DCC/Fyffes case: Curious RTE (non) coverage

The RTE coverage of the DCC/Fyffes scandal is curious. When the Supreme Court made its decision last July, RTE, of course, reported the event but there was very little in depth analysis.

The case was up again in the Supreme Court on 13th November last. RTE News at One (6th item) reported on proceedings and did an interview with Richard Curran, deputy editor of the Sunday Business Post, but after that it was a virtual blackout.

I have carried out a comprehensive (but not exhaustive) trawl of the various news/current affairs programmes on RTE and have found no further mention of the case.

This is curious because the case is not just run of the mill business interest but is a story of major national importance involving two very important companies that could see costs/awards running to well over €100 million.

It is also, to my knowledge, the first incidence of insider trading in modern Irish history. That fact alone should warrant extensive mainline coverage.

Even allowing that the RTE business section seems to be severely under resourced the lack of interest in the DCC/Fyffes case is puzzling.

Brute censorship

This article/letter/editorial? (The online version of the Irish Independent is a disaster) in Sunday’s Irish Independent sums up well the controversy surrounding the banning of Prof. John Crown from last Friday’s Late Late Show.

It was a case of brute censorship only possible in a democracy that has become so weak that it barely warrants the name.

Sunday November 11 2007

Censorship comes in many forms, some subtle and some blunt. RTE’s decision to ban John Crown, a hospital consultant, from last Friday night’s Late Late Show was censorship of the bluntest kind. Crown, like many of his colleagues, has strong views on the health service and on the performance of Health Minister Mary Harney.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Crown is willing to engage in public debate. RTE, however, decided that his views could not be accommodated on the Late Late Show. According to a statement from the national broadcaster, a “decision was taken to reconfigure (the) panel to represent as broad a spectrum of positions and opinions as possible”, and so Crown was dropped.

Instead of a debate that might have shed some light on the problems afflicting the health service, RTE served up a bland and discordant concoction that was neither informative nor entertaining.

What was RTE afraid of? That the views of one panellist among four would so distort the national debate on health care that some unknown peril would unfold? That Pat Kenny, the station’s most experienced and highly-paid broadcaster, would not be able to do his job when faced with the might of Dr Crown?

In its statement, RTE also said that it “would like to strongly state that this decision was taken internally within RTE”. That, we assume, is meant to be reassuring: the state broadcaster feels it necessary to tell the people that it did not take instructions from the Government before taking a decision that, quite possibly, spared the Government embarrassment.

We do not need to be reminded that RTE belongs to the people and not to the Government of the day, but clearly RTE needs to remind itself from time to time. By stating “strongly” that this decision was taken internally, RTE leaves open the question of what other editorial decisions have not been taken internally.

The broadcaster has a duty to the public to provide high quality news and entertainment and in return it receives a substantial hand-out from the people — €182.8m last year, collected as a tax on anyone who owns a television. It has a duty to provide balance, but not to the point that it denudes debate. It should also trust the editorial judgment and broadcast skill of Pat Kenny and his team.

The decision to exclude Crown cannot be justified on editorial grounds, and to argue that balance must be introduced into every debate is deeply flawed. If balance requires that both sides be represented, then it only requires one side to refuse to participate for debate to be silenced.

On Friday night, both the minister and the Health Service Executive refused to participate on the show. That is their choice to make, but it must not mean that the views of a respected and vocal consultant cannot be heard because of their refusal. Should all debate on politics cease if the Government decides to boycott the airwaves? Does RTE feel the need to balance a comedian with a straight man? It is an arid argument, and it is one that puts RTE in a very poor light.

RTE’s must never be allowed to forget that its duty is to the people of this Republic. It has no remit to protect the interests of Government or to spare the blushes of a minister. The Late Late Show has a venerable place in Irish television history and is renowned for its controversy as much as it is for its blandness. It can be awful and it can be very, very good, but it must not be censored on spurious grounds of political balance.

The RTE statement claimed that it wanted as broad a spectrum as possible, and yet it does not believe that John Crown has a valid voice on that spectrum. Its decision to exclude him was wrong and smacks of panic.

The result is censorship, applied on the broadcaster by the broadcaster. Cathal Goan, the director general of RTE, should apologise publicly and to John Crown personally.

Editor's choice

The RTE News Editor was in a quandary. Two stories, but which one to broadcast as a lead on the early evening current affairs programme, Drivetime.

The first story concerned a major political scandal that had just broken involving the second most powerful man in the state, Finance Minister and Tanaiste Brian Cowen.

The Minister had secretly passed a law that was specifically drawn up to help party colleague, Michael Woods avail of €75,000 of taxpayer’s money that he, Mr. Woods, was not entitled to. The scandal became significantly more serious when the Dept of Finance blatantly tried to cover up details of the story.

The editor’s second choice concerned an old story about job losses in another country.

He opted for the second story.

Where's me country?

The loss of 900 jobs at Seagate in Derry was the major story on RTE news programmes today.

The story was the first item on all the station’s flagship news bulletins with huge resources deployed for analysis of the event. Mary Wilson of Drivetime described the news as a black day for the North West.

There was no attempt in any of the broadcasts to inform unknowing tourists that Derry is actually a city in another country.

Indeed, it’s hasn’t yet been established whether the RTE newsroom has been informed that Ireland was partitioned in 1921.

Meanwhile, second place on the news was the death of seven citizens on the roads in the Republic.

Facing the most appalling reality

In my previous post concerning the conflict between the Mahon Tribunal and the Irish Times I mentioned the tendency in Ireland to fudge difficult situations in order to avoid facing uncomfortable realities.

This is a crucial factor in a dysfunctional democracy like Ireland. Our entire way of doing things is finely balanced on the pretence that we are just like any other accountable Western democracy.

Within hours an expert media lawyer was providing just such fudge on the RTE Six One News (2nd item).

Michael Keeley, after first explaining how European law was way ahead of Irish law in allowing journalists freedom of expression, suggested that perhaps there was some ‘wriggle room’ to resolve what he described as this major constitutional crisis.

He suggested that if the journalists gave an assurance that the leak didn’t originate from the Mahon Tribunal then perhaps a compromise could be reached.

If this or any other fudge is utilised and accepted then the High Court, the tribunal, the journalists, the Government and Irish society in general can all pretend that the law wasn’t really broken and happily return to the fiction that we live in a real democracy.

In a real democracy the High Court would insist on the law being respected in its entirety, the tribunal would insist that the source of the leak be revealed and the journalists would be thrown in jail if they persisted in standing by their principles.

This would force the Government to deal with the reality of the situation by bringing Irish law into line with European law where journalists are given extra protection to protect their sources thus making them more effective in exposing corruption.

But then again, if journalists were allowed to be more effective in exposing corruption, Irish society would be in danger of having to face the most appalling reality of all – that Ireland is a corrupt state.

Journalistic principles v The law

The High Court has ordered the editor of The Irish Times, Geraldine Kennedy and its Public Affairs Correspondent, Colm Keena, to comply with the Mahon Tribunal.

In September 2006 The Irish Times published an article giving details of Mahon Tribunal investigations being made into payments made to Bertie Ahern in 1993.

The tribunal summonsed journalist Colm Keena and Editor Geraldine Kennedy before it and asked them questions about the source of the information they printed.

Their refusal to answer led the tribunal to seek High Court orders compelling them to do so.

The critical aspect of this case seems to be the deliberate destruction of documents that would have identified the source of the leak after the journalists had received a summons to produce them to the tribunal.

It’s likely that if they had destroyed the documents before being ordered to produce them the traditional Irish fudge could have been ultilised in order to avoid facing the reality of the situation.

As it was not even an Irish court could accept such a challenge to the law. The court said:

“The deliberate decision taken by the journalists to destroy the documents at issue in the case after they had received a summons to produce them to the tribunal was an astounding and flagrant disregard for the rule of law.

“In doing this the defendants had cast themselves as the adjudicators of the proper balance to be struck between the rights and interests of all concerned, a role reserved by the Constitution and the law exclusively for the courts and it said that such a manner of proceeding is anathema to the rule of law and an affront to democratic order and if tolerated is the surest way to anarchy.”

According to an RTE report ( 2nd item); “the decision to destroy the documents was a relevant consideration in deciding what weight should be give to the arguments on both sides.”

Clearly, Geraldine Kennedy and Colm Keena passionately believe that the uncovering of corruption is sometimes more important than obeying the law. Kennedy said;

“We had an important story which we wanted to publish in the public interest. We exist as journalists to serve the people’s right to know.”

They may now have to serve time in jail to preserve their high journalistic principles.

Lively live radio

Today’s Liveline (Tuesday) was live radio at its best.

It started off innocently enough. Crime editor of the Sunday World, Paul Williams was claiming that Sinn Fein had close connections with some criminal elements in Dublin. Nothing new there, Sinn Fein Cllr. Christy Burke was defending.

Things got really interesting when, Alan Bradley, one of the alleged criminals came on air. Williams started throwing all kinds of accusations at Bradley and calling him all kinds of names.

The curious thing was Joe didn’t seem to mind this behaviour. This is unusual because Joe is usually very quick to intervene when, for example, victims of rogue solicitors even hint that learned members of the legal profession may have been, er, less than honest.

The same with politicians, you may criticise our esteemed public representatives but you must not suggest that they are anything less than honest.

Williams also kept getting things wrong like the age of Bradley’s child, the reason the Criminal Assets Bureau were chasing him (Bradley)and about the libel case Bradley is involved in.

When the libel case was raised by another journalist, John Mooney, Bradley said the case was under appeal to the Supreme Court and shouldn’t be discussed.

Joe intervened and said;

“No, the Supreme Court read the documentation, they don’t listen to radio programmes, go ahead John.”

The most amazing and hilarious Keystone Cops moment came when Joe got a call from a prisoner in the country’s maximum security prison in Portlaoise.

John Daly, serving nine years for armed robbery, rang from his cell to refute alleged lies written about him by Williams in the Sunday World.

Daly seemed to make a good case and, again, Williams was less than convincing. Although to be fair, I think he was fairly astonished to be talking live on air to a prisoner who was supposed to be under close scrutiny in a maximum security prison.

Some of the language used was choice and Joe’s reaction was hilarious. I’m sure he feared for his job if not his soul as he kept taking ad breaks to cool the situation.

It was great radio and well worth listening to.

Getting the message out

I was delighted when contacted by the political correspondent of the Irish Independent, Fionnan Sheahan, regarding my complaint to SIPO about the Bertiegate payments.

As a result of his article I was contacted by Noel Walsh of Shannon & Northern Sound Radio and gave an interview which provided an excellent opportunity to explain what Gavin and I are trying to achieve on the Blog.

There’s just one small but important point I would like to make on the article. While serving in the navy I was not a commissioned officer but held a rank equivalent to a sergeant in the army.

Here’s the article

Bertiegate’ ethics complaint ‘unlikely to succeed’

Thursday April 19th 2007

ONE of the people who made an official complaint to the ethics watchdog about the Taoiseach’s ‘Bertiegate’ payments identified himself yesterday.

Anthony Sheridan, a self-styled anti-corruption campaigner from Cork, made one of the two official complaints to the Standards In Public Office Commission (SIPO) about Bertie Ahern.

SIPO is informally inquiring into the complaints Mr. Ahern breached ethics legislation arising from payments of over €50,000 made to him by friends in the early 1990s.

Mr. Sheridan made his complaint under the Ethics In Public Office Act. He claims the Taoiseach breached the act by accepting the cash when he was Finance Minister.

Mr. Sheridan said from his communications with SIPO staff, he doubted if his complaint would succeed.
He said he made the complaint as the commission cannot investigate an issue unless it receives an official request from a member of the public to do so.

“I think it was important to do it anyway to get it on the record,” he said.

“I am outraged the commission are not allowed to initiate an investigation without a complaint. How Banana Republic is that?” he said.

Mr. Sheridan is a former Navy officer, living in Cobh.

He now runs the website www.publicinquiry.eu with his nephew, Gavin Sheridan, and campaigns against corruption.

Fionnan Sheahan

© Irish Independent

FT on Haughey and Moriarty

Quentin Peel, with his reaction to Moriarty:

Ireland needs to do more to tackle legacy of Haughey’s graft

Six months after Charles Haughey, the former Irish taoiseach (prime minister), was awarded the honour of a state funeral in Dublin, a 600-page judicial report has confirmed what most people suspected all along: that he was guilty of corruption in public office.

According to the Moriarty tribunal, which considered and weighed the evidence against him for the past six years, the scale and frequency of the secret payments Mr Haughey received from “senior members of the business community . . . can only be said to have devalued the quality of a modern democracy”.

Justice Michael Moriarty concluded that the former taoiseach managed to salt away a conservatively estimated £9.1m – worth about €45m today, or 171 times his gross salary – during his period of high office.

Apart from taking backhanders from businessmen, he even managed to expropriate – for his personal and extravagant lifestyle – money that was raised by public subscription to pay for the liver transplant of one of his closest political colleagues.

It is a devastating document, understated but unambiguous in its “inescapable conclusions . . . that he received a wide range of substantial payments . . . and that certain of the acts and decisions on his part while taoiseach were referable to some of those payments”.

In other words, he gave favours in return.

It is all profoundly shocking – and utterly unsurprising.

For most of the population of Ireland, and many who followed its affairs from outside, can never have been in any doubt that Charlie Haughey – “The Boss”, as he was known – was thoroughly and quite ostentatiously corrupt. His lifestyle of grand houses, racehorses, fine food and handmade shirts bore no relation to the relatively modest income of an Irish politician.

What is surprising, and needs to be more thoroughly explored, is why he was allowed to get away with it. He was defended to the last by his close colleagues, including Bertie Ahern, the present taoiseach, who does not emerge unscathed himself from the report.

Mr Ahern was found to have co-signed blank cheques for an account for party leaders’ public allowances, which Mr Haughey then drew on for personal use – a practice that was “both inappropriate and imprudent”, the judge concluded.

Yet Mr Haughey was widely admired, and voted for at the polls, by electors who admired him as “cute” – a very Irish concept suggesting both cleverness and dishonesty. He got away with it and he was not condemned.

Of course he is not the only one in politics. Other countries such as Nigeria, India and Italy seem also to tolerate an extraordinary degree of corruption in public life.

Party political financing in the UK, France, Germany and certainly the US often blurs the line between acceptable and unacceptable political donations. But Mr Haughey was particularly blatant.

In Ireland, Mr Ahern and his Fianna Fail party, direct successors of Mr Haughey’s legacy, seem to think they have done enough while the Moriarty tribunal was hearing its evidence to ensure that such corruption cannot continue.

“There have been significant measures of reform and safeguards introduced as the tribunal work was in progress,” the taoiseach’s office said.

That is all very well. The Ireland that Mr Haughey was cheating so royally was much less prosperous than the Ireland of today. There is a culture of materialism rife in the country.

Enda Kenny, leader of the opposition Fine Gael party, says the report confirms “a culture of corruption, self-enrichment and the abuse of public and private monies” in the ruling party. That was certainly true in Mr Haughey’s day. No one can be confident it has been rooted out.

Mr Ahern needs to do far more to repair the damage done by his predecessor and mentor to restore faith in public life. Ireland has become a model of economic success for many new European Union member states. It would be a tragedy if it were also to be a byword for corruption.