On the importance of content…

Daily Ireland and the Sunday Independent rarely get a mention on Slugger without someone having a go at the person who has written the piece. Such, it would seem, is the Irish custom – to dismiss stories by dint of who the teller is rather than by the content. Eoghan Harris had some useful things to say one the matter of man playing within the wider media. He takes several media figures to task for routinely dismissing some news stories that cannot be proven in court:

As soon as I heard that Kathy Sheridan of the Irish Times was on the panel I switched over to Today FM’s Sunday Supplement, mentally predicting (on the basis of a previous Newstalk performance) that she would take a cut at Jim Cusack, our security correspondent. When I whizzed through the tape later – I can bear bad politics better when not live – I was not surprised to hear her carping about Cusack’s report that the Provisional IRA had hired a hitman to murder Denis Donaldson. Sheridan wanted evidence. Maybe she should take up law.

Like Vincent Browne in Village – who also has a bee in his bonnet about Cusack’s crusading stories on Provo criminals – Sheridan seems to think that a reporter should only run stories that could be proved in court. Let me say three things.

First, most reporters know stuff that can’t be proved in court – and it is in the public interest to print their speculations. Second, the Irish Times would have blank pages if they only printed stuff that passed the Sheridan test. Finally, we can speculate (but not prove) that Sheridan might also be reflecting a snippiness in the Irish Times about Cusack leaving that paper to work in the Sunday Independent – where long before Michael McDowell’s revelations, he reported on the criminal empire of the Provisional IRA.

Meantime, over on Today FM, Eamon McCann – who had no hard evidence – was speculating that Donaldson may have been murdered by Provos who felt they were being pushed around by the CAB and ARA while spies like Donaldson got off scot-free. Made sense to me. So what evidence do I have for my firm belief that if Kathy Sheridan was in the same studio as Eamon McCann, she would not demand he produce hard proof to support his speculations? None at all.

  • Peter

    What a strangely confused piece that is.

    Personal credibility is central when assessing factoids from the likes of Mr Cusack etc. Given that he is more often than not our only source his credibility is even more central.

    Personal credibility is less important when you’re assessing an argument made. The argument either stands or falls on its own merits. The personality of the maker of the argument is less important then.

    That’s the crucial distinction in man-playing or ball-playing.

  • Peter

    Just by way of providing some context to Mr Harris’s fixation with Ms Sheridan above.

    It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fool she made of Mr Cusack in the following studio discussion, would it?

    http://www.indymedia.ie/article/74602

    No. Of course not.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Peter

    Agreed. I wouldn’t accept that questioning the credibility of an individual news reporter is necessarily “playing the man”. If, for example, you read a story in the NY Times by Jayson Blair, wouldn’t one be entitled to question its veracity?

    Extreme example, I know, but it’s a fact of journalistic life that at the end of the day, all you have is your credibility. The same is true at a corporate level for a news organisation.

    Now, the fact is that Cusack’s personal credibility and the Sindo’s corporate credibility is frequently called into question. They are frequently accused of anti-republican bias, and I doubt they would even deny such a bias. Trouble is, journalists are supposed to at least try not to be biased (though it’s a given that ultimately, genuine impartiality is neither possible nor even desirable anyway). The result is that the Sindo is regarded much as, for example, Fox News is regarded in the US. (Fox, like the Indo, is also the market leader, but regarded almost unanimously among professionals as basically a disgrace to the profession and everything news organisations should try not to be.)

    With Cusack and the Indo, we have a journalist and a newspaper proud of their anti-republican credentials and their record of pungently expressing those views. Fair enough.

    But one is entitled to suspend judgement on the credibility of the Sindo’s news reports on issues relating to the very same republicans against whom they crusade. If those reports are clearly sourced and presented with an eye to the facts, then credibility would be much less an issue. However Cusack’s exclusives rarely feature attributable sources – therefore all we can rely on is Cusack’s and the Sindo’s credibility. The question is, do we trust Cusack and the Sindo?

    Clearly many do not, and one can understand why.

    (Incidentally, Harris is confused on something – Sheridan asked for evidence for Cusack’s claim. A court of law requires proof, not just evidence. I think it’s reasonable to expect that a news reporter will have at least some evidence to support a story, and it’s reasonable to point out how rarely Cusack provides even evidence. (Much less proof.) Without evidence, what you are left with is what Harris himself describes as “speculation”.

    Speculation is fine on the opinion page but when speculation is carried as the page one lead and presented as fact then you are into highly questionable journalistic territory. Harris himself admits this is standard practice with Cusack and the Sindo, which goes to the heart of why the credibility and indeed the agenda of both journalist and newspaper is so frequently questioned.

    I don’t think this amounts to man-playing.

  • Mick Fealty

    Interesting and useful contributions both. Thanks.

    Personally I’m against making blanket decisions about credibility. If the blogosphere in Northern Ireland is to operate as a check on standards, then journalists should expect to have shoddy work outed. But for that to happen most effectively each piece should be taken on its own merits or de-merits.

    And it has to be said that the Sindo has by no means cornered the market on ropey journalism.

    I’m generally in favour of reading in, around and outside editorial frames wherever possible. That includes Slugger, if it is actually possible to ‘read outside’ your own frame. The reader should be the final arbiter of what constitutes bias. But it is still possible to be biased and tell a truth.

    As for unattributable sources, well… It may raise important questions about how reliable the story is, or indeed how far the story might go, but when there are so few whistle blowers (just look at the consequence for Donaldson for coming clean)… it can and should be admitted to the larger narrative, if only with highly mitigatory conditions.

  • Henry94

    The question is does the Sindo write stories that are not true or just ones that can’t be proved.

    Was Laim Lawlor’s translator really a prostituite for example as they claimed. It turned out that she was not.

    The problem for the Sindo is not that they are expected to prove their stories but that they have got it wrong so often that nobody believes them.

  • mick de dublin anarchist

    Some context.

    Village have run several pieces in the last few weeks examining Cusack’s “scoops”. In many cases Cusack was shown to have simply got it woefully wrong.

    example 1: claiming that community safety partnerships are a SF plot when in fact they are promoted by the NIO

    example 2: claiming that he had evidence that SFers had planned the Dublin riot – he eventually scraped a couple of quotes off the irish republican bulletin board to back this up! Incidentally, Harris claimed that the rioters had attacked the love ulster march in the same edition.

    So, Harris is being typically dishonest here. Nobody is asking for impeccable standards of evidence and research, just pointing out that when somebody is shown to be completely wrong repeatedly, they lose credibility and their subsequent evidence-untroubled scoops become less than credible, to say the least.

  • Jacko

    That all this lack of credibility on the part of the Sindo exists but that it is market leader, and with something similar applying to the Sun, what does it tell us about the general newspaper reading public? Do they prefer senationalism over hard fact? Do they want their own biases merely played to and confirmed? Are those two papers no better or worse than others on the credibility front, but the “bad name” is mostly driven by jealousy on the part of other hacks and papers?
    Should the fact that you can print absolute crap but still be market leader act as an incentive for Daily Ireland?

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Did anyone else get as far as the paragraph on the “deterioration of Podge and Rodge”? This is of great importance, particularly since The Trolls arrived on the scene!

    (Anyone know anything about the Trolls? All I have is one hilarious MP3 of them slagging nordie accents and impersonating Paisley etc. Absolutely brilliant, but haven’t a clue where they came from. Imagine Podge and Rodge on helium.)

  • Northsider

    This isn’t about producing evidence that will stand up in court, but it is about producing evidence that will back up the main points of the story.

    And the more outrageous and inflammatory the story, then the demand for verifiable evidence increases exponentially.

    I have tried to refrain from contributing to threads inspired by Jim Cusack’s stories in the Sunday Independent as I’m mindful of how zealously Mick enforces the ‘ball-not-man’ rule when it comes to journalists.

    (However, it is refreshing to know that my opinion of this type of ‘journalism’ is shared by so many.)

    It seems that the ‘Get Sinn Fein’ strategy is being pursued here at the expense of corrupting standards and practice.

    Like evangelicals, the Sindo’s hacks, led by the ridiculous Cusack, seem to think that they are beyond normal protocols and procedures in their pursuit of what they think is ‘right and true’.

    The only loser is their reputation and credibility – the fact that no-one will ever take them seriosuly again has not been factored into this self-righteous, insidious ‘crusade’.

    What makes it all so sinister and what leaves a bad taste, particularly for Northerners, is that the licence thay think they’ve been granted extends to a) denigrating the electorate in the North who vote Sinn Fein by calling them alternatively ‘delinquent’, ‘depraved’, ‘terrorist-ridden’ and b) explaining away, rationalising and just plain lying about the threat to that community from violent loyalism.

    Writing about the eruption of violence following last summer’s Whiterock parade, and the previous campaign of violence that saw over 100 Catholics attacked in the North, and a teenage boy stabbed to death, Cusack claimed it was all triggered by Catholic aggression.

    Think about that. Anyone with any understanding of the situation up North last year could not make a comment like that and expect to be taken seriously.

    Not even the Shankill Mirror tried to explain away the violence in those terms.

    Yet, Sindo hacks so expect to be taken seriously, becasue they – like Mad Mullahs, bible-thumpers and the rest – believe that their ‘mission’ justifies the means.

    And where have we heard that before?

  • Jacko

    Northsider

    I’ll bet you feel better for that. And I’ll bet, as well, that if you are as principled as you make out you don’t buy the Daily Ireland either.

  • elfinto

    Eoghan Harris would never play the man or the woman, would he? Bitter, twisted and absolutely shameless is what he is. Mad I say, absolutely mad, ah ha hah ha, ha hah ha, etc, etc….

  • Northsider

    Jacko, actually I don’t buy the Daily Ireland either. I read it once about six months ago and never bothered with it since.

    Here’s a piece of knowledge, use it wisely: it is possible to criticise those who lower journalistic standards in an evangelical campaign against a political party – and not be in hoc, or even supportive of said political party.

    Here’s another: it is possible, believe it or not, to make valid whataboutery points without being condescending.

    That is all.

  • Mick Fealty

    I have no problem with people criticising the content of the articles. All to the good, and the better it is done the better all round.

    The Sindo is clearly not liked by those whose political interest is subject to its critical gaze. Indeed, the Sunday Independent’s anti SF agenda would be extrememly worrying if it were the BBC or RTE.

    But it’s not.

    Similarly DI’s pro-SF agenda does not preclude it from bringing important perspectives to bear on commonplace issues. In fact its quite separate editorial priorities are likely to unearth whole other cans of worms. All of which diversity should benefit the critical reader.

    The bottom line is that if they are wrong or inaccurate, this is the place to expose it. But the rest is fair game.

    I will say this for Sindo journos though. For all the stick they take here (and they take more than any other paper), I’ve not had one word of complaint from one of them (or not yet anyway).

  • Wacko Jacko

    That’s because they don’t give a bollix along as they are making their money – lying pays. And by the way the Daily Ireland is an utter disgrace as well. Can’t find Sindo articles on Village site – anybody know what they said – that mag is ussually a joke as well

  • elfinto

    Mick,

    Harris’s article is a long and self-serving complaint against someone who gave a fellow ‘journalist’ at the Sindo ‘a bit of stick’.

    So they’re not as noble as you might think.

  • Brian Boru

    While no SFer, and sometimes a fan of Jim Cusack on other issues (Citizenship referendum, sometimes immigration), I agree wholeheartedly that the Sindo, while not actually lying, does sometimes use interpretation in plentiful amounts. An example I found particularly irritating According to SF documents, SF were using Marxist rhetoric (shock horror) and wanting to “mobilise even greater numbers of Irish people around our vision.”. They say that “radicalised and mobilised communities are the seed bed from which the new republic will be built”. Now to extrapolate from this that SF were planning “unrest” seems to be a strange interpretation of the SF documents referred to in this article: http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=9&si=1590926&issue_id=13868

    There is a perception that certain Irish newspapers are actively trying to damage SF, because of the ill-matching of apocalyptic headlines with an absence of real meat. This may help SF more than harming them. I think that Mr.Cusack should provide more meat on the bones of his accusations against SF. I also think he and others should be more cautious about laying unproven or vague charges against them for the sake of the peace process.

  • Oilbhéar Chromaill

    Indeed, Brian, that’s a good point. The fact that the Sunday Dodo attacks SF as often it can, mostly when their journos can’t get off their arses to find real news stories, coincides with the growth of SF’s popularity shouldn’t be lost on the titled proprietor of the ‘newspaper’.

    There is one distinct difference between Daily Ireland and the Sunday Dodo which Mick overlooked to mention in his introductory piece. That is that the Daily Ireland offers real journalism as opposed to the ‘makey upey tally ho’ in the Dodo. The newspaper should never be allowed to forget its shameful reportage on the Liam Lawlor tragedy, a black episode in the annals of Irish journalism and an indicator of the shockingly low standards in the Sunday Dodo, amongst others in the Irish media.

  • elfinto

    Good reponse to Harris from Eamonn McCann in the Sunday Journal (?)

    http://www.nuzhound.com/articles/arts2006/apr23_Harris_Dudley-Edwards__EMcCann_Sunday-Journal.php

    Personally, I liked this bit:
    “The conclusions I draw are that Eoghan (a), doesn’t understand the difference between fact and speculation and (b), can’t spell my first name. One of these deficiencies is, in journalistic terms, sacrilegious.”

    Hopefully, one of Slugger’s bloggers will pick up on it.

  • mick de dublin anarchist

    A not-at-all hypocritical piece of ‘man-playing’ from the sindo:

    http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=36&si=1603387&issue_id=13959

  • elfinto

    Sorry Mick, but you won’t catch me paying a subscription to that shower.

  • mick de dublin anarchist