Readers may hate me for putting up the Eamon Dunphy interview with former Government Press Secretary Mandy Johnston, which aired on RTE Radio last Saturday morning, but I only do it as a note for the record. Much of what she has to say is about her career, and her time with Charlie McGreevy, little of which interests me personally. But it’s the bit about her work as Government Press Secretary, especially during the 2007 election that I found most useful as a supplemental to the interview with Dr. Heinz Brandenburg that I published on ILR.
So, let the record show that 25 minutes in, after Dunphy mentions Fianna Fail’s relationship with The Sunday Independent he notes ‘I see a big wide smile on your face’.
Judging by the photo accompanying Miriam Lord’s comments on the program on Saturday she’s not one normally given to producing wide toothy grins, so this must be something she is really pleased about.
Dunphy suggests that Fianna Fail has had a relationship with The Sunday Independent for a number of years. She corrects him on this:
“First of all, there hasn’t been a relationship for a good number of years. Its a new relationship”.
This corresponds to Heinz Brandenburg’s point that Irish newspapers are not (or were not) distinctly partisan. Unlike the Irish Press of old, Irish newspapers didn’t overtly associate themselves with the values and ideals of one political party in the same way that, for example, the Daily Mail or the Sunday Express associates themselves with the values and ideals of the Tories.
We know of less overt connections, but more on that later.
Mandy says that the relationship started just before the last election in 2007 and continued throughout it. This, she suggests, was initiated by the Sunday Independent:
Sunday Independent took the view that what the vast majority of Irish people felt what the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was going through was unfair and they wanted to give him a voice, to give him the chance to get his point of view across
She, to use Dunphy’s footballing phrase was the ‘link person’, the bag carrier between the party and the paper. She doesn’t mention, and nor does Dunphy for that matter, the meeting reported in the Irish Times between Bertie Ahern and Tony O’Reilly, nor the number of other meetings they’ve had down the years*. Independent Newspapers have since denied that this meeting had any bearing on their decision to stop haranguing Fianna Fail, especially over Stamp Duty (which suited their business interests) and to support him instead.
So within an intensive election cycle, the dominant party whose leader was under increasing scrutiny owing to the irregularity of his financial affairs, was able to call upon the support of the biggest selling broadsheet newspaper in the country in order to get this story across.
The admission should be staggering, as it doesn’t try to hide the well known association between Fianna Fail and Independent Newspapers.
But instead its a minor point, expressed with a rather banal voice:
“We needed someone to get our side of the story across, and it worked very well for us and worked very well for them.”
During his recent troubles Bertie Ahern complained of a media witch hunt. But with Independent Newspapers on his side was he saying that all the others were after him? Well, RTE have traditionally gone easy on him. Those short RTE radio interviews are closely managed, and the Dobson interview was the softest of soft interviews. Primetime has not had a face-to-face interview with Bertie for over 10 years. The Examiner, while a national newspaper, do not have the circulation figures to dent Bertie’s well managed image, even if they wanted to.
Other media interests, such as News Talk, are owned by Denis O’Brien and apart from recycling news items about Bertie and the Tribunals there is little indication they were ‘after him’.
No, Bertie is talking about the Irish Times, the newspaper that really pisses Fianna Fail off. The newspaper that, as Martin Mansergh mentioned in the Village recently, considers itself ‘the real establishment’. Prominent Fianna Fail TDs are repeatedly saying that the Irish Times are responsible for forcing the party to push Bertie into retirement (according to the most recent issue of Phoenix magazine, it was the Fianna Fail members of his cabinet who pressured him).
Maybe the Irish Times is responsible, but this opinion suits their prejudices. While it may have appealed to the IT audience to appear to stand up to Bertie they are not overtly interested in who leads the party, or who is in government.
They are only interested in telling stories that sell, increasing their readership while keeping costs down and attracting more advertisers.
There is a lot of stuff said about the media and much of it is couched in high sounding language straight out of a Civics text book. Good media is essential for a healthy democracy, they say, or for a just and more equal society, and even to protect our freedom of expression.
This is nonsense, of course, because at end of the day Irish media organisations have one single objective, and it’s got nothing to do with truth or democracy.
All they want to do is make more money.
*In 2001 Emily O’Reilly wrote an article for The Sunday Business Post, which provides plenty of detail about the Former Government Press Secretary PJ Mara and his close connections with Tony O’Reilly:
“Much of his work is escort duty. Mara has personally escorted Bertie Ahern on a number of occasions to lunch with Tony O’Reilly in O’Reilly’s Fitzwilliam Square townhouse. Members of O’Reilly’s family have also been escorted into the Taoiseach’s office for meetings about undisclosed matters.
The escort duty has helped to cement the relationship between O’Reilly and Fianna Fail that was already well-glued together back in 1997 with the Irish Independent’s infamous “Pay-back Time” front-page editorial on the eve of the general election urging its readers to vote for Fianna Fail and the PDs.”