George Lee's impulsive exit from politics highlights a certain malaise common in the Irish public sphere; namely, the cosiness between the political and media elites writes Joseph Galvin
Prominent political journalists are well known to mingle in the Dail bar with the politicians they are supposed to be critiquing, often counting these same people as personal friends. Indeed, a cursory glance at the Irish media exposes plainly many associations between media and politics.
Noel Whelan, a prominent political analyst in the Irish Times, was previously a member and spinner for Fianna Fáil while the Irish Independent's political correspondent, Fionnán Sheehan, married a Fine Gael representative.
The Examiner plays host to regular columns by the former Fine Gael TD, Ivan Yates and the former Labour adviser and press secretary, Fergus Finlay, both of whom give regular commentary on current affairs. Indeed, the former is now the co-host of a current affairs programme on Newstalk and Fergus Finlay contributes a weekly column to Drivetime on RTE Radio 1.
Recent history provides further examples. In 1981, Ted Nealon left RTE to become a Fine Gael TD, a seat he retained until 1997. Geraldine Kennedy was elected to the Dail for the Progressive Democrats in 1987 before returning to journalism. Currently editor of the Irish Times, she has steered the ‘paper of record’ decidedly centre-right in its reportage, no doubt to the admiration of her former political colleagues.
Shane Kenny, creator of Morning Ireland, also defected from RTE to become spinner-in-chief for the Irish government between 1994 and 1997. Eoghan Harris has vowed allegiance to more parties than currently exist, yet he continues to offer allegedly 'unallied' analysis in the national press.
Former Daily Star and Examiner political correspondent John Downing was appointed deputy press secretary by the Green Party in 2007. Una Claffey made a similar move from RTE in 2000, when she became a political advisor to Fianna Fáil.
These examples merely scratch the surface.
It is important to note that all of the above does not necessarily negate the abilities of these men and women as journalists. Whelan and Sheehan, for example, consistently produce solid and objective analysis. It is equally important, however, that we, as readers, always maintain an air of scepticism and vigilance regarding the output of journalists and media organisations who hold such strong links to the political system.
Personal relationships do not eliminate objectivity, but they can act as a barrier to it. The aforementioned Eoghan Harris' vigourous defence of Bertie Ahern following the revelations on Ahern's personal finances is one example. Harris was later nominated to the Seanad by Ahern.
The relationship between Fianna Fáil (FF) and Independent News and Media (INM) in recent years is also worthy of note. A seismic shift towards favouring FF occurred in INM's coverage prior to the 2007 general election, a marked contrast to their previous coverage.
This followed a secretive meeting between O'Reilly, Ahern and the current Taoiseach Brian Cowen. However, it is important to state that no connection between the two events was ever established.
In Ireland, politics and the media have always been close bedfellows but, in this age of spin, the relationship has become almost symbiotic. The press depends on leaks and press releases for a significant part of its political output, while politicians depend on the press to test out new policies, influence the national agenda and, naturally, for self-promotion.
We are not alone in this, of course; one need look no further than Britain as an example of the power of spin, particularly during the Blair years where Labour's spin doctor Alastair Campbell was allowed unprecedented influence on the political machinations of the party. Gordon Brown has since vowed to end this era of spin, but it still persists.
We need not look too hard for examples of the above in our own country either.
The former government press secretary, Sean Duignan once said: “[Political leaks are] a somewhat dishonourable business… usually done for the most venal and self-serving reason. [But] in the exercise of practical politics [they are] as natural, and unavoidable, as breathing.” Needless to say, to clamour against a culture of leaking is anathema to the media’s own self-interest.
The ambitious Fine Gael TD Leo Varadkar, meanwhile, is perhaps the most prominent example of media self-promotion today. Scarcely a day passes when he is not promoting his and Fine Gael’s agenda on the national airwaves or in the press. True to form, Varadkar was among the very first FG deputies to comment following Lee’s departure on Monday, quick to exploit the media opportunity it presented.
Investigative journalism, meanwhile, has become a sideshow to the standard practice of the press rather than the media’s primary function. A damning critique of Ireland’s investigative reporting was written by Maria B. Marron in 1996. At the time, she highlighted the “dearth of investigative reporting” in Ireland as symptomatic of an unprofessional press.
Marron is harsh in her overall criticism, but the fact remains that it is rare indeed that media organisations expose corruption, malpractice or misadministration in the corridors of power and rarer still that anyone is held to account as a result of vigourous press investigation.
We must consider the fact that the media has failed consistently in this role over the past 20 years. The commonplace corruption of prominent politicians in the 1980s and 1990s was uncovered primarily because of the tribunal system, whereas as the banking failures of the 2000s were allowed to happen with only sporadic comments and warnings by the national media at large.
The problem is, of course, confounded by the fact that in Ireland there exists a reluctance by the media to cover the media. William Hunt, in the introduction to 1998’s The Search for Ethical Journalism, said: “The fourth estate probes and castigates almost every area of Irish life that is open to question, yet itself is, in general, hypersensitive to and dismissive of any criticism of its own behaviour.”
On the other hand, Great Britain has, often through satirical magazines such as Private Eye and more recent efforts such as Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, a strong tradition of press analysis and of puncturing the media’s self-perception as defenders of truth and justice – usually in witty and entertaining ways.
In Ireland, that strong tradition does not exist. In his final analysis of Irish media, Hunt stated that we would be better served “if the media itself were to feature more explicitly in its own coverage of the institutions that govern our lives”. We are 12 years on from that analysis and, indeed, there have been some important changes.
The establishment of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman in 2008 is hugely welcome, even more so because neither are dominated by members of the press as is the case in Great Britain. A code of practice for the press industry was agreed at this time, and since 2008 several complaints against the national press have been dealt with by the Ombudsman, with each decision available to be viewed by anyone on the Ombudsman's website.
This is undoubtedly a positive development and it will force Ireland's media to be more rigorous in self regulating in the future. However, it will take more time for the influence of these organisations to affect the relationship between politics and the media; overall the symbiosis between them is still allowed to fester.
In the commentary regarding the banking crisis, for example, much was made of the relationship between developers and politicians by the media, often rightly so. But, what of the relationship between those politicians and the media? Why did the media not attack the relationship between politicians and developers with more ferocity prior to the crisis? Why did the media not instigate stronger investigations into the maladministration, surely the primary function of the media in a democracy?
It would be foolish to blame the media for the crisis but their tardiness in alerting the Irish public to the secretive activities of politicians, developers and bankers is surely a major failure. This failure was allowed, in part, by the media's dependence on leaks rather than vigourous investigation, on cosy political relationships rather than distanced and objective critiques. With a strong independent Press Council and Ombudsman and a dedicated journalistic code of practice, this culture of symbiosis may begin to change. That, as yet, remains to be seen.
The issue of the moment, however, is George Lee. What next for the intrepid economist? His premature exit from politics most likely means a return to journalism in the near future, possibly even back to his old stomping ground as the economics editor of RTE, who are obliged to allow him back into their fold if he opts to return before May of this year. Were this to occur, it would highlight the malaise better than any example previously cited.
Fine Gael, Lee's short lived comrades, will almost certainly lead the next government and it is likely that Richard Bruton will be Ireland's Minister of Finance in that government (if not Taoiseach). Will the public see Lee as maintaining an objective stance on economic or political issues under a Fine Gael government, given his all too recent ties to that same party? Regrettably, the political spin merchants will be quick to dismiss any objective analysis by Lee as being coloured by the ‘baggage’ of his recent foray.
Lee may well move away from his field of expertise or, indeed, off the screen altogether. Lee has no ties to party politics in the US and RTE are looking for a Washington correspondent to replace Charlie Bird. However, Lee, like Bird, may find that a lack of cosy political relationships in Washington may make that job a challenge too far at the present time.
The bottom line is that all media organisations, broadsheet or tabloid, public service or commercial, must be viewed with the same degree of scepticism in their coverage of the political sphere. The relationship between the media and politics makes it difficult to trust political reportage fully, and certainly an element of the media ‘buys in’ to the political agenda propagated by that relationship. Should we look hard enough, however, we can reach something approximating objectivity and truth.