In media exile – Part 2

An Interview with Joe MacAnthony

In Part 1 of this interview Joe MacAnthony discussed the sometimes overpowering influence of owners on news organisations and how this influence at times impacted his own work. In this second part of his interview he discusses the differences as he sees them between the Irish and Canadian news media.

MB: There are a number of media organizations in Canada, Adbusters for one, who are concerned with the concentration of media ownership there – particularly that of CanWest. What is the state of Canada’s dominant media and are Adbuster’s concerns well founded?

JM: There are two interesting stories that I know of involving CanWest, who established Ireland’s first private national broadcaster, TV3. Izzy Asper, it’s former chief and now dead, bought up a lot of TV stations around the world. In New Zealand, where he had just added a station, he called a meeting of the senior executives and asked them, “What do you think is the more important function of your station?” One of those present, braver than the rest, piped up, “Providing the news.” Asper offered a succinct reply. “No,” He said. “It’s selling soap.”

After he died, a son who took over was angered when their newspaper editor in Ottawa refused to follow his instructions on what party to support and wrote an editorial in support of the opposition. Asper-fils announced he was fired. With that, all hell broke loose with journalists all across Canada rising to the support of the editor. It shook the Aspers to the core. I can’t remember if the editor was re-instated but he did well subsequently and the Aspers never dared to try it again.

MB: What do you think are the main differences between the Canadian and Irish news media?

JM: Well, I certainly experienced pressure at the CBC when I was a producer there with the fifth estate. It was the country’s main current affairs programme and investigative reporting was the name of our game forte. The show’s reaction to pressure was nothing like what it was in Ireland. And all of us doing investigative work got plenty of it.

For instance, when we began broadcasting my investigative on the country’s intelligence service – I had found their undercover agents were carrying out illegal break-ins, mail openings and warrantless phone tapping – not unlike the phone tapping I did a hefty report on in Ireland.

By then, the top people in the service knew that I had penetrated their headquarters and had the names, addresses, home phone numbers – even the nicknames and other useful information on many of their important people. They weren’t sure what would happen next.

The Minister said if we continued with these damaging reports, the Government would make a heavy cut in the Corporations budget – like RTE, they were a state corporation.

The CBC were already apprehensive but it wasn’t about a budget cut. Since I wasn’t a Canadian citizen – the deputy Prime Minister, a brother of comic actor Leslie Nielsen, cut off an interview I was having with him when he found that out – they feared the Government might try to deport me. To counter that possibility, they provided me with a lawyer on 24-hour call to counter any attempt to get rid of me.

Their response to the budget threat was to send me to the National News and continue reporting to an even bigger audience than The Fifth Estate. The public response was so large and the wrongdoing so horrendous – a first class reporter called Brian Stewart whom I was paired with on the National News had even found agents had burned down a barn to prevent a meeting of so called subversives – that the Government gave in to the uproar and closed down the service completely.

It gave no satisfaction at the end of it all to find that the intelligence agency’s successor – called Canadian Security and Intelligence Service and consisting of a comparable shower of blunderers as its predecessor – were given legal powers to carry out the very same activities as exposed in those who went before. A prize example was their destruction of taped conversations of the men known to have planned the blowing up of the Air India plane that crashed off the Irish coast.

A different example of pressure in Canada came when I did an exposé on Opus Dei. When it came to fighting back, their people were far better organized than the security service. The story described how Opus Dei members had recruited children as young as 12 years old and, significantly, told them to keep their association with the group from their parents.

I got an interview in California with the secretary to the founder of Opus Dei, now Saint Josemaria Escriva. She described the putative saint’s ferocious bullying and how on one occasion he kicked down the door of the women’s dormitory over some suspected misdemenour. And how they broke up families by forbidding contact for adherents.

They tried to stop the story going on air by organizing massive write-ins to the Minister with responsibility for the CBC, to the Corporation’s President, the President, the Head of Current Affairs and came in to aruge with the executive producer of the fifth estate and even got into me in the editing room. Despite the pressure, the programme went on air. But the story never got the normal second airing.

Another pressure-packed story I did with some relationship to Ireland was a report I did in the late seventies on the international trade in tainted human blood. Blood brokers, as the dealers were called, made vast profits from paying $2 a pint for blood drawn from the poorest of the poor in the barrios of Latin America. Which they would then re-label as Canadian product before selling it in Europe. I remember in Berne, Switzerland, asking the secretary of the International Red Cross if the tainted plasma went to the Scandinavian plant which provided plasma to the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. He said, rather sadly, ‘Yes, it does.’

As the story was going to air, we faced an injunction from the Canadian provider whom I discovered had been selling semi-treated contaminated plasma to Europe, without telling the purchasing organizations or its dubious provenance.

The blow fell only hours before the report was due to go on air. I was actually out drinking with Paddy Cole, the Irish showband musician, when I got the call. We were talking about practical jokes at the time and when I was told the Vice President of the CBC, Peter Herrndorff was on the phone, I presumed it was another joke and told the bartender to advise the caller to fuck off. I was soon put right and arrived at Herrndorff’s office rather the worse for wear. The VP grinned and put me on a conference call with the legal big wigs in Ottawa.

I made a rather more spirited defence than was probably appropriate. But they were satisfied with my defence and told the blood provider to do his worst. We were broadcast.

This episode provided another interesting sidelight on how Canadian officialdom, as opposed to their Irish counterparts, responded to investigative reporting. The morning after the broadcast, the Health Minister Marc Lalonde banned all Canadian plasma exports. And the company never sued.

In the aftermath, I had one of the two most enjoyable moments in my career – the other being when I found the document exposing Ray Burke’s corruption.

In a career spanning 30 years and in spite of a fair amount of legal threats, I am happy to say that I have never been brought to court for any of my reporting, much less been sued. My practice – and it prevails even today – has always been to keep a little damning evidence on top of the wardrobe as insurance.

But after the blood story, I did get a call to appear in a Swiss court. Not, fortunately as a litigant, but as an expert witness on the blood trade.

What happened was that two enterprising journalists in Zurich, posing as agents for rebellious Kurds had persuaded a Swiss broker to sell them a consignment of dubious plasma. When they ran the story, the broker sued for defamation.

In the search for defence witnesses, their lawyer came across my story. It so happened I had come across the broker in my research – I had even tried to find him in Zurich. So the lawyer called me to testify on behalf of my colleagues. Naturally, I was delighted to do so and arrived in court suitably primed to testify.

There is a cardinal rule in the legal trade that you never ask a question of a hostile witness when you don’t already know the answer yourself. In this case the broker’s lawyer broke the rule. In an effort to diminish my standing with the court, he asked me how many people I had interviewed in my investigation. It was a question I would have gone down on my knees to pray for.

At this moment, I have doubts about the exact number but it was around 100. I paused for a glorious moment and then reached for my inside pocket. “And I have their names and addresses here.” I said.

I can vividly remember the judge putting his hand over his face to hide his laughter. The lawyer didn’t take the list. He just said ‘No more questions.’

The court adjourned and when it resumed, it was announced that the broker had dropped the case.

Within an hour, my colleagues and their lawyer were breaking out a bottle of champagne.

MB: In our interview with Fintan O’Toole he says, in effect, that the Irish Times Trust provides a safeguard against encroachment on editorial policy. You refer in your film interview with Bob Quinn to abuses of the Irish Times Trust – whereby senior members of the management of that newspaper have taken advantage of the terms of the trust. Could you tell us more about that and the impact it may have had on editorial matters at the paper? [8]

JM: I worked in the Irish Times library for six years. Although Douglas Gageby didn’t consider me a suitable candidate for journalism, I published my first pieces there. I loved the place. It was full of great characters, which in its own way added to the quality of the paper. When controversy arose, everybody felt involved.

I recall one night when the then editor Alec Newman – admittedly in his cups – wrote a leader trashing Eamon Andrews, a famous television personality in Britain and Ireland at the time. A huge battle erupted, as the then owner of sorts, a man named McCann, wanted the piece out, as it more than teetered on libel. Everyone hung around as the presses stalled, taking sides, trying to catch the row carrying from the editor’s office.

Honour, desperate diplomacy and discretion triumphed when a few hundred copies were printed and became much prized possessions in the aftermath.

Scandal thrived in house, with one editor slipping away for nooners on the back of a scooter driven by a delectable young woman whom everybody lusted afer. There were surreptitious assignations among the bound volumes in the attic and quite a lot of boozing, leaven with learned disputations. But none of it ever affected the unchanging high standard of the paper.

What seems to have replaced these enjoyable shenanigans are not learned arguments about classical subjects, but disputes in the higher reaches about who can make the most money out of what is supposed to be a non-profit Trust, and purportedly guided by the highest motives.

It seems to me that this vulgar protifteering has affected the quality of the paper. When you think of making money going to bed at night, you surely carry that philosophy into work next day. It is the natural bent of people who think like that to turn to the right in politics. And that is what seems to have happened to the Irish Times.

From being an exceptional newspaper, with the openness to opinion that marks the liberal press, it has now turned to telling its wealthier readers what they want to hear. The last straw, in my view, is promoting the hard right views of that extreme old fart and cast iron Bush supporter, Charlie Krauthammer. Already well past his sell-by date in the U.S., the Irish Times now uses him to deliver lectures, unanchored by fact, on why the Irish would do well to support that tarnished President’s crusade to ‘save’ the world.

I recall John Arnott, a major shareholder in the paper, playing chess in the Kildare Street Club. He was a decent, unassuming man and a major influence in turning the Irish Times into a Trust, where profits would be reasonably expected to enhance the technical performance and quality of its journalism. Now, the people who control the paper prefer to ‘use’ and squabble over their personal share of that pie.

How could anybody with the best interests of journalism at heart, enjoy a spectacle like that? The Irish Times should, and could have been, the last bastion of fine journalism and a beacon to those in the rest of the media. Now it is neither.

MB: You have commented that we have ‘sick journalism’ in Ireland and that this is not down to the good journalists, but down to the people that control what is said by them, those that encourage triviality. Could you expand on this?

JM: There are two kinds of journalism in vogue in Ireland. To a greater extent than I have seen elsewhere. One is lap-dog journalism; the other merits the title of trash-can journalism. The greatest practitioner of these deplorable practices can be seen on any given day on the website of the Irish Independent. It abases every standard of decent honest journalism with poorly written mawkish exploitation of every tragedy that crosses the editor’s path. It has no equal on the internet for plumbing the depths. The Irish Independent under Vinnie Doyle had its faults but it was a solid, well written and informative newspaper, well up to the standards of its peers. The present version is less a page-turner, than a stomach churner.

MB: Do you agree that real investigative journalism has disappeared in Ireland?

JM: Investigative journalism never disappears. Since the French Revolution, outspoken writers have faced mortal threat, imprisonment, ostracism, indifference, along with nagging from worried relatives and cultish fads like the celebrity mania defacing media in today’s Ireland. Always, someone will step forward to take up the fallen standard, however dark the circumstances.

I think of that little man living in Monrovia when the monstrous regime of Charles Taylor was literally cutting off the arms and ears or poking out the eyes of dissenters.

But every morning, at the height of this terror, he would emerge from his little hovel to display a rough board with the news of the day chalked across it. The do-good media organisations wanted to give him grants, a scholarship, perhaps even teach him the rudiments of grammar. It might have been nice, but none of it would have made any difference to his commitment. If he was the last man on earth, he would still have been out there, holding up his board and hoping that someone, anyone, would be interested in reading the real news of the day.

Investigative reporting may be regarded as a curse by the powerful and a mixed blessing by the rest. But so long as there is that little man from Monrovia, you may be sure that it’s never going to go away.

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