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Has the Irish Times become too big for its boots?

category national | arts and media | opinion/analysis author Monday November 06, 2006 00:05author by David Alvey - The Irish Political Review Group Report this post to the editors

The need for a thorough debate

The recent Bertie Ahern controversy showed that the Irish Times believes it has a right to depose Taoisigh it disapproves of. They already have the scalps of Haughey and Reynolds and now they want Bertie's. The paper holds such a powerful position in Irish public life that its faults cannot be openly discussed. A debate between Minister for Communications, Noel Dempsey, and Ryle Dwyer of the Irish Examiner illustrates the problem. Dempsey failed to mention that the paper broke the law. Neither did he dare to challenge the paper about its over the top anti-Fianna Fail bias. And nobody dares to mention the connection between the paper and the British Foreign Office initiated by Major Thomas McDowell in 1969. So confident are the media professionals who defend the paper, that they simply toss off rhetorical put downs, as in Ryle Dwyers's reply to the Minister. It is past time that the bastion of Irish investigative journalism should itself be investigated.

A politicians-versus-media debate that begun at an Opus Dei conference (the Cleraun Media conference) held over the weekend of 21-22 October, having raised a matter of critical importance, is serving us very badly. The point at issue is whether or not the Irish Times was right to run its story on Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s finances based on a leak from the Mahon tribunal. At the conference Noel Dempsey, the Minister for Communications, attacked the Irish Times for publishing the story; and a week later on 28th October Ryle Dwyer of the Irish Examiner replied to that attack. Both contributions avoided the important issues and in different ways both reflect the degree to which the Irish Times has placed itself beyond criticism.

Minister Dempsey started well when he issued a short press statement carried on RTE news bulletins on October 21 arguing that the New York Times banned ‘stories which damaged an individual, the only source for which was another individual protected by anonymity’. On that grounds the action of the Irish Times could be characterised as journalistic malpractice.

Unfortunately the speech from which the press statement was taken was less coherent. Dempsey’s talk delivered to the Cleraun conference (http://www.dcmnr.gov.ie/Press+Releases/Ensuring+Profess...a.htm) was notable for its omissions more than its content. Instead of directly criticising the Irish Times, he spoke in general terms about how modern media were increasingly giving way to commercial pressures. About the pertinent aspects of the matter – that the Irish Times had deliberately broken the law and acted out of highly questionable political prejudice – he said not a word.

Geraldine Kennedy, the editor of the Irish Times, must have known she was flouting the law when she decided to run the story. By publishing confidential items of evidence stolen from the Mahon tribunal, she showed contempt for due process; she effectively took the law into her own hands. Then, when the tribunal issued a subpoena for the documents on which the story had been based, she authorised their destruction, notwithstanding the fact that the leak was anonymous. Apart from issuing reports, tribunals have very few powers, but they do have the power under sections 4 and 5 of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) (Amendment) Act 1979 to initiate legal proceedings against parties obstructing their work. Under these provisions Liam Lawlor was imprisoned and it is under the same provisions that Geraldine Kennedy is now facing prosecution. According to Pat Leahy writing in the Sunday Business Post (October 22) it is ‘highly unlikey’ that Ms Kennedy will be jailed. This poses a question: why was Liam Lawlor imprisoned for breaking a law, while Geraldine Kennedy will remain at liberty having violated the same law?

The other matter neglected by Noel Dempsey was the question of political prejudice. Clearly, going by the opinion polls, the Irish electorate has decided that the entire monies-gifted-to-the-Taoiseach controversy was much ado about nothing. An electorate that rewarded a long-term political leader by allowing his reputation to be ruined without proper evidence and due process would be foolish indeed. But the editor of the Irish Times does not see it that way. Her response to the opinion polls was along the lines of ‘you have disgraced yourselves again’.

The following extracts from Irish Times’ editorials illustrate some of the delusions currently afflicting Ms Kennedy:

“The removal of a Taoiseach from office can be a long and painful process, as both Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds found to their cost.”
(28 September 2006)

“What a breathtaking exposition of the culture of Fianna Fail we have witnessed in recent days…
…The country is convulsed by the revelations…
What he did was wrong and he must say so. An apology is not enough.”
(2 October 2006)

“So, we are to hold our noses. The Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat Coalition Government is safe, the Opposition parties didn’t quite come to the wire and the semantics over the difference between the loans and gifts received by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in the circumstances in which he received them while he was minister for finance in 1993 and 1994, won the day. Nothing that was done was wrong. But, warts and all, that is our democracy. This is looking at ourselves and, through our elected representatives in the Dail, our political values.
…It is wrong for a serving member of government to receive monies from personal friends for any purpose…”
(4 October 2006)

“The culture of nods and winks and looking the other way is alive and well in Irish democracy. Among a significant sector, however, it reinforces the case that the public interest requires vigilance, investigation and continuing scrutiny. If the rest of us “look the other way”, it won't be long before the culture of corruption engendered by Mr Haughey will resurface. But, regrettably, this poll would indicate that this does not seem to matter.”
(13 October 2006)

It is as though Geraldine Kennedy is on a mission to rescue Irish society from what she sees as the corrupting influence of the main party of government. Valid as this may be as an opinion, it is questionable, to say the least, as an editorial policy for the country’s leading newspaper. Whatever one thinks politically of Fianna Fail, viewed from the dispassionate perspective of political science, the party must be acknowledged as one of the great political parties of modern Europe. Fianna Fail has played a central role in the development of the Irish State; to dismiss it as hopelessly corrupt is a gross distortion.

There is another aspect of the Irish Times’s political prejudice that does not get aired very often. A letter released by the British public record office in late 1999 indicates that the owner of the Irish Times, Major Thomas McDowell, made contact with the British Ambassador to Ireland in 1969 with a view to enlisting British Foreign Office assistance in controlling the newspaper. The issues arising from that letter are too complicated to be detailed here, but the existence of the letter testifies to a murky aspect of the Irish Times that has never been satisfactorily explained. If Geraldine Kennedy were serious about the need for transparency and keeping everything above board she would have instigated an investigation into that matter and made the results public. She has not done so.

In any case it was disappointing that Noel Dempsey did not take the opportunity presented by the Cleraun conference of vigorously questioning the Irish Times, if not on where its true allegiance lies, then on its attitude to the rule of law and to the Fianna Fail party.

Noel Dempsey’s speech contained a reference to the Irish Press that merits comment. He said that the paper was initially set up not as a commercial entity but as a propaganda machine, that when it was set up the vast majority of the Irish people were not newspaper readers. He explained that the term ‘propaganda machine’ should not be seen in a negative light. These are all valid points not heard very often, but the Minister made no further reference to the Irish Press. He said nothing about the immense imbalance currently affecting the Irish media because the traditional Irish Press propaganda machine no longer exists; and he never mentioned the fact that the paper cannot be re-launched because a competitor and knight of the British realm, Sir Anthony O’Reilly, has a controlling share in the ownership of the title. What is most astounding is that an experienced Fianna Fail politician like Noel Dempsey feels no sense of responsibility for the current disastrous situation in which no Irish newspaper expresses the Fianna Fail view.

Ryle Dwyer’s article published in the Irish Examiner on 28 October in reply to the Minister treats a serious matter flippantly, a common failing among media pundits. Like the Minister’s speech it was notable for what it failed to mention. Noel Dempsey’s strongest point was that the New York Times would have refused to publish the story on ethical grounds. Dwyer answers this point by ignoring it.

Here is a long extract from the article:

“This particular tribunal was set up in 1997 and at the rate it is going, God only knows when it will conclude. Bertie Ahern received the first of the money in 1993 when he was Minister for Finance, and he hung on to it for over nine years as Taoiseach.”

“It is absurd to suggest that the media jumped the gun or showed disrespect for the tribunal. The argument could just as validly be made that the tribunal has shown disrespect for the media.”

“The news media and the tribunals have different roles. The question people should be asking is not why the media broke the story when it did, but why it took it so long to get the story in the first place.”

“The tribunal was set up to look into planning irregularities and payments to politicians, but Judge Alan Mahon has allowed himself to be diverted into investigating how The Irish Times got the story. If the aim of whoever leaked the material was to distract the attention of the tribunal, the ploy has certainly worked.”

"The primary concern of the tribunal at present is to protect the integrity of its inquiries," Judge Mahon stated recently. "This objective is best served by taking all necessary steps to establish the identity of the party or parties who furnished the documentation to The Irish Times".

“Surely the judge does not think he should have the right to delay any aspect of Irish life to facilitate his deliberations. He is supposed to be inquiring into planning corruption and payments to politicians, not the information-gathering techniques of reporters.”

“From a media perspective, the important issue was whether it was in the public interest to know that the Taoiseach was financially indebted to friends.”

“Judge Brian McCracken ruled in August 1997 that it was "quite unacceptable that a member of Dáil Éireann, and in particular a cabinet minister and Taoiseach, should be supported in his personal lifestyle by gifts made to him personally."

“As Taoiseach, Bertie warmly endorsed those findings. "Public representatives must not be under a personal financial obligation to anyone", the Taoiseach told the Dáil. He said the money he received was a loan, but he made no real effort to repay it for well over a decade until after Colm Keena broke the story.”

“The public may or may not be exercised over this behaviour, but the people have the information now and it is their right to decide to ignore it. The only proper way that they could have come to that decision, however, was by knowing the information. Thus, Colm Keena and his editor, Geraldine Kennedy, should be congratulated, not prosecuted.”

Most writers presenting a case make their main points as clearly as possible in a logical sequence and then add a few rhetorical flourishes for colour. Ryle Dwyer jumps from one rhetorical assertion to the next without any effort at building a case and then inserts a few serious points somewhere in the rhetorical jumble.

The first point that needs to be made in answer to his assertions is that tribunals were set up because the consensus of opinion in society was and remains that ‘trial by media’ is inherently unjust. Once the media pack get their teeth into a story as they did in the recent campaign against the Taoiseach, innuendo takes over from fact. Whatever about the difficulties of answering allegations in a judicial or quasi-judicial hearing, there is no defence against innuendo.

So, we have tribunals charged with thoroughly investigating complex matters of major public concern. Our recent tribunals have all been established in response to media campaigns. That the work of one such tribunal should now be undermined by the publication of leaked information in the Irish Times is doubly offensive, given that Irish Times helped to create the public concern in the first place. Ryle Dwyer is merely compounding the offence by disparaging Justice Mahon for attempting to defend the integrity of his investigation.

There is something of the clever schoolboy in the way that Dwyer attempts to turn Bertie Ahern’s own words against himself. It is impossible to view this spectacle without asking whom is more valuable to society: the political leader grappling with the burden of high office or the journalist playing clever word games. Hopefully, Justice Mahon will bring a wider breadth of vision to his judgement of Bertie Ahern than the small minded moralising of our media crusaders.

In his final paragraph Ryle Dwyer does some fancy footwork to come up with the idea that the media has fulfilled its function by placing the facts about the Taoiseach’s debt to his friends before the public. But that is not the way Geraldine Kennedy views it. She was hell bent on ending Bertie Ahern’s tenure as Taoiseach. The whole point was to knock a serious dent in Fianna Fail’s ratings in the opinion polls. Since the opposite has occurred, the end result is that the work of a costly tribunal has been undermined for no good reason.

In conclusion, following the publication of Colm Keena’s story on Bertie Ahern the role exercised by the Irish Times in Irish society needs to be examined and debated. The present debate between Minister Dempsey and Ryle Dwyer skirts the real issues. The Minister is too pusillanimous to confront the Irish Times about respecting the rule of law and pursuing dubious political agendas. And Ryle Dwyer is more concerned to express solidarity with his colleagues in the paper of record than to provide the public with a diversity of opinion. His approach is symptomatic of a media that takes the same line on all the major issues. The Irish Times leads and the Irish Examiner follows slavishly.

The Irish Times is exercising power without responsibility. How long more will it be allowed to get away with it?

author by Stuartpublication date Mon Nov 06, 2006 16:40author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The Irish Times has displayed a noticeable shift towards systematic bias in many areas since Geraldine Kennedy's editorship began, even a campaigning zeal on some issues. The choice to highlight "increases" in PD voter preference after Bertiegate on the front page was a stark contrast to the overwhelming rejection of Michael McDowell as leader in the detailed results on page 8. The expression of rights (currently for children) without emphasis of responsibilities promotes the economic right anti-family, anti-community agenda. The selective publication of politically-motivated statements in the run up to the citizenship referendum actively promoted the yes campaign (http://www.ireland.com/focus/referendum2004/pathtopoll/). The support for university heads in conflicts which the IT has repeatedly mis-characterized as a "modernisation" conflict is promoting a services model third-level education system (http://www.geocities.com/stuartdneilson/UCC_Reference.htm).

But there is also a growing family values / morality / fundamental values theme that perhaps not everyone within the IT sees - Emily O'Reilly, Bertie, Mary MacAleese and many others have expressed "comforting" moral constructs. Most unusual is the retention of William Reville, professor of the public understanding of science, as he drifts into creationist, rights-from-fertilization, God gave us physical laws, intelligent design territory.

They are all welcome to their views and their expressions, but a public image and reputation should not be subverted to promote unrelated beliefs, and becomes worrisome when it is en masse.

author by Spinning Quicklypublication date Mon Nov 06, 2006 17:53author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I don't like the drift of some of the changes in the Irish Times - drop Krauthammer and other neo-cons would be one of my policies if I were editor.

On the other hand I'm worried by the implication that a "great party of Europe" is above reproach - surely that is dangerously close to saying they are above criticism?

I'm unsure of where I stand on the issue of the publishing of the details about Bertie - I abhor corruption but don't want the legal process short-circuited. If Geraldine Kennedy goes to jail for contempt, I suppose I won't lose much sleep.

On a related matter, where does the Irish Political Review stand on insinuating that a newspaper is in the control of organisations outside the state? (Link enclosed.)

Related Link: http://www.atholbooks.org/magazines/cands/currented.php
author by Peking Billypublication date Tue Nov 07, 2006 16:45author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The Irish Times is an economically conservative, largely socially liberal newspaper read mainly by the middle class. Its readership base do not like Fianna Fail. A majority of Irish voters think otherwise. End of. Mr. Alvey and his latter recruits to Irish nationalism should really think of better campaigns than ones that echo the paraonia of the Catholic right of the 1930s. Then again they have published a study of the old bigot Scelig....

author by David Alvey - Irish Political Review Grouppublication date Wed Nov 08, 2006 00:19author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I agree with Stuart. One problem with the Irish Times is the campaigning zeal that attaches to its coverage. I would like to know what exactly is the agenda of this powerful institution. We know there is a well organised group called Reform which wants Ireland back in the Commonwealth. The group was endorsed by the British Ambassador. Many of its members are influential media types like Bruce Arnold.

Is the campaigning zeal that appears when attacks are made on Fianna Fail really an attack on the Irish national tradition itself? The Irish Times has been to the fore in backing history revisionists like Roy Foster. I believe that the paper views Irish affairs from the perspective of the British worldview. Thus when Geraldine Kennedy attacks the culture of nods and winks she is attacking that part of the Irish national tradition that is outside of British influence.

The other point I particularly agree with Stuart on is the way the paper campaigns ‘en masse’ with one voice. Not only is the one voice confined to the Irish Times, it is shared by the rest of the influential media.

Spinning Quickly doesn’t like my calling Fianna Fail a great party. Actually I am not an FF supporter and definitely not a Bertie supporter. But FF have shown a capacity for government over a long period of time and under De Valera and Haughey they demonstrated a capacity for producing statecraft, a rare commodity at the best of times.

Nobody likes corruption but I honestly believe the extent of Irish political corruption has been magnified out of proportion. That is a discussion for another day. Regarding Bertie’s recent controversy, are the media seriously suggesting that Bertie was open to bribes? I remember reading that one of the British prime ministers, Lord Russell I think, got into financial difficulties. A group of businessmen came together and paid off the debts. It was done because political leadership skills are rare and extremely valuable to a society and politicians are nor able leave their posts and earn big money. The debts were paid and there has never been any suggestion of impropriety. But that is an event in British politics, our media intelligentsia would never question the bona fides of a highly regarded British statesman.

Spinning Quickly also asks where does the IPR group stand on insinuating that the Irish Times is controlled from outside the state. We are deeply suspicious on this point. McDowell made contact with the British Foreign Office in 1969 with a view to pulling the Irish Times back from the nationalist influence of Douglas Gageby. There is indisputable evidence of that. The question is: what type of influence from Whitehall was used from that point on? That is certainly a fitting subject for a separate thread on Indymedia.

Peking Billy seems to be suggesting that I am being paranoid. Well according to yesterday’s story about Bertie’s interview with Ursula Halligan, Bertie himself is firmly of the opinion that there is a sinister element behind the recent campaign against him, spearheaded by the Irish Times. If the Irish Times have nothing to hide why did the shutters come down so tightly when we demanded an explanation for McDowell’s connection with Whitehall?

The big issue of our times is what is going on in the Middle East in Palestine and Iraq. The best thing we can do about it is campaign to revive De Valera’s stance whereby the Irish state took the line that we couldn’t stop the Great Powers from waging wars of imperial aggression but we could refuse to be their tool. Regarding the point about being a “latter recruit to Irish nationalism” I was a critic of Irish nationalism twenty years ago, it is true, and my vantage point was the Young Ireland tradition. In other words I have always taken my political inspiration from the Irish national tradition.

I would like to see the maximum unity across the left, nationalists, republicans, anti-war activists, resisting those elements who wish to roll back the Irish national revolution. And I see the Irish Times as being at the heart of those pro-British elements.

Apologies for the length of this!

author by Nick - Nonepublication date Wed Nov 08, 2006 02:07author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Remember Martin Luther King's old maxim: 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice evrywhere'?
Well it seems to have been fulfilled once again in relation to 'Bertiegate'. Remember when Michael McDowell ignored due process by leaking documents to a favoured journailst so the journo could write an 'expose' of Frank Connolly? The same McDowell who had previously threatened dire consequences for Gardai and others who did the same. Nothing was ever substantiated against Connolly, but the damage was done and the Centre for Public Enquiry - headed up by Frank Connolly and a thorn in McDowell's side after it suggested the purchase of Thornton Hall should be investigated - closed down due to lack of funding. Now in all of this shameful episdoe while a Minister for Justice carried on an 'enemy to the state' campaign faintly reminiscent of Stalinist Soviet Russia, our Tasoiseach Bertie Ahern remained tight lipped. He should have reprimanded his Minister for stepping beyond the normal bounds of protocol, for tampering with democratic processess to pursue a personal vendetta. Instead he said nothing. Now it is his turn. Fianna Fail's reaction to the Frank Connolly episode makes it very difficult for them to rush to Bertie's defence. Of course, none of this lets Geraldine Kennedy off the hook either. Yes, the public have a right to know these things, but due process has to take place also.

What was remarkable was the public's jaded response. Nobody seemed either unduly surprised or angry that Bertie had done what he did. Ms.Kennedy may have overestimated her readership's interest in 'the cause'. The apathy is a bit worrying: it means Irish society at large has come to expect a little hint of corruption in Irish political life as a given (not that Bertie's 'gift' was necessarily a case of corruption, rather that at least it is irregular and perhaps inappropiate for someone in his position). It is the price the electorate seem willing to pay to continue amassing wealth and 'getting on'. That is not the best frame of mind with which to keep an eye on our democratic processes and rule of law.

author by David Alvey - The Irish Political Review Grouppublication date Wed Nov 08, 2006 22:55author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I think Nick is missing the point. I am concerned about the powerful influence being exercised by the Irish Times, not about defending Bertie’s record. The Irish Political Review gave full coverage to the disgraceful manner in which McDowell forced the closure of the Centre for Public Inquiry. We were one hundred per cent behind Frank Connolly.

It was not in the least surprising that Bertie failed to reprimand his Minister. I could supply any number of additional reasons for not supporting Ahern: the ridiculous commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, his continued support for the Shannon stopover, his rounding on Sinn Fein etc etc.

The real issue is bringing the Irish Times to book for interfering with due process and for using a leak from an anonymous source to discredit Ahern and Fianna Fail as part of a questionable anti-national agenda. Anyone who cares a damn about the national heritage in this country should be alert to what Geraldine Kennedy is playing at and how hugely influential her paper can be.

author by Stuartpublication date Fri Nov 10, 2006 13:07author address author phone Report this post to the editors

To take a very specific case, the Irish Times published the essence of much-needed and widely welcomed civilianisation and reform of An Garda Siochana (Radical reform of Garda structure proposed, Wednesday) with articles on, to my recollection, pages 1, 6, 7, 8 and 15. There are followups on Thursday and Friday. The only criticism of McDowell and the only reflection of any other perspective other than McDowell's is in Miriam Lord's laughable circus piece (Opposition explodes after McDowell lights the fuse, Dail Sketch: Happy the mutt who dwells in Michael McDowell's house. Jack is his name, as it happens. He is a loyal companion to the Minister and a fixture at constituency clinics, writes Miriam Lord, Friday).

The views of the GRA and the AGSI, the POA, probationers, legal representatives and others are important in ensuring a successful and democratic reform, but there is a danger that widespread dissatisfaction with a whole range of policing issues will allow some very PD reforms sweep in unnoticed and unopposed.

author by David Alvey - The Irish Political Review Grouppublication date Fri Nov 10, 2006 15:28author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Fair point Stuart! Geraldine Kennedy is a former Progressive Democrat TD. Clearly she is continuing to peddle PD obsessions as editor of the Irish Times. The problem of course is that the Progressive Democrats represent 5 per cent of the electorate, while the Irish Times is the most important serious daily in our Republic. A fitting subject to be addressed by the Press Council if ever it comes into existence.

author by yellopublication date Fri Jun 01, 2007 16:56author address author phone Report this post to the editors

You only have it in for Kennedy 'cos she had the guts to stand up to Haughey over the phone scandal.
It's the Irish Political Review that's grow too big for its boots.

author by phmpublication date Sat Jun 02, 2007 20:50author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Why is everyone getting so hot and bothered about what the Irish Times thinks?

Facts are that the IT gets it wrong almost every time. A good rule of thumb in predicting how the people will vote is to first ask what does the IT think - the voters will inevitably plump the other way. About the only time that the IT got it right was in relation to Lady Robinson. In the abortion and citizenship referenda, and in recent general-elections the IT always took the opposite line to the people.

author by Doctor Whopublication date Fri Aug 17, 2007 21:15author address author phone Report this post to the editors

That's odd. I'm pretty sure David Alvey used to write articles for the hated IT, in the mid-90s....

author by Peter O'Riordanpublication date Sat Aug 25, 2007 13:08author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"He said that the paper (the Irish Press) was initially set up not as a commercial entity but as a propaganda machine, that when it was set up the vast majority of the Irish people were not newspaper readers. He explained that the term ‘propaganda machine’ should not be seen in a negative light."

The majority of the Irish people had been reading newspapers for years before the Irish Press
And "propaganda machine" is an apt name for the Irish Political Review, the Saddam-, Mugabe- and
Haughey-worshipping rag David Alvey edits.

author by Scepticpublication date Sun Aug 26, 2007 21:37author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"They already have the scalps of Haughey and Reynolds and now they want Bertie's."

The Irish Times might have been no great friend of either CJ H or Albert but it did not get rid of them. CJH went when the PDs withdrew their support and Albert when Spring did.

"The paper holds such a powerful position in Irish public life that its faults cannot be openly discussed."

Its faults and foibles are regularly discussed in The Phoenix to take one example.

author by HP Craftlovepublication date Fri Jul 31, 2009 19:44author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Geraldine Kennedy and Colm Keena just won their appeal against a High Court order requiring them to answer questions from the Mahon Tribunal. The NUJ has welcomed the


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