EVEN with a smidgen of Irish history, a perceptive reader of the Irish Independent would not be unaware of the similarities between the way the newspaper wrote of republicans back in 1916 and, a hundred years later in 2016, the way it lacked impartial judgement regarding Sinn Fein’s participation in the general election.
In 1916 the Irish Independent was famously hostile to the rebels, demanding that British military authorities ‘single out the worst of the ringleaders and deal with them as they deserve.’ Which they did!
Nor was The Irish Times a shrinking violet. It editorially wrote: ‘Rapine and bloodshed must be punished with a severity which will make any repetition impossible for many years to come.’ For the Irish Independent and The Irish Times, established order was to be protected at all costs.
Since then the two newspapers have passed through the hands of different owners but aspects of the political philosophy that guided them in 1916 survive to the present day, despite the variations in proprietorship; namely, the importance of lending support only to governments that are cautious and conservative in behaviour and outlook.
With the passage of time, and as Irish politics settled into placidity, a consortium devoted to mutual benefit developed between the press and the mainstream parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour – outfits that embodied establishment interests to a T.
Which was hardly surprising for a country well disposed to traditional views and values! What’s more, both media and political parties considered discretion in public affairs to be of the highest importance – a manner of thinking that prevails even today. Indeed ‘responsible politics’ are more easily advanced now than in 1916, thanks to the fact that three-quarters of the Irish print media is owned by just one billionaire!
In other words, ultra-conservative newspapers always have had a major influence on Ireland’s political development. So, when a moderately left-wing republican party, Sinn Féin, began to gain traction, alarm bells started ringing.
In the lead-up to the general election, the Indo/Sindo machine went hammer and tongs to ensure that not a day passed without attacking SF and its leader Gerry Adams.
The ferocity of the operation startled even world-weary political observers, aghast that the personalised assaults had nothing to do with the cut and thrust of political gamesmanship, but everything with ‘doing-in’ the electoral chances of SF politicos.
Not since 1916 had one political grouping and its leadership been targeted by an Irish newspaper in such a fashion. For instance, Adams’s participation in the first RTÉ debate was described as thuggish. He was not overly bright, it said, ‘but he must have a certain intelligence, the kind that makes you a good strategist for a terrorist organisation and a peace process.’
Daily headlines included stuff such as ‘Gerry Adams can’t count; SF to drop terror law. Soft on crime; The IRA murdered a prison officer 33 years ago; Widow of RUC man says Gerry Adams was in IRA; How Adams will cut your pension; We’ll end up like Greece if motley crew takes power.’
The Indo published three articles on one day claiming Sinn Féin ‘orchestrated a campaign of bullying and intimidation against RTÉ into giving their candidates more airtime.’ The background to that particular charge was a decision by RTÉ to cut election coverage of Sinn Féin.
The broadcasters did so on the basis that SF criticism of the Special Criminal Court and the response from FG, FF and Labour amounted to election coverage and therefore should be deducted from the party’s airtime.
Hundreds of party supporters complained the ruling was unfair. RTÉ agreed and immediately resumed its normal reportage of the party’s press events. But the damage was done.
The Phoenix magazine commented that the Indo/Sindo onslaught was the most sustained campaign against any Dáil party in the history of Irish elections, and that the countless attacks masquerading as stories merited a PhD by some media academic.
Damage to SF?
The serious question is this: did the country’s biggest-selling newspaper harm Sinn Féin’s electoral prospects? Some argue ‘almost certainly yes’ when one takes into consideration SF’s failure to turn poll predictions into Dáil seats. Pollsters anticipated SF capturing 20% of the national vote – which, some Sinn Féiners say, might have happened if media bias had not taken its toll.
Others claim that that media prejudice was not the reason, but rather the fact that Lefties, Water Protesters and the Anti-Austerity crowd took votes from SF in constituencies where support would have been expected to gravitate to republicans. (That said, it was no mean feat to get 23 deputies elected and become the Dáil’s third biggest party.)
And then came the Indo’s grovelling apology to Gerry Adams. The newspaper asserted that Adams had joked about an Indo editor being held at gunpoint. But, as the SF leader explained, all he said during a fundraising dinner in New York was that, in the Tan War, the IRA raided the offices of Independent Newspapers.
Eventually the Indo admitted Adams was correct, and that he did not joke about holding the current editor of the Irish Independent at gunpoint.
‘He was, in fact, referring to an historical event, which occurred almost a century ago during the War of Independence. We apologise to Mr Adams,’ it said.
But not before a full spread was given to Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s ‘outrage’ at Adam’s ‘abhorrent’ remark and Madame Burton’s grim warning of ‘a veiled threat to our free press.’
For his part, Adams complained that Indo reporting had been untruthful and deeply corrosive for journalism and the coverage of politics in this state.
Adding piquancy to the Indo’s expression of regret was the fact that last May the Press Ombudsman also found the newspaper group to have breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines. That too led to an outburst of breast-beating contrition.
But, in the midst of such sordid antics, what happens to truth when a newspaper distorts news beyond recognition? Is it the case that in such a scenario the shaping and management of news is explicitly designed to make us think along certain lines instead of providing information to help us make a decision (particularly at election time)?
When news acquires a definite ideological bent, does it cease to be news? Does it become propaganda? And, if so, isn’t the purpose of propaganda to ensure that we see the world through the eyes of the existing power structure which, as far as our national media is concerned, almost entirely reflects the political and economic interests of owners, big business and the rich?
Assuming that’s the situation, can we then say with certainty that the national print media conducted itself honourably during the recent general election?