An Interview with Gene Kerrigan
The Irish news industry “strive[s] to establish the important facts in the rapidly changing environment“, it “provide[s] vigilance and challenge to assist understanding.” It is “primarily concerned with serious issues for the benefit of the community throughout the whole of Ireland free from any form of…control“. It has “endeavoured to ensure reporting was accurate and reflected the facts…reflect[ing] all shades of opinion“. And it aspires to “reflect the ever-changing panorama which is human life“.
We know this because a conga line of editors, former editors, CEO’s and directors from Ireland’s most prominent news making institutions recently told us so in evidence presented to the Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis. Any suggestion that this is not the case is a “conspiracy”, peddled by “conspiracy theorists” from “a[n unrecognisable] planet“. And of course, the Irish news industry doesn’t waste it’s time reflecting on the ever-changing panorama of life on other planets.
For a press so concerned with reflecting the world accurately and with account for it’s diversity of opinion, the inquiry was surprisingly interested in just one person, Morgan Kelly. To a visitor from another planet it must have appeared a strange state of affairs, that the credibility of such independently minded institutions, with access to a range and breadth of information and expertise, could be so contingent on the insight of one university professor. The very fact that Kelly’s name is as much a part of the crisis lexicon as NAMA, Anglo and the Troika, is a testament to the industry’s failure.
The Irish Times seems destined to be forever congratulated for the temerity to publish Kelly’s analysis and predictions. Certainly, there’s some basis for that, it does after all differentiate the Times from it’s competition during what a recent Irish Times editorial referred to as the “frothy lifestyle of the boom years“. But, the fact remains, Kelly essentially foisted it upon them — only after he’d had it rejected by The Sunday Business Post and the Irish Independent. Which makes you wonder, if it’s weren’t for the dogged efforts of the professor, would we ever have read about the impending crash?
In reality, Kelly was by no means a lone voice. The consensus among the vested interests the media were consulting was never as universal as is now being claimed. There were others, admittedly the off-message, party-pooping experts the media preferred not to consult but rather more often — as with the now extremely useful Kelly — either to ridicule or ignore.
To attempt to understand this and more recent topics we spoke to Gene Kerrigan, columnist with the Sunday Independent. Kerrigan is one of very few columnists in Ireland who can be relied on to plough his own furrow. As many of his colleagues are swept along by the whims of political soap opera, Kerrigan concerns himself with the broader narratives of why Ireland is the way it is. He displays a knack for explaining complex issues, unweaving intricate narratives and needling Ireland’s elites, in unpatronising prose. Most importantly though, Kerrigan is not a prisoner of the status quo.
Having said this, much like our conversation with Fintan O’Toole, Kerrigan’s explanations for how and why the media does what it does appears to discount it’s own agency. Rather than position the press as a key actor in the crisis, he seems to describe it as permanently in a state of intellectual somnolence, distracted by the process and neglecting the causes and effects. His views too, on press ownership and the related issue of how that intertwines with the nexus of political and economic power is unlikely to put your mind at rest.
Consistent with his reputation as a journalist, Kerrigan is vastly more insightful and honest about the state of Irish journalism than almost any of his peers — as the platitudes shared at the inquiry will attest. We’d like to thank Mr. Kerrigan for taking the time to discuss these issues. As a point of reference, it should be noted this interview took place prior to the start to the media presentations to the banking inquiry.
(GK — Gene Kerrigan, MB — MediaBite, David Manning)
MB: Can I start by asking how you become a journalist? What was your starting point?
GK: Purely by accident. It was a time of change in Irish journalism. I wrote a few things for Hot Press magazine — Magill was starting up at the time. I was asked to write a piece. I don’t have what they call a career trajectory, rather one thing led to the other and a lot of years have passed. I didn’t plan the career, I didn’t directly steer it, though I wonder if it would have been better if I had.
MB: Do you spend much time in the institution itself, the Independent? Do you mingle with the new breed of journalist?
GK: I worked for Magill and then the Sunday Tribune and then the Sunday Independent. At Magill and the Tribune I was in the office full time. When I started with the Sunday Independent, Aengus Fanning thought it best if I worked from home. So, I go in and out, and I’m in regular touch with my colleagues, but I write at home.
MB: That seems to be the case for many journalists who appear on the opinion pages or work in an investigative capacity. They tend not to spend too much time working within the four walls of the newspaper. Yet there appears to be a consensus, not only in terms of how a story is presented, but on which stories are important. Recently there was the case of ‘the brick’ that was thrown after protests in Jobstown. I am wondering how that happens when you have independently-minded people working independently — and yet all forming a consensus around what seems like a minor incident?
GK: Generally the media — not always or directly — reflects society. We live in a fairly conservative society where people see politics through a narrow lens. You vote every four years, elect a government which then looks after the running of the country.
When something happens, such as the water tax protests, media people are interested, but it’s not something they’re comfortable with. Then someone throws a brick, it confirms media people in their discomfort. They’re more comfortable posing the story as real politics versus throwing bricks. I think that mindset applies to everyone, citizens and journalists alike. I wish it wasn’t that way — I’d rather a broader interpretation of debate and political interaction but I think it is a very conservative country.
MB: In terms of that idea of reflecting a conservative society, it seems like a contradiction in the sense that there is this movement that has grown organically, it didn’t come from the universities, it didn’t come from the established political parties, it came from ordinary people who can’t afford to pay. On the other hand the press appears to be representing another public, a more conservative public. What public do you think the press represents?
GK: There’s something I find amusing — the total absence of the right wing in Irish politics. For instance, Clare Daly would be described as a left wing TD, and she would have no problem with that. But the media never describes Willie O’Dea as a right wing TD, or Leo Varadkar, Brendan Howlin or Eamon Gilmore.
Gilmore was Tanaiste in a government that implemented very right wing, Merkel-style politics. And yet he would be portrayed as left of centre by most media, simply because of the Labour label.
Similarly, in journalism. People would describe myself and some others as left wing, and we’d have no problem with that. But no one ever describes the political correspondents as right wing journalists — even though they clearly report, approvingly, almost entirely within the consensus of the right wing parties.
So there’s an invisible right wing, that is so much part of life that we don’t even have a name for it, it’s just seen as the norm. Anything on the left is identified as being somehow from ‘the other’. It’s from the outside. I don’t think the media even recognises that what is seen as the centre is way over to the right.
MB: Picking up on that point about political journalism. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of self criticism of peers and competitors in the Irish context. While there seems to be a gentlemen’s agreement that you can directly criticise RTE for various failings, with regards to impartiality or salaries etc. But no one names names. There are a lot of people you could have been describing just now, without having named them, but I’m wondering why journalists don’t name names in the way US journalism does?
GK: Things that happen outside of party politics — all of us, citizens and journalists — tend to think of them as being outside politics altogether, because that’s what we’re comfortable with. Politics is actually a very broad thing, including varied interactions between citizens, as well as the various power centres. All of which is a long-winded way of saying, it isn’t a conspiracy, it’s the narrow way things are perceived.
MB: That’s certainly true, in the sense that, the Irish Times has a podcast called ‘Inside Politics’, where politics is strictly defined as what happens within the Dáil. That in a sense makes politics a soap opera, and the only way for the public to interact with a soap opera, in terms of intervening in the media’s dramatic narrative, is to sit in front of a car or throw a brick, because their politics doesn’t exist until those incidents occur.
GK: Except that throwing a brick can provide a handle which allows the media, who are in uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory, to gratefully pull over the comfort blanket of ‘normal politics’. I was waiting, to be honest, when I saw the water protests speeding up, for a brick, or something of that nature, which would then become the issue. Once that happened it could be presented as political normality versus ‘the other’ — nasty people, throwing bricks and shouting rotten things at Michael D Higgins. As I say, I was waiting for that to happen. I have no idea what the long term prospects are.
MB: When we spoke to Fintan O’Toole he said that the press is inevitably circumscribed by its dependencies on advertising and by extension the various ownership structures that grow up around it. In light of what happened recently with respect to HSBC and the claims by a senior journalist at the Telegraph, that they withheld investigative journalism on the basis that advertising would be pulled. What are your views on that?
GK: I think everyone in the media is aware of the paymaster, of where the money comes from, and the consequences of it not coming. There was a famous story of some UK department store threatening to stop advertising with the Sunday Times, over something it published. It was way back when Andrew Neil was editor. He basically told them to fuck off. Rupert Murdoch got on to him and said, “How much is this going to cost?”, to which Neil said, “About three million a year”. Murdoch said, “Well, fuck them, they’re not going to buy us for three million a year”.
But that was the old days — everything in journalism is on a knife edge now and therefore I’m not surprised to see the HSBC scandal in the Telegraph. I don’t know of anything similar here, I’ve never come across it, but it may very well happen. I’m not at the centre of the media — I’m not aware of those kind of scandals here. I’ve no doubt that there are all kinds of pressures, and they are felt more keenly now than they have ever been, because money is short and the future is uncertain. But I’m not aware of anything of that nature.
MB: When we raise these sorts of questions, and while it depends on who we ask, they are often thrown back as being conspiratorial. But, as you said, everyone knows the paymaster. It is something that doesn’t even need to be explicitly stated, it is something that as journalists and media workers you’re keenly aware of: where the money comes from and how it might dry up. Do you think that is on people’s mind on a day-to-day basis when they are writing or investigating or is it subconscious?
GK: I don’t think it is, because journalists are concerned with filling the page. In my experience anyway, the story, the next story is what drives most journalists — “How will I cover this?” But no doubt everyone is aware of where the money comes from and the importance of the money.
I have never had to make a decision about any of that. At the level where those decisions are made, I am not aware of anything of that nature. It may well be, given human nature, I suppose it is. But I don’t know of it.
MB: You haven’t encountered censorship, and perhaps that’s a privilege that goes with your role as a commentator and opinion writer. Or maybe that’s irrelevant. We spoke to Joe MacAnthony a few years ago and he described what happened as a result of his investigations into Ray Burke and other matters. He quickly felt ostracised as a result of the impact his journalism had within South Dublin elites that were part-owners of newspapers, or drifted in the same circles as those who ran the Sweepstakes.
When we spoke to Mark Garavan, the former spokesperson of the Shell2Sea campaign, he also spoke about how the Corrib gas issue was not necessarily something that would be good for your career as a journalist. Is there anything that you see as a risky move as a journalist in the current environment? Is there a story no one would touch?
GK: I can’t speak for journalism. I can only speak for my own journalism. In the period I’ve worked for the Sunday Independent, I was asked once to change something. That was late in 2008, the crisis was just breaking and it was obvious to me we were in for a very bumpy ride over the next few years. And I wrote a piece about that.
Aengus [Fanning] rang me up and said he wanted to drop one paragraph. What he said to me was “the paper is gloomy enough, this is really…” and he read it again and said the paragraph was “unduly gloomy”. And he said, “if you like, it can stay in, but I think it’s too heavy and I want to take it out”. I said okay because I respected him and the reason he gave me and I didn’t think it affected the article in any substantive way. That’s the only time where it’s happened to me, a minor instance — bear in mind that Aengus could have taken that paragraph out without ringing me at all, he was the editor of the paper, he was entitled to do that. But that’s just my experience and I’m very grateful to be in that position where I respect the people I work with and they respect me.
The thing about the Telegraph scandal is that it is so blatant, in a way that I have never seen before. I’ve never seen something as blatant as this. I’ve never seen anything like that in my own experience.
MB: I think in some ways the more subtle compromises that you might make with an advertiser or because an owner or an editor wants something are potentially more dangerous than these big scandals. I’m not talking about compromises over tone, but compromises…
GK: Whether you cover it or not…
MB: Whether you cover it, how you cover it, the angle, who you quote, all of those sorts of things, hundreds of potential tiny little compromises one might make, either unconsciously or…
GK: I think there is a subconscious urge to be careful for all kinds of different reasons, but I think there’s something worse — there’s a lack of familiarity with anything outside a narrow world. Journalists — look at the Corrib issue for instance. Journalists who are right of centre, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael journalists, they would look at that and perhaps the norm for them is to assume that people who confront the guards — instead of attending their local TD’s clinic — must be Provos. They’re out to cause trouble. And that’s the starting point.
There is a thing in journalism, reaching for a clichéd phrase, or a clichéd understanding of circumstances. The “ring of steel” syndrome. If three extra guards are stationed in Dublin airport it’s automatically described as a ring of steel — the media seeks to package any set of circumstances in a language familiar to journalist and reader — regardless of reality.
Whenever there’s any kind of development there’s always a cliché to deal with it, to fit it into a pattern that the media can deal with.
The Irish Water issue took the media by surprise. They instinctively interpret it as people out to cause trouble, but it isn’t. It’s a very grass roots thing — it’s our readers “causing trouble”. We were insulting our readers by depicting them, in the usual cliché, as a bunch of Provos causing trouble for party political reasons. There were of course many protesters that were members of Sinn Fein, and they are quite entitled to be, but the assumption is always to see things through whatever cliché — in both language and concept — can be most handily applied.
Not just right wing journalists succumb to this. Some years ago Brian Cowen was discovered to own shares in a particular company he was dealing with as a minister, and my immediate assumption was that he was corrupt. That was an instinctive response based on my own approach to politicians. Cowen was not corrupt — he had bought some shares many years ago, completely forgot about them, and immediately he sold them at a loss. My own assumption echoed the assumption of a right-wing journalist who will see things like the water protesters and assume that they are “trouble makers”. I think that’s a bigger danger, that kind of clichéd thinking. It’s the worst kind of self censorship — substituting comfortable clichéd thinking for reality — because you can be unaware you’re doing it.
MB: I agree, everyone’s biases are at work, and if they are not kept in check in some way, then mistakes will be made. At the same time, aren’t assumptions more warranted where you’re dealing with those in power than those on the margin? You are talking about a man that led a party, which has proved itself to lean to the wrong side when it comes to corruption. To make an assumption like that…
GK: I’m not making a comparison between your local Irish Water protester and someone in power, like Brian Cowen. It’s a process by which someone like me will come to a conclusion about someone like Cowen. Someone else will, via that same process, come to a conclusion about a protester. It’s an automatic, lazy, incurious way of seeing things. It influences you when you’re interpreting what’s in front of you. Often it’s wrong.
MB: So we see things the way we see things. We see through the lens of our own bias. Over the last few years we’ve seen that the press, while there have been exceptions, essentially establish a face-off against the majority of the Irish public on a number of major issues. Whether it’s the Lisbon Treaty, the establishing of NAMA, the household charge — and now Irish Water. At all these junctions the Irish press has taken the opposite view to the majority of the population. Isn’t this a result of the dominant lens of the people who make up the newspaper industry and who have an unrepresentative bias? How should we respond to a situation where the press says one thing and the people say the other?
GK: I think the press repeats what it’s used to doing. The government comes up with a plan for, say, water charges. Certain things will be checked out by the media — there will be scrutiny of the public statements, the technical details etc. The majority of the press live inside a very constricted view of politics where policies are checked out as to their internal logic, and parliamentary support, rather than in relation to the bigger picture of what is being done.
The classic example is what happened on the night of the bank guarantee. That becomes the cliché question. What happened on that night? Who said what to whom?
Now we know what happened — a massive private debt was turned into a massive public debt, which has hampered this country every since. We know it happened. There is no need for this kind of banking inquiry.
The media is eager for details — who, what, when, where — they see a potentially interesting story. Was someone influenced by a golfing partner or a brother in law, etc? Such detail is interesting. But the main question becomes lost — how did a private debt become a public one? And why did we let that happen?
MB: I suppose many bought into the status quo, at the point where they were told there was no turning back, there was no [alternative…]
GK: The public was told they were being bailed out — that’s the thing. An awful lot of the Troika money that came in from the bailout went directly back out to the bankers — in Germany and elsewhere. And that’s who was bailed out. There was a huge failure of understanding by the media, a huge failure of academics and people who should have known what was going on, but who again became intrigued by the process of it. They were preoccupied by questions like, “how are we going to work this?”, rather than with the fundamental reality of what was happening. I think the public was failed massively.
MB: A lot of these voices that failed to see — or chose not to see — what was coming are now the same voices telling us how to deal with austerity. To the extent that newspapers present their readers with that revolving door of former political spin doctors, former bank officials, former IMF officials — it’s almost as if the press is consciously repeating the same mistakes. I call them mistakes, perhaps too kindly, that’s being too generous. How does that happen?
GK: I don’t know. It may very well be that we are so used to doing things the way we always do them, and when something comes up that you don’t understand you ring an expert and they explain it to you. And, throughout the property bubble, if you wanted to know what was happening, you rang up the estate agents, or the bankers and independent commentators of all kinds. They hadn’t a clue what was going on. The bankers didn’t understand banking, economists didn’t understand the economy — and the media depended on them to explain it to us, because they were the supposed experts. They told us everything was fine — it was in their interest to do so.
There was the occasional dissenter, for instance, Morgan Kelly, and fair play to the Irish Times, they reported what he had to say. But it was only one voice among many. I’m sometimes counted among those that saw what was coming, but I never saw what was coming. I knew what was happening didn’t make sense. I didn’t know why it didn’t make sense and none of the experts were able to explain why it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t until Morgan Kelly that it made sense for me.
It isn’t the media’s fault for not knowing. You can’t know everything. With a medical story, for instance, we have to depend on the experts. But the fact that we kept going back to the same people, and the fact we went to people who worked for banks to tell us what the banks were doing — it’s no surprise they said things were great.
You’re right that in some instances — I’ll turn on Prime Time and there’ll be someone there — and I can find the same guy on YouTube, in 2006, telling us we should get into the property bubble. And they are the same guys now telling us what to do about austerity.
MB: It seems to us that the media lacks a culture of self criticism. Even during the boom you could look at the dependencies the press had, in that there was booming profits from property advertising, and you’re ringing experts in the property industry. At the same time you’re not seeing a property bubble. You’re basically conditioned not to see a property bubble whether you had the skills to go and find out about it or not. With a press that doesn’t reflect on itself, or think about how and why it does what it does, then the next thing that comes along you’re not going to spot that either.
GK: The press does what it can to understand various things that are happening. It goes to people that might know more. It’s the old thing of again that we’re used to seeing things in a certain way.
MB: That brings me to a question that is possibly too close to home. One of the things about the Irish water protests and one of the people that have profited from the collapse of the Irish banks is one of the major shareholders of the Independent group. His other operations have connections to what is happening with Irish Water. In other instances, you might expect reporting to declare a potential conflict of interest when talking about this issue — where the owner or major shareholder of the newspaper has interests in related aspects of the story. Is that something that should be an issue or can it be explained away?
GK: It’s an issue in so far as anyone makes it an issue — by which I mean state interests who are supposed to protect media diversity.
Obviously the press is owned by private interests and those private interests will have other private interests and that is the way it is and the way it’s always been. I’m not aware of any instructions, and I wouldn’t be, because no one is that crude about it.
Newspapers should be like any investment. For instance, if somebody buys Jacobs, next week the figs will still be in the fig rolls. They’ll still be made with the same recipe, because you’re investing in Jacobs in order to make money. If you’re investing in a newspaper, my attitude is that it should be the same. You’re investing to make money, you’re not investing for any other reason.
But, of course, newspapers also have a social and political aspect.
I’ve never been approached by anybody to say, now that you’re making the biscuits for so and so, we’re putting cream into the fig rolls. I’ve never had the journalistic equivalent of that. I’m aware of the possibility.
MB: When you’re working in any company it doesn’t need to be explained to an employee, for instance, that they shouldn’t bad mouth the employer. You don’t say something that hinders the profitability of the company without potentially risking your job.
GK: If I’m working for Jacobs I don’t go around telling everyone I meet that fig rolls are shit. That’s true of everyone, no matter what company they’re working in. I’m sure there are people who do tell you how terrible they think the biscuits are, and there are predictable consequences for that.
MB: The analogy works only so far when it comes to investing in newspapers because these days they’re not so profitable, not necessarily the investment opportunity they once were. At the same time they’re still a great way to influence people and reach those in power — reaching 200,000 people a day. Owning a newspaper or a radio station, or whatever it might be, it is a slightly different play.
GK: Journalists who are in any way self-respecting will not bow to that. And to be fair it doesn’t happen that way, in that somebody calls you and says, “Look, listen, we’ve got some spare space here, we’re going to write something nice about the boss’s interests”, it doesn’t happen in that way, and everyone knows it doesn’t happen in that way. You try to be aware of all the possibilities. Everybody is aware — from the reporter to the columnist to the editor — everybody. You’re not simply selling newspapers — there are consequences to all of this.
MB: In terms of not spotting things, is there anything you particularly feel, in terms of stories or angles on stories, that are not being covered in terms of the right volume or angle as it should be at the moment? Are there any stories that we’re not thinking about in the right way? Are we missing something essentially?
GK: My view would not be on particular stories, or particular angles on stories, but on the general view of how the world works and that it is a bigger thing. Politics is a bigger thing than Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and whether we can we trust Sinn Fein, or what Lucinda is up to this week. All of those things are very minor.
Things are seen in the very limited context of one arena, made up of a few political parties. That is responsible for things not being covered properly and politics not being seen in a wider sense — how the world works.
MB: I suppose, not seeing outside of that paradigm has left the press wrong-footed when it comes to the rise of the independents, giving rise to the questions like “how did this happen?”, “why did this happen?” and “what’s going to happen now?” It’s going to take a shift of consciousness to understand a new political world dominated by independents.
GK: I’m not even sure of that. People are familiar with independents, the media can handle independents, because they have a little box to put them in, where they can be broken down in to independents we can deal with — Mattie McGrath, and people like that. And then you’ve got ideologically motivated people, who are not really independents, they’re small parties — and the left-wingers can be made distant, alien, “the other”.
MB: One last question, the Irish Times prides itself on its social reporting, but has tended to cover the Irish Water issue as a purely economic one, rather than the social dimensions to it, and I think that’s the case for a lot of the Irish media, it’s a purely economic question, we should pay for the thing that has a cost associated with it’s production, rather than a social question. Essentially, how can people who are very concerned about social issues determine that this one is not?
GK: While I don’t know, what I suspect is, people in journalism are reasonably well paid and they can’t see why somebody can’t afford X amount. They do not understand how many people live. There is a real gap between politicians, journalists and people who are part of the system and who benefit from it — and people who are living from pay cheque to pay cheque, or who don’t know how many hours they will be working this week, and how much they’ll be paid for it.
That’s basically becoming the norm, and people don’t know how to respond to that. And then the government says we want an extra €160 a year and the people from the mainstream say, “It’s only €1.82 a week, you can afford it.” They don’t understand that people really can’t. That’s my guess anyway.