The sorry state of the Irish media

The story of free speech in Ireland today has moved on considerably from the past, but the political class believes that they can decide just how the public conversation should be conducted.

Padraig Reidy
30 April 2013

RTE, Ireland's public service broadcaster, has been at the centre of several high profile scandals. Demotix/Henriette Gran Myreng. All rights reserved.

In October 2011, Bertie Ahern, the former finance minister and Taoiseach whose name is synonymous with the rise and fall of Ireland’s 'Celtic Tiger' economy, made an astounding accusation.

The crash that had nearly destroyed the Irish economy was, Ahern told a university radio station, not the fault of the government, but of the nation’s media, who should have been covering the economy instead of focusing on corruption allegations emerging against Ahern and other senior politicians:

“There should be an investigation into it,” said Ahern, with characteristic chutzpah (or “neck” as we say in Ireland). “They should have been following the economy from August 2007, but they weren’t, they were following me. I think a lot of these guys really should have looked at themselves.

“The government were following the economy but the media weren’t. It was a very poor job by the media really. They were shown to be incompetent and that was the trouble – everything was on me.”

Of course, Ahern was merely carrying on his fine personal style of blaming everyone else for his failings - with an added dose of self-pity. However, his view of the free press as a nuisance, rather than a pillar of civil society, is not uncommon.

Free speech in Ireland is too often a by-product rather than a core value: tongues are bitten, punches are pulled. When, on the rare occasion, a polemicist or satirist comes out all guns blazing, the reaction can be terrifying. Scrap Saturday, the last genuinely biting satire in broadcast or print media in the Republic, was pulled from the national radio station, allegedly under pressure from the Fianna Fail government of the early 90s. The lesson was learned, and 'satire' on radio and television now consists of silly voices and soft blows.

As in much of the western world, the language of the censor has changed. Censorship does not now exist to protect the interests of the strong, we are told, but to defend the sensibilities of the weak. When the unpopular and incompetent Taoiseach Brian Cowen was crudely lampooned by artist Conor Casby, who put caricatures of the corpulent politician nude and sitting on the toilet on the walls of two Dublin galleries, the outrage was spun as an offence not against the politician, but his poor, sick mother (no one ever actually got the woman on the record as to how offended she was). Astoundingly, RTE news apologised for reporting on the incident.

Offence is also at the heart of Ireland’s blasphemy law. Bucking a European trend of rescinding blasphemy laws, as seen recently in the UK and the Netherlands, Ireland actually created a new definition of blasphemy in 2009. The country’s 1937 constitution had specified that blasphemy was a crime, but no one had ever actually defined what blasphemy might be. A private prosecution was brought against a newspaper cartoonist who had lampooned a bishop in the late 90s, but the case was dismissed as the judge found there was no way to prosecute when the law did not state what actually constituted the offence.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern decided in 2008 that the law should be updated. Rather than abolish blasphemy as an offence, Ahern decided to define it clearly, and now Irish citizens can face convictions and fines for the publication of material that could “cause outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of [a] religion". Ahern rejected calls for a referendum to remove the constitutional need for a blasphemy law.

The blasphemy legislation came as part of the 2009 Defamation Bill, which reformed the country’s libel laws (largely for the better, though damages in Irish libel cases can be astronomical), and also created legal recognition for the Press Council of Ireland. This regulatory council emerged in 2008 after several years of discussions between newspapers, the National Union of Journalists and politicians. The system, which operates with an Ombudsman, John Horgan, at its head, offers an incentive for membership - a partial defence in privacy and legal cases - though without the exemplary damages for non members proposed in the British Royal Charter model. Interestingly, no outlet has, as yet, attempted to use that defence. Meanwhile, some of Ireland’s biggest new media outlets, such as TheJournal.ie, have so far declined to join.

The council came into being as the press desperately attempted to stave off a proposed draconian privacy law. Cabinet member Brian Linehan said at the time it appeared: “I don’t think I am breaching any state secrets when I tell you that not all my colleagues had boundless enthusiasm for this approach. I would not for a moment dismiss their reservations and, indeed, concern about media intrusion is not exclusive to those of us involved in politics.”

But the threat of the privacy law has not disappeared: After the Irish edition of the Daily Star printed pictures of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, topless, current justice minister Alan Shatter announced that he would revive the dreaded privacy bill, stating, "It is my intention to revisit the provisions of the Privacy Bill 2006 which was reinstated to the Seanad Order paper following the formation of the Government, to consider what changes should be made to it in the context of developments that have taken place since its first publication and to then progress its enactment.”

Meanwhile, in a grim irony, media magnate Denis O’Brien, who has been criticised for his apparent editorial interference in the radio stations and newspapers he owns, has condemned the Press Council as “toothless”, apparently agreeing with Shatter’s view.

The potential for a privacy law, which would seem to be primarily aimed at the press, has alarmed many who see it as an attack on an already vulnerable newspaper industry. In 2011, national paper the Sunday Tribune closed down, and more recently, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, which owns the national Examiner title plus 17 regionals, went into receivership (with some of its titles being placed into a new company).

The media, as is so often the case, has sometimes acted as its own worst enemy in Ireland. RTE’s flagship current affairs programme, Prime Time Investigates, was shut down in 2011 after an astonishingly shoddy and arrogant piece of journalism which led to a priest, Father Kevin Reynolds, being libelled as a paedophile on national television. An inquiry found that the investigation had been seriously mishandled, and Reynolds’s attempts to co-operate with the programme in order to put his side of the story had been ignored by reporter Aoife Kavanagh.

Earlier, the current affairs wing of RTE had been criticised after moderator Pat Kenny read out a false tweet from a fake account during a televised debate during the 2011 Presidential race: the tweet, supposedly from an account run by a Sinn Fein candidate, played on doubts about front-runner Sean Gallagher's financial probity and his links to the then massively unpopular Fianna Fail party. Gallagher stumbled in answering the ensuing questions, and his campaign never recovered. But questions remained over RTE’s role in his downfall.

In April 2013, the Broadcasting Association of Ireland brought out guidelines aimed at imposing impartiality in current affairs broadcasting. Some media observers and personalities have been alarmed by the stringency of their proposals.

The BAI’s “Code of Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality in News and Current Affairs states that: “A news presenter and/or a reporter in a news programme may not express his or her view on matters that are either of public controversy or the subject of current public debate.”

Left wing commentator and current affairs presenter Vincent Browne attacked the guidelines, writing that the BAI was displaying a “cavalier attitude” to the constitutional entitlement to free speech, while disc jockey Ray D’Arcy told the Irish Independent "I'm not going to be going on air without delivering my opinion, that's part of what I do."

The story of free speech in Ireland today has moved on considerably from the past, when church and state colluded to hide information from us on everything from jazz music to abortion: But there remains a belief in the political class that they can decide just how the public conversation should be conducted.

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