The journalist, activist and lecturer Harry Browne is author of the recently published book ‘Hammered by the Irish’ (Counterpunch and AK Press), also reviewed by MediaBite.
This interview with Browne, which took place last November, explores his views on journalism and its function within the corporate context. It was also an opportunity to discuss aspects of the Irish news scene, where it is now and where it’s future might lie.
It is published in 2 parts. Further discussion with Browne on his career to date is available on our website, where he traces his evolution in journalism and those journalists and editors who influenced that path.
[HB – Harry Browne, MC – Miriam Cotton, MediaBite]
MC: About your new book, ‘Hammered by the Irish’ I wanted to focus on media coverage of the Pitstop Ploughshares themselves, their actions, their journey through the legal system as represented in the media. In your view which journalists and media outlets were the most hostile – and in what way did they distort the motives and actions of those involved? Deirdre Clancy, Nuin Dunlop, Karen Fallon, Damien Moran and Ciaron O’Reilly were as much challenging the complicit failure of mainstream news outlets to cover the proposed invasion of Iraq in the outraged tones and terms that it warranted – as they were the war itself? I know that was not their stated objective or even necessarily what they had in mind even in part, but almost by default, to have mounted the action and to make the point inevitably involved some expectation that the media would cover it. And so, in effect, were they saying too that the media had been inadequate to that point?
HB: I think that’s an interesting perspective but I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, for two reasons. In addition to the Pitstop Ploughshares Mary Kelly took an action at the time and I know that when she was mounting her defence in at least one of the cases that I was consulted on, I want to make a completely different case to the one you’ve just made – that reading the media at the time – as she was doing – she was properly outraged at what was about to befall the people of Iraq – that she had been properly informed by the media about what was going to happen.
The other thing is that having just been involved in an academic study about the anti-war movement, the coverage in the run up to the war, I don’t think that you can actually conclude with any solidity that in January 2003 the media weren’t sufficiently outraged about what was going on at Shannon and that they weren’t giving sufficient ventilation to the views of the anti-war movement, or that Tim Hourigan and Ed Horgan weren’t getting a shot – they were. I think that focusing on the media, though it’s what I do for a living, and I think it’s important – but I don’t think the Pitstop Ploughshares were acting out of frustration at any thing – be that the media, or the behavior of the Irish government – I think they were acting out of righteous anger and a genuine desire to try to do something that would make a difference.
It was the case that the media coverage of them was absolutely disastrous. The coverage of their action in the media was disgraceful. I would single out, because it is the most important outlet in the country, RTE on the day of the action. The mid-western correspondent Cathy Halloran over-interpreted the phrase that came from the Garda statement that they had overpowered a member of the force and she elaborated to the extent that she said they had been charged with criminal damage but could face much more serious charges on account of having overpowered the garda. She raised the stakes and she raised the spectre of violence and that was taken up in interviews with Bertie Ahern and Seamus Brennan: ‘I don’t think they’re one bit peaceful’ – and this sort of carry on. So the Pitstop Ploughshares were very badly defamed by RTE in particular.
To an enormous extent the print media had already self-corrected in subsequent days and that particular slur about overpowering the garda and the implication of violence wasn’t really repeated in print. The worst print manifestation was probably in Ireland on Sunday, the following Sunday, where the Pitstop Ploughshares were painted as a kind of cult. ‘Runway Voodoo’ was part of the headline on that story. There was this very salacious and sensational account of who they were and what they were doing that certainly wouldn’t be recognizable to someone who has read the book and knows much more about them. But then the media in Ireland did this thing that it does in relation to criminal cases, it went into sub judice mode. Sub judice means that when a case is before the courts that you are not supposed to publish anything that might prejudice the case, so anything that goes to the facts of the case or to the legal argument shouldn’t be in the public domain – lest any potential juror be poisoned. Coming from America where that just doesn’t happen, it always seemed funny to me. By and large the Irish media errs on the side of caution in criminal matters and once someone is charged there is very, very little said about a case.
MC: The same effect is evident when a big institution is accused of something. It goes to court knowing that by doing so…
HB: …it’s going to kill it, yes. Absolutely.
MC: Even though they anticipate losing the case years down the line…
HB: …when people have stopped caring about it, yes. So the Pitstop Ploughshares fell into a media black hole as a result of the sub judice considerations. In spite of the efforts of Damien and Ciaron at some points – generally not supported by the women – to gain publicity, not about their specific action but to use their corporate identity as the Pitstop Ploughshares to attract attention – that was largely an abject failure. They were almost completely ignored other than at their trials and when their trials were on, the coverage of what happened in court was largely focused on what they did there and didn’t discuss extraneous issues. The only exception was an interview with Ciaron O’ Reilly in Village [bi-monthly current affairs magazine] magazine at the first trial when John Byrne interviewed him. It was very clearly on the part of the editor of Village, Vincent Browne, a pressing at the boundaries of the sub judice rule – Vincent is a barrister himself and very strongly of the view that the media in Ireland is much too cautious in its reading of the restriction. He published that and there was no fallout from it whatsoever. So in that sense it was tried and tested and proven that you could have done something about them in that period of time – or without at least attracting the opprobrium of a judge.
But the really interesting thing is that once they were acquitted, the media also ignored them – with the exception of the now forgotten paper Daily Ireland, published in Belfast. Daily Ireland decided that they were the best thing since sliced bread and had them covered for a couple of days. A Sinn Fein councilor said they should be given the freedom of the city – and Daily Ireland highlighted that. Liveline [radio programme] picked that up – the people producing the programme on the day were very sympathetic to it and were happy with it. But that was about it for mainstream media.
MC: Gene Kerrigan in the Independent covered it sympathetically in his column.
HB: Yes, I’m talking about the news coverage, though. That’s an opinion piece so that’s a different thing. Gene Kerrigan was about the only one to write a supportive opinion piece – there were many more who wrote derisively about them – including in that same edition, Eoghan Harris and Emer Kelly in particular.
MC: So Kerrigan was ‘balanced’ out?
HB: Yes, he was. Gene Kerrigan is a fantastic journalist. But in terms of news coverage, the news of the Pitstop Ploughshares acquittal got an initial flurry of attention – certainly it was in the news that day but it wasn’t really followed up and nobody sought them out for interviews – except finally some time later, in 2006, Damien Moran was profiled on the ‘Would You Believe?’ series. Ciaron had been interviewed before the action on the same programme so it had come full circle. In between no one had ever treated them or the women as potential human interest stories. I found that really extraordinary.
The trial was not covered well either. It was not an easy one to cover from a journalist’s perspective because of the legal argument. You’d end up going in for a day and come out with nothing you could use and that not’s usually regarded as a good way to spend your day. The fact that the final trial, the third trial, was the one that ended in their acquittal – and some of the testimony had already been reported on from trials one and two, meant there was a certain sense of fatigue about it as well. The Star on the day after the action 26th July 2006 did a very good news analysis of the verdict – no one else really explained it. Going back to the time of the action, I’m pretty sure it was Tom Cooney from UCD who had been on the radio the day after saying there could be no possible justification for their actions and with that being the best of the legal expert opinion that was out there, when the verdict came in, very few outlets chose to try to redress that.
MC: In 2006 in The Dubliner  you did a survey of Irish Times journalists about the paper’s perceived swing to the right. You said ‘some worry that such an uninspired newspaper won’t have anything to fall back on when the goose stops laying the golden egg of property and recruitment advertising, the Irish Times could eventually pay for its small ‘c’ conservatism’’. It seems pretty clear that we have now arrived at exactly that point. Do you think that under the editorship of Geraldine Kennedy the paper is even capable of a serious reassessment of its editorial ethos and perspective – of attuning itself more relevantly to the seriously altered circumstances of post-boom Irish society?
HB: That’s a very good question. I’m not particularly interested in personalizing it. I don’t think that it’s much to do with Geraldine Kennedy’s editorship or the editorship of nearly anyone you could imagine at the Irish Times. I suppose with the obvious exception of Fintan O’Toole, who was a contender for the editorship when Geraldine won it. I was happy that she was the right choice at the time.
MC: Why did you support Geraldine Kennedy for the editorship?
HB: Well, Geraldine is, I always found a very straightforward, honest, good colleague. She was not part of any of the elaborate office politics and factions that I would have known of in the years that I was there. I liked and admired her – she is a very good reporter and editor. I obviously don’t have a political view in common with her. In retrospect you can argue about whether someone who is so focused on news and on politics is the right choice to lead a newspaper in an era when by necessity newspapers have to be a lot more than political news but given the alternatives at the time, I thought she had the right mix of experience and general cop on to be a good leader, for what it’s worth. Whether the paper can make the changes that need to be made, I don’t know that any paper can make the changes that need to be made right now – or that any group of editorial executives can cope with what is happening because obviously the bottom has fallen out of those two important sources of income but also people’s sense of their disposable income has catastrophically declined as well. With the newspapers hurt in terms of advertising revenue – which for the Irish Times is the significant majority of the revenue and it’s going to be hit now without a doubt in its circulation figures which will be poor in spite of the fact that we have had an extraordinarily interesting time in recent months. It’s the one time when you think you want to pick up a newspaper and read about what’s going on.
From what I gather, the circulation has been hit so it’s a tough time and print newspapers in general are affected. You go into a class of journalism students here and ask about what the last newspaper they bought was – they might ask you to spell that word. They do not read newspapers so there is a real problem there. The Irish Times doesn’t make it any easier by being the conservative institution that it is; the IT had a kind of a re-launch in the last year with a redesign that was supposed to make the website look more like a paper – and the paper look more like a website. This was a process that they call integration. People who were working on the website were brought in at the same salaries as the people on the paper and like most attempts to bring about change in the Irish Times there were a lot of big ideas thrown out there, there were proposals put – and counterproposals made, committees formed and reformed – with subcommittees tasked and there were consultants brought in and at the end of the day, they re-launched the paper and most readers would have looked at it and said ‘Hmmm, did they change something about the Irish Times?’ So, the Irish Times is a peculiarly conservative institution in ways that have very little to do with who the editor might happen to be at any given time.
MC: Do you not think though that, for example, because Geraldine Kennedy – who after all is an ex- Progressive Democrat – it is unquestionable that under her editorship the paper has been very favourable to corporate interests and it has tended to be loathe to really go after certain situations?
HB: I’m loathe to agree with you saying that it is unquestionable that all those things have happened. The extent of the research that I’ve done on it is the article that you cited – from The Dubliner – a survey of other people’s opinions on the subject of whom probably a majority or at least a plurality believe that the paper has moved to the right and is more subservient to corporate interests or whatever. I would like to see the research – maybe at some point I will do the research. I would hesitate to agree with you that that is unquestionable. It certainly is my impression. But it would be irresponsible for me to say it is unquestionable. Certainly, I have had the conversation with many people who feel that that is the case.
Geraldine’s personal politics may be part of that equation but the general political realm in which she lives is a largely consensual middle ground establishment one and it is shared by most of the editorial executives and commercial executives in the paper. The idea that the Irish Times at any point in its history would be hostile to the interests of major businesses in Ireland – even at its most campaigning, reforming, Douglas Gageby radical thing – it’s radicalism was about questioning the church but it wasn’t about questioning the Bank of Ireland – it was about divorce.
MC: I don’t mean that the newspaper should be required to be positively hostile. I’m thinking of a number of situations but to take one I am familiar with and in which I had a personal interest. When Gerry Wrixon was president of University College Cork and was coming up to the end of his tenure there, he was a highly controversial President and lots of very serious questions were raised about his stewardship of the university. Time and again information was presented to the Irish Times about UCC and they never, ever presented that side of the story – aside from a few timid articles. Overall the paper was relentlessly pro-Wrixon.
HB: I have to declare an interest as well in that I worked in the education section of the Irish Times for a long time. I worked closely with the then and current education editor, Sean Flynn, and obviously formed views at close hand about his work and in as much as those views were formed in that setting, I have generally been loathe to comment.
MC: I understand, but I’m not asking you to comment on the issue itself – just the fact of the failure to give both sides equal treatment…
HB: How a story, like the one you have cited, plays over a period of time isn’t necessarily a matter of editorial direction from on high, it’s more often a question of who the journalist on the beat is and what his or her own prejudices are.
MC: Lorna Siggins seems willing to take a fairer approach but she is drowned out by the editorial pieces and the other reporting.
HB: Yes. That’s been well documented. I’ve written about that myself.
MC: We are all capable of being influenced by our individual prejudices in anything we write. At the same time GK has what in reality amounts to a public office and ought to be as accountable as any newspaper editor for whether the truth gets told?
HB: I’m glad that you said that because I don’t think that the editorship of any newspaper including the Irish Times amounts to a public office – with the same sort of accountability, or sense of transparency. If you start with that idea then you also have to conceive to conceive of a regulatory framework that ensures it meets its responsibility in that regard – so who do you put in charge of that framework? This wouldn’t be an Irish Times view at all but I have a real sense that journalists and editors should as often as possible be not too cognizant of their responsibilities – not too concerned about whether this is the right thing to publish for the good of society or whether, proper order will be maintained. But where I think journalists should go for it – I think they should go for the story and let the readers sort out what the meaning of it is for society and of course I don’t mean that journalists don’t have an interpretative role but I do mean that whenever we start conceiving of journalism as a public good and a realm in which responsibility is one of the nouns which we attach, I think we are in danger of getting it ‘American’ if you like. I mean the journalists institutions which are most concerned about all of this are American and are also some of the most ridiculous, overblown, self-important and consistently wrong publications in the world – even though they have their public editors and their readers response and internal investigations and all this sort of stuff – I think that my friend Alex Cockburn once wrote that responsible journalism should be an oxymoron.
Journalists should be irresponsible. Mark Twain has a few quotes along those lines as well. Whenever journalists think of themselves as being part of the fourth estate, as being part of the maintenance of democracy it’s dangerous.
MC: I don’t disagree with that, what I meant really was that it is GK and journalists themselves who have made themselves a hostage to that particular fortune – they can be a bit pompous about it too.
HB: Yes, of course! And the Irish Times is one of the worst offenders. You only have to recall the editorials that I presume Geraldine wrote in the aftermath of the ‘mothers of bastards’ scandal. It was basically a sort of ‘we’re sorry but don’t forget we’re the Irish Times – and you’d all still be muck savages if only for our leadership and propriety and sense of moral purpose here.’ So, yes, absolutely journalists are the worst offenders. However, we should keep in mind all the time that newspapers are commercial institutions.
Journalism is a different thing from what newspapers are – and it’s important that we separate what it is that journalists try to do in terms of good journalism and what it is the newspapers do in the business of doing a newspaper which in the end is the business of acquiring an audience for its advertisers.
A journalist is in the business of telling the truth and we can’t necessarily expect that the organs through which we try to do that are going to have that same priority. I don’t want to get too high and mighty about it myself. I think that our expectations of newspapers as though they were part of the structure of public service in our society is unreasonable…
MC: And yet GK has said on the IT website that the paper’s objective is to ‘lead and shape public opinion’. That is appointing yourself to public office?
HB: Of course it is – rather than saying ‘live up to it’, I say tear it down – don’t let them take that role onto themselves.