An interview with Fintan O’Toole, Assistant Editor at the Irish Times
Earlier this year we spoke at length to leading writer, columnist and Assistant Editor at The Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole recently returned from China from where he reported on many facets of life within the emerging capitalist heavyweight, describing both its beauty spots and open sores. He depicted a situation sometimes far removed from the dream market frequently referred to on the financial pages as ‘open for business’.  He writes that while “China shows unequivocally that global capitalism increases wealth… China also shows unequivocally that, left to itself, global capitalism increases inequality.”  O’ Toole is also the author of a number of books including ‘Post Washington: Why America Can’t Rule the World’ and he sits as Chair on the Advisory board of TASC, ‘a think tank for action on social change’. With over 20 years experience working within the dominant media he is well placed to define the medium and its abilities and limitations – though some might discern a slight rose tint to the picture he paints, in places. Fintan O’Toole is one of the most prominent representatives of ‘the left’ in mainstream Irish journalism and is frequently heavily criticised for his troubles. As discussed in our interview with Noam Chomsky, again, the label ‘anti-American’ is seen fit to pin on him. 
Much of what is covered in the following interview will do little to reassure those who have lost faith in the ability of a medium beholden to corporate structures and external dependencies. The impression is of a closed circle of elites pampering other elites, while capitalism’s advertising-dependent media has it’s freedom “inevitably and inescapably circumscribed.”  There are some mitigating factors and Fintan O’Toole stresses that it is not a ‘crude’ formula. The Irish Times Trust, for one, makes the news outlet unique where Irish media ownership is concerned in that it has no shareholders – but this has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Fintan O’Toole gives a fascinating account of his experience of the Irish media and makes many illuminating observations about the way mainstream media works. We are grateful to him for the time and consideration he has given to the issues that we aim to promote for debate.
(FT – Fintan O’Toole, MB – MediaBite, Miriam Cotton and David Manning)
MB – What brought you into journalism?
FT – I suppose I was one of those people who have always been involved. When I was in school and college I was editing the newspaper. And it was more out of activism that I first started writing. When I was 14 or 15, I was involved in a thing called the Irish Union of School Students, which was an early attempt to establish a union for secondary school students in Ireland, which I’m glad to see has re-started, as it was dormant for a long time. It really started in the early 70s which was, I guess, on the back of Paris 1968 and the student movements etc. So I would have been actively engaged in campaigning and writing reports on corporal punishment – which would have been a big issue in secondary schools at the time – and then setting up a student council, student newspaper. That sort of stuff meant it was something I was always doing. It didn’t occur to me for quite a long time that I could actually make any money out of it, or get a job. By default, I suppose, I did an Arts degree in UCD, which qualified me for very little. So, while doing some post graduate work, I began doing some work for In Dublin magazine and gradually drifted into it as a way of making a living.
MB – Did you have a mentor when you first started professionally?
FT – I did to some extent. In Dublin was actually a very good place to start. At the time it was fairly new – set up by a guy called John Doyle. The features editor was David McKenna who is now a television producer at RTE. He was a very smart guy, steeped in the American new journalism of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and that new attitude to journalism, whereby journalism was meant to be written with the same kind of style that fiction was, with the same kind of energy and the same kind of self conscious shape to a piece. Which very much influenced magazine journalism rather than news reporting. And that’s what we were doing – people like Colm Toibin, Mary Raftery, Michael Dwyer, Michael Darvey, Aidan Dunne – we were all at the same period, in the same magazine. It was very good, I didn’t go to a journalism school, and in a way it was a lot better, since you were doing stuff for publication. You were being paid appallingly because there wasn’t much money around, but the other side was you had time to work on a piece, you could work on a 3,000 word piece for a month, and you were just happy to get it in to the magazine. There was an editing process that was very creative. In terms of learning how to do it, it was probably the best way you could.
MB – How do you think your perception of journalism has changed over the years?
FT – From my own perspective, things have changed a lot. The process has changed. That kind of facility whereby you can work for along time on a single piece, where you can have more of a direct sense of control over what you do, that certainly recedes when you move into the professional world of journalism. The constraints of time and space become immediate. You don’t get 3,000-word pieces anymore. I worked for the Sunday Tribune with Vincent Browne in the early eighties, then I went to Magill. I went into the Irish Times in ’88. Even in the ’80s you could still, for example, write a 3,000-word piece in a newspaper. It wasn’t regarded as some kind of madness. So there was, oddly enough, an influence from new magazine journalism on newspapers. Partly due to the fact it was myself and people like me moving into the mainstream print media. The mainstream media was quite happy to absorb what it saw as a new energy and complexity. That has receded gradually, as the design of newspapers has changed. There is a perception that readers won’t put up with long pieces of text. But also, as the economics of print journalism has changed, you’ve ended up with fewer journalists writing more, a very simple labour equation. Historically, the trend is for fewer and fewer people to work in newspapers, while producing more and more.
MB – Going back to what you were saying about magazine journalism being absorbed into mainstream, do you see any reflection of that in the blogging phenomenon? The BBC, the Guardian and the Irish Times are all blogging.
FT – It’s very similar. The mainstream are always going to try and absorb whatever is out there, and interesting people. It’s not a sinister monopolistic tendency, so much as a desperate search for what the next thing is. And it’s a generational thing. The people who run and edit newspapers tend to be older; the people who are doing new and interesting things tend to be younger. It’s not in itself a bad process, what happened in the eighties and early nineties was a process which contributed to the narrowing of the media at that time – a lot of that was actually driven by advertising.
One of the things that made the relative flourishing of an independent magazine section possible in the late seventies early eighties, was when you had magazines such as In Dublin, Magill, Hibernia – a lot of smaller print media – driven, ironically enough, because they tended to be a little more radical and critical, by the advertising market. What made them economically viable was that you had a whole new breed of advertising agencies coming in, who for the first time were saying – we don’t care about the politics directly of this, we care about who you are reaching. And they were obsessed with reaching young people, richer, more liberal people, who were perceived as being more receptive to different ideas. Therefore if you were running Magill, for example, in the early eighties, it wasn’t that all the advertising agencies thought Vincent Browne was fantastic, liked everything he was saying etc, they liked the fact the magazine was being read by people they wanted to sell products to. That drove, in turn, the possibilities of a relatively more diverse media.
The absorption of this was partly journalistic, but also due to advertising. Agencies saw all these companies putting all this money into this advertising pool, which was taking away from newspapers. It was partly technological too. One of the reasons why the advertisers put their money in magazines, such as Magill, is that they were the only places you could have high quality colour printing. The newspaper didn’t do that then. You then had a technological leap, whereby the newspapers bought colour printing presses, thereby absorbing some of the advertising and at the same time the journalists. Therefore it was narrowing the media. It is not accidental that some of those publications that survived have done so in a much narrower form.
MB – Magill for instance?
FT – Yes. In Dublin certainly ceased to be anything like what it was. It was actually a pretty serious current affairs magazine with cultural, political and social commentary. With blogging you can say to some extent the mainstream media is trying to do something similar. One of the interesting things is that it is not as easy to do that, you can bring in some of the journalists, as is happening in some of the mainstream media, but in marketing terms it’s a much more diverse, much more fluid technological shift that is a lot more difficult for them to absorb everything from. I think the balance of power lies much more with the bloggers. By its very nature, it is much more difficult to get hold of.
MB – In terms of narrowing, when we spoke to Eddie Holt, he commented that he had seen a noticeable shift to the right, specifically in the Irish Times, would that be something you would agree with?
FT – I’ve heard this said a couple of times and it slightly puzzles me. Because it suggests that the Irish Times was a left wing newspaper and has moved to the right. When was it a left wing newspaper? It seems to me there are a couple of things here, some of them true and some of them perception. One of the things that is true is that the Irish Times was more a campaigning newspaper to a degree in the seventies, when it was more marginal, the legacy of being the protestant newspaper. Which ironically gave it an edge, having been the old conservative establishment newspaper, it was marginalized in the new state, and therefore became a magnet for all sorts of dissidents. It was the one place in a very confined Irish political discourse, where some degree of radicalism or some degree of dissent could be expressed.
But I don’t think that made it any sort of radical newspaper. In the sixties and seventies and to some degree the eighties, the newspaper did acquire a radical tinge from two things. One was feminism. Undoubtedly the very fact of consciously bringing women into newspapers and increasingly as editors did, it gave it a kind of progressive nature. And secondly, there was what were called the ‘social issues’. This was a typically strange sort of Irish locution – social issues not being social issues, but actually being issues of private sexual morality. The whole church-state clash, divorce, contraception, abortion, for example. On those issues the Irish Times held a much more progressive, radical position. But none of those issues, in economic terms, were left wing issues.
The Irish Times has always been a relatively centrist, pro-business newspaper with a degree of structural commitment. So in terms of at least covering issues of social inequality and poverty, I don’t think it’s ever been more radical than that. I think some of the perception of it becoming more right wing is do with the fact those two big influences have been absorbed into the mainstream as radical jesters. The Irish Times, I would think, does continue to be a better place to be for women. But it is no longer such a wedge issue in society. A huge amount of what would have been seen as brave and radical on the part of the Irish Times twenty years ago in terms of those so-called social issues, are now just the absolute orthodoxy of mainstream media.
So, I am not really convinced there is a simple shift to the paper turning left or right wing. It is a very independent newspaper in the very broadest sense, in terms of its ownership structures and in terms of internal organisational structure. There is no one who rings you up and says you can’t say or do that. What you might have, is a shift in the social composition of journalism in general, which is certainly reflected in the Irish Times – which is that most of the people going into journalism are somewhat to the right of what they would be twenty years ago. And I think it has come from a bigger process, which is the professionalisation of the field, the fact that it has become something of a career path. And the entry to it has been set down through post-graduate study, this itself is a very big plateau for people to reach socially, in terms of being able to afford to go to university and then to pay for a fairly expensive post-graduate degree course. You are automatically changing the social composition of who the journalists are and you are also putting forward a notion of what a journalist is; it is a career analogous to being a dentist or a lawyer. Those changes certainly play on the Irish Times, but I think they have a broader purchase in terms of the way the Irish media is working.
MB – Well that poses a number of questions, but something that we had in mind to ask, and something we asked Eddie Holt was, in terms of the Irish Times output, writers such as Charles Krauthammer represent a massive right wing shift compared broadly speaking to the rest of the paper. Why would he exist in the Irish Times? And the same with Mark Steyn before and to a lesser extent Kevin Myers, who has a sort of humour value.
FT – Well I think Charles Krauthammer has a humour value too, I find him very funny. Well I didn’t make the decision to bring Charles Krauthammer or Mark Steyn in, but so far as I understand it, the thinking would have been that the Irish Times readers need to know what this kind of thinking is – a thinking that is having such a profound effect in shaping the world. Undoubtedly there is an objective phenomenon – the rise of a very aggressive neo-conservatism in the United States. Krauthammer and Steyn would be fairly representative of the kinds of thought processes that go on there, and that there is a value and function to exposing Irish Times readers to, who may often be fairly insulated from it. It is not something, unless you read certain kinds of publications, you are likely to come up against.
The argument is that as an irritant factor it is actually quite important to know how these people think, to know how extreme their views are – it’s important you understand the kind of language they use. If they are going to start to talk about ‘buttock mountains’ in Abu Ghraib, there is an information capacity in terms of knowing what these people say. There is a very valid argument about whether it works that way. Whether it is seen as what the Irish Times thinks – the overall ethic of the paper is one that tries to represent diversity of views. That is one of its inherent constitutional notions, in terms of what it is supposed to do. And that does include views, which certainly I would find obnoxious.
And it’s a question I know was also debated in some of the more liberal media in the United States. For a long time the New York Times went through a stage of very deliberately including a lot of very conservative opinion, ultra conservative opinion, which would not cohere with the New York’s Times itself. And they did that for very specific reasons. They wanted their readers to know what these people were thinking. They decided after a while that it was counterproductive in a sense so they stopped doing that and went back to a more coherent New York Times, where for instance they would be more critical of the Bush administration. It’s a decision that you can only really make contingently, you have to keep looking at what you are doing and what effect it is having. Personally I wouldn’t mourn the loss of Charles Krauthammer from the Irish Times, though you might miss the display of prejudice, ignorance and bigotry. The fact is that it is a really powerful force, and there is some value in being exposed to it.
MB – What in your opinion is the role of the journalist? Who are they duty bound to, the reader, the newspaper, or an idea of impartiality?
FT – It seems to me the primary responsibility of a journalist is to a democratic society, journalism is a function of democracy. It is not an extraneous function, it’s critical, you just don’t have democracy if you don’t have both the capacity of citizens to be informed and the capacity of citizens to express and debate a diversity of views and analyses about their society. In that sense journalism is absolutely responsible to the reader. Any good journalist is attempting to stimulate and inform the wider society. Through the reader that hopefully feeds into the nature of the discourse of the society that you exist in. That’s the core responsibility, but it would be naive to suggest that that the responsibility is being purely fulfilled by anybody.
We are called media, since we are a channel of mediation between power structures and citizens, and they are themselves a power structure. So what you see is an apparent fundamental conflict between the responsibilities of the journalist to the citizen and the circumstances within which that responsibility gets fulfilled, which is through a media organisation which has it’s own interests and is a form of property, and the broader power structures which the journalist is supposed to be reflecting on and attempting to hold accountable – but which is also shaping the climate within which the journalist operates. It seems to me that journalism doesn’t operate within any sort of static state; it is a continual attempt to hold on to the responsibilities to the reader, while dealing with the exigencies of the real world, including the technological and physical conditions. Hence if journalists are operating within structures that don’t provide space for critical thought then that limits the way they can operate. Additionally if the commercial conditions in the broad sense in which they operate are not conducive to that kind diversity and function then it is obviously going to be a struggle. It is a struggle all the time I think. I imagine for most conscientious journalists it is a daily struggle.
MB – How much influence does the concept of trust behind the Irish Times have on its output and does that differentiate it from something more on the lines of the Independent?
FT – The ownership structure, the trust structure, is hugely important. It helps to protect the newspaper from one particular set of pressures; it does not protect it from a lot of other ones. The set of pressures it protects it from are I think double, one is the overweening power of a single owner which no matter what anyone says, as of course all of these owners will say they don’t influence what goes into their newspapers or television programmes, but this is clearly not true. It’s not accidental that Murdoch’s papers all round the world happen to take the same editorial line. It’s not accidental that Tony O’Reilly’s newspapers happen to take the same editorial line. The idea that they’ve all independently come up with the same line doesn’t make sense to me.
Clearly you don’t have that with the Irish Times, I’ve been there since 1988 and I can honestly say there hasn’t been a single time when someone has come up to me and said ‘we’re not going to say that because it conflicts with the interests of the trust or an owner etc’. It also plays out in a broader sense in that the commercial pressures are less immediate. You don’t have an annual general meeting of Irish Times shareholders asking whether their shares have gone up or down and so there is some capacity to at least understand that the newspaper has to make money, but it does not survive in order to make money. There is a distinction between those two things.
Having said how important the trust is, it would be naive to suggest that releases you into some realm of freedom and complete objectivity – clearly it doesn’t. The Irish Times very nearly went out of existence a couple of years ago, in the middle of a major economic crisis. It has to function as a business, just as any other business functions. If it does not make money, it does not survive. Its survival is, though not quite on the edge, it’s a real question from year to year. One of the limitations of the trust structure is that you cannot raise capital; it has to be self-financing. So if you want to buy a new printing press, which is what the Irish Times did, you have to fund it out of current profit. Which is one of the reasons the Irish Times nearly went out of business. There are really serious financial pressures there, and they undoubtedly have a big effect. It’s not a daily effect that journalists are aware of, but it’s a constant, its part of the background.
There is a clear understanding that if the Irish Times ceases to be a commercially viable proposition then it ceases to exist. The other set of pressures which is pervasive rather than self conscious is that, in common with almost every single media outlet in Ireland, the IT is dependent on advertising. media that depend on advertising are not free media, there’s an inherent importance in being dependent on advertising. And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a trust structure or a government organisation like RTE; if you’re dependent on advertising then you’re in the business of selling. People sometimes think this is a very crude thing, that for instance, if you want to write a piece about how shit Coca Cola is but because we carry Coca Cola ads we can’t do that – in my experience that kind of very direct thing doesn’t happen. In a way, if it did happen it would be fine, because it would be a very clear kind of relationship. It’s much bigger than that and much broader than that. It seems to me sometimes people don’t grasp that, it’s not to do with the advertisers; it’s to do with the people the advertisers are trying to reach.
The advertisers advertise because they put a huge amount of money into finding out exactly who’s reading the Irish Times, the Daily Star, watching TV3. They spend a lot of money doing that, not for the good of their health, but because their advertising spend is completely determined by the age profile, the demographic profile and particularly the wealth and class profile of the people who are consuming a particular piece of media. That in turn means something quite profound, say the Irish Times sells 116-117,000 copies; it could sell 120,000 copies tomorrow, to 220,000 different people and still go out of business. If the other 120,000 people were people that were from poorer sections of society, the advertisers who advertise in the Irish Times would not be interested in reaching them, because they don’t have enough money to spend on the products they want to sell. They’re not going to be buying the 5 million Euro houses on the front page of the property section for example. In general they are not the consumers the advertisers want to reach.
So there is a fundamental shaping effect in terms of the self-selecting nature of the audience, the audience has to be an audience that has money to spend. If they don’t have the money spend, then advertisers won’t advertise, if they don’t put the money in then we don’t survive. That’s a simple set of rules; no one tells you these rules when you go into journalism, because they don’t have to. I’ve never been at a meeting where someone says ‘we won’t do that because it doesn’t appeal to rich people’, it’s much more fundamental to that. It’s the air you breathe; it’s the context of which all media, which are funded in whole or in part by advertising, operate. It does have a really important effect on who then is important to be writing for.
If you think I’m being kind of crude saying this then listen to the ads on any of the radio stations when the JNR figures come out of who’s listening to them. They’re not saying ‘we’ve got 1.5 million listeners and Today FM have only got 100,000’, they’re saying we’ve got more listeners in the A B C social categories, we’ve got more listeners in the 17-35 age groups. They are saying very openly: rich people are reading us and young people are listening to us. They are very self-consciously saying some people are more important than other people in terms of who’s consuming their product. That has to have an effect on the nature of things that get done, but in relation to the kind of agenda the paper has, that becomes important.
MB – We noticed something similar in one of the first pieces we did as MediaBite, looking at advertising we noted the National Newspapers of Ireland statement that it provides advertisers with “the opportunity to carefully and strategically place their message in the editorial environment that will deliver the best results.”
FT – Well it’s important not to be crude about this, because it’s clearly not the case that everyone that has any money to spend in Ireland is completely right wing and completely uninterested in social justice, there are flexibilities and lacunae in this general structure. But this structure exists and it undoubtedly has a very powerful set of consequences.
To take a very simple example, two weeks before the calling of the general election dominated by the issue of stamp duty. While stamp duty is a big issue for a relatively small group of people, it’s actually not a big issue for the majority of voters. Housing policy is a much more important issue with a quarter of a million people on housing waiting lists or in housing need, who the market is clearly failing. Have you seen any reference at all to that as a media issue and therefore an issue to be addressed in the election campaign? Compared to stamp duty in the housing market field it’s a vastly more important issue. Also vastly more important is building land, if you go right back to 1967 and the Kenny report, there has to be control on building land or you will never solve the housing problems in Ireland. That was repeated in I think 2002 by a joint Oireachtas committee on the constitution, which stated we had to put controls in place on building land because we have a situation where we have a very small number of property developers controlling the entire housing market in the greater Dublin area. This is a fundamental issue and not a single political party is raising it as a major election issue. There is a kind of a symbiotic relationship here, whereby the politicians don’t raise it as an issue, the media then don’t put it up as an issue to be addressed, and it forms a closed circle. The politicians say no one is talking about this, so it’s not important, the media don’t mention it because it is not on the political agenda and so on. So you get a very closed world, it’s not a conspiracy; it’s the way this kind of discourse works. The issues that are of primary importance to the kinds of people that are crucial to the advertisers are the issues that are going to work their way to the top of the political agenda.
MB – You have probably seen the documentary on RTE recently concerning the ‘looming’ property ‘landing’. While it was to a degree one sided; this was definitely something that needed to be said. Yet the next day there is an article in the Irish Independent asking why RTE was scaremongering – ‘RTE broadcasts fear in the market’.
FT – You are absolutely right about that. It was interesting that RTE did that. RTE are one of the few media outlets that don’t take property advertising. It’s not a simple one plus one equation, though it is undoubtedly true that if not the choice of subject, but the prominence that is given a certain subject has to be related to the direct interests of the media outlets themselves. There is no question that almost all of the Irish media for the last 10-15 years has had a crucial economic stake in a rising property market. Because property advertising is very lucrative and is a very important part of what makes the Irish media tick. It’s not that a newspaper like the Irish Times will not publish things that say ‘this is a bubble’. It has published a number of pieces and very authoritative pieces, but in a sense it’s where are those pieces going to appear. How are they related to the broader agenda, in terms of how we understand our society at the moment? So I’m not saying there is an absolute mechanical relationship between certain interests and what appears, but I am saying that the relationship exists. People need to understand this, it is not a council of despair – well you know there is nothing you can do about this. A critical understanding of how the media works is one in which people understand the kind of relationships that are involved and how to read and see that it is not necessarily an objective and accurate reflection of everything that is important to Irish society.
For Part 2 of our interview with Fintan O’ Toole follow this link.
4. This quotation is from an answer to one of a few supplementary questions that we put to Fintan O’ Toole after the interview. The full answer will form an addenda to Part 2.