Slugger media awards: Speaking Truth to Power


 I’m suggesting an award  for Speaking Truth to Power.

It’s one thing to cheek a senior politician buried in a blog  particularly if you have little or no profile yourself, quite another to do so day after day in print, or across a studio floor.

Occasionally in the bad old days – not often – a politician’s friends might go in for a little freelance intimidation, nothing drastic you understand, just a hint of menace. But to be fair, in the normal run politicians are usually fatalistic about criticism, hoping for better treatment next time.

Even so, challenging a politician still carries the risk of drying up an important source and being forced to work twice as hard to get the story, or lose out  on an important category altogether.  The politician can always talk to someone else. S/he may be under pressure from the party  to say nothing without central approval.   The risk is considerable  but  not so much to special investigating journalists who can go off and turn over a completely different area.  It reallyapplies to regular journalists, either solo operators or those who hold a brief like political correspondents. They have to keep the flow of stories running and weigh the risks of seriously annoying an important source, like an entire political party.

 Fingers crossed, you hope their own  compulsion to communicate eventually overcomes their temporary wrath, but  in the eye of the storm you can never be sure. Faced with staffing cutbacks, the stakes are raised higher all the time.

To consumers the media may seem powerful but if you are working down on the floor it doesn’t feel like that. It ‘s sometimes about ploughing a lonely furrow as you pursue a controversial story singlemindedly away from the pack.

That’s why speaking truth to power can be so difficult, demanding accuracy, stamina, nerve and judgement – and a ready willingness to make a concession if a detail is wrong.. Behind the journalist must be firm and steady backing from the editor, confident in the journalist’s judgement. No rats allowed.

While I don’t wish to pre-empt any competition, candidates in the last round are not difficult to find. Suzanne Breen for the Adams brothers; David Gordon for  double jobbing and probing Assembly expenses;  the BBC Spotlight team for Irisgate; Slugger and UTV for NI Watergate

These are all shock stories, sometimes with scandal on or  near the surface. But I’d also like to encourage more stories about decision taking in government which has gone wrong or isn’t happening at all. For instance, trace and explain the mistakes that prolong the secondary school deadlock and find the options for a solution. What does a shared future actually entail beyond the slogan? What are the chances of a voluntary coalition or agreement on dealing with the past?

Speaking truth to power is also about evidence-based analysis. We badly need  more of it.


, , , , , ,

  • another

    Eamonn Mallie for asking Peter Robinson, the question that nobody dared ask him – Did you beat your wife.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Rather like a novelist or songwriter, a Journalist probably has only one good story in him or her. .they all look for the big best seller, hit or scoop and spend the rest of their careers trying to emulate the past.
    Sometimes they can get that second hit or scoop.
    But its a struggle.
    And they become increasingly reliant on the politicians that they observe on our behalf to feed them scraps. That uneasy relationship can last for years. Of course the Journo will turn on the benefactor when the time is right.
    Many journos took Jeffrey Archers hospitality without hesitation.

    Ive no doubt that many journalists have ethics……but its a struggle to square staying at arms length from their subjects AND being close enough to get the story.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    We have a small pool of politicians and an even smaller pool of journalists. I find it irritating that in set pieces journos address their subjects as “First Minister”, “Minister”, “Mr McClarty” (chosen at random) and then refer to them (caught on camera in the Great Hall) as “Peter”, “Conor” or “David”.
    Politicians should NOT have friends in the Media.
    And if a Journalist has a friend in the assembly, he should ask questions of him/herself.

    First …its corrupting.
    Secondly (and check out Facebook)…human nature means that they will have “favourites”
    And frankly such friendships are unworkable….a journo (or politician) would happily abuse the “friendship” for professional reasons.

  • jtwo

    Pure bullshit theatre.

    If Mallie could produce the goods – say, minutes from a case conference of the old south and east trust – and wave them in his face, then great.

    Otherwise it was grandstanding. From someone who may have sore about being shut out of Robinson’s pre-Spotlight press confernce.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Peter Spencer..the Sky News weekend political guy…and my favourite journalist and says that the death of journalists is not alcohol……its their self importance.
    He is quoted (via Hobbes I think) that the “life of a journalist is nasty brutish and short”.

  • Brian Walker

    fitz.. journalists are NOT like novelists or songwriters, with one good story in him/her. They make it up, the jouralists doesn’t or shouldn’t. Ours is a more modest, less creative trade. I can’t imagine why you should think that. How weird.. I take it you do read the papers and don’t just have a hot line to God?

    There is the risk of being captured but more often it’s a dialogue. The journo always needs another story and if none emerges, s/he passes on until the next time. Of course he could always go into PR but no one mistakes that for journalism

    To have the odd plate of shepherd’s pie and glass with the then deputy chair of the Conservative party at conference time is hardly a definition of depravity.. A sense of proportion is necessary too. Also for bloggers?

  • Brian Walker

    Anyway you ganchers.. is the award with examples a good idea or not? (Though why they should open this to democracy beats me).

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Bad idea

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Having shepherds pie and (a very expensive) glass is hardly depravity. My point being that unless journos are without eyes and ears, they would be aware that the then Tory chairman was “well dodgy”…..which of course they proceeded to tell us much much later.
    Not sure about bloggers. Not sure that I am one. Bloggers tend to have a readership of more than eight. But I tick most other “Blogger” boxes….Im unemployable. 🙂

    As you know (now) Im not a journalist and of course you know many more than I do. And of course its generational. Those few that I actually knew are as old as I am and as inactive.
    In the nature of my previous life……I did have the luxury of having colleagues, contacts with whom it was possible to befriend (and mean it).
    The journalist is of necessity a person it would be foolish for a politician or public figure to fully trust.

  • pinni

    Tell me, what real risk does a western journalist take when he or she ‘speaks truth to power’? A very low risk, indeed.

    My admiration is reserved for those brave souls in countries ruled by despots, in the likes of Iran and Burma, who risk their lives speaking truth to power. The consequences to the Telly man, Gordon, or others who pose a difficult question to a local politician bears absolutely no resemblance to the threat to life and limb which journalists and bloggers in some of these other countries face.

    Maybe Slugger bloggers need to stop being so parochial and trying to make heroes out of non-heroes and waken up to the realities of what is happening outside our little, pretty six counties.

  • joeCanuck

    These awards are for N.I.
    If you can give us a link to awards in the places you mention, I will be happy to investigate and vote, if allowed.

  • joeCanuck

    Or make a pitch yourself.

  • Munsterview


    “……Ive no doubt that many journalists have ethics……”

    Friendly word of advice, check out your prescription again with your doctor, your medication seems to be altering your perception of reality !

  • Brian – good idea. The Quakers – who conceived of the phrase, if not the concept, of ‘speaking truth to power’ – would, no doubt, suggest we all have the responsibility to challenge those in authority. Yet journalists have a particularly privileged position of being able to do this before a mass audience / readership, so influencing voters, so influencing how power is exerted on our behalf by the ‘powerful’.

    With power in their hands and party machines significantly expanded on a sea of public funds since devolution, unfortunately coinciding with NI media companies cutting back on resources for good journalism, the courageous, outside-the-pack, hack is needed more now than ever.

    Does this journalism matter? Yes, because it is a vital part of the check and balances needed to keep the folks on the hill – and in the Castle(s) – under scrutiny. It is this scrutiny role which goes to the very heart of the definition of journalists constituting aFourth Estate, rather than simply being ‘media workers’ processing PR guff which fills the spaces between advertising.

  • Brian Walker

    pinni, Of course the risk is trivial by comparison with Burma etc. But we are talking about Slugger awards for local stories and I’m trying to decribe the sort of pressures that exist – and were worse in tougher times. Local journalism matters very much, international stories are surely in an different category.

    Remember the purpose of awards is as much to encourage higher standards as to praise present performance.

  • joeCanuck

    Unfortunately I can’t cast any stones.

  • Brian Walker

    Patrick.. just seen yours.. On behalf of Her Majesty’s Press, thank you.

  • Brian Walker

    PS btw, Am I the only one underwhelmed by the performance of the Executive Information service?. I’d like them to do more not less. That doesn’t means you just lift what they put out but I want to know what the Executive is doing and why, not only read the boilerplate speeches. The best that can be said for them as far as I can see is that they accurately reflect the perforamance of ministers.

  • Munsterview


    Do you think that the current system where all the ‘security correspondents’ in the South are dined and wined by the Garda HQ at taxpayers expense on regular basis where all can have a good old natter off the record about the state of the nation, politicians, subversives and criminals !

    Any thing printed by those Security Coors that gardai HQ take offense at and the particular security correspondent is not invited back to the next bash and so is out of the loop for a whole month. By now Gardai HQ has them all house trained !

    The editor of the Sunday Tribune admitted this practice at a Journalists seminar in Limerick earlier this year on being challenged on this very activity from the floor by a member of the audience. She defended having work inside the system and went on to say that if there was a story to be broken unfavorable to the Gardai then another journalist from the paper had to do it !

    Any wonder then that the Donegall Garda Corruption Scandal took three years to break in the press although the facts were known to the press in general all that time ? Once broken is it any surprise that journalistic efforts seem more concerned with Garda HQ efforts to show how few corrupt gardai there were rather than the how widespread the corruption really was.

    Cronyism is the bane of Irish Public Life in this Island in all sectors and Journalism / Politics are no different. I played that game for years myself and on two or three occasions when I was set up for a trip to Green Street, the Special Criminal Court and a long holiday, my personal National and International press friends kept the phones hopping in Ivy House and I was released.

  • Oracle

    Sinn Fein have been doing the exact same thing for years…
    Jeez some people have some neck on them coming on here with a muddy brush when they dwell in a swamp themselves.
    Dis SF not totally exclude Liam Clarke from election trails, did they not refuse to even speak to Clarke and Breen, have they not expelled people for talking to Suzanne Breen in the street.
    Have tey not threatened to sack their own reporters for just criticising “Dear Leader”

    Go and extract your head from that dark smelly place Munsterview and wash yourself down with dettol… there’s a good chap

  • Munsterview

    “……Sinn Fein have been doing the exact same thing for years…”

    And what exactly is that ?

    I do not speak for Sinn Fein, I currently play no active part in the party and I do not seek their autorisation for what I write. On the whole I would imagine that SF would be much happier with me if I did mention them in slugger. In general I support the party and as a vetran of over forty years involvement in rebublican circles my views may carry some weight, but other than that I have no standing !

    In all the years of my involvement with Sinn Fein, up to the last public speech I gave at a commeration some years back, I was never once asked to clear a script with anyone before a public speech, or talk.

    “……Jeez some people have some neck on them coming on here with a muddy brush when they dwell in a swamp themselves…….”

    Missed your point on that one completely I am afraid, please explain !

    “…..Dis SF not totally exclude Liam Clarke from election trails …….”

    Liam Clarke is unlikely to be nominated by SF for journalist of the year awards anytime soon, he is regarded as hoostile to SF and so I would imagine co-operation is the minimum necessary for civility. However they cannot bar his from election trails or any other public place. To attempt to do so would be a PR disaster that would result in a flood of negative publicity !

    “…….did they not refuse to even speak to Clarke and Breen…..”

    Cannot say….. when and where ? Again any party is entitled to a ‘no comment’ approach on any subject.

    “……have they not expelled people for talking to Suzanne Breen in the street……”

    I am not aware of any such incidents. Again details please.

    “……..Have tey not threatened to sack their own reporters for just criticising “Dear Leader”….”

    Have they ? Again details please !