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Bertiegate - the Problem is the Media!
arts and media |
Wednesday May 09, 2007 15:48 by Irish Political Review Group - Irish Political Review Group
As an exercise in representative government the current General Election campaign is a shambles. Instead of a debate about the future direction of government we have the second round of a controversy that should never have had a first round. If Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had any questions to answer about his personal financial arrangements fifteen years ago, the place for him to do so was and is before the Mahon Tribunal. Instead we have a distracting witchhunt against a politician with a long, well regarded record of service to the state.
Led by the Irish Times, the print and broadcast media have usurped the constitutional role of the Opposition in this controversy. This subversion of democracy has met with no protest from Fine Gael and Labour. Having little by way of an alternative political programme they have been content to trail sheepishly behind the media’s coattails. Democracy received a further blow when the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Sunday Business Post should be allowed to publish stories based on documents stolen from the Mahon Tribunal. In other words the Supreme Court has ruled that the media may break the law with impunity.
The consequences of that flawed judgement can be seen in the following extract. It is from an Irish Times editorial of Saturday May 5th:
'The Irish Times received a letter from the Mahon tribunal last evening “to request” this newspaper to “desist from publishing” reference to information obtained from the unauthorised disclosure of documents necessarily circulated to a number of parties. The request was made in “the interest of the constitutional rights of all individuals affected by such premature disclosure”.
This newspaper has investigated the Taoiseach’s finances because it has an equal constitutional duty to serve the public’s right to know about its leaders, especially during an election campaign. Are we now to be silenced?
This can’t but be an issue in the campaign. Whether it is a deciding issue or not in the general election remains to be seen.
Such an arrogant denial of a request from a judicial body might conceivably be justified if the security of the state were threatened by rampant corruption in the upper echelons of government. But the security of the state is under no such threat. As a letter writer pointed out the amount of money at issue is equal to the weekly wage of a Premiership football player. The matters at issue occurred thirteen years ago and the strong likelihood is that no impropriety took place. But in the judgement of the editor of the Irish Times these same matters are sufficiently important to justify undermining the Tribunal, destroying an individual’s reputation and disrupting the election campaign.'
A number of points need to be made against the Irish Times:
Firstly, trial by media, as a concept and a practice, is offensive to the basic principles of justice. It is like a court case without proper process, without a judge and with a peculiarly impressionable and inattentive jury. The stock in trade of the Irish media in one of its fits of morality—suggestive headlines, photographs of individuals having to endure the stress of misrepresentation, and innuendo—have been used with consummate skill against Bertie Ahern in this campaign. Against such a barrage no public reputation, however well earned, is safe.
Secondly, the scale of the problem of corruption in the Irish body politic has been greatly exaggerated. The Moriarity Tribunal was unable to instance a single political decision made in response to bribery. Certainly, businesses made political contributions in the hope of ingratiating themselves with the political establishment, but so what? Is that not an inevitable by-product of the economic system we live under?
During the seventies a particular problem emerged when windfall profits could be made from buying agricultural land that would later be zoned for housing development. At that time a journalist with a unique and impeccable record for investigative work, Joe McAnthony, succeeded in getting articles published in the Sunday Independent exposing political corruption associated with land speculation. McAnthony later lost his job and a contract he held with RTE was allowed to run out without his doing any work. When he applied to the Irish Times, perhaps the obvious home for a journalist of his talents, he was turned down; so he emigrated to Canada. The moral of the story is that if the Irish media had fulfilled its function by employing investigative journalists, the petty corruption that later became endemic in Dublin County Council might have been avoided.
Thirdly, some newspapers, especially the Irish Times, have no association with political parties, and the main party of government, Fianna Fail, has no association with a newspaper. This is a disastrous arrangement. All of the great political parties of Europe have associations with newspapers and all of the great newspapers of Europe have affiliations with major political parties. These associations and affiliations do not force newspapers editors to rigidly follow a party line. It simply means that most newspapers have a political orientation that informs their coverage of current affairs. Without some form of affiliation to a major political party, a newspaper has nothing to ground it in the political intercourse of its society.
In many ways Fianna Fail and the Irish Times represent two centres of power in contemporary Irish society; two contending worldviews. That one has no overt political affiliation and the other no media outlet is the nub of the problem of the Irish media.
Fourthly, the publication of leaked documents from the Tribunals should be rendered illegal through an Act of the Oireachtas. The Tribunals are being treated with contempt by media organisations. If these expensive judicial bodies are not to be afforded protection from media interference, they should be wound up.
In conclusion, the possibility that the campaign against the Taoiseach is based on a hidden agenda on the part of elements within the media cannot be discounted. It seems strange that ‘Bertiegate’ only became the subject of newspaper articles after Mr Ahern had made a commitment to revive the commemoration of the 1916 Rising, but we can only speculate about such matters.
Outside of election time there is little that members of the public can do about the threat to democracy that all of this poses. But we are not outside of election time! We advise anyone opposed to the witchhunt of the Taoiseach to vote Fianna Fail. Alternatively they should consider writing on their ballot papers an off-the-cuff comment made recently by a respondent to a radio vox pop: ‘THE MEDIA IS THE PROBLEM’.