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Comment: Irish Media-Caged or Paper Tigers?

See also: Darfur, the Media Loop and When News of Mass Killings is News

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Added August 12, 2004: First posted on
Irish Times: Should it appoint a Public Editor/Ombudsman?

June 7,2004--The news that an independent Irish press council protected by law, is to be facilitated in forthcoming legislation is welcome. The current defamation laws dating back to 1961 were copied from earlier UK legislation and given the prohibitive cost of civil law procedures in Ireland, wealthy individuals and politicians have been the principal beneficiaries of the protections. Should the general public expect a significant change in the approach of the media to in-depth investigation of issues of public governance and other matters of common interest, in the aftermath of the planned changes?

While the libel laws have inhibited the media from exposing significant wrongdoing in the political, business and religious sectors of society, it is ironic that Radio Telefis Éireann (RTE), Ireland's State broadcaster, has been to the forefront in the past three decades in focusing public attention on public and private corruption. RTE not only has had to contend with the legal hurdles but has never been free of the intimidation of politicians who control the bulk of its revenue through the annual licence charge that is levied on owners of television sets. The Irish newspapers generally have played a more passive role and the ownership structures have not had a discernible impact on this situation. The case of former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Charles Haughey supports the argument that the defamation laws were not the only factor in the reluctance of the media to seriously address corruption in past decades. In the early 1980's almost every dog in the street was aware that Haughey had an overdraft of over €1.3m with AIB Bank. Beyond the deluded, the electorate knew that his wealth could not have been accumulated from his earnings as a politician. Irish media organisations folded in the face of a powerful politician. Given the record of the recent past, the planned changes in the legal framework may not usher in dramatic changes in Irish journalism. 

The key test for the Irish media will be the willingness to significantly increase the budgets for comprehensive research and investigation. Breaking stories based on whistleblower tips are manna from heaven but investigations such as RTE's recent Prime Time programme investigation of the systematic breaking of planning laws in different parts of the country, takes time and resources. Columnists tend to dominate Irish Sunday newspaper coverage and the focus of non-news sections of the daily newspapers is often on lifestyle issues. Business news departments have to fight for limited space, never mind allocating staff to investigations which may take weeks to yield any results. There is often a lack of a follow-up on what may be the story of the week, when some other topic takes over media attention. When a spokesperson for the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Cardinal Connell announced that his boss was negotiating with RTE's Prime Time on the request for an interview on child sex abuse, the churchmen were running out the clock and won. This was an illustration on the limits on the power of the media in Irish society. Another pertinent example is the control which an Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) retains on media availability. There is seldom a problem with providing soundbites when opening festivals or pubs but it is rare for the media to have access for the style of interview conducted by NBC's Tim Russert on the US news programme Meet the Press.  

The revelations from the public abuse of power tribunals have resulted in some baby steps towards greater transparency in society. However, secrecy is the knee-jerk response in the public and private sectors. Fifty years after television was instrumental in exposing Irish American Senator Joseph McCarthy as a fraud and bully, audio and TV are excluded from the Irish public corruption tribunals. Should we wonder that the tribunals are virtually operating in a separate universe? Media organisations are as secretive about their affairs as other self-interested sectors of society and the excuse of commercial confidentiality is often a convenient fig leaf. A media organisation which promotes greater public transparency cannot have credibility if information on itself that it would publish in respect of a competitor, is suppressed. Intra-industry bitching, particularly in the Sunday newspapers, is generally the route through which unflattering news about media companies reaches the public. No organisation is perfect and the Washington Post journalist Howard Kurtz recently wrote in relation to the revelations of fabricated stories by journalists: 'as the implosions at USA Today and the New York Times make clear, newsrooms are sometimes more dysfunctional and paralyzed than the government agencies they cover, with top editors uninformed about problems with subordinates, missing obvious warning signals or intimidating their staff against bringing them bad news. When Karen Jurgensen was prodded into resigning as USA Today's the wake of Jack Kelley's serial fabrications, she did not address her staff or take questions from the press. Neither she nor the two top editors who are also leaving their posts assumed blame or apologized.'

It's said that a good salesman is usually a poor administrator and the same could be said about good journalists. In a recent UK survey, it was reported that 75% of press releases that are issued by public relations firms are immediately binned and as many press releases issued are succeeded by attempts to contact an editor on the phone to check that the release has been received. The lot of editors is not an easy one but administration in some media organisations is better than others. Recently I experienced a contrasting example of dealing with an Irish print media organisation and the Financial Times (FT).  John Lloyd, the Editor of the FT Magazine responded to an e-mail inquiry when received and a week later in relation to a separate issue, a  colleague e-mailed us on when material we provided would be published in the FT. In contrast, 3 similar recent contacts with the Irish newspaper did not result in any response. 

The planned changes in the legal framework for the Irish media provide opportunities to have a more assertive role in society following decades of corruption and poor public administration. However, media organisations will have to reflect on the changes that they will need to make themselves if they wish to make both an impact in the future while having the credibility to point a finger at others. This is the challenge irrespective of ownership structure, be it a public body, charitable trust, a multinational public limited company or a private company which still has a family involvement after more than a century and a half. 

- Michael Hennigan

See also: Darfur, the Media Loop and When News of Mass Killings is News

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Irish Times: Should it appoint a Public Editor/Ombudsman?
by Michael Hennigan - Finfacts Wednesday, Aug 11 2004, 10:53pm phone: 087 2474328
national / arts and media / opinion/analysis

The appointment of an independent Public Editor by the Irish Times, would be consistent with its mission statement and its aspiration to remain a 'natural authority.'

The Irish Times charitable trust which owns the Irish Times was set up in 1974 when the five existing shareholders were bought out. One of them Thomas McDowell remained in management control of the operation for the succeeding 18 years and the corporate structure remained a traditional hierarchical one. The Editor states on the newspaper's website: 'The Irish Times is the national forum for the thinkers and doers in Irish society. We offer a platform for critical, constructive and divergent comment in the different spheres of business, politics and public affairs generally. We have moved in recent years from being the newspaper of record to the newspaper of reference. Most important of all, The Irish Times occupies a special position as a pacemaker for change in the society which it serves. We aim to lead and shape public opinion to a greater degree than of our competitors because we have both the natural authority and the means, through our interested and receptive readership, to do so. We are prepared to champion specific causes, as we have always done, while recognising that these causes have changed over the last decade.'

Fifty years after Irish American demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy was exposed on US national TV as a fraud and bully and 30 years after President Richard Nixon's resignation following nationally televised hearings, the several investigation tribunals, which are currently operating in Ireland, appear to have had little impact on the national consciousness. The success of the political establishment in keeping the cameras out because tribunals are subject to similar rules as the Courts was a massive and effective stroke. Baby steps have been taken to provide greater transparency in public affairs but the Freedom of Information Act provisions have already been restricted and little has really changed apart from the impressive efficiency of the Revenue service. The media had generally wilted during the long years of corruption because of fears of legal action and the protection/toleration that a significant number of the public gave to obvious wrongdoers. Even today, it is RTE, the publicly funded broadcaster, which is to the forefront of bringing significant issues to the attention of the public. Budgets for investigations appear to be pretty small in the print media and exposure of wrongdoing in the business sector, when it rarely happens, depends on inside whistleblowers.

The Irish Times is in a special position both because of its mission statement and tax-exempt status. It should be to the forefront in both being an example of the transparency it seeks in the public sector and in subjecting its mission statement to independent judgement. It should also be prepared to have an innovative system for the involvement of its entire staff. Today the public reads information on media companies when competitors engage in one upmanship bitching. There is surely a better way. Besides, there is often a wide gulf between a company's aspirations as stated in its mission statement and reality. It's time the newspaper considered appointing an independent Public Editor/ombudsman.

Last year following the fallout of the scandal at the New York Times in which a reporter Jayson Blair falsified stories, Daniel Okrent a former Time magazine editor and author (who had never met the NYT's Executive Editor, prior to getting involved with the newspaper) was appointed the Public Editor. He is responsible for addressing readers' concerns and investigating the newspaper's ethical decisions. Every 2 weeks, the newspaper publishes his responses to readers' issues and he doesn't pull any punches- for example; 'if you're examining the paper's coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn't wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world.' Okrent said in relation to a decision to kill off sports columns that disagreed with the paper's editorial-page stance on the Augusta National Golf Course's refusal to allow women into its membership ranks: "The spiked columns were inexcusable."

The appointment of an independent Public Editor by the Irish Times, would be consistent with its mission statement and its aspiration to remain a 'natural authority.' Every company tries to conceal dirty linen that has nothing to do with commercial competitive considerations. A newspaper organisation should aim to be different. In addition, given the charitable status of the Irish Times, the organisation structure should have more in common with a cooperative than a conventional corporate structure. All employees should be members with genuine mechanisms for two-way communication and a real role in decision making.

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Our Comment feature has been incorporated in the:

The Finfacts Ireland News & Comment  Service from October 2004


September 2004:

Ireland Tops Cash per Head Income Aid from European Union
Can Vincent Browne Shake Up a Cosy Irish Media?

Get an Education and Make Crime Pay

August 2004:

America: Celebrities, Politics and Money
Is Saudi Arabia on the Brink?
The Manchurian Candidate and the Evil Corporation

Darfur, the Media Loop and When News of Mass Killings is News

July 2004:

Incendiary Money Spinners: Fahrenheit 9/11 and President George W. Bush Assassination Novel Plot
Aer Lingus Management Buyout/MBO-A Contrarian View

UN Human Development Report 2004 and Ireland
Should Bertie Ahern Sack Mary Harney from the Irish Cabinet

June 2004:

Senator Joseph McCarthy: The Implosion of an Irish American Demagogue
Irish Media-Caged or Paper Tigers?
The Celtic Tiger and Public Squalor in Modern Ireland
The Many Facets of Racism Part 1
The Many Facets of Racism Part 2

May 2004:

Balancing Frugality and Miserliness
The Gekko Doctrine-Fair Pay in an Age of Greed 
The Genesis of American Foreign Policy
In an Age of Cynicism: Trust me, I'm a Politician!

April 2004:

Dealing with Al Qaeda Terrorism
Employment Rights and Human Rights
The Opiate of the Masses
Prison of Culture-Japanese Hostages Get Icy Welcome Home 

March 2004:

The Irish Abuse of Power Tribunals
1989-A Year of Irish Corruption and Freedom
Iraq War and Embittered Tit-for-Tat
Irish Corruption and Morality: 'But sir, don't they all steal?'


US Corporate Scandals and the Laws of Unintended Consequences
Self Interest - Common Interest Imbalances

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