An Interview with Frank Connolly
In the first part of our interview with Frank Connolly he detailed the response of the Irish news media to what has come to be known as ‘Bertiegate’. The following, second part of the interview discusses more general issues of media reporting and the inherent constraints imposed by the corporate, advertising dependent, structure of mainstream outlets.
MB: We had one particular question we wanted to ask you and that is whether you think there is an inverse relationship between good journalism and journalists who have good relationships with those in big business and in government?
FC: I think that’s another way of putting the famous phrase that journalism is about revealing things that people in power don’t want to have revealed and I think that still is a consistent responsibility of investigative journalism. And where journalism is not questioning the powerful and the rich and those who control society including control of the economic future of society, I think it’s not good journalism. The problem is that there is a wider issue at stake here. One is the convergence of economic interests with media ownership which is very apparent in this country – and that goes into the whole matter of the oil and gas resources that we touched on earlier on. For instance, in the last week (October 2007) Independent Newspapers have published the fact the Providence Resources which is owned, by and large, by Tony O’Reilly and his family, have discovered oil off the southern coast in the Helvic field. In their statement announcing this they have described it as a very important discovery of what they used to call in the Independent ‘black gold’. There is no evidence that there has been a significant find in that field because they haven’t established the pressure at which the oil will flow. Everybody knows there is oil and gas off the Irish coast – particularly off the Atlantic coast. We know it through the Corrib find and through the Dunquin prospect off the south-west coastline. The big issue is how viable and how profitable and how rapid and strong a flow of oil will come from these fields. The technology is now more viable to explore these previously uninviting waters. But here is an example of where a possible attempt has been made, by using control of newspapers, to hype up the share prices of Providence Resources – without having significant proof of the nature of the find. The market price did go up initially after the announcement of ten days or so ago and then settled back down after the markets decided that maybe they didn’t have enough evidence. This happened in the 1980s with Atlantic Resources, also controlled by Tony O’Reilly, where hundreds if not thousands of people lost huge amounts of money by backing a suggestion published in his media organisation that there was a massive find off the southern coast by Atlantic. As it turned out, it never happened. So there is a problem where media ownership converges with very powerful economic interests and in this country it is a particular problem. It’s not exceptional to this country but it is a problem.
Continue reading Confronting Power – Part 2
An Interview with Frank Connolly
“[I]t is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect” [George Orwell, Preface to ‘Animal Farm’, 1945] 
‘Freedom of the press’ is one of those few concepts that can bring erstwhile journalistic adversaries together in almost unanimous agreement. The term is generally bandied around for several weeks whenever some authoritarian oligarchy attempts to restrict or oppress the local press. The concept is of course admirable, and few competent commentators would reject the idea that this freedom provides a means to protect democracy. But it is often used to evoke a rose tinted idea of journalism – one where all journalists are forging their democratic paths in a truly campaigning vocation. The Irish Times editorial on World Press Freedom Day last year stated proudly – ‘A well equipped reporter with a satellite phone is virtually impossible for any regime to control’. However, these well-equipped reporters are subject to numerous controls far less obvious than the clumsy military fist. Where economic factors are concerned these ‘campaigning’ journalists have shown reluctance in certain instances to bite the hand that feeds them. And it is left to those journalists who not only understand but are willing to accept the consequences of confronting concentrations of power to fulfil an ideal the rest are only willing to pay lip service to. 
Continue reading Confronting Power – Part 1
An Interview with Fintan O’ Toole, Assistant Editor at the Irish Times
In the first part of our interview with Fintan O’Toole, he traced his career in journalism and the major influences on it, while locating those factors within the wider context of developments that have propelled our news media into its current form and function. Below, in the second part of the interview, O’Toole gives an in-depth assessment of the editorial ethos of mainstream news reporting – with reference to The Irish Times in particular.
MB – Going back to what you were saying about the corporate nature of the media and the need to provide for advertisers, and in the context of a statement from the Editor which says that the Irish Times should lead and shape public opinion, is it just through gaps in the circle of political and media discourse that journalists are to lead and shape this opinion. How does this concept work in reality?
FT – Well as I remember it, that quote from Geraldine Kennedy is part of a broader thing about what the Irish Times does. The context of it is in terms of talking about fairness and objectivity and indolence. I think it would be wrong to read it as we have an agenda etc. I also think in terms of the context it is quite an important thing to say, as it spells out quite upfront that the media do lead and shape public opinion. Why is anyone interested in this type of discourse if you don’t think you’re helping in some way to shape public opinion? One would hope public opinion isn’t shaped in any sort of crude or direct way. There is a broad debate going on around Irish society. I think it absolutely valid for a newspaper to state this is what we do in the context of the Irish Times. It is saying we have the capacity to be a campaigning newspaper as well as just simply engaging in some kind of narrow reportage. I think that is very important, and it is a progressive statement about what a media outlet can do. The idea of a newspaper having values seems to me very important to hold on to.
What I believe Geraldine was trying to communicate in that was that there is a distinction between reporting and opinion. In the way you report you try to be as accurate and balanced and as fair as you possibly can. You try to give both sides of the story; you try to give the reader a useful and accurate summary of what has actually happened. We are all aware that the news agenda needs to be questioned, the selection of stories, the selection of values etc. But you can’t throw out the baby with the bath water – since it’s all so obviously compromised, it’s a method of maintaining the decent values of journalism. I do think the Irish Times tries to do that.
Continue reading The Corporate Media – Part 2
An interview with Fintan O’Toole, Assistant Editor at the Irish Times
Earlier this year we spoke at length to leading writer, columnist and Assistant Editor at The Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole recently returned from China from where he reported on many facets of life within the emerging capitalist heavyweight, describing both its beauty spots and open sores. He depicted a situation sometimes far removed from the dream market frequently referred to on the financial pages as ‘open for business’.  He writes that while “China shows unequivocally that global capitalism increases wealth… China also shows unequivocally that, left to itself, global capitalism increases inequality.”  O’ Toole is also the author of a number of books including ‘Post Washington: Why America Can’t Rule the World’ and he sits as Chair on the Advisory board of TASC, ‘a think tank for action on social change’. With over 20 years experience working within the dominant media he is well placed to define the medium and its abilities and limitations – though some might discern a slight rose tint to the picture he paints, in places. Fintan O’Toole is one of the most prominent representatives of ‘the left’ in mainstream Irish journalism and is frequently heavily criticised for his troubles. As discussed in our interview with Noam Chomsky, again, the label ‘anti-American’ is seen fit to pin on him. 
Much of what is covered in the following interview will do little to reassure those who have lost faith in the ability of a medium beholden to corporate structures and external dependencies. The impression is of a closed circle of elites pampering other elites, while capitalism’s advertising-dependent media has it’s freedom “inevitably and inescapably circumscribed.”  There are some mitigating factors and Fintan O’Toole stresses that it is not a ‘crude’ formula. The Irish Times Trust, for one, makes the news outlet unique where Irish media ownership is concerned in that it has no shareholders – but this has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Fintan O’Toole gives a fascinating account of his experience of the Irish media and makes many illuminating observations about the way mainstream media works. We are grateful to him for the time and consideration he has given to the issues that we aim to promote for debate.
Continue reading The Corporate Media – Part 1
An Interview with Noam Chomsky
Professor Noam Chomsky has been voted the world’s leading public intellectual and is probably the most famous critic of US foreign policy alive. His books have been recommended by everyone from revolutionary Latin American leaders to school teachers. And he argues his point of view with an eloquence and rationality that makes it difficult to reconcile the inhospitable reception he often receives in the mainstream corporate media.
Professor Chomsky visited Ireland last year to speak at the Amnesty International Annual Lecture, he also gave a number of lectures in University College Dublin on, among other things, ‘democracy promotion’. The mainstream media’s coverage of his visit was both critical and supportive. RTE’s coverage was ‘balanced’ in that while they introduced him as a leading intellectual, they also spent a substantial amount of the introduction to an interview with Professor Chomsky attempting to debunk one of his more contentious statements – that the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 “was not undertaken in response to the crimes, but rather precipitated the crimes, exactly as was anticipated.” And in response to the positive comments of Michael D Higgins and David Begg, RTE offered Mark Dooley of the Sunday Independent who summarised his work as a “forty year campaign in favour of Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic and Osama Bin Laden… an apologist for terror and tyranny without rival.”
Mark Little’s openly hostile interview that followed began poorly, with Little spending the first few of his 15 minute interview badgering Chomsky in the hope he would label Taoiseach Bertie Ahern a war criminal. It was unacceptable in Little’s eyes for Professor Chomsky to simply state his position as that concluded by the Nuremberg Trials – that the invasion of a foreign country is the supreme international crime, which encompasses within it all the evils that follow. It was up to the individual person to decide whether the Irish government’s support for the invasion of Iraq deemed the Taosieach a war criminal. The remainder of the interview was similarly inimical.
Continue reading On the Media, Anti-Americanism and Disparity
An interview with Eddie Holt, former Irish Times columnist
Eddie Holt is both a journalist and lecturer in the School of Communications at Dublin City University. He has offered insight and blunt realism to Irish readers over the last decade and more through his weekly columns in The Irish Times – injecting much needed truth into the mainstream body of Irish journalism – a profession ever more consumed by dominant media myths. Following the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Holt was one of the few journalists who made the simple and self-evident observation that the action was criminal, and therefore that the perpetrators, George Bush and Tony Blair, were both criminals. These observations did not go unnoticed by those as yet unwilling to call an egg an egg.
Continue reading The Media, Inside Out
An interview with Mark Garavan of Shell to Sea
In October 2006, we visited Mark Garavan, spokesperson for the Shell to Sea campaign, at his home near Castlebar in County Mayo, Ireland. For over six years Shell to Sea have been objecting to plans for a gas refinery and its associated pipeline in Bellanaboy, the town land designated as the location for the refinery.
The Shell to Sea campaign believes the refinery should be sited at sea for health and safety reasons, which is ordinary practice in many parts of the world and because of the devastating impact the refinery will have on the area if it is built. They have also pointed to the financial and economic deficits in the arrangements made between the Irish government and the exploration companies Shell (Dutch), Statoil (Norwegian) and Marathon (UK) and the anomalies they perceive in the way the project has been given approval to proceed. The processes by which permissions have been given to the exploration companies have also been a serious cause for concern amongst local people – with many questions outstanding on planning, health and safety issues in particular.
In the weeks before our visit the government had introduced a heavy police presence in Bellanaboy. Protestors had been physically removed from the gates of the site and many of them had sustained injuries as a result of what they say were unprovoked, violent assaults on their peaceful protest. On the day prior to our visit, one protestor, Maura Harrington, the Principal of a local school – had been knocked unconscious during a confrontation with gardaí, which resulted in her having to be hospitalised. 
On release from hospital later the same day she was invited to speak on Joe Duffy’s ‘Liveline’ radio programme on RTE, the national Irish broadcasting organisation. The Shell to Sea campaign had enjoyed the support of much of the media following the imprisonment for 94 days of five local farmers (The Rossport Five) who had objected to the plans and who were found to be in contravention of an injunction against them. Duffy’s interview was a striking example of how the media had turned on the protest in the year that had elapsed since the release of ‘The Five’.
We were interested in the dynamics of the relationship between the Shell to Sea protest and the media. In our discussion with Mark Garavan he gave some valuable insight to the realities of protesting against an alliance of multinational corporations and the political establishment operating with the support of a media that is mostly sympathetic to corporate objectives.
Continue reading Understanding the media