- 07 Aug 18
Was there any validity to what Leo Varadkar said about the media in New York recently? There are many in the public service who'd say 'yes'. Then again, we have not yet gone down a Trumpian rabbit-hole...
Commensal. Great word. It means eating together at the same table. We had much of it during the recent lengthy heat wave. Balmy nights and al fresco dining brought random occasions and unexpected visitors, which in turn nurtured longer and more discursive mealtimes with more life, more talk, more debate.
One of the table topics was the criticism of the media by Leo Varadkar, reportedly made at a private lunch with young Irish expats in New York. It was reported that he was asked about Trump and his attacks on the media and that his response was that this was one of the few things he could sympathise with Trump about.
It is alleged that he said that the media weren't interested in the truth but in the story, that political journalists were more interested in gossip at Dáil Éireann than in the workings of Government and that some investigative journalism was incorrect, instancing RTE. The reported comments were reconstructed from recollections of those who attended. They made no mention of tone or gesture or other audio or visual cues that might have nuanced what was actually said.
A brief hue and cry ensued, with commentators queuing up to denounce the Taoiseach, assert the importance of the media and defend the freedom of the press. Opposition politicians joined in the fun even though they too, very often, are equally critical of the media. The Government responded as you'd expect, that it was all part of a wide-ranging discussion, remarks taken out of context and reported selectively, and so on.
SENSATION AND TRIVIA
So, a retired senior public official was our eminence grise as we chatted about this and his views proved, well, interesting. He broadly agreed with Varadkar's comments and he thought those views were widely shared in the public service. There is, he thinks, a broad anti-public service bias in the Irish media and an unhealthy, febrile circus around the Dáil. He spoke of journalists known to public servants as 'diggers' or 'fishers'. They "throw in a general FoI (Freedom of Information) request just to see if they can find something." They see themselves as pursuing a point forensically, but seldom place anything in a broader context. They're so fixated on following the story down the rabbit hole that they lose sight of the bigger picture, that is, the truth. Something that is genuinely insignificant is likely to be stripped from its context and presented as a serious matter. He added that if they find anything that can be made to look like a bad thing they'll run with it, but that the reverse never happens.
One of the guests had read a column by Roy Greenslade in the Observer which referenced an interview between former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland on Radio 4's Archive on 4. Inter alia MacKenzie suggested that tabloid journalists lack empathy because they look upon people merely as opportunities for stories. "I don't see why scrabbling around in someone's dustbin should be illegal or disreputable. That's where the truth can be found," he said. He also said it was accurate to see them as people who were "not all that bright", with "some cunning" and exhibiting "a lack of morality".
Our eminence gris laughed at the idea of the dustbin, saying one's FoI-able emails constitute the same thing, adding that in these regards he saw little difference between tabloids, 'Irish' editions of UK papers and broadsheets, other than style.
"Get in their way when they smell blood and you're road-kill. Your name, reputation and job are just collateral damage."
The conversation broadened to comprehend wider cultural, economic, social and technological factors like the growing centrality of social media, the coarsening of reportage as Murdoch's empire expanded, and how this washed through all Irish media, the increase (over two or three decades) in importance of sensation and trivia, the distrust between the public and their politicians, and so on. Around the table there was also acknowledgement of the speed with which news is now revealed and the enormous pressure that journalists in all media are under to produce click-bait and likes and retweets.
Several guests said that as far as they could see, Leo Varadkar was referring to political journalists, not all journalists, which triggered an animated discussion with several guests arguing that the political media largely despise politicians and view themselves as the real opposition. This, they suggested, has coloured their pursuit of stories. One recalled an encounter in a bar on Dublin's Baggot Street with a journalist who claimed "we brought down three Taoisigh and two Garda Commissioners." There may have been drink taken.
In his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis makes the point that for quite some time people in the west had stopped believing the stories politicians had been telling them which, of course, opened the door to Trump and the 'post-truth' era. Has media cynicism played a part in this?
There is certainly one uncomfortable truth for the media: they are just as likely to hide their malfunctions as are politicians, public servants, bankers or business-people and they get just as shirty when they are reminded of their fuck-ups. One wouldn't presume to second-guess what Mr Justice Peter Charleton will say in his whistleblower enquiry report, but there may be comments to soften a few coughs.
Which brings us to the possible presidential election next October. The political journalists seem very keen on a contest, as though they're bored with current parliamentary comings and goings and want a bit of action to keep them awake. Pat Leahy wrote in the Irish Times that the pol cors felt they'd been a bit soft on Michael D last time and fancied giving him a much more thorough grilling this time out. If that's what they think then that's what they think - but we remember the highly partisan advocacy in certain sections of the media for a non-party winner (remember, it was 2011 and the shit had hit the fan) - and how this, far more than his own campaign and his Fianna Fáil connections, propelled Sean Gallagher to the fore. We recall an RTE correspondent gleefully reporting on Gallagher's surge in one poll, saying that he seemed to have captured that anti-establishment vote and was now the man to beat. You could say that the political press willed an anti-establishment vote into life. That wasn't going easy on Michael D, or anyone else in the race at the time, it was going hard for the so called 'outsider', in that case Sean Gallagher.
As for the possible contest in 2018, we still don't know whether Gallagher will go again. But you know what? If he does, he won't be running against Michael D, he'll be running against Sinn Fein. Think of it as payback for the way they shafted him at the last fence in the last election. Interesting times, indeed.