Confronting Power – Part 2

An Interview with Frank Connolly

In the first part of our interview with Frank Connolly he detailed the response of the Irish news media to what has come to be known as ‘Bertiegate’. The following, second part of the interview discusses more general issues of media reporting and the inherent constraints imposed by the corporate, advertising dependent, structure of mainstream outlets.

MB: We had one particular question we wanted to ask you and that is whether you think there is an inverse relationship between good journalism and journalists who have good relationships with those in big business and in government?

FC: I think that’s another way of putting the famous phrase that journalism is about revealing things that people in power don’t want to have revealed and I think that still is a consistent responsibility of investigative journalism. And where journalism is not questioning the powerful and the rich and those who control society including control of the economic future of society, I think it’s not good journalism. The problem is that there is a wider issue at stake here. One is the convergence of economic interests with media ownership which is very apparent in this country – and that goes into the whole matter of the oil and gas resources that we touched on earlier on. For instance, in the last week (October 2007) Independent Newspapers have published the fact the Providence Resources which is owned, by and large, by Tony O’Reilly and his family, have discovered oil off the southern coast in the Helvic field. In their statement announcing this they have described it as a very important discovery of what they used to call in the Independent ‘black gold’. There is no evidence that there has been a significant find in that field because they haven’t established the pressure at which the oil will flow. Everybody knows there is oil and gas off the Irish coast – particularly off the Atlantic coast. We know it through the Corrib find and through the Dunquin prospect off the south-west coastline. The big issue is how viable and how profitable and how rapid and strong a flow of oil will come from these fields. The technology is now more viable to explore these previously uninviting waters. But here is an example of where a possible attempt has been made, by using control of newspapers, to hype up the share prices of Providence Resources – without having significant proof of the nature of the find. The market price did go up initially after the announcement of ten days or so ago and then settled back down after the markets decided that maybe they didn’t have enough evidence. This happened in the 1980s with Atlantic Resources, also controlled by Tony O’Reilly, where hundreds if not thousands of people lost huge amounts of money by backing a suggestion published in his media organisation that there was a massive find off the southern coast by Atlantic. As it turned out, it never happened. So there is a problem where media ownership converges with very powerful economic interests and in this country it is a particular problem. It’s not exceptional to this country but it is a problem.

The other issue is the dumbing down of the media itself –the fact that this is happening across the board – celebrity driven tittle-tattle – the fact that there has been a tendency to move away from hard news and instead concentrate on comment and opinion and entertainment-driven journalism.

“I think it is almost now accepted that you don’t push the boat out too far if it would conflict with the interests of the owner of the group or his political positions.”

MB: Do you think there is any scope for criticism of the corporation itself inside the Independent. For instance if Tony O’Reilly were to say they are to take a certain position, is there scope for journalists to go against that?

FC: I don’t know, you’d have to ask the journalists at the Independent but I think that by and large you find that – and it’s different with different newspapers even – on certain issues the Independent would not have the same position as the Sunday Independent while the Daily Star wouldn’t have the same position as The Independent – so it varies. But I think it is almost now accepted that you don’t push the boat out too far if it would conflict with the interests of the owner of the group or his political positions. That’s most notable in relation to the pre-election coverage.

MB: We spoke to Mark Garavan of the Shell to Sea campaign a while ago and he told us that he knew of several journalists who had been told to back off the Corrib Gas issue. These would have been journalists who were beginning to take an interest in at least representing the alternative point of view but that coverage dried up.

FC: Even the Irish Times coverage of that story has been most peculiar. Lorna Siggins is on the ground out there as their Western Correspondent and yet one of the biggest stories of the last number of years concerns the gas controversy and it is consistently relegated to page two, where the regional stories are buried. I would have thought that this warranted much bigger coverage. And I think that has been confirmed by people in the Irish Times that there was a deliberate policy to push it out of the main news stories. Why, I don’t know. I guess there always is that conflict of interest in every newspaper, not just in one particular media group, where commercial interests are competing with news values and putting out strongly backed news stories. Every newspaper has to have advertising and some of the biggest advertisers can influence the decisions of newspaper editors at times.

MB: There have been specific examples of this elsewhere, for example British Petroleum has threatened to withdraw advertising where coverage was inimical to its interests. It’s quite likely that if you tried to do any story that was highly critical of the property sector in Ireland you might find you come unstuck. [5]

FC: Particularly in the economy that we have had over the last number of years where the property market has been driving the economy and the newspapers have benefited hugely from the property supplements etc – I think that it is probably true that it has to have an influence on journalistic coverage of issues that pertain to that area – from the construction industry to property to property prices.

MB: Our view is that journalists don’t deliberately self-censor as a rule. It’s more a case that they come into a world which exists within the corporate sphere and which has a particular ethos. They don’t typically say ‘I’m not going to write this or that because x or y wouldn’t like it’, they just come to understand where the boundaries of what is permissible – if they are to survive – actually lie without really thinking about it.

FC: One way that its done is that it has almost become formalised over the years – a formula has almost been introduced where you have people who deal with property and with the property supplements and you have journalists who then deal with business coverage. Sometimes the business or even the news coverage is in conflict with what you read on the property pages. For instance the role of auctioneers in hyping up property prices – claiming to their customers that they have another bidder when they don’t. That wouldn’t never be revealed in the property supplements which are instruments used by the auctioneers – or estate agents or developers and yet they are exposed possibly in a news story. Same thing happens in the car market where you have one journalist writing a story maybe about things that go on in the car market and another effectively promoting the industry. There is supposed to be a sort of Chinese wall, but I’m not sure that it always works – that’s the point I’m making.

“what can the government do in terms of dealing with climate change and stop the biggest abusers and emitters of CO2 which means taxing the industries that are doing that and yet you have commercial interests reflected in newspaper coverage which are promoting those industries.”

MB: That sort of difficulty [the concept of a ‘Chinese wall’] is becoming more apparent. For instance it’s becoming more difficult where the media has to report on climate change and at the same time sell cars to people.

FC: That’s a good example – for instance the SUV market where they are promoting it heavily on the one hand and on the other saying it should be taxed more heavily or put off the road.

MB: As climate change becomes a bigger and bigger issue, which it obviously will, how will the media adapt to that?

FC: I don’t know. You’ve said it yourselves; sometimes commercial interests override the question of public interest. That’s a classic issue. I mean what can the government do in terms of dealing with climate change to stop the biggest abusers and emitters of CO2 which means taxing the industries that are doing that and yet you have commercial interests reflected in newspaper coverage which are promoting those industries. And that’s a problem. For instance the Green Party now that they are in government where they might be in a position to do something about the things they have been complaining about are themselves caught in a bind between huge commercial interests and their own political programme.

MB: There was one thing that we didn’t agree with that Fintan O’Toole said when we spoke to him. He said:

“This isn’t some sort of conspiracy; you will have people going from one week as a senior journalist to the next week representing a major company back to other journalists. There are built in advantages in the way that operates. It’s parallel to the reason why big business hires tax inspectors.” [6] [* Clarification appended]

Do you agree that there are built in advantages to that? We would see this as being a very unhealthy thing – that there is this crossover.

FC: There are a number of consultants who work for several government departments while they also work as paid consultants for Fianna Fail and even for individual ministers. The same people write columns for various newspapers a position they use to promote people who include the clients that pay them. That’s a complete conflict of interest. There is also a conflict where people are going from positions in journalism to high-powered PR positions. That’s a trend anyway because they have communications skills and they bring a certain amount of insight into the media to their new positions but I think there is a danger there just as civil servants moving from very sensitive government positions to private companies without any lapse or break period has a huge potential for conflict of interest and has had in practical cases in this country. I think the same thing applies to journalism because it muddies that area between so called objective journalism, if there is such a thing, and public relations which is to promote particular business interests.

“It’s ok to write about poor people and travellers and so forth but when you are touching on this [business/government] nexus this interface where corruption takes place in every society you suddenly realise you are in a different area”

MB: I can see what makes perfect sense for those people who do it and for big business and government, but generally speaking it’s basically leaving the ‘bottom’ 90% of the population exactly where they are. If you are crossing over like that…

FC: The other issue there is the relationship between journalism and the state. In my case, originally when I worked in the Sunday Tribune and other newspapers and magazines I concentrated on social issues and social causes of poverty and displaced groups or marginalised people. Then when I joined the Sunday Business Post in the early 1990’s, I decided to look at the other side of the coin – at the wealthy and the rich and the relationship between politics and business – and immediately you could sense a friction there – a difference. It’s ok to write about poor people and travellers and so forth but when you are touching on this [business/government] nexus, this interface where corruption takes place in every society you suddenly realise you are in a different area and when you are pushing stories and publishing them – if you have editors courageous enough to do it – you realise that you are sort of different to a lot of journalists. Particularly those who are in the system where they are dependent on their government contacts to get their stories and therefore tend to write pro-government stories. The whole political correspondent business in the Dail which is open to corruption even if it is not deliberate – people are being fed by government etc and they end up promoting, sometimes unconsciously, certain interests because that’s what they write about all the time. So there is an issue here as to how journalism is in itself part of the promotion of a certain set-up and ideas. For journalists not inside the tent it can become quite a cold place.

MB: That’s what it looks like.

FC: That’s what it’s all about. You see people who are threatened by that because they are compromised in their journalism in the way they present it – who they invite on their radio programmes for instance or what issues they choose to discuss – what they write about, who they interview – all of these things are part of a wider picture.

MB: Isn’t it the same picture across the board – whether it’s climate change or the so-called war on terror, corruption among politicians or whatever – the media has this relationship with the corporate sector. Is it possible for the media ever to function really independently when it is itself so dependent on business? Can it actually be done? Has it not always been this way and isn’t it getting worse?

FC: I think it is actually getting worse. That is the problem in Ireland at least. In the 90s Damien Kiberd brought the Sunday Business Post into a different form. He decided the newspaper was going to explore issues that other business papers would not do. He published amazing stories – for instance on the North [Northern Ireland question] which was a huge issue. We were the only ones who were actually looking at the peace process and promoting the idea that Sinn Fein and other parties should be brought into the negotiations, which was government policy at the time and the policy that emanated from Albert Reynolds and senior civil servants and others who wanted to end this conflict and yet we were viciously attacked for even that – even though it was the right thing to do journalistically. It’s the same thing with the corruption stories. Now what has happened is that the media has become so obsessed with the whole celebrity/entertainment industry and so devoid of investigative reporting of hard issues that there is a danger that whole areas of Irish life won’t be explored, won’t be examined. Nobody is going to look at them. That whole issue that you were talking about – continuing inequities or inequalities in society – are just going to continue and continue. Every now and then people will pay lip service to them and show that people in large amounts are living in extreme poverty – according to the newspapers even today. But it’s like ‘OK, we have that report every six months or every year.’

“Balance can of course be quite a difficult thing and sometimes it can be used to exclude people and important voices. Sometimes ‘balance’ can exclude the truth.”

MB: Even those social issues are becoming more and more taboo where previously they weren’t seen as being threatening. For instance IBEC have a strong influence on government – the PD’s might be regarded as their political wing – and their policy is one of minimal state intervention. You don’t see anything in newspapers that is critical of that fundamental policy. So you can’t talk about disability, you can’t talk about health or what’s going on in schools – all those things that you could write about before are…

FC: My feeling is that you actually hear an awful lot of people talking about them. There are conferences about this, that and the other. We know there is a two-tier health system. We had a woman who died this week – Susie Long – who died because of the two tier health system and that’s all over the newspapers but it’s like ‘that’s it, so what?’ Is that going to affect how people in the HSE think? No, instead they offload different departmental responsibilities and they shift them into a new, unaccountable structure – the HSE – which carries on like a train down a particular track heading towards a cliff. Department of Health officials can go into the Dail or the Minister can say that it’s not her responsibility but the HSE’s. Everybody knows the consequences of what’s happening and that people are being pushed into private healthcare. That’s what they are doing and they’re not worried about who appears to suffer in the meantime. But you are right, it’s up to journalists to highlight that and expose it but in ways the coverage without detailed and specific analysis is not sufficient. That doesn’t mean they won’t report on the death of a woman who’s clearly a victim of this.

MB: That woman’s case is tragic of course but the reason it’s being reported is that it’s a human interest story – it’s rightly been given a lot of editorial space – in the Irish Examiner today for example. But when you come down to the underlying causative factors, there is little discussion or examination of those. None of the political parties want to discuss them either because they won’t commit to any policies or criticisms in case they have to broker power sharing for government. We have a bizarre situation right now where Mary Harney is the Minister for Health and her husband is chairman of a public relations company which has enjoyed contracts from his wife’s department. There is also a question over both of their relationships with private medical interests.

FC: I highlighted that situation some months ago but again nobody does anything about it. Look at the appointments to state boards – there are massive conflicts of interest among those appointments including in the docklands which I wrote about during the last year. The Standards in Public Office Committee tried to investigate it but are finding it very difficult. The so-called watchdogs are not actually functioning as watchdogs.

MB: How do you think the Press Ombudsman will function?

FC: I don’t think he will have much power to influence newspaper coverage in a significant way. He’ll be able to rap the knuckles of newspapers but the whole set up appears to be one big compromise. I also think that some politicians would like to further protect themselves from justified media scrutiny by hiding behind new privacy legislation and that would be a retrograde step.

MB: To change subject, how do you feel about media coverage of the Corrib Gas issue – something which you have had a lot of involvement in? A lot of the way RTE treated the issue – for instance with some of the recent violence up there was remarkably one-sided. I was reading a random article the other day discussing an RTE report where the presenter had said that someone had fallen into a ditch when in fact they had literally been picked up and thrown over a fence.

FC: I think its quite obvious that the people in Rossport who are putting up this extraordinary resistance to something that they feel is threatening their health and their safety – their families and their traditions – have been dumped on by large sections of the media. There is no question about it, it’s happened right across the board. They have been accused of being fronts for all sorts of subversion – which I have also been accused of because of a report that I wrote [while he was Executive Director of the Centre for Public Inquiry] [7] which was in fact an extremely balanced report – nobody questioned it – and it influenced a change in government policy. It was much more detailed than the report which the government’s consultants had produced. And yet it was turned around and presented by some media elements as an attempt to prevent Shell from bringing the gas ashore. It’s a great lesson in how the media has been pushed in a particular direction and against the interests of what everybody thought was a small, isolated rural community which it was expected would eventually shut up and accept what was going on.

The big problem here, as I reported in the Corrib Gas report, is that, because the government have conceded everything to the oil and gas majors for the last forty years in terms of fiscal and licensing mechanisms, taxation etc, they have no leverage over Shell, Marathon and Statoil in this situation. It means it can’t even negotiate a compromise. It can’t even bring in Shell – or at least when it did bring in Shell, reportedly, to see if they would come to some compromise the company said, in effect, ‘What do you mean, compromise? You’ve given us the terminal; you’ve given us the pipeline and the licensing and fiscal terms. We just want to bring the gas in now. What do you have army and police for?’ That was the same attitude that Shell had shown in Nigeria and the Irish government too, as they were asked, sent the police out. Obviously the police are not usually sent in to steward a civil problem and people are not happy with what is happening in their own community and all of this is going to reap very serious problems for the future unless there is some serious compromise. In my view they should move the terminal to another location, isolated from where people live. What happened was that they located a site for the terminal first and then routed the pipeline to go to the terminal. There is a big question as to how they got the land for the terminal – it’s state forestry land. But with regard to the pipeline they simply planned to take the most direct route regardless of how near it went to people’s homes. There are lots of alternative locations both offshore and onshore – more isolated places – which may cost a little bit more but Shell have put their foot down and said that this is where they want it to be. So it’s not the people that are the problem. But there is a lack of balance in the reporting of the issue.

RTE, for instance, recently broadcast an absolutely disgraceful report for the early morning news show. It was blatantly pro-Shell – there wasn’t even an attempt at balance. RTE will claim that they are balanced until the cows come home but unfortunately they don’t always carry out that claim. Balance can of course be quite a difficult thing and sometimes it can be used to exclude people and important voices. Sometimes ‘balance’ can exclude the truth.

MB: That goes back to the Bertie Ahern situation where ‘balance’ is being used to obfuscate the facts. The reality is that something wrong has been done but in the interest of so-called balance, the question is asked ‘what is the ‘other side’ of the story? But there isn’t ‘another side’, there are just the facts.

FC: That’s right, there isn’t ‘another side’ and people are being allowed to spin what is basically a load of lies.

16th October 2007

* Clarification requested by Fintan O’Toole: “Some readers seem to have assumed that the advantages I referred to here are for journalism. Actually, I meant the opposite – that the advantages are for the corporations. I was drawing a parallel with the hiring of tax inspectors as tax advisors for corporations – they know how the system operates and their knowledge gives the company an advantage over the tax authorites. Likewise, the hiring of ex-journalists as media advisors gives companies an edge in getting their spin on a story. Far from thinking this a good thing, I was intending to criticise it.” [Email, 20/11/07]

7. Centre for Public Inquiry’s Report into the Corrib Gas project:

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