Corruption? Not in Ireland

The manner in which the Today with Pat Kenny Show (Friday) handled the latest serious developments at the Mahon Tribunal is also a good indication of how blind we are to what we are.

Again, it was all journalists talking to each other. No Government minister to defend or explain to the people of Ireland what was going to happen as a result of the very serious allegations made by the Prime Minister and others.

The matter wasn’t even mentioned until the 53rd minute when we had yet another report from a journalist.

My point is that if Ireland was a functional democracy this story would have eclipsed all others for days and within days there would have been serious developments for the politicians who made the allegations or for the tribunal itself.

But apart from the reports from Dublin Castle all we got was yet another analysis by a cabal of journalists. There was, however, a very interesting and telling exchange during this debate which demonstrated just how far removed many Irish people are, including journalists, from admitting that Ireland is a corrupt state.

The discussion had turned to the situation in South Africa and the possible consequences for South Africa after the election of Jacob Zuma as leader of the African National Congress. Zuma is seen by many as a dodgy character and could soon be in court on corruption charges.

Pat Kenny referred to Zuma as a Dell Boy character and expressed the view that he would bring his country into disrepute and make the leadership a laughing stock.

Michael O’Regan of the Irish Times who had earlier expressed sympathy for Bertie Ahern and the difficult time he was having spoke of Zuma in an altogether different tone.

“I find him quite sinister, the fact alone that he’s facing corruption charges in the New Year I would have thought precluded him from any kind of public office. He’s quite dangerous, I would have thought.”

When RTE journalist, Katie Hannon, made the obvious connection between Zuma and Ahern O’Regan defended the Taoiseach by claiming he wasn’t facing corruption charges. Hannon replied that neither was Zuma, as yet.

The very fact that a young country like South Africa actually puts corrupt politicians on trial in a proper court of law means that they are light years ahead in their understanding and acceptance of what corruption actually is.

Many Irish people, including journalists like Michael O’Regan, exist in a world of denial where corruption is an activity that only occurs in other countries.

Pathe News memories

RTE broadcast a very interesting Budget Day programme last Wednesday. The programme took a look at some of the more controversial budgets from the past.

Included was, what is now; a very funny and cuttingly sarcastic 1930s broadcast by the BBC Pathe News service. Against a backdrop of dramatic music and a very posh accent the announcer reports on the imposition by Ireland of tariffs on English imports.

According to Wikepedia the Pathe News service ended in 1956 but I remember it as a regular feature in the cinema from the late 1950s and into the 60s.

As I remember it the evening began with a short film then a break for advertisements and Pathe News followed by the main feature film.

The cinema was divided into three levels of ‘luxury’. Nearest to the screen was the ‘flea pit’, just a series of long wooden benches with an admission price of 6p (Old money).

The middle area had upholstered seats and cost 10p but the top, which I think had some double seats, was the ultimate for those who could afford the outrageous price of one shilling (12p).

This area was ideal for couples more interested in a bit of courtin’ rather than watching the daring deeds of Batman and Robin or the Lone Ranger.

Here’s a transcription of the BBC report but for a full appreciation I would recommend listening to the piece (8th minute).

“In many ways the Irish peasants sharing their cottage with the pig, living on potatoes, are freer than the English artisan.

The Irish outlook is always less material. Characteristically, when De Valera told the farmers that because he had stopped payment of the English annuities Britain had raised a tariff against their produce, they cheered

He had given them back their cherished grievance, England as the villain of the piece. England was the chief market for Irish produce, without English custom they might starve

But what was that against the fact that De Valera had revived the old hostility between two countries which had seemed in danger of drifting towards peace.

The Irishman is little interested in what the rest of the world calls progress. Offer him the material things of life and you may leave him unmoved. Appeal to his imagination, his soul, his sense of injustice and he is your man.”

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.