn their murdered child or two: ‘you don’t talk about fightclub’! Meanwhile a murderer, whose crime is being covered up, is walking around freely!

          Enjoy your hat!

    2. Owen C

      “Those who are her critics are clearly part of the problem, part of the cover up, part of the status quo and don’t want it to change.”

      So you believe all criticism of her as part of the problem? Interesting way to promote free speech.

  2. Glenda Greenwald

    how does one contact Gemma O’Doherty? like anonymously?

    legitimate question – I’ve googled to no joy – no email or website

    do I have to know someone who knows someone or do I have to make a fake FB or Twitter account?

  3. brownbull

    what is her issue with RTE’s reporting of Mairia Cahill and Slab Murphy, I’d like to know what she has an issue with on these two issues:
    ‘in its bizarre reporting of the Mairia Cahill case, Slab Murphy and the Special Criminal Court;’

    1. The People's Hero

      Really? You didn’t observe a massive increase in the reporting of dodgy Sinn Fein/IRA related activities in the run up to the election? And little of the dodgy activities those on the other side (establishment) were up to? I mean, I’ve never and never will vote for the Shinners, but it was blatantly obvious to anyone picking up a broadsheet or turning on the news…

      1. brownbull

        RTE didn’t manufacture those stories, they actually happened, is she claiming that they weren’t news worthy? that RTE shouldn’t have reported on them? what is an acceptable amount of media coverage for each of these issues? while the Indo may have taken the piss in the run-up to the election, I’d consider RTE’s level of coverage of these stories appropriate.

        1. The People's Hero

          Read again what I said…. Of course they should be reported on…. But don;t you find it at all odd that all INM papers (way more so than RTE) went on a Sinn Fein/IRA onslaught in the run up to the election…. There were other massive stories from the other side primarily about Michael Noonan and they hardly registered… As I stated, I am no supporter or fan of Sinn Fein… The day they’re elected to lead our country will be a heavy day. However, there is a serious issue with the media in this state and its controlling nature…

          1. rotide

            She wasn’t talking about INM when it came to those things, she was talking about RTE and that was Brownbull’s question as well.

            If you’re going to give out about RTE, Give out about RTE, don’t just bring INM into it.

      2. cluster

        ‘You didn’t observe a massive increase in the reporting of dodgy Sinn Fein/IRA related activities in the run up to the election?’

        I generally do believe that the ‘southern’ media is generally biased against SF but actually I thought much more could and probably should be made of the Slab case than was the case.

        SF are uniformly standing by a guy who (past activities aside) is engaged in criminality & dodgy dealings. We he have enough trouble with FF & the Kenny-Hogan wing of FG without SF too.

    2. Kieran NYC

      I think from memory is that RTE treated SF responding to those two stories as part of the ‘balance’ giving parties equal time during the GE.

      1. brownbull

        that may be the answer I was looking for Kieran NYC however the Mairia Cahill story was long before the election no? I don’t understand why Gemma thinks RTE coverage of this would be bizarre, I think she is letting herself down with this statement

  4. rotide

    deleting comments on this thread says a lot.

    Any speech dealing with integrity in journalism that namechecks Making A Murderer is a bit of a joke.

      1. rotide

        I have less than no idea what you are talking about T, but I’ll leave the conspiracies to you and your mates.

      2. rotide

        Just re-read that and get what you mean.

        No, I don’t suspect a conspiracy, as I said that’s your department, but the team behind Making a Murderer left all objective bias at the door and it’s a pretty slanted view of a particular case. If RTE dropped critical pieces of a story to retain the entertainment value, they’d be hammered and this is what MAM did.

  5. Owen C

    “In March, her twin sister Ann and I visited the US Congress to lobby for justice for her as that door has been firmly shut here.

    Despite countless requests to RTÉ to cover this important visit, they refused to inform the public about it over the airwaves.”

    Can anyone explain just why this was an important visit?

    1. Anne

      “Can anyone explain just why this was an important visit?”

      Well, that they were meeting members of the US congress, was important.

      That it was a case where the authorities have failed to bring the chief suspect to justice amid allegations of garda corruption and political interference in the case is extremely important..

      That the killer apparently is being shielded by An Garda Siochana and that a politician interfered in the investigation shortly after the murder, ordering that certain people were not to be considered suspects, is important.

      Hope that explains that now.

      http://www.donegalnow.com/news/mary-boyles-twin-sister-ann-doherty-to-take-justice-campaign-to-washington/79769

      “For most of my adult life, I have known who murdered Mary. He is walking around Donegal today, immune from prosecution. Instead of arresting him, the Gardai have targeted me, and others who have stood up for Mary’s right to justice, in what can only be called an insidious campaign of intimidation.”

    2. ahjayzis

      Is it less or more important than the SF leader getting turned away at the door by security? That got PAGES of copy.

      FG supported Ann’s fight pre-2011, only to turn their back on her in office – I think it’s at least worthy of a mention that she’s reduced to lobbying foreign officials?

      1. Owen C

        Less important. The SF leader is the leader of the third largest political party in the Irish parliament.

        Re why won’t gardai investigate her claims further – is it to do with them investigating her previous claims, and ended up digging up a field only to find nothing? Is it because they think there is no serious evidence-backed claims being made?

        1. ahjayzis

          Is it that time and again we’ve been shown the Gardai close ranks against anyone alleging misconduct or negligence?

          In my view it could be either way – the GS don’t fill me with much confidence or it could be a conspiracy theory. I’d sure like someone independent to find out though, wouldn’t you?

      2. Clampers Outside!

        More, obviously.

        Some knob end who has a habit of saying that the terrorists he is cosy with “haven’t gone away ya know” should be strip searched at every airport, just to be sure.

          1. brownbull

            they haven’t gone away, although they might be more interested in lining their own pockets than fighting the tan oppressor these days, ask anyone who lives in South Armagh

          2. Tish Mahorey

            “they might be more interested in lining their own pockets”

            Oh like Fianna Fail and Fine Gael then?

      3. cluster

        It was far less important that Adams being turned away & will remain so unless some hard evidence emerges.

        People meet congressmen to lobby them ALL THE TIME. Very few such meetings make the national papers anywhere.

  6. some old queen

    Interesting comments on this thread given that a young woman was plastered over every INM newspaper last Sunday which was then rightly condemned on BS?

    Gemma O’Doherty is just telling it s it is. Just in the same way as Fianna Gael have played the hokey cokey for government while pretending to be alternatives to each other, there is an entire media structure in place to support them.

    I personally think that it is a hangover from the days of the church when the peasants dared not question authority, But we are in the first phase of the information age now and media controls are loosing. The very fact that most of the so called independent media is far from will probably hasten this change.

  7. Cromuel

    Is the murder of a little girl less important than the third largest political party not getting into a St Patrick’s Day funfest?

    1. Anne

      +1

      Apparently not Cromuel…when some people have to ask. You’d wonder about the mindset of some.. you really would.

      1. Owen C

        “Is the murder of a little girl less important”

        Ridiculous comment. The murder happened 40 odd years ago. We are no longer reporting on her murder. We are reporting on the continuing grief and search for justice for her family. This grief and search for justice may unfortunately never end. Should it be given prime coverage forever? Nothing ‘new’ has taken place in the investigation of her murder. There is no new evidence, there is only rumour, beliefs and ideas from her family. I’d note her family have used numerous pyschics in recent years to get to the bottom of this mystery. Should the police act on that as serious “evidence”?

  8. Trust in the News

    It is time the section of the media associated with RTE and INM were exposed
    as to what they are, the rot and the stench is there with years, in RTE since the
    late 60’s and the Independent since OReilly got control in the early 70’s, and what
    O’Brien is at now, is trying to emulate him in a more crass way.
    There needs to be a clear out in RTE and the people can do it any weekend
    another march similar to the one at the end of February in Dublin outside their
    front door, they are gone…..and they know it.
    How many times has Gemma O’Doherty been on RTE or interviewed…..she
    mentioned bias, what RTE and the Independent are at is censorship and propoganda…..full stop.

  9. rory

    While there is a significant amount of journalists in the lineup for that conference Gemma refers to, ‘Women in Media’ is not a journalism conference per se (from my understanding anyway.) The lineup also includes writers, broadcasters, politicians, tv producers and business women.

    1. rory

      Although yeah, a ‘cosy cartel’ vibe mightn’t be too far off the mark when describing said conference.

  10. Charlie Melia

    Fantastic speech…. When I see the local trolls that I have to put up with they just pale into insignificance against what this courageous journalist as had to deal with. She inspirational to real journalists everywhere.

  11. vanboven

    “Towing the party line” is wrong. The correct spelling is “toeing the party line”

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