Monthly Archives: February 2007

In Praise of Subversion

By Kieran Allen

A recent Irish Times front-page article was headlined ‘O Brien nets €700 –800million in Caribbean deal’. The story was written in an apparently objective style, describing how the Irish businessman will receive the money in cash while other associates such as his father Denis Snr and PJ Mara, Fianna Fail’s PR man will also make huge gains.

The tone of the article was distinctly celebratory. There was not the faintest hint that extracting this vast sum from the impoverished islands of the Caribbean might be a trifle unfair. No connections were made between O Brien’s aggressive approach to profit making and his unsavoury activities in Ireland. This, after all, is the man who in 2000 sold Esat for €2.3 billion and then avoided paying €55 million in tax by declaring himself a resident of Portugal. When some concerned citizens protested, he lashed out by saying:

‘There is too much shite going on inside Ireland at the moment. I think people are too negative towards politicians, Government, and entrepreneurs. We are fast turning into a communist state. We are fast moving towards communist doctrine.’ People in this country should be thankful for what they achieved in the last ten years. Instead I come back to Ireland and people are screaming like spoiled children. [1]

The Irish Times article was framed as another personal success story of an Irish hero. The mysterious bond of nationality, it was implied, allowed us all to bask in his glory, much like we might celebrate when our team won an international soccer match.

It would be wrong to portray this type of journalism as a conspiracy. Stories like it are a routine and their authors have internalised certain norms about how to write. However, these norms contain many unquestioned assumptions. So in a society shaped by corporations, O Brien’s success is seen as just the outcome of a ‘natural process’ of competition. Breaking from this assumption requires an active, critical and political approach. But journalists are told they should not be political because it might damage their objectivity.

But would ‘objectivity’ be really lost if journalists wrote from a particular slant? I encountered this question frequently when I served as editor of the radical newspaper, Socialist Worker.

My answer was always simple: objectivity in the sense of a desire to uncover hidden power structures is not guaranteed by staying neutral. The person who considers themselves neutral in a conflict between Denis O’Brien and the poor of the Caribbean is more likely to gloss over significant and interesting facts. By contrast, an investigative journalist who is consciously opposed to corporate interests is more likely to uncover patterns of behaviour that they want to keep hidden.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once argued that all genuine social research must be subversive because it should to reveal what is hidden and sometimes repressed. Once it tries to do this, however, it will come up against dominant groups whose

“…interests are bound up with silence because they have no bones to pick with the world they dominate, which consequently appears to them as self-evident, a world that goes without saying.” [2]

Many of these sentiments could apply to investigate journalists who work either in the conventional or alternative media. For there is much to be unearthed and made visible in Ireland today.

The great irony of most modern societies is the enormous disjuncture between their official rhetoric and how actually existing capitalism functions. It is a bit like the gap between the banal language of high Soviet speak and the realities of privilege and corruption in actual Russian society before the fall.

Neo-liberal rhetoric suggests that the world is a pure market place where rugged individuals like Michael O’Leary compete unhindered by cumbersome state policies. The neo-liberals despise an ‘inefficient’ public sphere – by which they mean any space that has not been turned into a commodity, assigned a price and made subject to the ‘rigours of competition’.

The reality, however, is that the more the neo-liberals talk about global markets, the more they try to colonise the very state that they claim to despise. Modern corporations aim for a ‘frictionless’ relationship with the state so that it readily serves as their immediate handmaiden.

How else do we explain why donations from pharmaceutical and oil companies to Bush’s political clique have grown with every word spoken in praise of privatisation and de-regulation? If the state did not matter, the major US corporations would locate their headquarters in the Deep South where rent is cheaper rather than in K street Washington where they are close to the centres of political power.

These same intermeshing of the political and corporate elite is at work in Ireland but it has largely been under-investigated by the media. Let’s suggest just one area of inquiry for the subversive journalist.

Ten years ago, few people heard about the lobbying in Ireland. Yet today it has become a private industry in its own right. It is undertaken by Public Relations firms who have developed a ‘public affairs’ or lobbying function. They tend to recruit individuals who have been former members of the political elite or who have worked closely with government ministers or top party officials. These individuals are prized for the connections they can open for clients.

So Alan Dukes, the former Fine Gael Minister for Finance, for example, works as a public affairs consultant with Wilson Hartnell Public Relations and was involved in lobbying TDs about Babcock and Brown plans for the purchase of Eircom. [3] Drury Communications offers clients a range of public affairs services including, ‘putting key clients and key decision makers together’. [4] The head of this lobbying unit is Iarla Mongey who once worked closely with Mary Harney as deputy government press secretary. Q4 is another PR firm that offers a lobbying service to corporate clients. It is headed up by two former key figures within Fianna Fail – Jackie Gallagher, a former special advisor to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Michael Mackin, a former General Secretary of Fianna Fail. The lobbying activity of MRPA Kinman is headed up by Stephen O’Byrnes, a former key figure in the Progressive Democrats and a member of the RTE Authority. The drinks industry used this particular company particularly effectively to scupper plans to outlaw advertising of drinks to minors.

US corporations look for a little more punch and have two key lobbying agencies: The American Chamber of Commerce and the US Ambassador. The American Chamber of Commerce hosts a number of business lunches and special conferences with key decision makers. It boasts that it has ‘excellent access to Irish and European policy networks’ and can ‘keep Irish decision makers focussed on the factors that contribute to the continuing attractiveness of Ireland as a location for foreign direct investment.’ [5] The Chamber vigorously lobbied against an EU directive, which would oblige employers to consult their staff and provide them with information on issues affecting them. Instead of an automatic right to such consultation, they demanded that it could only be triggered by a written request signed by 10 percent of workers. In this way, the names of the employees might be noted by very management which was reluctant to consult them in the first place! The Irish state duly agreed and the Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Act bore, according to Industrial Relations News, the ‘indelible stamp’ of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland. [6]

The Chamber works very closely with the US Ambassador, who, it appears, intervenes extensively to lobby for US business interests. A dramatic example of the clout that this particular lobbyist yields was evident in the chewing gum affair.

In a rare moment in 2003, the former Environment Minister Martin Cullen appeared to be on the verge of imposing an extra cost on business after he was handed a consultancy report on litter. The report proposed a special €4-5 million levy on chewing gum and fast food firms and banks that used ATM machines to help bear some of the cost of cleaning up litter. The levy on chewing gum was to be raised by a 5-cent consumer tax on every packet. The justification was quite straightforward. Anyone who takes a cursory walk through the streets of any major city will find dark spots on most pavements that are the remnants of discarded chewing gum. These require special equipment to clean them off. The levy would be the chewing gum companies’ contribution to defray costs. Wrigley’s, however, approached US Ambassador James Kenny who duly set up a meeting between the company, government representatives and himself. The result was the withdrawal of the proposed levy.

When a sovereign government appears unable to impose a minor chewing gum tax, there should be concerns about the fate of its democracy. But when it is casually explained that this type of intervention is perfectly normal, one really wonders. The US embassy in Dublin explained that ‘The ambassador makes these interventions in a whole range of sectors in pursuit of US interests and on behalf of US firms. This was a just a case where the ambassador saw US interests at play and decided to get involved.’ [7] ‘US interests’ it seems are synonymous with large corporations such as Wrigleys and McDonalds.

Irish industry tends to rely on organisations such as the Construction Industry Federation and Irish Business and Employers Confederation to lobby state agencies. These have a major advantage over the unions as their members command the resources that determine whether or not investment takes places. Not only can they engage in extensive research and forward planning but they also have access to information that is normally shrouded in ‘commercial secrecy’. In a rare interview about their lobbying activities, one IBEC executive gave a glimpse of the information asymmetry which employer organisations enjoy:

“I am surprised how often they (ministerial civil servants) ring me up looking for data… Maybe it’s just a matter of us having access to several thousand members, and they (the members) trust us, so we survey them. I think we are a good source of data.” [8]

Control of information about business decisions means that IBEC lobbyists can constantly exaggerate the negative implication of any government regulation. ‘We can tell them pretty much anything – how would they know?’ is how the anonymous IBEC executive rather crudely put it.’ [9]

IBEC’s ability to scupper plans for regulation testify that there is an important grain of truth in this. At one point Ireland’s rising level of carbon dioxide emissions seemed to lead to an emerging consensus in policy making circles about the need for a carbon tax. But a negative lobbying campaign by IBEC led to its withdrawal. IBEC has also lobbied for a removal of ‘unnecessary’ planning delays on major infrastructural development – and has been rewarded with the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill (2006). More broadly IBEC has consistently lobbied against ‘costly’ and ‘cumbersome’ regulation and its efforts have borne fruit with the Department of the Taoiseach’s paper on ‘Regulating Better’ which sought to reduce ‘red tape’. [10]

On major issues of economic policy, IBEC and the CIF have consistently been able to come up with initiatives that win acceptance from state officials. One of the most crucial decisions made about state services has been the formation of Public Private Partnerships. This proposal, however, originated in a joint IBEC/CIF document in April1999 which was drawn up by a committee composed of representatives of National Toll Roads, AIB, Arup Engineers and a number of legal and finance houses. Although these groups are precisely those who stood to gain commercially from these projects, their plans were accepted right down to very specific details. [11]

Most of this lobbying activity takes place behind closed doors and in an arena where ‘connections’ and ‘networking’ play a vital role. It is a de-politicised arena that is less subject to democratic scrutiny – and this is precisely why it benefits the corporations.

But surely, there is material here for our subversive journalist. What code of conduct applies to figures who move from the political sphere to the lobbying industry? How much do lobbyists get paid? What sort of access have they to politicians? Have they made donations to their electoral funds? What laws have been the result of lobbying?

But be warned. Casting a search light on hidden networks of power can carry a cost. Just before their demise, the Centre for Public Inquiry had begun to look at lobbying.

They were closed down precisely because such activity was considered dangerous. It illustrated how our rulers go to great lengths to intimidate people from investigating the truth by using financial sanctions or the laws of libels to stop them.

Don’t let that put you off, however. Any serious attempt to bring about a world whereby the people of the Caribbean rather than Denis O’Brien keep their millions will require people to stand up for their beliefs. Moreover, they can be assured of the support of many, many people who have had enough of the dictatorship of the big business.

MediaBite are proud to introduce this guest commentary from Kieran Allen, ‘In Praise of Subversion’, a challenge to any journalist who considers themselves critical of concentrations of power. Kieran Allen is lecturer in sociology at UCD and former editor of the Socialist Worker newspaper. His forthcoming book ‘The Corporate Takeover of Ireland’, examines corporate infusion into Ireland over the last decade, and is due to appear in March 2007.


1. ‘O’Brien turns his back on negative Ireland’ Irish Times 24 October 2003
2. P. Bourdieu A Science That makes Trouble in P. Bourdieu, Sociology in Question London, Sage 1993
3. ‘Dukes to lobby on behalf of B&B’ Sunday Business Post, 19 March 2003.
4. Drury Communications website
5. American Chamber of Commerce Ireland website
6. C. Dooley, ‘US Influence on employee Bill denied’ Irish Times, 1 August 2005.
7. A. Beesley, ‘Roche gives up Chewing Gum’ Irish Times, 16 March 2003
8. P. Bernhagen, ‘Business political power, information asymmetry and structural constraints on public policy: Two cases from environmental politics and banking regulation in Germany and Great Britain’. Paper prepared for Annual national Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association 3-6 April 2003 Chicago. p. 9.
9. Ibid. p.10.
10. ‘A Chink of Light’ IBEC News May 2005
11. IBEC and CIF, Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) Briefing paper April 1999.

The Media, Inside Out

An interview with Eddie Holt, former Irish Times columnist

Eddie Holt is both a journalist and lecturer in the School of Communications at Dublin City University. He has offered insight and blunt realism to Irish readers over the last decade and more through his weekly columns in The Irish Times – injecting much needed truth into the mainstream body of Irish journalism – a profession ever more consumed by dominant media myths. Following the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Holt was one of the few journalists who made the simple and self-evident observation that the action was criminal, and therefore that the perpetrators, George Bush and Tony Blair, were both criminals. These observations did not go unnoticed by those as yet unwilling to call an egg an egg.

Continue reading The Media, Inside Out

Professor Wrixon and The Irish Times

Geraldine Kennedy, editor of the Irish Times is surely serious when she says her newspaper’s role is to ‘shape public opinion’ – if its coverage of the fortunes of “Professor” Gerry Wrixon is anything to go by.  In another of the IT’s articles on behalf of the controversial Professor Wrixon, now ex President of UCC, the paper has again put a gloss on the latest developments in the ongoing saga of events at University College Cork.  This time around, the occasion for their enthusiasm on Wrixon’s behalf is the report by John Malone, appointed last year by UCC’s governing body at the behest of Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, to investigate allegations of bullying and corruption.  Bizarrely, until now, the Irish Times has failed ever to report the fact of this investigation – a strange omission by our foremost national newspaper in the public record of disturbing events at a significant national institution.


The allegations against Professor Wrixon and others were raised most notably by Professor Des Clarke in a lengthy memo circulated to every member of staff at the university last summer.  Former UCC President Michael Mortell, among others, was sufficiently troubled to write to the Irish Examiner, supporting Clarke in his request for a proper investigation into UCC’s affairs. (1)  Clarke’s memo itself followed the publication of other critical news reports, including some by this author on and who declares a personal interest.

The furore resulting from all this seemed to have finally compelled Minister Hanafin to take the matter seriously where all previous attempts had failed.  However, that turned out, unsurprisingly it must be said, to be too good to be true.  Despite the serious nature of the allegations against Wrixon and the mountain of evidence which his critics say exist to prove them, the first sign that matters were once again to be hushed up was when Hanafin declared, in defiance of legal logic “I think appointing a visitor at this stage would be taking the allegations too seriously, given that they were disputed two years ago. But I don’t want it to come back again in another two years.”  (2)

A copy of Professor Clarke’s memo is available at the link provided beneath this article. (3) There will surely be few readers who will consider his concerns not to be very serious indeed.   Hanafin’s statement in itself, was pretty incontrovertible evidence of a foregone conclusion as to the veracity of the claims:   “They’re about Gerry Wrixon but they’re also about finances and about spending of money on buildings, therefore it could be very easily cleared up,” she was reported to have added. (2)

Independent Investigation?

The next sign that matters were continuing along the same path that had led to the disharmony in the first place was when Minister Hanafin announced the appointment of an independent investigator whose ‘independence’ was questionable in the opinion of many people.  In what might best be described as a knight’s move, Minister Hanafin and the HEA allowed UCC to appoint its own investigator and frame the remit of the investigation. The appointment was subsequently made by Governing Body Chairman, Enda McDonagh and presented to the rest of the Governing Body –  after the fact and without discussion.

The Irish Independent:

“UCC Governing Body chairperson Professor Enda McDonagh recommended Mr Malone in a letter to members of the body on Friday, in which he sought agreement to the appointment by 10am yesterday. Prof McDonagh expressed regret that he would not be contactable “over the next day or so” and said that no reply would be taken as consent. The professor stressed the challenge involved in identifying someone of stature, with the relevant expertise, who had no connection with UCC, to conduct the investigation.” (4)

(John Malone is a former General Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. He came to public prominence in obtaining 100 per cent public financing of the 15 million euro Equestrian Centre at Punchestown Racecourse, fast-tracked by Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy and Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh. In evidence to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee on 17/12/2003, John Malone said the Centre was never intended to hold show jumping events, in flat contradiction to his earlier contention that the absence of such a centre was the reason for the loss of the World Equestrian Games in 1999.   The Comptroller and Auditor General, John Purcell, said it would be hard to conclude the centre was providing a vital function in the agri-equestrian area.)

The remit of the investigation was to be determined by the governing body of UCC, the very group about to whom many of the allegations were related.   In effect, the defendants were allowed to determine what they should be accused of.  Naturally enough, they decided that none of the really tricky stuff would be considered.  Out of approximately 50 heads of complaint, it seems that about three were deemed appropriate for investigation.  A call was made for all parties with outstanding grievances to contact Mr Malone.  But when Dr Stuart Neilson, for example, approached him with the details of his experiences of alleged bullying at UCC he was told that the matter was outside the scope of the investigation.  The Irish Independent noted on the 22nd December 2006:

“After the selection of Prof Murphy [Wrixon’s successor] the governors spent an hour and a half discussing a report into the bullying allegations. The Irish Independent understands that a motion was carried stating the governing body was unable to progress matters further and felt it had no option but to dismiss the complaints on the basis only of non-engagement by the three complainants – who have rejected a committee investigating their allegations. It is understood that at least one of the three is seriously considering legal action. The other two are also expected to consider their options.” (5)

Having at first welcomed Minister Hanafin’s interest in the situation, the prejudicial nature of the investigation resulted in the refusal of many people, including Professor Des Clarke to cooperate with it.  What confidence could have been felt in a process which amounted, in effect, to the setting up of a kangaroo court by the very body against whom the allegations were made?  Undaunted by the inevitable failure of her strategy for resolving the situation constructively, the Minister nevertheless pressed ahead with her plans without apparent concern for the further insult and anger that it caused to many people.  In September 2006, the Irish Times had eagerly reported that:

“…many of the allegations made by Prof Des Clarke of financial mismanagement at UCC had been made before and it referred them to the HEA which in turn referred them to the UCC’s governing body, which had found them to be groundless.   President Wrixon has said that “there isn’t a single instance where any of the allegations he has made have found the university has acted wrongly in any way” and that “these views have already been expressed to the governing body, Government ministers and State agencies, and been found to have no merit” and that he would not highlight all the “factual errors” in Prof Clarke’s letter.”  (6)

This translates into nothing more than saying that President Wrixon has said there is no need for a proper investigation.  Well, he would, wouldn’t he?   But the Times just left it at that – no supporting evidence was offered for Wrixon’s claims.  Of course, any competent enquiry would have quickly revealed the ‘factual errors’ in his own or anyone else’s version of events.  Nevertheless, both the Irish Times and Minister Hanafin have so far evidently taken him at his own word – both seemingly determined not to look at any evidence that would prevent them from shaping public opinion in favour of Professor Wrixon.  And let’s not forget what is at stake here: a university college massively in debt; a divided and unhappy institution and many outstanding grievances among people who believe they were treated with exceptional contempt by the university – and now by the Minister for Education herself  –  for challenging corruption, bullying and mismanagement.

Again, it fell to the Independent to provide us with some counterweight opinion on the nature of the ‘independent investigation’:

“Prof Clarke made clear his unhappiness with the latest development in the saga, including the time given to members of the governing body to consider and agree Mr Malone’s name. ‘The Governing Body is appointing a consultant to write a report about itself; the scope is limited by excluding all the matters that the Governing Body ‘considered’ but failed to investigate.’ The appointee has no independent legal powers, no brief to investigate anything, is paid by the Governing Body and the Higher Education Authority (HEA), gets secretarial support from UCC, and is asked to report within a few weeks.” (7)

Reporting The Report

This brings us to the central point of MediaBite’s concern with the affair.  The investigator, presumably, has apparently seen fit to provide the Irish Times with an early copy of the report before the university’s own officers have had a chance to see it or comment on what it says.  Did the Minister agree to that?  This turn of events may not be unrelated to the fact that the newly constituted governing body at UCC under President John Murphy, takes over from the old body on the 19th of February.  The Wrixon camp, which will include many of his supporters on the old governing body, will clearly have been keen to secure favourable publicity for themselves ahead of the report’s official publication date –  said to be this coming Tuesday the 6th February. And the Irish Times has, it seems, been happy to oblige.  On the 30th of January in the ‘Teacher’s Pet’ column, clearly equipped with advance information, the IT was in a position to begin the process of  ‘shaping’ the public perception of what Malone’s report would say:

“Broadly, the report will be welcomed by the Wrixonites. There is some mild criticism of the manner in which the governing authority was by-passed on some decisions.” (8)

To anyone who has been following the Wrixon saga from other perspectives, the IT account of the report makes the same depressingly familiar reading.   It conforms almost exactly to about a hundred earlier flattering items and articles in the same paper and to Wrixon’s apparent view of himself as the messiah of UCC and the Irish university world at large. It also claims that “The inquiry examined over 50 allegations made by Prof Des Clarke of UCC in a letter to Ms Hanafin” (9) but it patently did not investigate all of them, because they had excluded potential litigation, the bullying complaints and all matters previously considered by the governing body itself. In other words, most of the issues that Professor Clarke raised were actually ignored beyond the decision not to investigate them.  The word ‘examined’ is the critical one in the account above.  The complaints were ‘examined’ but not investigated.  In his analysis of the report in the IT, Sean Flynn, Education Editor, summarised the conclusion of the report as follows:

“There was a very strong focus on results and implementing change but much less on people affected by these changes….” (9)

This has been the refrain from the Wrixon camp over the last few years.  Nobody at UCC has been troubled by the fact of ‘change’.  The closing down of a highly successful and internationally renowned research centre might possibly be one of the ‘changes’ which Wrixon supporters are talking about.  For a university that was spiralling into debt at the time, it was a questionable business decision and the closure appeared to be grounded more in ideological preferences than any concern with modernisation or change. From an academic perspective, it was inexplicable.

And which ‘results’ was the President truly focused on?  We know that, personally, he has done handsomely well out of the sale of Farran Technologies – a company the full extent of whose links to the UCC sponsored NMRC (National Microelectronic Research Centre) are of unknown provenance. On the other hand UCC itself is estimated to be in debt to the tune of between 60 and 100 million Euro.  If Wrixon were the director of a company, the shareholders would likely have long since sought his resignation.  Certainly a lot of shiny new buildings have materialised as a consequence of private sector donations but it is not clear what foothold in UCC’s teaching and research activities those donors have secured for themselves as a consequence of their largesse.   Where public money is concerned – and this is the most crucial aspect of university management – the UCC deficit is more than the whole of all the state’s other university colleges combined.  On top of that Wrixon has left a divided and unhappy institution behind him.  The fact that there is a general increase in the number of people wanting to attend all third level institutions is hardly down to Professor Gerry Wrixon but he is apparently unabashed at claiming the credit for the phenomenon as it relates to UCC for himself, nevertheless.   The Irish Times is well aware of all of these facts and yet it consistently chooses to ignore them in most of its coverage of the issue. Moreover, the paper has effectively refused on a number of occasions to hear evidence and other information offered to it by member’s of UCC staff – an extraordinary situation for a paper pretending to be concerned with serious investigative journalism.

From the point of view of media coverage, it is interesting to contrast the summary of Malone’s report offered by Niall Murray in the Irish Examiner on the 3rd February.  He begins his article with the following:

“PERSONAL mistrust and animosity were common at management level in University College Cork during Professor Gerry Wrixon’s presidency, an inquiry carried out for UCC’s governing body revealed.” (10)

From Murray’s piece it is clear that the report carries rather more criticism of Professor Wrixon than Flynn’s item in the Irish Times would lead anyone to believe, although Murray too confirms the central thrust of Malone’s ‘findings’ to be supportive of Professor Wrixon’s ‘vision’.  However, given all that is known about the context in which the report was conducted, the weighting in favour of Wrixon which the Irish Times has given to its conclusions is worrying.  The paper’s reporting of the affair throughout its dragging history can only have played a major part in exacerbating the mistrust and anger felt by many at UCC.  What the effect on UCC staff and management of its coverage of the latest report will be, remains to be seen.  Readers of the IT should in any case be aware that what they are reading may not at all be a full and fair account of all perspectives on a given situation.  Given her stated philosophy, is it not the case that Irish Times reports are more likely to be a presentation of selected facts as Geraldine Kennedy would prefer you to see them?

Miriam Cotton
February 5th 2007
1. Irish Examiner 29/09/2006: Ex-UCC president calls for mismanagement claim probe

2. Irish Examiner 14/10/2006: Hanafin to ‘clear up’ UCC debt allegations

3. Indymedia: An open letter from Professor Desmond Clarke to President Wrixon

4. Irish Independent 15/11/2006: Questions over investigator inflame college controversy

5. Irish Independent 22/12/2006: College rejects bullying claims by staff

6. Irish Times 30/09/2006: UCC complaints referred to HEA

7. Irish Independent 15/11/2006: Questions over investigator inflame college controversy

8. Irish Times 30/01/2007: A new era begins at UCC later this week when Michael Murphy takes over from Gerry Wrixon in the president’s office

9. Irish Times 02/02/2007: Inquiry clears ex-UCC head of corruption

10. 03/02/2007: Report highlights ‘mistrust and animosity’ at UCC

11.  18/09/2006:  ‘Wrixon + 8 Million: UCC – 60 Million