How the politicians beat the media…

One interesting aspect in the wash up to the Republic’s election was a minor furore over alleged anti government bias in the Irish media’s coverage. It was sparked by Bertie Ahern’s comments on the Friday count night, that journalists had had a job to do “in return for good pay and expenses”, implying that undue editorial direction had caused them to not simply to consistently underestimate Fianna Fail’s potential in the election, but to question him relentlessly in the early part of the election about what were in the context of the time fairly minor breach of personal probity in the early 1990s. The controversy reached ignition point when Eoghan Harris walked out on a two hander with Fintan O’Toole on Today FM.Harris, as he notes here, was furious at the oppositional stance the majority of the Irish media had taken to the taoiseach throughout the campaign, and named just four commentators who had expressed any support for him in the Irish press.

Much of his apparent anger was directed at Vincent Browne, one of the few senior Irish journalists who have attempted a serious analysis of the media in Ireland. However, it is Browne’s consistent analysis that ownership is key to what he sees as the Irish media’s core anti left bias. In particular, he consistently offers Independent News Media’s Tony O’Reilly as Ireland’s media manipulator in chief. On election night, Browne’s most damning piece of evidence that there was a compact between the government and INM, was a meeting between Fianna Fail’s outgoing Minister of Finance, Brian Cowan and O’Reilly himself.

It’s not a new accusation. Indeed it is so routinely made in left leaning circles to the point that it is widely repeated as though it were unchanging, empirical fact. Other big publishers are constantly under similar suspicion. Rupert Murdoch’s alleged manipulation of both journalists and politicians is currently the subject of hot gossip in the US, where his primary media business assets are now based.

Yet, Harris provides persuasive evidence (here, here, here, here) that if there was a deal, it certainly didn’t trickle down to the journalists at the Irish Independent, and he cites several stories that reflect, if anything, an anti government bias in their overall election coverage. Or, at the very least, he demonstrates that when it came to throwing heavy punches, it appears not to have pulled them.

It is always somewhat unnerving when government ministers begin handing out lectures to the media. Ahern’s lecture hardly figures alongside the arrest of journalists in the developing world or the closing of television stations in Venezuela, but it is nevertheless important to continue to keep a taut line between the role of politics and the media in a representative democracy.

But perhaps this election proves that for all the much feted power of the media, when it comes to elections, it is politicians, their policies and the healthiness (or otherwise) of their connection to the base that matters, regardless of what journalists think of them.

  • Maggot

    Great link!

  • Niall

    Left-leaning media? Give me a break. The biggest selling dailies are all owned by O’Reilly and have an unreconstructed right-wing idealogy. With the exception of temporarily taking Bertie to task over stamp duty, the Independent has been pro-FF/PD. The Sindo is the most shameless .

    The fact that the biggest-selling Sunday paper can pretend it is constantly a thorn in the side to the establishment, or ‘official Ireland’ as it likes to call it (ie. the Irish Times, RTE and some lefty NGOs) is an amazing slight of hand. Hats off to the marketing gurus.

    Harris is an ass. As a recovering republican, he feels his views are superior to anyone else’s just because of the amount of suffering and personal reappraisal he had to go through to arrive at them. Any debate I’ve seen him in he resorts to hectoring, repetition and shouting people down.

  • Mick Fealty

    Niall,

    That is certainly what a lot of people believe. It’s just simply not borne out by reality. It may be that it was like that, but it is just not true that the Indo supported Bertie in this election. I’ve added some links to some of the stories Harris mentions.

  • JG

    Tintan O ‘ Foole had no problems with Tony Blair’s government not being voted in with a majority of the votes cast.

  • Brian Boru

    I agree that the media down here were ferociously anti-govt (except the Irish News of the World and maybe the Independent). By far the most hostile were The Star – especially towards the PDs which it constantly bemoaned as “right-wing”. In that context I agree with Eoin Harris that this election has shown you can win an election without the support of the media – though having that support is still an advantage and I would argue that the extraordinary depth of the media-hostility towards the PDs sadly worked.

  • foreign correspondent

    I am reading Fisk´s Great War for Civilization and there is interesting material there about how his reports for the Times were doctored after Murdoch took over…

  • Bertie needs to get a grip. The Southern media and RTE in particular has a very strong right-wing bias in it’s general political coverage.

    With regard to The Indo, their overall election coverage was ceratinly comprehensive, but they had a distinct bias (in my opinion) against the left of centre parties.

    Their general coverage of Labour, SF and The Greens was restricted in terms of volume ( in comparison) to the right-wing parties) on the majority of days preceding the election. In particular, I felt that the PD’s got a totally unbalanced amount of column inches.

    Surely even right-wing newspapers have some sort of obligation to present equality of coverage in the run-up to elections? It doesnt in any way impinge on their inherent right to produce lead editorials and relay its own opinions as they see fit.

  • Frank Sinistra

    “factualism is fancy foreplay which never penetrates the truth. Factualism is media masturbation” – Eoghan Harris

    He also talks about Bertie punishing the IT in that interview.

    For a ‘journalist’ he has some unusual ideas.

  • Niall

    So asking our Taoiseach about taking substantial undeclared payments from businessmen is anti-govt bias, is it? Pointing to shortfalls in health and criticising the massive overspend on transport, electronic voting and health payment systems is anti-govt bias? Highlighting the absurdity of the Minister for Transport turning the sod on the Tara motorway when the Minister for Environment knew the road couldn’t go ahead as artefacts had been unearthed a month before is anti-govt bias?

    Anti-govt bias or reporting the facts? The Indo may not have been plomassing Bertie like they had before, but to say this is anti-govt bias is nonsense.

    It’s the least that would be expected of any newspaper. The fact that it has been turned around by the govt (and now the Sindo) into ‘proof’ of ‘anti-govt’ bias in some mythical ‘left-leaning’ media is absurd doublethink of Orwellian standards.

    The Sindo acted like a lobby group over stamp duty for much of the election and when they got it their criticisms eased remarkably.

  • Brian Boru

    Niall the ultimate example of anti-govt bias was the cringeworthy way that the press played-up Kenny’s performance in the TV debate with Bertie, like claiming Bertie only “shaded it” or even – incredibly – that Kenny won – in spite of not saying what he would cut back on in the health-budget of the NDP to pay for the additional beds. And since 2002 the media tone towards this govt went from fairly neutral before the election to almost hysterically anti-govt after it. I’m sorry Niall but any objective analysis could only conclude that the tone of the Irish media was in general extremely negative towards FF and positively vicious towards the PDs e.g. The Star calling McDowell “Mad Mullah McDowell”, calling the PDs “right wing”, the cartoons of Harney digging up graves.

  • Niall

    In all fairness, Brian, the govt of the day is going to get more stick than the opposition for the simple fact they are responsible for making the decisions. This is true in any democracy and is something govts have to deal with. It in no way equates to anti-govt bias, unless you work in the FF public relations unit.

    I think there was good reason for the govt to be called to account over many issues over the past few years. This is not anti-govt bias but reporting the facts.

    Debates are not football matches are rarely if ever have identifiable winners. Who you think won probably reflects your political views. It’s a piece of diverting cabaret, but is never conclusive and it would have been negligent of the press to call it overwhelmingly for any one politician.

    Your examples of anti-govt bias are pathetic. The PDs being called right-wing by the Star? Hello? They ARE right-wing. How is this positively vicious? Even the PDs call themselves right-wing.

    McDowell being referred to as the “Mad Mullah” in a tabloid? Harney digging up graves in a cartoon? Get a grip. Nicknames are par for the course in a tabloid and when did you ever get reasoned, principled, objective analysis from a … cartoon!

  • Curious Observer

    So why does Tony Blair get off so lightly when his government is easily more corrupt than John Major’s?

  • Is this not a bit of a manufactured tiff, for the fact is both of the main southern parties represent the best interest of Capital, I doubt any CEO of a multi national or local company would worry to much whether Fianna Fail or FG gained political power. True if it were the later they would have to ring down to their underlings and ask them to brief them on the incoming ministers etc; and what they thought of them when they were wining and dining them. [they themselves would have carried out this task with the governing party and leader of opposition]

    People like Murdoch and O’Reilly’s stock in trade is manipulating politicians and journalists in the hope of influencing the markets, it is what they do. To believe that such people will act in an honorable manner and provide their readers with equality of coverage is to misunderstand the nature of both the beast and the sheer wretchedness of the Capitalist System.

    In a civilized society neither men would be allowed to manage a corner shop, because they would steal the stock, whereas in ours they are feted by Monarchs, Presidents and Prime Ministers. Whilst control of the media is in the hands of such villainous satraps, there can be no hope of a more equal and fair society, as these people have absolutely no moral values.

    Take Murdoch, he above all others has been responsible for lowering the moral and social standards of the UK with page three and headlines like gotcha, when hundreds of young Argentine Matelot’s went to a watery grave. Yet on become PM, the first thing Blair did was travel across the world to worship at his feet. That decent men fear to write that he manipulates politicians and journalists, prefering instead to prefix allegedly, in itself highlights how he and others manipulate journalists and politicians.

    Much of the Irish media, like its counterparts in the US and UK is an open sewer, owned and by well groomed gutter rats and run by obedient gofers.

  • jerryp

    Brian Boru, you seem to have a difficulty with the PD’s being described as ” right wing “. What would you describe a party that is hell-bent on privatising health,encourages a ” certain level of inequality ” (McDowell) and favours tax-cuts, but only ones that favour the richest. Marxists ?

    BTW, the most interesting comment in that spat between Eoghan Harris and Fintan O’Toole was EH’s comment : “we got what we wanted on stamp-duty “, says it all about media control.

  • URQUHART

    Mick, If you agree that links between the Taoiseach’s just criticism of the media during this election and what’s going on in Venezula are stupid, don’t make them. It devalues an otherwise good post.

    Harris was the only person to call this correctly, during and after the election. The ferocity of the anti-Government bile that flowed from all the mainstream media, especially in the first week of the campaign, was unprecendented. Every time the taoiseach blinked he was ‘UNDER PRESSURE’ while every shit joke or corny photocall that Inda or Rabid participated in was a sign of ‘MOMENTUM, CONFIDENCE, ENERGY’.

    Anyone who claims that there was an anti-left wing bias in the Irish media during this election either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or are deliberately talking through their backsides. It might make them feel better about their guys losing the election, but we deserve better on Slugger.

  • Niall

    “Harris was the only person to call this correctly, during and after the election.”

    Wow, he got a 50/50 bet right. Give him a job with Paddy Power right away.

    It’s true that the election coverage in the mainstream media didn’t explicity support the govt, but the fact that this has been construed as anti-govt bias shows what an easy ride they’d been given before this.

    Any questions asked of Bertie and any criticisms of the govt were legitimate. That’s what the press is for. The govt could have had it a lot worse, so let’s look at Bertie’s accusations of ‘anti-govt bias’ for what they were – the petulant, arrogant assumptions of a man who as leader of the country believes he doesn’t have to explain or apologise for anything. It’s bully boy tactics and an abuse of language and shouldn’t be tolerated by anybody who cares for a free press.

    Elections aside, to think the Irish mainstream media is left-wing is a delusion of the highest order. Only vain right-wing columnists who like to think of themselves as going against the grain believe it.

  • Ginfizz

    “It’s true that the election coverage in the mainstream media didn’t explicity support the govt, but the fact that this has been construed as anti-govt bias shows what an easy ride they’d been given before this.”

    Bang. On. The. Money.

    FF have had the best part of ten years of a free ride, what with FG tearing itself apart or crashing in the polls. Not any more it would seem.