Continuing our interview with Harry Browne – journalist, activist and lecturer.
[HB – Harry Browne, MC – Miriam Cotton, MediaBite]
MC: To discuss the Irish media more generally, could we talk about the Irish Examiner, for example?
HB: I’m going to make a terrible confession here. There is no Irish newspaper that I read fairly regularly – and certainly not in print form. I will make sure to pick them when I’m going into a class to talk about them or check them out online to see how they are covering particular stories but I am now one of these people who doesn’t often buy newspapers. But yes of course I’m familiar with the Examiner.
MC: The Irish Examiner doesn’t have anything like what could be called investigative journalism or sustained criticism of the dominant political and corporate class but is nevertheless I think genuinely concerned with social issues such as disability, poverty and other impacts on people of government policy. It’s still perceived in Dublin as a provincial paper to an extent.
MC: And yet some of its coverage, for example Harry McGee reporting the Mahon Tribunal, in comparison to all the mainstream papers writing at the time, made a great job of reporting it. I think it was far superior to anything that the Irish Times or The Independent printed.
HB: I think that that is a widely held view among people who get to read the Examiner. Unfortunately most of those people are in Cork and are therefore deemed to be highly biased. Certainly, somebody I spoke to for the piece for The Dubliner a few years ago thought that the Examiner was really going to overtake the Irish Times in terms of concern for the downtrodden – that it was going to become the go-to paper for stories about disability, as you have mentioned, and stories about educational disadvantage, immigrants – but I’ve also heard it said that it didn’t quite maintain that momentum – and it doesn’t do it consistently. But I think the Examiner is a fine paper. I also think that by limiting our scope of our examination to the Examiner, The Times and the Indo you are missing what I think has consistently been the best paper in Ireland – for many years – The Star. It was best on the anti-war movement and it was best on the over 70s medical cards. It’s a paper that is prepared to be campaigning.
MC: That’s deserved criticism of us as a media monitoring project – that we have overlooked The Star.
HB: Of course there is not enough reading in it for people who are likely to be readers of MediaBite and there is an awful lot in it that those of us who are likely to be readers of MediaBite aren’t going to want to read. You are going to find yourself flipping past pages of celebrities you don’t want to read about and you’ll think why did I spend money on this paper? But in terms of its political independence, its nerve, its irresponsibility in the way that I was talking about earlier – I’d take The Star over any of them.
MC: What do you think of Aengus Fanning’s editorship of The Sunday Independent?
HB: The story of The Sunday Indpendent under Fanning has been so well ventilated at this point. I’m not interested terribly in rehearsing it. It is what everybody says it is and maybe the most important adjective that you can use to describe it over the period has been ridiculous. More often than not, the times when I have actually flipped through the pages of any Independent Group newspaper has been on a Sunday because that’s the day you are on a train and your neighbor has a copy of it. It is such a popular paper and you just shake your head and laugh that this is what somebody has decided is journalism. This gratuitous and highly deliberate kind of political gang-banging that they used to indulge in where ‘this week’s target ‘is…’ is just extraordinary. And one of the things that is extraordinary about it is, I think, that by and large the majority of Irish people never share those particular prejudices. Be it against John Hume and Gerry Adams, or against the anti-war movement…
MC: It does tend to dull people and create a kind of uncertainty. You’re probably right that most people don’t agree with a lot of it but there it is, it’s written in the newspaper so maybe there is something to it. It’s that of kind of doubt that it creates which makes people more acquiescent.
HB: Quite possibly yes. It’s never been a source of pleasure for me but it is the most popular paper in the country. You do obviously have fears about how you intervene in the body politic in which the particular poisons which the Sunday Independent deals in is flowing through the veins. At the same time without getting too post-modern about it readers do have agency and readers are capable of reading Eoghan Harris for fun instead of for information, for instance. And people are also capable with the Sunday Independent of turning over to the back page and reading Gene Kerrigan – probably the best columnist in Ireland over the last 20 years. And that’s a pretty good antidote to the poison. And it is right there in the same paper so you have to give them credit for that.
MC: Might the Sunday Business Post be more appropriately re-titled The Progressive Democrats on Sunday? Tom McGurk and Vincent Browne notwithstanding, it has an insufferably patrician tone much of the time. To take just two examples, Cliff Taylor has said ‘that it was nonsense to talk of taxing the rich’ as part of the solution to the financial crisis without qualification. I don’t think he quite meant it as baldly as it came over but even so, to actually be able to write that down and not pause to think about it. Aileen O’Meara in the same edition contrived to suggest that Mary Harney’s ‘generous subsidies to private healthcare companies’ was a ‘more equitable distribution’ of public money.
HB: Again, it’s one of those things where it is a relatively small number of people given the size of the institutions concerned who have quite a large influence on the tone of what comes out. Cliff was a colleague of mine and a nice fellow but he is a business guy. It’s been his beat for a very long time. He can do all sorts of things in journalism but that is what he has been doing. He’s part of that world. The Business Post for years was seen as a republican as in Provo paper dressed up with a few business statistics – that it’s real priorities under its original incarnation – was to be the one Irish paper that was sound on the national question. It was terrific actually and it had other good content in it as well – and that was about a couple of important people in important positions. In a weekly paper the tone can be set so easily but a couple of people – I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to say that the tone of the paper can be patrician. I think at the same time when you’ve been a freelance journalist like me you’ve been in almost all of these publications and I’ve been in the SBP and again had no trouble with them. One of the good things about having somebody who has worked in the business – I think we do get co-opted a bit but it’s nice to be an academic and to be able to say ‘ok there are certain structural reason why a certain kind of journalism works this way but there are also highly contingent reasons why journalism turns out the way it does. It has to do with who was on the desk that day, it has to do with what it said on the press release, whether he had time to re-write it – it has to do with an awful lot of things that are routine and practice into which ideology gets embedded but not to do with somebody making it ideological necessarily – and not with making a decision that today the ideology is going to be patrician. It just sometimes happens like that.
MC: In a column that you wrote for the Irish Times in June 2003 ‘Knowing the Family Tree of Irish Public Life’, you made the interesting and honest observation that ‘in such a small media-politics-business eco-system as exists in Ireland, journalists can’t really be expected to live and work by the principles of independence that they blather about in public. I knew a hack years ago who said that he could draw a friends and family tree that connected virtually all of the stories that appeared on the features page of a particular Irish newspaper and your radio reviewer endeavours to practice the principle of full disclosure about often opts for selective avoidance instead. Thus, the only mention of Ciaran Cuffe above [Green Party TD, referred in the same article] is a neutral parenthetical one because I am not fully confident that my personal acquaintance with the guy wouldn’t colour any coverage I might give to his difficulty.’ This goes to the heart of what MediaBite is about as a project.
HB: Well it also says something that nails me for what I have been doing in this interview which has been kind of – probably – avoiding some of the questions that you have asked which raised some personal conflicts of interest where I am concerned so I have avoided personal criticisms of people that I have worked with and things like that. It is hard. It would be a lot easier to be working in a much bigger media environment but even say, if you are working in Washington, it ends up being a very small world – and too many people know too much anyway.
MC: You describe the phenomenon that Medialens in the UK and others call the revolving door. It goes to that issue. The revolving door refers not just to the relationships among journalists on a given newspaper but can just as easily be observed between journalists, the subject matter of their coverage, the politicians they write about, PR gurus and management consultants. These are all manifestly interchangeable roles as anyone who has been following the fortunes of the Progressive Democrats, for example, can see.
HB: PR is the key. I hope you are planning on doing something about this at MediaBite because there has been some comment about that but it has never really been done properly before. I’ve also supervised some dissertations here which do great work. We had a student here who demonstrated that the majority of news coverage in The Irish Times over a particular period was not actually news – it was what he called pseudo-events – that these stories were basically things constructed to be news – invented by PRs so that someone would come along and take news out of it and that is extraordinary on the face of it but also it’s the ecology that has evolved. It means that the professional news business is perhaps hopelessly corrupt. I’m not even sure there is a perhaps about it. The corruption isn’t about people living large or anything like that – the benefits are small – but the influences that even small relationships can have are huge. I’ll give you an example that is self critical so I don’t seem like I’m mouthing off about other people. When I was desk editor of the Education Supplement at the Irish Times I had a particular slot that I had to fill with a photograph every week and sometimes I’d know the story that I wanted to get a picture of. Sometimes it would get towards the end of the week and I wouldn’t really know what the picture was going to be and there were a couple of PRs out there who knew that that was my weekly dilemma. They knew right around the time that I was going to be feeling it and the phone call or the email would come in at just that time saying ‘we had a launch yesterday and there are some lovely pictures’ – and I loved them. There’d be lovely pictures of a lovely show and their clients didn’t get criticized – I don’t mean I went out of my way to say nice things about their clients but certainly I was very happy to enjoy the fruits of their observation of my need. And I didn’t bite the hand that fed me. I don’t think I’m different from other journalists in that.
MC: We find that journalists are resistant to acknowledging the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon and curiously more especially so among the established, so-called standard bearers of the liberal left. They are seen as the ‘good guys’ and to some extent feel quite comfortable at being seen that way. So when people like us come along and says it’s precisely because you are seen as the good guy that it’s really pernicious when you fail to get it right because people have this trust relationship with you. We expected that these ‘good guys’ would be the most willing to say ‘sure, fair enough, maybe you’ve got a point’ and that they wouldn’t get really defensive about it.
HB: Yes, you’re supposed to be grateful that there are people like them looking after your interests.
MC: But they are very prickly about being criticised at all.
HB: Nick Davies book deliberately sets out to show in particular that liberal institutions are the most guilty of some of the crimes against journalism.*
MC: We went for some avoidance of our own at the DIT / MediaBite ‘Reporting War’ debate last March. When Pepe Escobar said that he wanted to say that anyone interested in becoming a good and truly independent journalist should stay well away from schools of journalism and all forms of official training, to our regret, we stopped him from saying that. We were so conscious of the venue – and your and your colleagues endorsement of the event. I think we should have let him say it but I wonder as a lecturer in a school of journalism what do you think of what Pepe says?
HB: I don’t think that Pepe Escobar meant that in the way that a lot of journalists say it. When most journalists say that it’s part of the reverse snobbery of journalism that says ‘stay away from those schools of journalism, they just produce robots – what do you need to know to be a journalist anyway? All you need is a bit of a nose for news, common sense and a notebook and you’re away.’ And there is something in that. I still say it myself – my students will come in to start their year and I say ‘to be perfectly honest with you I’d have you out of here in a month’. If all we were doing was learning a few tricks of the trade so that you can go out and work because it ain’t a year’s training to become a journalist and it ain’t four-years training which we do here as well – we have a four-year undergraduate course in journalism. In some ways it’s absurd but then on the other hand it’s an education. It’s not just about learning the craft and the tricks, it’s about – as far as we are concerned – learning about the media, the history of the press and having to think critically and constructively about the press. I’m not saying that my colleagues here would all share my views about the press – far from it. We try to create what we call critical practitioners. It’s definitely not about knocking a lot of boring rules into people. Unfortunately it’s the journalistic institutions that do that very well themselves. And we have to tell our students, guess what, it’s going to be very boring when you get out there and work because it mostly is.
Stay away from journalism school politically? No.
MC: I thank that is what Pepe meant – that journalism schools are churning people out who are ready to flood that same revolving door system.
HB: Yes, I know that is what he meant but I don’t agree. We teach our students about that revolving door system. Without being utopian about it maybe in the long run they can do something about that.
MC: I wonder how many lecturers in journalism take your point of view? I don’t think there are too many.
HB: I don’t get to sit in other people’s classes very much – that’s not the way that academia works. You’d have to look at dissertation topics that people get around here to appreciate that we foster a critical spirit about journalism. I think we try. I do it and I have to say that it’s important that I do it without shoving left wing politics down students throats. My students all know my politics because they are in the public domain but I don’t think that you would find that they say I inflict them on them. I don’t use my lecturing as a platform.
MC: Where do you think hope lies for the future of truly independent journalism? Indymedia Ireland has been a great facilitator of real citizen journalism since it came online in approximately 2000. Contributors’ coverage of events is often superior to anything seen in mainstream media – not always – but a lot of the time. From your book, it’s clear that Indymedia played an important role in countering the hostile responses to the Pitstop Ploughshares.
HB: And Indymedia played an important role as a resource for my book. The book would have literally been impossible to produce in anything like the form in which it is without the fantastic material generated by the contributors to Indymedia over the years. It was the one place were I could go and know I could get the record. Obviously the record with plenty of annotation but a record I knew I could trust when I was reading it.
MC: And also in getting out the facts that had not been recorded in the mainstream news. Mainstream news in Ireland never acknowledges Indymedia – sometimes I wonder if that’s deliberate or just indifference. Where do you think, on the Irish scene, is the future for really independent journalism?
HB: I think that journalism is in such a state of chassis now that it is so hard to say what the future is for any kind of journalism. I think Indymedia offers one kind of a model and maybe the most important aspect of the Indymedia model is its non-commercial nature. It’s difficult for Indymedia contributors because they have to devote time in between their working hours, their home and caring for children – or in whatever way they can make contributions and it can mean it’s difficult to do the sort of research that mainstream journalists can do. On the other hand mainstream journalism is characterized by less and less investigative work, and less and less time to do research so they have converged to some extent there anyway. And the desire of ordinary people to do journalism without pay is something that has been clouded by a century or more of professionalisation of journalism. Amateur journalism, or journalism done by people who are not primarily journalists is probably the real story of the history of newspapers and other forms of media going back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The idea of the professional journalist is an interruption on the real story which is people like James Connolly – an activist who brought out a wonderful newspaper but whose primary role was to be a union organizer. I do a lecture in my history class where I show a bunch of great Irish figures from the beginning of the last century – WB Yeats, Helena Moloney, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington – people who we don’t think of as journalists – it’s not the first word that comes to mind for these people – but they were not only journalists, they all edited newspapers or other publications. Yeats edited theatre publications. So that for me is the future of journalism – people who do it out of love, do it in the spaces and it’s certainly the future of journalism that can be viewed as in any way independent because the commercial media models that exist already and that are evolving online and that look like they could be there for the future seem to me to have so much potential for corruption built into them. There may be a future for some small number of outlets that have a subscription base that can pay journalists to do really extraordinary work – The Real News Network being a great example. I hope that there is a future for some subscription-based journalism – but I don’t think that is going to be the governing commercial model either. People are going to have the expectation that they can read from a number of different sources and are not going to want to pay subscriptions. So I think that the future is going to be people who know how to do journalism but don’t necessarily expect to make a living out of it and whose freedom from that commercial constraint gives them that other kind of freedom, which is all important – freedom from the revolving door, freedom from the needs of the institution, freedom from the pressures of advertising – freedom in the most rich sense of that word to tell the truth. I think that we actually take for granted that the internet is going to be the means by which journalism will be delivered – whether its video or audio or copy – it’s going to be delivered online – there is no question about that.
To read Part 1 of this interview please follow this link.
*A few days later Nick Davies gave a talk at a conference in Dublin and when asked about it, refused to agree that senior correspondents and editors were themselves responsible for much of the bias of their own news coverage, whatever pressures they may be under additionally.
1. Harry Browne Biographical
2. Review of ‘Hammered by the Irish’
3. Discussion of Browne’s career
4. Browne’s survey of IT journalists in The Dubliner