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.

Mr. Holt has his critics. Cathal McCarthy of the Sunday Independent recently delved deeper than his usual fare of laboured put downs, ‘Put that joss stick out and open a window’, [1] with his comment on Mr. Holt’s final piece in the Irish Times. [2] Though restricted to 600 words, McCarthy found room for 15 or so witless insults, and pretty much nothing else. Yet his response was at its most baffling when he accused the erudite Holt of peddling a ‘particular brand of waffle’ and then went on to provide a perfect example of his own waffle. [3] Holt’s consolation can only be the certainty that he has hit a nerve when incoherence and invective are the response.

Either way, it seems that Geraldine Kennedy, editor of The Irish Times must share something of Cathal McCarthy’s perspective. Holt was dropped suddenly by The Irish Times and submitted his final column after 12 years with the paper a few weeks ago. In the incestuous and stiflingly homogenous world of Irish journalism, his was a much-needed and popular voice – someone who was prepared to sing from a hymn sheet of objective and considered observation regardless of which vested interests he might upset. We contacted him shortly after his last piece in the Irish Times and he agreed to an interview for MediaBite.

(Eddie Holt – EH, MB – MediaBite questions prepared by David Manning & Miriam Cotton)

MB: What first made you become a journalist? Do you think you have had to adapt your initial goals consciously or subconsciously to fit the corporate structure of the dominant media?

EH: I became a journalist largely through not particularly wanting to become a school teacher, so I fell into it from that respect. I have been fortunate in that I have had the job in DCU full time since 1994, which means that I can take some risks in the journalism, because it didn’t hugely matter to me whether I was kept on, so in that sense it has been okay for me.

MB: So what I think you are saying is that if you were largely dependent on the journalism you would have felt the pressure to a greater extent?

EH: Oh yes, that is true.

MB: You have not shied away from criticising other mainstream publications over the years, but is there any substantial scope for criticism of the Irish Times from within the organisation? Is there any self regulation?

EH: You see I just filed a column to The Irish Times every week for the last ten years, very occasionally would I go in there. I used to go once or twice maybe three times a year, that’s it. However there is a discernable drift to the right within The Irish Times over the last number of years. That seems as clear as day to me. For a start the editor Geraldine Kennedy is a former Progressive Democrat TD, and regardless of how objective she feels she’d like to be, there is still ideological baggage there, of course there is. She has replaced Mark Brennock with Stephen Collins. Well he’s a fine political corr, but he did write a book which was very sympathetic to the PDs, plus on top of that, one day last week the biggest letter on the letters to the editor page was a letter from the PD’s policy editor. So it does seem to me, amazing really, even with those three things, the PDs are still at 1% according the latest poll. They do seem to have excessive influence.

MB: It’s inexplicable. Geraldine Kennedy, on The Irish Times website, blatantly states up front that the role of The Irish Times is to lead and shape public opinion. That’s very strange – and almost certainly a different definition of what the public understand the media’s role to be. It betrays a lack of perspective in what she is doing in Geraldine Kennedy’s own mind, to say that so boldly and not realise how it is going to be received?

EH: Absolutely. That’s the problem with it.

MB: Is this an expectation pressured onto journalists? Are there others who resist the idea that they must encourage people to see things in a particular way?

EH: I am afraid this time in Irish life will come to be seen as a bullying time. I may be wrong about that but for instance, there’s too much discrepancy between the wealthy and the poor now. Irish life is coarser than it was. It’s more unfeeling. Perhaps that is the inevitable price of an economic boom. However, you’re not meant to say that because the cheesy propaganda is meant to be only good.

MB: Who do you think the best journalists are in Irish media at present?

EH: Well, I think it would be invidious of me to choose a few. I have a few favourites alright, but I’ll keep their identities to myself.

Editorial Note:

During his tenure at the Irish Times Eddie Holt has been an ardent critic of media propaganda, taking on the lies and falsehoods that dominated media coverage during the present Iraq war.

He observed in March 2003:

“They have penetrated not only Iraq but Irish living-rooms and public places such as bars, banks and hotels. Their push is unprecedented in the history of media warfare. Flickering away as a constant backdrop to the US and British attack, these news channels offer “war” as wallpaper. Nonetheless, we remain unable to discern what is really taking place in Iraq because, as ever, the media are a hugely significant weapon of war.

They report lies willingly and inadvertently, but more often they report half-truths, limited truths and truth out of context because they can get nothing better.”[4]

Having provided the first and only mainstream review of ‘Guardian’s of Power’ by David Edwards and David Cromwell (editors of UK based media monitoring group Media Lens) for The Irish Times Mr Holt is no doubt aware of the conflict between the corporate media’s obvious need to provide an ‘editorial environment’ suitable to advertisers and its professed “overriding duty. . . to [its] readers”to provide the most “honest, accurate and comprehensive . . .analysis, that is informed, fair and based on the facts.”[5][6]

Of this conflict he answered Media Lens:

“How moral is it, for instance, that newspapers print columns railing against the forces producing climate change yet carry ads for airlines or gas-guzzling SUVs? Is there not a glaring contradiction in helping to promote industries contributing to climate change? Of course there is, but refusing such ads may well lead to bankruptcy. What then?”

EH: The question I believe that was asked by Media Lens, if I remember correctly, was more or less, is it possible for news corporations in a world that is dominated by corporations to be any way objective. And no, no of course it is not. And so there is a drift to the right. Unfortunately the particular drift happened in America 3 or 4 years ago, perhaps a bit more, six or seven years ago, and it’s come over here now.

MB: We are living in a country that is ever more dominated by the kind of policies and strategies that IBEC have, for instance?

EH: Absolutely. There is no question of that.

MB: People often criticise the government and say that it is directionless. Actually it isn’t at all, it knows exactly what it is doing, in our view. And the IBEC website, if you go in there, you will see, as you probably have I’m sure, across every aspect of social policy and administration, very detailed ideas about how everything should be done – education, immigration policy – things that most people wouldn’t imagine they were overtly concerned with. If you look then at what the government is doing that’s what it is exactly, it corresponds very closely at least. We would agree that the media drift to the right is very discernable but is it related to this?

EH: Of course. It is, unfortunate in The Irish Times. I mean maybe it was only notional, but maybe it existed as a kind of bulwark against that. But there is some evidence to suggest that is not the case anymore.

MB: Standing back from The Irish Times and looking at the situation more generally, Damien Kiberd, the ex-editor of the Sunday Business Post, and others like Frank Connolly, for example, had a more left wing or critical perspective – you would see sharp criticism of American foreign policy post 9/11 in that paper. But Kiberd was kind of quietly moved off. You can see this trend right across the media in Ireland, these voices one by one are being relegated and marginalized. So, is it just a vogue in Irish media or is there something more sinister afoot?

EH: Well, who’s to know? [Laughs]

MB: What do you think of media coverage of ‘Bertiegate’?

EH: It is very strange that after negative revelations in The Irish Times, Bertie Ahern should nonetheless get a boost in the opinion polls. It may well show that Irish people, as soon as they cop it, do not like to be lectured at – particularly by a certain type of person.

MB: What purpose do commentators such as Mark Steyn and his replacement Charles Krauthammer have at the IT, why is their sometimes virulent analyses even entertained? In fact it appears from time to time their pieces aren’t even screened for any relevance to readers, such as Mr. Krauthammer’s article discussing steroids in baseball, in June of last year?

EH: I suppose there is some kind of a feeling in The Irish Times at least that they certainly don’t wish to be seen as any kind of ‘pinko liberals’ or anything like that, so they can always point to these columns. The Mark Steyn and Charles Krauthammer columns were/are though; it seems to me hideous, absolutely hideous. I really wouldn’t have much more to say other than that.

MB: Positively upsetting to read?

EH: It is yes, absolutely. I can remember Mark Steyn trying to make light of the Abu Ghraib findings, when he said something to the effect that ‘I don’t see that it’s great fun placing a load of Iraqis in a pyramid naked with their bottoms in the air.’ But I mean it was grotesque, it really was.

Editorial Note:

In May 2004, Mark Steyn wrote in the Irish Times, “Making a homo-erotic pyramid of young Iraqi men naked with their bottoms in the air is not my idea of a good time”, before later coining the phrase ‘the Iraqi buttock mountain’. His analysis concluded “But what happened at Abu Ghraib is terrible because it’s an offence to American values, not Arab ones. It’s ridiculous to insist that America has to apologise to Arab thugocracies in which what’s merely simulated in those photographs is done for real every day of the week.”[7]

A week later Mr. Steyn continued the anti-indignation under the heading “Why I cannot share the outrage over Abu Ghraib”, the reason: there just weren’t enough missing body parts. Mr. Steyn apparently requires more brutality for morality to kick in. [8]

The ‘good time’ Mr. Steyn joked about included abuses such as; urinating on detainees, jumping on detainees, pouring phosphoric acid on detainees, sodomization and other sexual abuses.[9]

MB: You wrote in 2003 regarding the Iraq war, “In the long run, you’re left appreciating RTÉ and the regular BBC and Channel 4 news bulletins, [but] these cannot be propaganda-free – the virus is pervasive.” Do you see an antidote to this virus; can it lie within the present framework?

EH: No I don’t, I’m afraid not, what I would be afraid is that consumerism is probably on course to consume itself. It is impossible to know, perhaps that is ultra pessimistic. It does seem to me that a radical shift is going to be necessary before this thing peters out.

MB: Things will get worse before they get better?

EH: I get that impression.

MB: While the existing media framework doesn’t appear to have anything within it that is capable of correcting itself, do you see the new, alternative media offering some possibility there perhaps?

EH: There is a possibility, whether or not the alternative media can address a critical mass of people. That is the main question.

MB: What is the problem with that?

EH: Just sheer numbers. I think it is possible for certain websites and blogs to reach people, but there is a lot of nonsense on the net, but there is a lot of good stuff which is not accessed by people.

MB: Is that because the general population have not necessarily caught up technologically?

EH: It probably is, yes.

MB: Alternative news services like, have built up a considerable readership. And as you said there is good and bad in there, but that’s all part of the nature of the thing, it has the potential to be a wonderful antidote to the kind of formula that governs . . .

EH: The institutional voice…Often the problem of the institutional voice of the media versus the individual voice of any journalist is that you cannot really be certain who to believe. You just don’t know, with regards to anything, be it Indymedia or the corporate press. The institutional voice of journalism in this country has taken a dramatic shift to the right.

MB: Do you think the institution of journalism perceives any challenge to it from these types of alternative media?

EH: I’d say it probably does, but at the moment, they are more interested in chasing the advertising buck, and that is one of the reasons why there has been this shift to the right. They are chasing money.

MB: Perhaps it will steal a march on the mainstream media. There are a lot of very dedicated media activists, for whom Geraldine Kennedy and others have coined the expression ‘citizen journalists’, but what they are doing is very interesting, very fresh. It can be wild or whatever, but it is making its impression?

EH: Of course, I’m just looking at the next general election. The next general election is likely to be one of the last ones to be dominated by the mass media. But I do think the next election will be dominated by the mass media. There will be some difference made by the net, but it will be quite insignificant this year, that is what I’m saying. It’s got some time to go yet.

MB: You wrote in 2006 of Blair and Bush, “Surely, by now, they’re unquestionably war criminals?” This is no doubt the view of many others, yet the media almost never discusses it. Even when it is, it is evidently dismissed on the next page, where Mr. Blair is quoted ‘authoritatively’ on, say, Iran’s nuclear threat. Is it beyond the liberal media to challenge this truism?

EH: It’s not beyond the liberal media, obviously, but a lot of people within the media probably don’t have any great interest in questioning it. It does seem to me if you kill 600 – 700,000 people and you have told lies in order to facilitate their killing, I would have thought that is good enough to qualify you at least for trial as a war criminal. You can’t go round doing that, you know. They don’t want to get offside with the power.

MB: There is obviously a lot of media focus on Iran at present, and much of the coverage echoes that which led up to the Iraq war, often interspersed with dominant myths. Take for example the misinterpreted comments of Iran’s President, ‘wiping out Israel’. Are these examples of lazy journalism or something else?

EH: Dominant myths, which may have deep, visceral meaning, will often be invoked to distance populations from each other. It’s the start of a withdrawal, I suppose. After all, it becomes easier to kill your enemy the more different he is from you. We’re all like that, I imagine.

MB: As you have pointed out many times before, the corporate media is not, as some critics profess, dominated by ‘lefties’. What benefit is there in pretending the media is ‘left wing’?

EH: It’s probably just an old way of keeping it right wing. There is absolutely no benefit in saying it is left wing, even the MediaLens book pointed out the corporate media’s dependency on advertising. It is practically impossible to have a left wing media. Who’s going to buy the ads?

MB: They often shout people down with accusations of ‘leftism’…

EH: Yes they do, all the time. There is a ‘raving right’, like there was allegedly a ‘looney left’.

MB: Media Lens have referred to the fictious firewall that is supposed to exist between the editorial content of the media and their corporate backers, and advertisers. Do you think this firewall exists in reality?

EH: Well I think it is very, very porous [laughs]. No, no it doesn’t really. Well it would be unfair to say it doesn’t exist at all; obviously very few newspapers are going to go so far right they almost vanish up their own behinds. Nonetheless, the idea of a firewall between the two is nonsense. I do know that in the IT that Geraldine Kennedy has tried to resist Maeve Donovan [managing director of The Irish Times], but whether or not it is any more than a kind of a knee jerk thing towards editorial control I don’t know.

MB: There was a very blatant example of that firewall being completely hosed down, extinguished, even. It seems everyone in the country recently received a little mail shot from a building society and it said that, if you telephoned the Pat Kenny Show and answered certain questions you could get your mortgage paid for a number of years or whatever. I realise the Late Late Show is light entertainment, and RTE an advertising-dependent institution anyway, it doesn’t pretend not to be, but this seems to be going all the way over to the other side, because a lot of what is covered on the Late Late is not light entertainment at all. Pat Kenny frequently tackles serious subjects and he does that from a very government orientated point of view. When RTE are willing to almost prostitute themselves to a building society as it has in this instance, and while there are many questionable things going on, for example in the construction industry, what are the chances there will be any kind of serious investigation of practices within that sector by RTE?

EH: Very very little, there won’t be. The RTÉ licence fee used to protect the public service aspect of RTÉ to some extent. It still does but in lesser measure because much of investigative journalism’s focus is – perhaps, rightly too – on violent crime. It does mean though that white-collar crime by politicians, business people and sundry lizards hides behind violence too often.

Editorial Note:

George Galloway was unsuccessfully ambushed on the Late Late Show last year, in a shameful piece of ‘light entertainment’, by Eamon Delaney, editor of Magill magazine. After responding to the berating from the audience member George turned to presenter Pat Kenny who explained: “I’m just doing my job, George.” [10]

MB: There is a case to be made; that there is another factor in the equation, where readers and the general public are concerned; there is a certain amount of blame to be laid there. It is not as though we are innocent children coming to this?

EH: Sure, but there are primary actors and there are by-products. The people who work in the media are the primary actors. You do have the consumer’s right to reject one publication in favour of another. But nonetheless, they are all going in pretty much the same direction. There is not very much the reader can do really.

MB: In a newly wealthy country like this, coming out of such extreme poverty, many people are happy with this new state of affairs, so they don’t want to hear that there is a very negative side to the way things are done?

EH: Yes, I suspect this is true.

MB: The media is no doubt aware of that?

EH: Yes, I think so. It is very much a Fianna Fail thing to say ‘you’ve never had it so good’. And there is a sense that a number of people have benefited from the Celtic Tiger, of course, but the big beneficiaries have been the very wealthy.

MB: We don’t actually have, objectively speaking, a whole lot to show for it?

EH: No, we don’t. There are twice as many cars as there was in 1995, or almost. It’s crazy. This is a piece of America here in Europe; there is problem with it, though there are positive aspects to that as well of course. But I think the focus should be on mending that.

MB: There are specific examples in Ireland at the moment where it seems the media are really failing to give readers any sort of realistic perspective on issues of great importance, what can we the general public do to effect change in this?

EH: Well it seems to me the only thing we can do is continue criticising the media and wait until a critical mass takes it up. I can’t see anything else. It is an amazing thing, once you write something you don’t own it, and I have often written something and thought, ‘there’s going to be a reaction to that’ and there would be nothing. And then I’ve often written something throw-away and the reaction could cause serious eruptions. So in that sense there is no way of knowing> It will probably happen that some week you will say something that will just take off. That’s the way it happens.

MB: How did GK explain to you that she no longer wanted you to write for the IT?

EH: She didn’t. Hugh Linehan – the new Features Editor since the first of January – he rang me and arranged for me to meet him, I went in and he claimed it was all his idea etc, but the reality of it was that Geraldine Kennedy had offered my column to a friend of mine shortly before Christmas. I was aware of it all at the time.

MB: Well that is another voice, a significant voice, in Irish journalism, not necessarily extinguished, but pushed out. There are very few voices like yours at the moment – hopefully that situation can be turned around. Thank you for talking to us.

The following is an extract from Eddie Holt’s final piece in the Irish Times:

“With Iraq, Irish third-level colleges and industrial schools, fear – real fear augmented by manufactured fear – predominated. The fear manufactured over Iraq concerned non-existent chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. Fear over Irish third-level education stressed the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s absurd university ranking criteria as definitive measurements of academic worth. Fear of eternal damnation and of taking on the Catholic Church guaranteed silence over mother and baby homes, industrial and reform schools and Magdalen laundries.

But the fear was almost all manufactured. There were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It was a lie. The Shanghai nonsense, skewed to favour US colleges, was also a lie. Likewise, many of the poorer institutions of Catholic Ireland were outrageous lies. Still, reliance on “official spokespeople” for the US government, the Department of Education and the Irish clergy continues. This is a growing problem for mainstream media. Fewer people than ever believe what they read or hear. Why should they?

Still, in this election year, the role of the media in determining the next government of this state will, as ever, be pivotal. Mediated information, such as that available in newspapers, on television and on radio, still forms and frames the mass mind. It dictates the who, what, where, when and even “why” (media seek maximum profit with minimum outlay) of political focus and conversation. So voters remain influenced by the mass media, but they are increasingly less so.” [2]

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