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.


Adam said...

Interesting post and there's undoubtedly a balance that needs to be struck.

Too soft and you're failing miserably at your job in one way; too hard and you're failing miserably at your job in another.

The problem is that all contacts with information have their agendas, be it to themselves, their party or their department - I suppose one thing to avoid is being overtly or excessively critical, rather than just doing your job by reporting the facts as they are, but I doubt even that would save you from the scorn of some.

As for Smith's blog, I hadn't heard of it before I read the article but I took a stab in the dark afterwards and got it in one -

The Village post is at the top at the moment, although you've read most of the more interested stuff in the article already.

One thing I am intrigued by is Smith's comments about offering people a new platform to break news - is he just referring to his site, or is he planning on starting up another magazine?

Mark said...

We know all this. We see it every day in the softly softly approach of journalists' interactions with politicians. Last week's revelations at Mahon were explosive but the media was happy to give the taoiseach an easy run. No one attempted to make him account for himself.

I think you protest a little too much when you say that journalists have to be nice or risk the cold shoulder. Journalists have the power to make or break political careers. Maybe if ye stood up for each other a little more on the fundamental issues it would change things. I didn't see many other media organisations rushing to Newstalk's defence when the HSE black listed them a few weeks back. Whatever about the validity of Newstalk's methods it was totally unacceptable for the HSE to bully them in this way. The media organisations should have rallied around.

Stand up for yourselves! You have a responsibility to the citizens of this country. If you absolve yourself of this then you are part of the problem.

I have all but given up on RTE and the national newspapers at this point.

73man said...

Good piece Harry. I work in a national organisation and am constantly baffled by the relationship between my bosses and the press who come to the press conferences. Not only symbiosis but a thorough understanding of each other's roles and expectations.

Shallow pools indeed.

Maman Poulet said...


Ronan said...

The blog you're looking for is:

pippygoats said...


"covering a fire is usually an exciting event but it doesn’t come as often as you think..."