In media exile – Part 1

An interview with Joe MacAnthony

“Above all, perhaps, the story [of the Irish Hospital’s Sweepstake] underlines what journalism must continue to combat: censorship, state secrecy and the unwarranted power of an influential few.” [Stephen Dodd writing in 2003 in the Sunday Independent, one of only a handful of mainstream articles on the issue] [1]

In the early 1920’s, lotteries promising huge prizes and pledging support for worthy causes gained enormous popularity across the world. With no governing body or independent commission to monitor their working, corruption and fraud dogged these alleged charitable enterprises, their prizes and monies frequently disappearing.

In Ireland, the lotteries fiercest critic of the time was Justice Minister Kevin O’Higgins. He claimed to have ‘developed pneumonia from the dampness in his office caused by the tears of lottery promoters who are coming in crying about the poor and how they wanted to help them.’

Believing it would be impossible to separate the crooks from the well intentioned, O’Higgins ordered a comprehensive ban on all lotteries in 1923 and made sure it was strictly enforced. Four years later, he was shot down and killed on his way to Mass. The promoters’ campaign began again and in an unprecedented move, the Irish Government agreed to provide state backing for an Irish based sweepstake. With this official endorsement, the Irish Hospital’s Sweepstake had global appeal, and would continue to sell tickets illegally in over 128 countries throughout its 57 year history. [2]

In 1973 Joe MacAnthony, working for the Sunday Independent under the editorship of Conor O’Brien, undertook an investigation into the origins and workings of the sweepstakes. The story began with accounts of gross sexual inequality in the Sweeps workplace, yet as he dug deeper the depth of corruption behind the lottery became apparent. Anecdotal evidence of its humble beginnings recounted scenes of organisers wading through bank notes, overwhelmed by the number of entrants. So overwhelmed, in fact, that the container they had designed to hold the tickets for the draw was comically inadequate to accommodate the number sold.

As MacAnthony delved further into the organisation, which had amassed huge fortunes for those that established it, despite the fact it was designed purely as a vehicle for raising money for charity, the scale of the fraud became apparent. Millions of pounds were diverted from charitable organisations into private accounts. In interview with filmmaker Bob Quinn, MacAnthony tells how a superintendent supervising the draw had on one occasion the good fortune of selecting his own son’s ticket.

However, as Frank Connolly observed in our interview ‘Confronting Power‘ last year, publicly divulging the misdemeanours of wealthy and powerful elites is a dangerous game and not one that is likely to be encouraged in mainstream journalism. [3] By investigating and publishing the sweepstakes story, MacAnthony had fallen foul of the Irish Independent’s owners, the Murphy family, not least because it resulted in ‘advertising [being] pulled for two months’, but also due to the fact that the story was targeted in part at a close friend of the Murphys, the Sweepstakes’ chief executive Patrick McGrath, whose family’s influence and money ‘spread into other areas of the Irish economy’ (In 1972 the year the story ran the McGrath family were reputedly worth $400 million). [1] The repercussions of MacAnthony’s story inevitably led to compromise the Murphy’s ownership of the paper.

In 1974, Tony O’Reilly stepped into the breach, buying up a majority share and taking over the Independent. When MacAnthony wrote a piece exposing the former minister Ray Burke – then a county councillor and a member of the Dáil – in relation to his providing consulting services to property developers for lands on which he was able to vote for development permissions, MacAnthony had apparently gone too far.

MacAnthony, doing what journalism is supposedly all about – ‘truth-telling’, had his wages cut and was effectively squeezed out of both the paper and the Irish media as a whole. He describes in his interview with Quinn how he turned up at the RTE Donnybrook studios where he was to begin a six month contract for RTE’s ‘7 Days’ only to be told that he no longer had access to the building. [4] He had been given no notice by RTE of that decision, though he still received a pay cheque every week.

The September 2002 Flood Tribunal report confirmed almost 30 years later the accuracy of MacAnthony’s report in concluding that Mr. Burke had received a number of corrupt payments from developers and would in the end serve four and a half months in Dublin’s Arbour Hill Prison for making false tax returns. [5] [6]

Since then he has lived and worked in Canada, where he has continued to investigate corruption and malfeasance as a producer director with the Canadian Broadcasting Service, with exposés on subjects like the international trade in tainted blood, the Opus Dei organisation, political corruption, arms trafficking and the like. A documentary report, exposing the illegal activities of Canada’s security service created a political firestorm which eventually led to it being closed down. [7]

In our interview with Joe MacAnthony he describes how he sees the Irish media, from the perspectives of both an insider and a professionally exiled outsider, and explains how the pressures applied by owners are realised in the newsroom.

(JM – Joe MacAnthony, MB – David Manning and Miriam Cotton, MediaBite)

MB: Do you think it is true that Irish media has become increasingly orientated to corporate and establishment power in recent times? Or has this always been a problem? We are referring to the seeming willingness of journalists to report relatively uncritically about matters related to business and government.

JM: I think that outside corporate influence on the Irish media is a problem. Due in no small part to the extraordinary expansion in the PR industry. And to the dampening effect of harsh libel laws which might protect the few but punish the many by limiting the reach of investigative reporting.

What is much more dangerous in my view is the use of corporate power from within the media itself. I am referring to the manner in which the dominant Irish media, the Independent group, is being used to advance the interests of its controlling shareholders, the O’Reilly family. What makes this practice particularly shocking is that the top man, Tony O’Reilly, has gone beyond using dubious donations to influence political decision-making to directly bartering the power of his media for influence with the country’s top politicians.

In a normal democratic society, a media group of the Indepentent’s standing would be duty bound to condemn such practices as damaging to the interests of its readers and to the country as a whole. Sadly, we find no such moral outrage among the editors at the Independent group.

Mr. O’Reilly’s agenda first became clear in 1999 when he had a discreet confab with the leader of the Labour Party, Ruairi Quinn, and quickly followed with the publication of a poll that was certain to enhance the electoral ambitions of Mr. Quinn’s party. Eight years later, we saw the O’Reilly game plan come to its ultimate decadent flowering when he graciously received the chief executives of the Irish Government, Messrs. Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, who came with their begging bowl to seek for similar favours for the Fianna Fail party.

And why did they do it? Because they well knew O’Reilly has the power to push and pull his media in whatever direction he chooses.

I recall laughing on reading a remark of former President Erskine Childers during a speech to the august body, the Institute for Sand and Gravel.

“In Ireland today,” he said, “we are at the apex of a vicious circle.”

What better description of that sleveen style meeting in the Independent boardroom with the chief representatives of the Irish people?

MB: How does the pressure from owners and advertisers manifest itself in today’s newsroom?

JM: While I don’t feel qualified to give a general assessment, I can speak from personal experience on this issue. Back in 2001, I was given a one year contract by the Sunday Independent to write an article a week. The arrangement was made at the height of a national controversy the previous autumn over an article the paper published in which disabled athletes were called ‘cripples’. As the editor, Aengus Fanning, told me at the time, they wanted someone of reputation, a masthead figure. I was agreeably surprised, believing I would be returning to my old stamping ground with a good deal more experience than when I left.

What followed was a dampening experience, to put it mildly. Articles I wrote that related to American policies involving Israel, Afghanistan and Ireland were kept out, although I was still paid for them. The most striking example of censorship came when one of my articles actually got into the first edition of the Sunday edition of the Independent.

It disclosed that the Israelis were removing the bodies of dead Palestinian guerrillas from a site adjoining Lebanon to an area deeper inside Israel. It was commonly regarded as a prelude to aggressive action by the Israeli army, who exchanged these bodies for their own soldiers when taken prisoner. The article was pulled bodily from the paper in the night and replaced with a pro Israeli article on the lines of ‘Arafat fiddles while restaurant burns’. I was told that Mr. O’Reilly was in Dublin that weekend with pro Israeli backers who were also potential investors and that may have been the reason the story was pulled. But who’s to say?

An article I wrote called ‘The Facilitators‘ – about the legal and accountancy companies who provided cover for every dirty, rotten scoundrel with the money to pay their fees, also went on the spike.

Another piece about the dire financial state of cable companies then met the same fate. It came about after I saw a free European sports channel abruptly turned into a paying channel. I was curious to know why. I did some research and found cable providers were having a hard time financially. Unfortunately, the article I submitted came at a time when Mr. O’Reilly’s Chorus cable service was being put up for sale. So that never made it into the Sunday either. Another on Ireland’s use as a surrogate for American entry into the EU also went down the tube. As did one on the effects of war on Afghanistan.

This is not to say that I was obsessing and writing only material of this nature. I wrote around fifty articles all told and many of them were published. But near the end stories were just being pulled without explanation. It was not a happy time.

MB: What do you think of Sir Anthony O’Reilly’s influence on Irish media?

JM: It is beyond me how a monopoly watchdog could have given him carte blanche to seize control of almost all the Irish Sundays. This was an unconscionable act, in my opinion, and exacerbated by even allowing him to sew up and avoid competition from the old Irish Press Group. It is a legitimate question to ask who were the people that made this decision, gifting Mr. O’Reilly a crushing advantage over potential competitors? Who appointed them? What is their background? Even today, it cries out for investigation. And certainly, there are the journalists out there, capable men and women with the ability to do it. Although given the present structure of the media, it could be a steep mountain to climb.

MB: Why isn’t the story of the sweepstakes and your involvement in breaking it better known? Whose benefit does it serve to bury the past in this way?

JM: Hard to say on either question. I’m not into the persecution complex – a long spell in the Canadian Samaritans taught me where that leads – but I must confess to a niggling feeling that there might have been more contact

I went into professional exile just four months after breaking the Ray Burke story, in June 1974. In the fifteen years that followed, I got just one call of any kind from the Irish media. That came from RTE and is a story in itself. Michael Heney and Charlie Bird wanted to do an interview for a documentary about the Sweep. That was around 1978.

I agreed and they came to see me at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where I was then doing exposes for their current affairs programme – neatly called the fifth estate. We did a humungous interview on film in which I told them everything I knew. Needless to say, knowing RTE, I expressed doubt that it would ever get to air. They insisted it would.

They were right about the documentary. After a short delay, it lasted 16 years, it finally came to air in 1994. But my interview was not to be seen. In fact, the only mention I got was as having written an article on the subject. Some time later, curious as why not even a single sentence was used, I asked a knowledgeable source in RTE to look for the film and perhaps see the reason for the blanket rejection. He made an extensive search but the film was not to be found. In the archives or anywhere else.

Contact from the rest of the Irish media only began with the Ray Burke controversy over the corrupt land deal I had exposed in 1974. In saying this, I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance from a very fine journalist, Paul Murphy. who knew the territory like the back of his hand. Paul jokingly called himself my leg man but it needs to said that he was much more than that. I could not have done the story without his help and I would like to see him share the credit.

What puzzled me about the Burke case what that I had found the document in the Company’s office that damned him. And still nothing was done. Just as the detective who came to interview me predicted. Certainly, if I had stayed with the Sunday Independent, I would have stayed on his tail, and on those who made contributions to his phantom political fund, including Tony O’Reilly.

I put down the welter of corruption in Irish politics to Burke’s escape from retribution after that exposure in 1974. It gave everybody in the game a licence to steal.

For Part 2 of this interview follow this link.


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