- 20 Sep 02
...I'll be suing you left, right and centre you shower of *!*!*! . . . or words to that effect. Liam Fay talks to Phoenix editor Paddy Prendiville.
*Obviously, there have been times when I've felt sorry for people we've written about,* says Phoenix editor and exposer-in-chief, Paddy Prendiville. *But you've got to just treat a subject of a story as part of the trade, like a doctor looks at a leg and treats it as part of a body.
*I'm never quite sure what's meant by a private life. Most of the people whose so-called private lives would be of interest are very prominent personalities, who normally project their private lives onto the public through public relations profiles of themselves, their family, their social lives and so on. What they mean by their private lives are that part of their private life that they don't want you to read about.
*It also depends on who these people are. I don't think the private life of my next door neighbour who's known to nobody should be written about. The Queen of England's private life is of interest to her subjects. Irish bishops' private lives are very obviously of interest to their flock.
*At the end of the day, news sense is usually what decides whether a private life story is going to be printed or not. That's being a bit more honest than most journalists who like to come out with a lot of ethical cant when it comes to this question.
*I remember The Irish Times saying they were only interested in the Bishop Casey story because of the accountability of money due to the diocesan funds. That just made me laugh!*
For over a decade, The Phoenix has been the cause of a major
pain in the collective arse of the makers, breakers, shakers, fakers and liberty-takers who make up the Irish establishment.
The magazine rose from the embers of the old Hibernia which ceased publication in 1980 and was edited by John Mulcahy who is now the publisher of The Phoenix. Its first issue hit the news-stands on January 7th, 1983 with a mission to inform, satirise, expose and entertain. In a country like this, where the makings of bitter laughs are our greatest indigenous resource, it has never been short of material.
Stylistically, the most obvious prototype for The Phoenix is Britain's Private Eye but, says Paddy Prendiville, this is only a comparison that works up to a point.,
*Private Eye was more invective and ridicule and slags off people in a very funny way,* he insists. *Their current affairs coverage relies more on humour than we do. We wouldn't get away with that over here. If I say to someone here 'Albert Reynolds is a stupid prick', Irish people will just shrug their shoulders and say 'yeah, tell us something we didn't know'. Whereas if I say to a British audience 'the Prime Minister is a silly wally', they'll think that's really daring.
*That's a bit of a caricature, I know, but what I'm really trying to say is that the British have more respect for their institutions than the Irish do. Simply slagging off the powers that be isn't enough here. Irish people want to hear the real story. They can do the slagging themselves.*
Prendiville himself is a newshound of the old school. He even looks, talks and smokes like the ace reporters you see in black'n'white Hollywood movies. All he's short of is the sun-visor and the porkpie hat with the press card protruding from its rim. Always on the lookout for a scoop, he once found himself alone in Brian Lenihan's office and, well, what else could he do but rifle through the then-Minister's files.
*He left me alone in his office for about half an hour during the Anglo-Irish Forum and he shouldn't have done it 'cause I got bored,* he recalls. *I saw all these files and then I saw my favourite words 'Private' and 'Confidential' so I couldn't help myself. Unfortunately, he came back and caught me. He just smiled at me and said 'I'll have that, thank you'. I'd had a chance to look at it but not digest it properly. It was all a bit embarrassing at the time.*
Formerly with the old Sunday Tribune, Prendiville has been editor of The Phoenix since almost the very beginning and has assembled about him a small but committed team of hacks. Their names, however, rarely if ever appear in the magazine. Is this due to fear of reprisals from disgruntled individuals unhappy about appearing in its pages?
*No, it's not,* replies Prendiville. *There's no thought-out reason why we don't name journalists other than that what you read is more important than who writes it. Every now and again, we have outside contributors and obviously they don't wanted to be named.*
Nevertheless, given the nature of many of the areas into which The Phoenix regularly ventures (business fraud, racketeering, paramilitarism, Gardaí Siochana skullduggery etc.) security and surveillance of various kinds are obviously considerations.
*I'd be surprised if there isn't some level of surveillance by sections of the State,* he says. *But I wouldn't be too worried about the state apparatus if they were bugging our phones because I don't think it's possible to do it over a sustained period of time.
*There have also been cases of individuals trying to carry out surveillance on us. I remember one particular businessman who hired a private detective to monitor who came and went out of The Phoenix for a few weeks. It's not something that can be carried out for very long because it's expensive apart from anything else.
*There was, however, one particular gentleman who had made it from the streets to the boardroom and he organised something a bit more dramatic, namely, the planting of substances, dope, in our office and forged dollars in the publisher's house. That got pretty heavy.*
The Phoenix insist that they never pay for information or for tips that might lead to potential stories.
*In the first few years, I remember there being demands for various payments for bits of information and, now and again, we reluctantly forked out small amounts of money,* he admits. *Then we took a decision that it's a very dubious practice. If you gave somebody a thousand pounds, they'd say, 'yes, Charlie Haughey has a harem' - of course, if you gave them nothing they might say the same. In general though, it's an unhealthy thing. Paying money is fraught with all kinds of possibilities and it gets in the way of real information rather than smoothes the path.*
The Phoenix gets many of its leads over their Goldhawk hot-line, the number for which is published in every issue. They also receive documentation, often anonymously, via the post.
*When I see the words 'Private' or 'Confidential' on something, I nearly cream myself,* says Prendiville.
There must have been occasions, however, when they have garnered stories by less than legal means?
*I don't suppose I could ever be seen to break the law,* the editor insists. *It'd be pretty stupid to go around bragging about that. But if you're asking me, ethically, about where information comes from, I have no problem about the source of any information as long as it's true.
*I wouldn't, myself, go out, put a gun to someone's head and demand information but if something happened, even something reprehensible, and I got information as a result of that, I don't regard that as my problem. Information is what matters, not the messenger or the manner of the messenger.*
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to The Phoenix, and indeed
Hot Press or any other media organ which seeks to hace away the public relations veneer of Irish society, is created by this country's draconian libel laws and the ambulance-chasing legal culture which they generate. Despite receiving threatening solicitors' letters on an almost daily basis, however, Paddy Prendiville is proud to say that The Phoenix has only had to set foot in court on fewer than a half dozen occasions during the past decade.
*Unfortunately, we lost most of those times,* he adds. *And usually heavily too, but in one of those instances the other side's victory was a Pyrrhic one. It was a family publishing firm down in the south east and they were demanding telephone figures but what they got was derisory.*
Prendiville claims to be unable to remember the precise amount of the biggest libel settlement that The Phoenix has ever had to fork out, but stresses that in most cases it's the legal fees, for both sides, which constitute the really crippling penalty.
*And don't forget, Phoenix is not different from any other media,* he says. *The sad fact is that an Irish Press report on Clare County Council is as likely these days to incur a libel writ as some serious or adventurous investigation by Phoenix. . The court lists are cluttered with libel cases awaiting hearing. Every publication in the country, from the most mundane to the most exciting, constantly faces this problem. Libel has got quite out of hand. It inhibits journalism greatly.*
And when it comes to putting on the writs, there is now no more determined or relentless political personage than An Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.
*Oddly enough, we haven't received one from him yet and I'm not expecting one in so far as we're very careful about what we print about him,* states Prendiville. *But I do think it's disgraceful that a man who promised open government and who, I think, coined the phrase 'Let in the Light' should be going around suing people.
*He's head of an administration which has promised to reform the libel laws. At the same time, he sees fit to vigorously use those libel laws which he says he disapproves of. I think it's appalling precedent for a man in his position to be setting.*
Reynolds' predecessor, Charles J. Haughey, was renowned for never suing, no matter what was said about him.
*I'd say Charlie felt that he'd better leave well alone,* laughs Prendiville. *I do know that one reason Reynolds himself has decided he's going to sue is that he doesn't want to become like Charlie Haughey and to be excoriated in the media. I don't think that's a good enough excuse. Of course, he's also collected large amounts of spondulicks as a result of this strategy and I believe there's more to come.
*I think that Albert Reynolds is a very shrewd, cute businessman. Unfortunately, I think he has manifested these talents more in his conduct in the libel area than he has in running the country.*
Specifically, what would Prendiville like to see done to loosen the libel stranglehold on Irish journalism?
*Ideally, I'd like to see the American system which relies on the plaintiff to prove either malice or negligence in the preparation of a story,* he says. *In the meantime, the reforms currently being considered by the government would be a good start. If they were implemented.*
Last issue, Fine Gael TD, Michael Noonan, told Hot Press that
he believed the Phoenix -inspired nickname *Baldy Noonan* was politically motivated because of an anti-Fine Gael bias on behalf of the publication and also because, at the time, John Mulcahy's son was about to launch a political career on the Fianna Fail ticket. Paddy Prendiville laughs at the suggestion.
*I'm used to listening to conspiracy theories but that's one of the most hilarious ones I've heard recently,* he says. *Baldy Noonan is called Baldy Noonan because he's bald.*
Are there other politicians who have taken exception to their Phoenix sobriquets?
*When Gerry Collins became Minister for Justice, I believe he issued an edict to his civil servants and PR army that henceforth he should be known as Gerard Collins. Around that time, we started calling him Luigi, something which, I believe, he and his courtiers took grave exception to.*
According to Prendiville, of all the branches of society on the receiving end of Phoenix brickbats, the sector that squeals most is, ironically, the media itself.
*I think the reversal of roles annoys a lot of journalists, especially the more senior editorial and administrative ones,* he argues. *They certainly resent any coverage of their own area. Let me put it this way, we've written about everybody from criminals to politicians - if you accept there's a distinction there - and the only people who've ever physically threatened me have been journalists. I've been physically threatened, physically attacked.*
Are we talking here about journalists from RTE, The Irish Times?
*Both actually,* he says.
Isn't there a danger with a forum like The Phoenix that certain contributors can develop obsessions and hobby horses? I'd imagine, for instance, that Vincent Browne would have every right to feel aggrieved about being written about in every single issue.
*There's a danger for any journalist in getting obsessive about various issues,* says Prendiville. *I know I have now and again but usually you'll find that your colleagues or boss will point this out. Vincent Browne gets a lot of coverage because he does some pretty zany, exciting and eminently publishable things, as any of his staff will tell you, if only in private.*
John Mulcahy is known to be a very *hands-on* publisher - does Prendiville find this intrusive?
*The hoor is in the office before me every morning and, yeah, he's very hands on,* says the editor. *But I actually quite enjoy that because it means that I can concentrate almost entirely on stories. I don't have to think about business or the wider things.*
Like any other publication in Ireland which attempts to take a genuinely serious, open-eye look at the Northern Ireland situation, The Phoenix has been dubbed by elements in the mainstream media as *soft* on the Provos. But then Paddy Prendiville has been accused of being soft on just about everybody else as well.
*I've been told that I'm pro-Fianna Fail, pro-Fine Gael, pro-Labour, pro-Sinn Fein, soft on the PDs, soft on trade unions and soft on business,* he states. *The thing about us being soft on the Provos says more about the twenty-six counties media than anything else. Anybody who attempts to defend a nationalist agenda, to any degree at all, is accused of being soft on the Provos. That is a reflection of a really closed mentality that's grown up in the last few years down here. Any serious scrutiny of the recent local elections in the North will show you that most pundits down here talk nonsense about the North.*
Prendiville believes that during the past decade the Irish mainstream media have gone even more *soft and flabby* than even they had been in the more distant past. In particular, he instances the paucity of investigative reporting and the bland, unquestioning praise being heaped on someone like Mary Robinson.
*I suppose we are the only media organ that takes a critical look at Mary Robinson,* he insists. *She's definitely become something of a saint and to an extent she's earned it. To another extent, she's very much part of the politically correct establishment down here and her agenda is a very definite one. And one that is approved of by such as The Irish Times, the Independent group and most of the opinion formers in the country. There's a dual thing in operation there and that should be examined.*
Ok Paddy, you've got the inside track, how many more Irish
Bishops are having affairs and when will we be reading about it in The Phoenix?
*I remember when the Bishop Casey story broke, something we had flagged earlier on without naming him, a posse of journalists from both Ireland and England went scouring through various dioceses,* he says. *There's some pretty interesting stuff there but most of it is unprintable, at the moment.
Hot Press has heard strong rumours of at least one gay Bishop, and a man with particular impressive credentials at that.
*Indeed, I know who you're talking about,* replies Prendiville. *But wild horses and the libel laws won't drag his name out of me.*
Are there still many great unexposed scandals out there?
*Absolutely,* proclaims Prendiville. Phoenix is supposed to be the most daring of the media and we only scratch the surface. Some of the stories that come into us and some of the stories I happen to know are true are absolutely amazing but you just can't print them. Sometimes, even if you can prove them to your own editorial satisfaction, you just know that your sources won't stand up in court and go on the record. It's very frustrating.*
How would Paddy Prendiville react if someone wrote about his private life?
*I often wonder If I would react as hysterically to coverage of myself as other people have to my coverage of them,* he says. *I don't think, however, that I'm exactly a household name.*
And is there anything in his private life which if revealed might make him a household name?
*If there is, I'm certainly not going to tell you,* he concludes.