Archive for May 29, 2015

Denis, the Dáil and denying freedom of the press

Imagine living in a country where one single person edited every newspaper and every news bulletin on radio on TV.

If you live in Ireland, you don’t have to.

Because that’s exactly what Denis O’Brien did today.

Citing an injunction handed down recently to stop RTE broadcasting a story about his private finances, the businessman and major media owner used his lawyers to threaten and cajole anyone trying to report what went on in parliament.

That’s right – statements made in the Irish legislature were censored by a Maltese (for tax purposes, at any rate) businessman.

Front-page stories were ditched. Headlines were read out, but the details left untouched.

The story? There is no story. Move along. Nothing to see here, said Denis.

The fact that he is prepared to do that shows that Denis O’Brien is probably not fit to buy an Irish newspaper off a stand, let alone actually own one, and a few radio stations for good measure.

His childish, petulant response is more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy.

Denis claims that every citizen is entitled to privacy and to his or her good name, and that is true.

But equally, taxpayers lying on trolleys in hospitals are entitled know if O’Brien – probably the biggest beneficiary of corporate welfare in Ireland, as well as owner of several entities charging the state handsomely for their services- has received their money either in error or under less-than-onerous terms.

If businesses he owned or bought have had debts written off, especially at the expense of the taxpayer, it is in the public interest.

How Denis pays his electricity bill is his own private business.

But if he has got money off a state-owned bank bailed out and underwritten by the Irish people – who, to pay for it, have to pay water charges which no less than Denis O’Brien is profiting handsomely from – it’s in the public interest.

If he has got contracts, deals or acquisitions featuring public money or state bodies without following due process, it’s in the public interest.

O’Brien originally tried to shut down the interest rate story by reverting to the courts. The intervention of Catherine Murphy – who has behaved impeccably – has now moved the story on.

I hate to break it to you Denis, and in fairness I’m surprised it’s me that has to do it given the amount of media bods that surround you, but the injunction you got is not worth the paper it’s written on.

The story has moved on.

The genies is out of the bottle.

And he ain’t going back in anytime soon.

And this is what upsets Denis the most.

No matter how much he pays, we cannot un-know what we now know.

But his reaction is that which is typical of the powerful.

Threaten. Cajole. Denigrate.

How dare these proles stand up to me?

Stand up they have, and they will continue to do so.

Fair play to those at RTE like Keelan Shanley who continued, despite their hands being tied by useless legal advice, to challenge.

The operators at Broadsheet were equally brave.

I wonder, though, about those at Independent Newspapers and in Marconi House, who were either deathly silent or merely gave passing mention to a mini-constitutional crisis, just a week after one of the proudest moments in the history of our democracy.

If I were them and my reporting was being blunted by an owner seemingly only out to serve himself, I would seriously question whether my job, along with my paper or station, was worth having at all.

Being freelance may be an insecure life, but I’d rather my career die because I stood up for something I believe in – freedom of speech and freedom of the press – than be on my knees in front of Denis and his high-priced lawyers.

Note: Today Our Man In Stockholm filled in the forms to register as a publisher in Sweden, meaning that articles and reports can be published here under Swedish media law, rather than the draconian legislation that allows the powerful to sue the press into silence. More news as it breaks…

 

Power addicts anonymous

- Hi, my name is Micheál and I’m addicted to power.

- Hi, Micheál

- Go ahead man, you’re in a safe place here.

- Thanks lads.

I’ve been an addict for years and things were fine. I had all the power I wanted, but ultimately me and a few others abusers used it to destroy.

In the end, we made a lot of people suffer, and then our power got taken away.

- Good for you, man. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, bro.

- I thought so for a while too, but deep down I wanted it back more than anything.

- That’s natural man, trust the higher power.

- Lately, I find the craving is back, more intense than ever. And I’m back to my old ways. I mean, I just stabbed a friend who thought she could trust me in the back.

- What?!?

- No-one’s judging you here, Micheál.

- Thanks lads.

It’s just instinct. She wanted to use the power for good, but the rest of us just wanted to keep it for ourselves, just like the old days. She says we’re hopeless, we can’t change.

- So what did you do?

- She held an intervention and told us we had to use the power for good, for the weak.

- How did you react?!

- We mocked her and laughed at her.

- You LAUGHED at her?!

- I thought no-one was judging me here?

- For fu… go on, Micheál.

- I can’t help it. It’s the crowd I hang around with.

For years, we had all the power we want, and now we have nothing. So we fucked her over in the press, made her out to seem just like us – a greedy, power-hungry, self centred bitch, when in truth she’s nothing of the sort.

But goddamit, we’re good people, we work hard – we DESERVE power! NO-ONE deserves power more than us!!

- Micheál, I think we have discovered the root of this issue. The first step to dealing with your addiction to power is to admit you have a problem.

- I DON’T HAVE A FUCKING PROBLEM WITH POWER! THE ONLY PROBLEM I HAVE WITH POWER IS THAT I DON’T FUCKING HAVE ANY!!

ME?! YOU HAVE A PROBLEM! SHE HAS A PROBLEM!!

- Micheál, there’s no need to get aggress…

- FUCK YOU!!! NOT ONE OF YOU FUCKERS WILL GET ON A TICKET AT THE NEXT ELECTION!! NOT ONE FUCKING POSTER, YA HEAR ME?!?

- OK lads, we’ll have to leave it there for today. Please remember that what you heard in this room today is confidential.

- FUCK YOU!! FUCKING BLUESHIRTS!!

*Micheál calls a number on speed-dial*

- Is that Seán O’Rourke?

Book me in for tomorrow morning, that uppity bitch is getting it in the neck…

Enjoy the silence – “balance” has failed

The broadcast moratorium on the Irish Marriage Equality referendum is now in force, meaning that legacy technology is now excluded from the debate, which will continue online in earnest until long after the polls have closed.

But as the curtains come down on the radio and TV coverage and debates, it’s time to call a spade a spade – “balance” as it is interpreted in Irish journalism (particularly in broadcast journalism) has been a spectacular and predictable failure.

The McKenna judgment may loom large but it is no excuse for not robustly challenging and investigating both sides of the campaign.

Declining to properly investigate and analyse the funding of both sides may appear at first glance to be balanced, but it’s not, as it is the voters who are left wondering how to follow the money.

Allowing campaigners to go unchallenged with statements that range from the completely spurious to the downright offensive does not provide “balance.”

Allowing campaigners to keep referring to the same unrelated subjects, over and over and over again, despite the Referendum Commission saying several times that they were of no relevance, does not provide balance.

Instead, it allows the waters to be muddied – the very antithesis of what journalism, and in particular public service broadcasting, should be.

We have had a situation where, under the watchful myopic eye of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, editors, producers and journalists were too busy watching the clock to ensure that both sides get equal time to notice that the emperors they are interviewing were in many cases not wearing any clothes.

In our newspapers, opinion pieces from both sides were published seemingly without any facts being checked. Glaring errors and misleading information went uncorrected and unacknowledged.

The result was a skewed and shallow debate about non-issues that leaves Irish media consumers with more questions than answers.

Given that Irish people have a tendency to leave the constitution untouched when they don’t have clarity on the issue at hand, it’s hardly a wonder that the gap is closing.

The issue – whether “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex” – has barely been discussed, if at all, in the run-up to polling day.

In the vast majority of cases, media moguls have been running scared.

In some cases, “experts” put forward turned out to be nothing more than internet trolls with dubious credentials. And in the case of at least one prominent gay member of the No campaign, the most charitable thing that can be said is that if he didn’t exist, they would have had to invent him.

Forced to pick from a tiny pool of No contributors, the same faces trotted out arguments that became more and more hysterical and irrelevant.

Pointing this out to them would not have been in any way unbalanced. It would have been simple common sense.

Alas, it happened all too seldom.

There are some notable exceptions – Philip Boucher-Hayes and Miriam O’Callaghan (RTE), Chris Donoghoe (Newstalk) and Matt Cooper (Today FM) all interrupted rants at times to point out that the contents of them were not relevant.

This, unfortunately wasn’t enough to stop some of the debaters, whose ignorance of good manners was almost as broad as their ignorance of the facts.

The provision of impartial information is the job of the Referendum Commission. It is not the media to be a mouthpiece for either side.

It is the job of journalists to report what happens, to question what they are told and to try to put it in context.

For too long,the practice of journalism in Ireland has been drowned in a sea of whingeing from vested interests with an enormous sense of entitlement, and who see the media as nothing more then their own personal moral megaphone.

For much of the existence of this state, the Catholic Church has been at the top of that particular queue, and to a certain extent it still is.

But there can be no obligation for the media to be “balanced” when the arguments put forth are anything but.

Freedom of speech is about being able to say whatever you want – but it does not and should not oblige anyone else to give you a platform to spout bilious irrelevant nonsense.

Also implicit in freedom of speech is that your opinions and your motivations will be rigorously teased out and tested.

Freedom of speech means that you are free to think and to say and to write what you like – but no-one is under any obligation to publish or broadcast it, or  indeed to listen to it or read it.

The Marriage Referendum debate has been a failure of the Irish Fourth Estate, but it is not entirely the fault of journalism.

We need to understand that in some issues the public is in broad agreement, and that giving 50% of airtime in such situations is only going to cause unnecessary hurt and damage to fellow citizens.

We need to recognise that the media ultimately does not tell us what to think – only what to think about. Our families and our peers have a much greater influence on how our opinions are formed than any op-ed piece or self-aggrandising debate contribution ever could have.

In short, we need to learn that balance cannot exist, and exercise common sense instead. There are many rights that come with citizenship but one of the most important responsibilities we have is to understand the consequences of exercising our vote.

And that’s something nobody should be relying on the media for.