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arts and media |
Monday November 06, 2006 00:05 by David Alvey - The Irish Political Review Group
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?