FRAMING THE TREATY DEBATE: THE IRISH TIMES PLAYS DIRTY

I’ve never thought much of the editorial line the Irish Times takes on political or economic affairs, but I have always appreciated its cultural weight and the quality of its journalists. If you have a passion for the arts, concerns about medical developments, an interest in education or a curiosity about science, I’ve always felt the Times is the place to go, for you will not only find all those interests catered for, you will also get the whole bundle wrapped up in some of the best writing around. The reason I dismiss its coverage of politics and economics is down to the pronounced rightwing slant it invariably takes, but this is hardly unusual for an Irish newspaper, indeed it’s the norm, at least when we are talking about papers that concern themselves with matters more substantial than the doings of ‘celebs’ or sportsmen. So I don’t begrudge the Times its political stance per se, as only a child would seriously expect any newspaper to be entirely objective or completely fair at all times, human nature and commercial considerations being what they are. I would even acknowledge that the Times, while it courts the same constituency as the Irish Examiner and the Independent, is alone in going beyond that core constituency. By this I mean the way it supplements our cultural diversity, such as it is, by selling itself as the paper of the southern Protestant. This gives the I.T. a distinct place within Irish public life because, even as it stands firmly in the mainstream on most matters, you sense it pays more attention than its rivals to marginal views. I’d wager that you’re more likely to find a dissenter, be it a trade unionist, a feminist, a voluntary worker or a leftist of some hue among the pages of the Irish Times than either of its broadsheet rivals. Though I wouldn’t say that about the paper in the period since the debate around the fiscal treaty began, for the Irish Times is plainly feeling the pressure of getting the ‘yes’ vote mobilised before May 31, if we are to go by the way its objective standards are slipping.

As long ago as March the first, Critical Media Review highlighted an instance of barefaced censorship, when the Times deliberately excluded the thoughts of Paul Murphy, an MEP no less, on the treaty, and in its edition of April 27th I have found two more items which indicate that a very definite pro-treaty line is being enforced, with no thought for objectivity at all. As I’ve said, I don’t expect any paper to be completely fair at all times, but at an historic moment when the prospects of every man, woman and child in the country is in play, to say nothing of future generations, I must cry foul when I see evidence that this paper has crossed a line which separates robust comment from bad old fashioned propaganda.

To support my case I’ll start with an item by Miriam Lord headed ‘Steaming Murphy Calls the Kettle Black.’ And yes, it is THAT Murphy who is being singled out for special treatment ,again. What is it that had the MEP so heated? I’ll let Ms. Lord explain; he had taken ‘…a dim view of remarks made by Xavier Debrun of the IMF, who rejected the notion that Europe’s new stability treaty would destroy the Irish economy.’ So far, so factual, for the MEP had indeed been complaining that; “the IMF is an unelected and unaccountable body that should not interfere with the democratic process in Ireland.” It’s when the Times reporter, normally one of the sharpest and most entertaining journalists in the country, is commentating rather than just reporting however, that she lets her subjectivity run riot. Here’s a flavour of Lord’s spin, for spin it is; ‘A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black,’ ‘[because Murphy] replaced Joe Higgins when he was elected to the Dail and wasn’t even Joe’s sub in the last European Parliament election,’ and to finish off she proclaims the following, ‘Unelected MEP criticises unelected IMF man. It’s a funny old world.’

It is indeed, but I wasn’t laughing when I read those words, and noticed the distortion created. Miss Lord has spun the facts into a travesty of the truth, and she’s far too intelligent not to know it. Let me lay the case out properly. There is absolutely no equivalence between Paul Murphy’s status and that of any mere functionary, even one from the IMF. When Joe Higgins passed his European seat over, in full accordance with the electoral laws of the EU, he also handed on his own democratic legitimacy, complete and intact. And if this reporter or her employers truly have an issue with the law in this regard isn’t it odd that her readers haven’t heard so before now, perhaps when one of the MEPs from the parties of the right passed on their own seats? As for her claim that Paul Murphy ‘wasn’t even Joe’s sub,’ this borders on the libellous. Joe Higgins, like every other MEP had, on election, the option of nominating a replacement from a panel of names, and Paul Murphy was in fact named on the Higgins panel, from the start. So when you work through this nasty little item Miriam Lord’s implicit accusation, that Paul Murphy MEP is illegitimate as a public representative, simply collapses. But where does that nastiness come from in the first place? And I don’t just mean Ms. Lord’s, I’m including the hostility the Irish Times showed him back in March. I think I’ve put my finger on it. In recent days Mr. Murphy has forced the government to remove pro-treaty speeches from its so-called ‘information’ website, and for months now he has been turning in strong performances in the European Parliament itself. Seems to me the Irish Times has identified this individual as a clear and present danger to the Yes campaign, and both the paper and its star reporter have been trying to take him out, by fair means or foul. And another of its big guns are involved in the next item I want to deal with, but this one is aimed, not at an individual but a whole party, Sinn Fein.

Martyn Turner draws cartoons for the Irish Times, so he may not strictly count as a journalist, but his artistic talent, his wit, and his eye for a subject’s vulnerable points certainly make him a media force to be reckoned with. But before I even get to his attack on Sinn Fein I should explain my own feelings about that party. Like a lot of people from the anti house tax campaign (CAHWT), the Socialist Party and the ULA, I am a little uneasy about being in the same camp as SF on the fiscal treaty, or any other issue. It’s not just their sanitised version of past behaviour I can’t accept, but the opportunism they embody now. For instance, they sat on the fence over the household charge because they saw the potentials of a ‘respectability dividend,’ and here we are now, with the Shinners coming over all antiestablishment regarding the fiscal treaty. But having said all that, I firmly believe they were victimised by the Irish Times when it came to that by now famous leaflet, the one that used economists who actually advocate a ‘yes,’ in an effort to win votes for the NO side.

Someone, somewhere within the bowels of party HQ saw this as a clever move, I don’t know why, but the consensus is that it was a typical Irish political ‘stroke.’ But the Times goes beyond this consensus by saying, through Turner’s cartoon; ‘The Provos [are] now murdering the truth.” Is this fair comment, even if we acknowledge that most people, unlike SF itself, accept the use of the word ‘Provo’? Let’s think this through. Sinn Fein didn’t actually misquote the words of Colm McCarthy, Karl Whelan or Seamus Coffey, even though these men were indeed quoted out of context. So it’s simply going too far to accuse Sinn Fein of ‘homicide of the facts,’ and to magnify the accusation by publishing Martyn Turner’s graphics on the front of the April 27th edition, rather than the centre pages, as usual. The worst that can be said of the leaflet is that it commits a moral misdemeanour against three individuals. And that’s the least that can be said about the paper’s own position, for by highlighting this ‘offence,’ such as it is, the Times is consciously misdirecting public attention from government actions which, by comparison, may be called a near-felony against the nation.

I’ve already alluded to the issue, involving a supposedly impartial website launched by Enda Kenny, Lucinda Creighton and Eamon Gilmore, which turned out to be no less than a propaganda platform for the Yes side, and I say this behaviour counts as a near-felony because it flagrantly breeched the Supreme Court’s McKenna ruling. The people were being indoctrinated, not informed, and at their own expense, by the use of money which is explicitly intended to present a rounded, objective view of the issue. And the Irish Times hasn’t had a word to say about this. Yes, the matter has been reported, but nobody, not Martyn Turner, not Miriam Lord, nor anyone else from the paper has given a view of the ethics, or lack of them. Vincent Browne had plenty to say when he challenged Leo Varadkar about it, even the Indo drew attention by featuring a Bruce Arnold piece(April 30th) which was scathing about the coalition’s illegality. Why not the self-proclaimed ‘paper of record’? It can only be down to a hypocritical stance, which allows the Irish Times to distort comments and exaggerate wrongdoing on the No side, while turning a blind eye to anything done in the name of the Yes Campaign. And when you judge this with an eye to the moralising tone of Miriam Lord’s report and Mrtyn Turner’s graphic, only three words suffice; Pot, Kettle, Black.

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