Do the Irish papers emerge with credit over how they handled Kevin Myers? You decide

The Irish Independent has at last joined the Irish Times in entering the row over  Kevin Myers, who has written for both papers in his time.

Former Indo editor Gerry O’Regan resorts to psychology and family background in Leicester and Ireland to explain Kevin’s “ inner rage.”  As his editor O’Regan says their relations were….

“unnecessarily uneasy and strained; his propensity to take umbrage at even the slightest criticism in time simply became tiresome.

It is a character trait which goes back to his early days on the ‘Irish Times’. Myers has written with great candour, how the late Douglas Gageby who was editor at the time, regarded him with scarcely concealed distaste.

And yet somehow, Kevin as a columnist survived the terms of both editors.

The Irish Times  has been  rather magnificent over Kevin, carrying the case for the defence and even enabling  Fintan O’Toole to criticise his own paper for how they handled Kevin’s departure from the paper more than a decade ago.

 For many years, The Irish Times gave Myers a licence to thrill its broadly liberal readership with the forbidden delights of contrariness. The paper did him no favours when it decided in February 2005, under the influence of a misplaced anxiety about being seen to censor dissenting views, to publish his column calling single mothers “mothers of bastards” and was then very slow to apologise for this gratuitous kick at the weak. What Myers learned from the episode was not to mind his words but that he would be indulged and rewarded for inverting the usual journalistic imperatives and using his formidable talents to afflict the afflicted.

The column has an accidental quality. He didn’t notice that he was doing something he generally avoids: insulting people who can answer back.

Myers’s problem, though, is that this stuff is everywhere now. It is no longer contrarian: the president of the United States spouts it. Far-right rhetoric runs on automatic pilot. You don’t have to think about it. And it is obvious that Myers didn’t and nor did his editors. It was just standard-issue bile. Even those who trade in it are bored by it.

But they failed to notice they were sleepwalking across a line. They broke the only rule that matters – don’t pick on people who can answer back. Jewish people have learned from the most abysmal experiences to be alert to the tropes of anti-Semitism and to call them out when they see them.

This damning by the faintest of praise leaves out two important points. First, while Jewish people answer back powerfully, the still unresolved row over anti-semitism and Ken Livingstone in the British Labour party is evidence both of the strength of their support and  the persistence of attacks against them.  In our societies it is dismaying that Jewish people still feel under siege and their numbers in western society are in decline. The contemporary conflation in parts of the Left between historic Zionism and the tragic Israeli- Palestinian deadlock  is grist to the anti-Semitic mill.

Secondly while Kevin’s assaults on the foundation myths of the Irish state are often rooted in disputes over the historical record,  they are made against some of  the loudest and sometimes menacing voices who most definitely can answer back.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London