Friday, March 28, 2008

old skool journalism film

Thanks to pippygoats for this. It's funny but also informative. Back then, women were told in no uncertain terms what their place was in newspaper.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Michael Smith's blog

Thanks to Adam, Mamam Poulet and Ronan. This is the link for Michael Smith's blog.

It's a juicy blog, and very opinionated. In the most recent posting, he takes a broadside against the lack of investigative journalism. There's an element of truth in some of what he is saying but there's also a bit too much cleverality. Besides, Primetime Investigates can still produce whomper of investigations and you still get occasional magic investigations in newspapers (they are really costly and sap resources and in the age of 'churnalism' are getting harder for hard-pressed editors to justify).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Village in us all

One of the most interesting articles published over the Easter was by Daniel McConnell in the Sindo. It was a piece inspired by the latest blog entry by Michael Smith, the environmentalist who was one of those (along with barrister Colm Mac Eochaidh) who stumped up a reward of £10,000 over a decade ago to anybody who could produce evidence of corruption.

Unfortunately, I was unable to come across Smith's blog (if you have the link please send it on!). But you'll find McConnell's article here.a

Anyway, this is what I thought was he key quote from Smith:

"It hasn't really broken a single notable story in its three and a half years -- Vincent gets very annoyed if you say this! Often, there's no carry-through on what the headline suggests lies below and too much leading material is dyspeptic rehashings of old material, usually about the big male beasts in our society such as Tony O'Reilly or Michael McDowell."

Smith continued: "Sometimes too -- as with Charlie and Bertie -- Vincent tellingly feels he has to publish endless nonsense about what nice fellas they are underneath it, as if that mattered in determining corruption in public life. The only reason you could forgive all this is that he did once introduce Frank Dunlop to his radio audience with the phrase: 'You're some little bollix, aren't you?'"

This is hilarious. Here is Smith saying that Vincent Browne - the most splenetic and outspoken and most obdurate of them all - isn't hard enough, that he too succumbs to the most common wasting disease of Irish journalism.

And disease is best identified by a phrase that was coined by Eamon Dunphy a long time ago - decentskinmanship. And of course, all you have to do is listen to Dunphy any Saturday morning (or when he was pitiably trying to be the new Gay Byrne on TV3 some years ago) to know that he too has thrown his snout into the trough. (I have written about this on this blog before - see this entry from February 2007)

Ireland is a small country and when you work in Irish journalism you quickly realise that you are fishing in a small creek. And awkwardly extending that metaphor, the problem with shooting fish in a barrell is that when you shoot them there are few left. And those that are left will hate you because you have downed a decent man and will shun you for the rest of your life. Let me explain a little...

Journalism is a classic example of symbiosis. To get by, you need good contacts. But it's a two way street - the contact's relationship with the journalist can also be beneficial. And sometimes, it can't be denied, that the motives of the contact (and less often, the journalist) are not the altruistic dewy-eyed ones about bettering society or upholding democracy.

There are different levels of dependency. In security, crime, property, music, motoring, there is a high degree of dependency on good contacts - and you wonder sometimes about the kind of compromises that are made. You bite off the hand that feeds at your peril. For example, if you are critical of garda behaviour for example, or a garda operation, or say it was was excessive, you may lose a contact for life.

Politics is no exception. Leinster House is like a large school though the status of journalists is somewhere between first years and scullions. But you build up a 'hello' relationship with virtually every politician in the place over a period of time (I will be five years there this August). And despite the jolly hail-fellow-well-met dispositon of most politicians, many of them have think skins. So if you are critical (sometimes even mildly so) the jolly hellos can quickly turn to dagger stares as you creep along the corridors.

I still have to psyche myself up to ask a hard question of a politician. For years, I tried to use a softly-softly approach where I'd butter it up with general preliminaries before asking the awful question. But it was usually so grotesquely out of character with everything that went before that it became THE WORST. So nowadays I tend to ask the question directly. Still, it's hard, harder than youy can imagine.

And that certain intimacy between journalists and politicians always rears its head most when there is a question of impropriety or a politician has found himself in the soup because of a lack of standards or whatever.

It's hard not to succumb to the 'poor old devil' syndrome. But as a colleague reminded me a couple of days ago, we are the fourth estate and do have a vital function in a democracy (notwithstanding our low stock and our unpopularity). And that means asking tough questions. And making enemies rather than currying favour with friends.

The extreme example of that was Brian Walden, the famous British current affairs journalist. As he prepared himself to interview politicians, he would always say to himself with indignation: why is this lying bastard lying to me?

It may not be pretty, but it's the way it has to be.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bertie and the leaking anorak

Lots of metaphors about Bertie have done the rounds over the past two years. Death by a thousand cuts. Another nail in the coffin. But until now - despite all the talk of running out of track and ends being night - there has been nothing to suggest that he will go much earlier than he had planned.

I think what happened with Grainne Carruth yesterday and today has changed all that. She has moved from a position where she simply cashed Bertie Ahern's salary cheques and lodged occasional amounts into the accounts set up for his two daughters to a position where she fully accepts that she exchanged and lodged £15,500 in sterling for Bertie Ahern. It was, by all accounts, a fraught day for Carruth today - she was being paid only £66 a week when she started working for Bertie but it's clear that she - and everybody else associated with St Luke's for that matter - was fiercely loyal.

But the real focus here is the implications all of this will have for the Taoiseach? in the kindest possible scenario, he has some explaining to do how an account which he said was used for lodging his salary cheques has been shown - and proved beyond reasonable doubt on any fair reading of the transcript - to have also been used to lodge large amounts of sterling. It will be stretching it a bit (to put it mildly) to say that this account gave yet another outing for the famous recyclable sterling that was associated with his house in the Beresford Estate and Michael Wall. But you never know. Truth in the form of Bertie Ahern's evidence has often been much much stranger than fiction.

And back to the metaphors. Another nail in the coffin. Not the final one, said a colleague today. But certainly a six-inch nail that was hammered in so deeply that it'll be nigh impossible to prise out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Limousine hire for Noel Dempsey and his party during a trip to the US : €19,500. Two nights' accommodation at the Hassler Hotel in Rome for Seamus Brennan: €3,300. The schadenfreude of knowing the media is going into paroxysms of rage at the extravagance of it all: Priceless.

As you read this piece, you can rest assured that Irish ministers are busy all over the world at this moment doing their bit for something called 'Ireland inc', the global tourist industry (especially the five star hotel sector); and for hard-pressed limousine drivers everywhere.

In recent years, the annual exodus abroad by Irish ministers to far-flung corners of the world (some 33 are outside Ireland this year) has become, a bit like the economy, a bubble that is in grave danger of bursting;

It is inarguable that Ireland's national holiday has a status throughout the world that compares to Independence Day in the US or Bastille Day in France. And this is particularly true for Ireland's large diaspora (including millions who claim Irish heritage) who mark St Patrick's Day with more fervour and enthusiasm than the Irish who live in Ireland.

The practice that has grown up of practically every Irish minister travelling abroad to attend St Patrick's Day festivities is an offshoot of the Washington experience. Since the peace process began in earnest in the mid-1990s, Ireland has enjoyed a status in the US capital that is massively disproportionate to its size. The most powerful illustration of this is the annualisation of the 'shamrock ceremony', championed by Bill Clinton and continued by George W Bush. It has meant that for one day each year, Ireland gets unfettered access to the heart of the most powerful democracy in the world and unrivalled coverage on that day.

Only the most blinkered jeremiah would have any difficulty with the value of the White House vist. But the difficulties start with some of the other 30-odd trips. Here, too, the concept itself is sound. There are Irish communities everywhere and the presence of an Irish minister on a reviewing stand in Buenos Aires or Houston or Cape Town gives them validation.

But as always the problem isn't with the idea but how it is being executed. For one, a practice has grown up where ministers are accompanied by their husband or wife or partners, as well as the most senior officials in their office. Furthermore, many of the trips have an elastic quality about them – extended in some cases to a week or ten days. When you read the accompanying press release they are described as trade missions or tourism initiatives or opportunities to attract inward investment. But for many ordinary people, that translates into English as 'jollies' or 'junkets' or another of the perks that Irish politicians lavish on themselves.

President Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove was wont to say that if you are explaining you are losing. And the press release that accompanied the list of which minister was jetting where (only released late on Wednesday night) was certainly one of the longest in recent history, running to several thousand words.

"St Patrick's Day provides a truly unique framework to showcase modern Ireland on the world stage," it begins promisingly enough. "It offers an excellent opportunity to highlight to a global audience the advantages of doing business in Ireland and to promote Ireland as a world class tourist destination."

But as the figures obtained by Morning Ireland last week show, it is an extraordinarily expensive marketing exercise, costing taxpayers well in excess of €500,000 (out of a total marketing budget of €27 million to promote Ireland). And for each country that is listed, the Government Information Service has po-facedly listed the total value of trade with Ireland. There is sleight of hand here as it implies that, for example, a relatively unknown junior minister like Jimmy Devins is single-handedly responsible for the €175 million of trade between Ireland and New Zealand merely by standing on a review stand in Auckland for its St Patrick's Day parade.

The Government knows that the media have a field day each year, as they identify the lucky ministers going to the most exotic climes (the annual media thrasing perhaps explains the lateness of the announcement this year).

It's a reworking of Juvenal's famous question 'Quis custodiat ipsos custodes'? (who watches the watchman?). In spite of a growing public perception that these trips are as much junket as work, the Cabinet has refused to modify or concede or limit the number of trips. Or to accept that there are any or dubious excesses involved, despite the incontrovertible evidence. For sure, the figures obtained by RTE made for eyebrow-arching reading –grotesquely expensive hotels, limousine hire for a few days that cost more than the price of a family car; flights taken by ministerial parties on a single trip that cost more than the average industrial wage.

Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd says he's not against the idea in principle but argues that ministers have lost the plot and all contact with reality. "They have taken on the extravagant spending habits of Saudi princes," said O'Dowd last week.

And the self-serving statements about promoting trade and tourism is all very well. But where's the proof? There are no audits, no value-for-money reports that prove that all those limos and first class flights were justified. Sadly, the logic of ministers seems to be captured by the catchphrase of another popular television advert: "Because I'm worth it."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nothing to Say

The things that are preoccupying US politics at this moment in time.
1. When will Eliot Spitzer resign as New York Governor after being linked with a prostitution ring?
2. Will Obama take Mississippi (the last deep south state) with a double digit margin?
3. Just how dirty is the war of words going to get between Hillary of the steely lips and Obama of the silken tongue?

The things that are preoccupying Irish politics at this moment in time?
1. The same things as last week
2. which is the three reports into breast cancer misdiagnosis
3. and, erm, where all the Ministers are jetting to for the annual St Patrick's Day exodus.

So how has politics been shaping up this week? The good news is Irish politics has been moving as quickly as a sports car on a motorway since coming back in January. The bad news is that the motorway in question is the M50.

This week has just seemed so slow and so pedestrian. Leaders' questions today was dominated by the reports on Portlaoise and the (yes, very serious) issues of governance and management of the HSE.

Incidentally, for really good analysis of how that came to be check out Sara Burke's excellent two-part series in the Irish Times. Part one is here and part two is at this address.

But following the debate today was like reliving last week, thought-by-thought, word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase replay of last week especially in the way Bertie Ahern batted back the questions. It was the exact same kickaround as last week, somebody had punctured the ball in between. The debate just seemed flat, dead, deflated. And it reminded you that for all his virtues in other areas Enda Kenny is only good at spontaneity when all of his lines have been carefully prepared beforehand.

There are mitigating factors. It's the last week of a short term (because of a very early Easter) in which the only two things of note to happen were the Taoiseach's tribunal evidence and the publication of the reports into the Portlaoise breast cancer scandal.

And probably lay too much store by Leaders Questions anyway. There is a notion that somehow this twice-weekly slot in the Dáil gets to the nub of politics in Ireland... that in each seven or eight minute segment, some great untold truth will be uncovered, that rigorous questioning and probing will expose cant or hypocrisy or empty promises.

But the reality is more prosaic. It can often be a formulaic and pro-forma exercise. More often than not, the Taoiseach (as Tony Blair has done in England) will read his answer from a script prepared by civil servants and special advisers who have anticipated every possible question from the opposition leaders. Only occasionally does it generate enough heat to allow us political hacks to bask in the warm glow.

The slot has lost a lot of its spark and its unpredictability by the big change in the Dail's power block since the election. The fragmented nature of the opposition between 2002 and 2007 meant that there were three opposition slots instead of the two (one of which was regularly occupied by the great Dáil performer Joe Higgins).

Now Sinn Fein (whittled down to four) and Tony Gregory are the only other opposition TDs besides Fine Gael and Labour. And it has meant that proceedings have become more uniform, less predictable. In fairness to Eamon Gilmore, his non-dramatic but sharp questioning has been arguably as effective as Pat Rabbitte's colourful contributions - in that they have tended to put Bertie on the back foot more.

There's a lot of talk about Dáil and Seanad reform. There's been a lot of talk about reform since the foundation of the State. There has been a corresponding lack of any meaningful reform. And I can safely predict that a commendable report will be drawn up by some committee or other during this term which will be carefully placed on a shelf that's heaving under the weight of all the other reports that have been compiled over the years.

I was reading a report from one of the American dailies today about the ratcheting-up of the row between Hillary and Barack. Wow. The sledging was impressive. And it was all about policy. Detailed scrutiny of voting records, claims and counter-claims about their records on Iraq; whether Obama had backed laws supportive of big oil companies; and if Hillary had over exaggerated her influence on foreign policy when First Lady between 1993 and 2001 (she claims to have played an instrumental role in the Northern Ireland peace process - well, if she did, she certainly hid her light under a bushel!)

Ok, it's an election campaign and it's full-blooded and it's America. And I know that we're in the difficult doldrumish first year after the election of a third-term government. But without the parallel soap opera that is the life of Bertie Ahern we would be so depleted of subject matter that we'd find screwing on the tops of the tubes in a toothpaste factory a far more intriguing and interesting occupation than political reporting.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Maureen Dowd

All the people I loved reading, I can't read any more. Martin Amis (gone to seed). Christopher Hitchens (for his views and his increased portentousness and carbuncular prose). And now Maureen Dowd. I can hardly believe I'm saying this, For the past couple of years, her column has been as necessary as a cup of strong coffee. She's been piercing, witty, spot-on, reducing complex arguments to a hilarious throwaway line or pun.

But now I've gone right off her. And it's mostly because I disagree with her, but also because the prose I once found sharp and funny, I now find to be trite and corny. And her flirtage with Barack Obama is more out there than Obama Girl on You Tube. And I know she wasn't a fan of Bubba's. But by God, you can almost see the scratch marks appear on the screen every time she refers to Kill Hill.

Promise versus Experience in the wake of Texas and Ohio

The Hillary Clinton campaign's dive bombing of Obama's campaign in the past week shows up some of the unavoidable pitfalls of politics.

And after months where people said that Clinton's negative campaigning would backfire on it, it's now clear that her furious shaking of the apple tree has finally forced some fruit to fall.

Candidates have three major commodities to offer to the electorate - personality; their record; and their potential. Obama's record (three years as a Senator)isn't exactly replete.

So he has traded on his charisma and his potential, encapsulated in his message for change. The problem is that a lot of this is aspirational and non-tangible - the 'vision thing'.

Tony Blair did a lot of it. So did Clinton. It was never Bertie's strongest suit (Once nested into government during a boom, FF could easily sit on its record - it won't be so easy next time out as economic fortunes go south). But if you parse any of the Ard Fheis/National Conference speeches from any parties here in the South, you still get oodles of this prose.

An example thrown out from the top of my head:

"I believe in an Ireland of equality, an Ireland of prosperity, and Ireland where people can walk safely on the streets without worrying about being mugged or stabbed. I believe in a strong economy, where there is respect for the individual while we still cater for the needs of society as a while."

It's rhetoric. Pretty vacant and empty. And to a certain extent Obama has been getting away with spewing out this stuff - that sounds incredibly impressive but contains precious little. It's like candy floss - it looks substantial and enticing but turns out to be the next thing to having nothing at all.

Dan Sullivan, in his comment on the last post, was talking about Sinn Fein's constant references to 'equality', one of those catch-all words that sound great but ultimately mean little, unless you are prepared to do the slog-work and define exactly what you mean.

I think if you compare US politics with that of Britain and Ireland, the Americans tend to value the aspirational higher than we do, which is why Obama's rhetoric may eventually outflank Clinton's experience.

Here, experience and record have been the driving factors behind Fianna Fail's facile victories in 2002 and (in the circumstances) facile victory in 2007. Of course, it was easier, as times were good. The 'experience' over the next five years will be undoubtedly rockier. Which will mean that the alternatives will have a real shot at it, irrespective of who the new FF leader will be. But FG and Labour will not get away with vague rhetoric and half-promises - besides showing that they have the 'grist' for the challenge, they will have to spell out all their policies, to almost wonkish detail. And that kind of rigour can only be good. S

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Say it Again Terence

The hapless Terence Flanagan has been exposed as a serial borrower of other people's speeches. This time round, when confronted with the 'evidence' by a Sunday newspaper journalist, he 'fessed up. As a rookie TD, it had been a 'steep learning curve'. From now on, he was going to talk 'on the hoof'.

I have seen Terence in action in the Dáil chamber and Edmund Burke, or Denis Skinner, or Joe Higgins... he is not. Even with a script his delivery is halting and his tone is as unchanging as a heart monitor attached to a rock. I also lived with him (vicariously of course) through the agonising listening experience of Terence Flanagan attempting to speak Irish (it was not pretty - though fair play to him for giving it a go).

The young Dublin North East TD should do what Fianna Fail backbenchers do - get the party's researchers to write the bulk of their stuff. Or maybe borrow some magic dust of Charlie O'Connor. No matter what subject or legislation or controversy is being debated in the Dáil Charlie sprinkles some magic dust on it and it turns into a speech about Tallaght. Maybe Terence could try a similar wheeze by getting Kilbarrack or Raheny to take their places among the nations o the earth.

And we journalists shouldn't scoff (yep, that's exactly what I was doing in the previous few pars). What do they say about journalist? Oh yes, it's the first page of tomorrow's fish and chip writing (you got a two-for-one bargain there in the metaphor department!) Journalists steal line, or borrow as we euphemise it, all the time. From other journalists. From other newspapers. Sometimes when two journalists are discussing the copy of a rival, they will dismiss the article as a 'clippings job' (the article is a mosaic that has culled the writing and wisdom of older articles on the internet).

But perhaps Terence is the symptom of the 30th Dail. Since the General Election a sense of listlessness and inertia has been evident. Sure there has been the odd conflagration (autism; the cancer misdiagnosis scandal) and of course the endless plot twists of the Bertie, Celia and the Drumcondra mafia soap opera has kept us all entertained. But beyond that, when it comes to the real business of the legislature and the executive you just feel that everything is in a kind of vast and endless holding pattern.

There has been a dearth of legislation. Even now, the new Bills are only trickling through. Talk of Dail and Seanad reform is as vague and vacant as it always has been - we will see herds of camels crossing the Polar tundra before meaningful reform of parliament takes place. And the Greens have come up with a couple of neat and worthy policies and promises. But we still await what we expect from the Greens - something vervy, something edgy, something radical, something that grabs you by the pin of your collar and shakes you out of any complacency or lethargy you might have. As for the rest of the Cabinet, none (especially Brian Cowen) seem inclined to step outside the comfort zone. They comport themselves like some kind of super executives or manager (some even use the excruciatingly ugly phrase 'Ireland plc) and just let everything tick along nicely.

There are exceptions. Noel Dempsey has lots of ideas - and most of them are surprisingly good. Then there was Micheál and the smoking ban. Will that become for him what 'Yesterday' became for Paul McCartney - John Lennon mocked his former writing partner for having composed only one memorable song. And Brian Cowen? He makes Ken Baldwin from Coronation Street look like a thrilling daredevil.

Well if Twink is packing them in up at the Tivoli with Menopause the Musical then the Anorak is equally capable of drawing a crowd at Dublin Castle with Man Opposing the Tribunal (sorry, sorry, sorry - it's brutal I know). The awful thought struck me yesterday. If Bertie goes as quickly as we all predict he will, we will have nothing to write about. They're all so bored with it (and boring as a result) that it's not only Terence who's repeating himself over and over again with borrowed words and ideas.

Monday, March 03, 2008


I haven't posted anything since December 21. That's a fair gap, or a hiatus as we call it in my new place of employ.
Since then a a lot of water has passed under the bridge
Or as Terry Flanagan might put it, a lot of water has passed under the bridge.
Well it hasn't really.
I signed off with Bertie back then and am - surprise, surprise - locking back in with Bertie.
The Sunday Business Post poll findings on his Tribunal evidence was enough to completely wilt that surge (well the slight increase of one percent)in Fianna Fail's support levels.
Fifty three per cent don't believe Ahern's evidence. Half of those surveyed no longer trust him to run the country. And if he is found to have lied to the Tribunal, seven out of ten think that will merit the walking of the political plank.
Earlier this week, I did a piece on Fianna Fail's grassroots. Unsurprisingly, they are all four square (110 percent as they all say) behind him, irrespective of how deep or how suppurating the slurry he has to wade through.
They reminded me of the final scene in 'Some Like it Hot' with Jack Lemmon (still in drag) and the the little fellow who has fallen for his female persona. Jack Lemmon , tries to break it him gently, giving a list of reasons why they can't marry.
Finally, he says: "I can never have children", to which the suitor cheerily responds: "I don't care."
Damn it all, says Lemmon in exasperation as he rips of the wig, I'm a man.
To which the suitor replies cheerily: "I don't care."
And that's how loyal the FF grassroots are!
We have written endlessly here about the longevity of the anorak.
But the 30 grand to Celia; the melding of political donations with personal cash... all that is potentially more damaging than the dig-out loans and the eight grand from Manchester.
For the first time we sense that this remarkable political journey will reach an end sooner than marked out on the itinerary. The land that Charlie McCreevy got after the locals in 2004, will be given this time to the giver of the land. There will be no Inchdoney strategy this time round. It's an exit strategy and it will be timed for sometime around the local elections next year.