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.