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Justine McCarthy: The idea of news organisations with a political agenda is nothing new

Men with wallets as big as their egos have always sought news organs as conduits for their world view

A Fianna Fáil leader might be expected to recognise a politically-partisan news outlet when he sees one, considering his own party’s history. After all, one of its co-founders, Éamon de Valera, started the Irish Press in 1931 to promote the organisation’s ideology and remained in position as its controlling chairman even while he was the Taoiseach. Senior jobs on the paper were filled by men soaked in the green dye of Fianna Fáil, including Seán Lemass, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh and Erskine Childers.

So, when Micheál Martin pronounced in the Dáil on April 27th that the Ditch news website was “a political organisation” with an antigovernment agenda, his antennae were genetically attuned to how media proprietorship can be used to frame the conversation of a country. Ever since mammon was a twinkle in Mother Earth’s eye, men with wallets as big as their egos have wanted to own news organs as conduits for their world view, usually without the inconvenience of having to contest an election. One of the biggest publishing tycoons in history, William Randolph Hearst, went so far as to claim he started the Spanish-American War in 1898 by weaponising his media.

That there are news organisations biased towards a political viewpoint is no reason to shout “hold the front page”. At a Shared Island event in Dublin, hosted by the Department of the Taoiseach on April 24th, Ben Lowry, the editor of the News Letter in Belfast, unapologetically described his paper as pro-unionist with scant interest in events south of the Border. By contrast, the Irish News is regarded as the voice of those who see themselves as Irish. When Dev started the Press, stating its aim was to provide the truth, the Irish Independent was seen as Cumann na nGaedheal’s clarion.

“Truth in the news” is a catch-cry that has never lost its cachet and, in these days of propaganda and misinformation, it is having a fashion moment. But whose truth is it? For every proprietor determined to demonstrate that objectivity is a myth, a corps of journalists is required to keep striving for it anyway.


Last Sunday, in a forensic interview by Justin McCarthy on RTE’s This Week radio programme, Paddy Cosgrave, a tech conference mogul and indefatigable Government critic, confirmed that he gives the Ditch €200,000 per year. The website’s work has concentrated on planning matters, leading to the resignations of Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy and Fine Gael’s Damien English as junior ministers, and Paul Hyde as deputy chairman of An Bord Pleanála. In any macho newsroom, scalp counts are quite the booty. They are not the sole measure of journalism’s value, however, and to treat them as such is to endanger the dissemination of information that is in the public interest.

Cosgrave has complained to the Ceann Comhairle about Martin’s Dáil comments, claiming that they “adversely affected” his reputation. His complaint has been referred to the Dáil Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight. The latest twist in the saga has Malcolm Byrne, an energetic Fianna Fáil senator, lodging a complaint about Cosgrave’s funding of the Ditch with the Standards in Public Office Commission, alleging that the website is a political platform and should be treated as such under the Electoral Acts. In which event, one wonders, whither An Phoblacht. Or even the Irish Catholic?

Had Cosgrave kept schtum, the whole episode would have run out of steam but, as someone recently observed about Donald Trump, while he has the right to remain silent, he lacks the ability. His interview on Sunday oozed self-congratulation. “I think the stories I’ve been involved in amount to the most substantive journalism undertaken in this country in a very long period of time,” boasted the Web Summit chief executive, “and the type of journalism RTÉ engages in ... I’m not quite sure what it achieves.”

Maybe he was too busy tweeting insults about individual journalists to catch RTÉ’s seminal exposés of the treatment of garda Maurice McCabe, children in crèches, older people in care homes and deaths in maternity units. Cosgrave says he cares deeply about journalism, so much so that he runs an online conference called the Fourth Estate and has made a commitment to give the Ditch €1m over five years. He also said in the radio interview that he donated “more than half” of the first year’s funding for Noteworthy, a platform operated by the Journal news website, although the outlet subsequently issued a clarification to RTÉ saying this was not accurate.

We all make mistakes. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as Samuel Beckett advised. News-gathering is vulnerable to hiccups, not only because of the supersonic speed involved but because it is reliant on sources who, like publishers, have their agenda, no matter how noble. Reporting is not rocket science. Anyone with stamina, a pair of sturdy shoes and fidelity to fairness, accuracy and truth can do it. So not everyone can.

While the Ditch is run by two bona fide reporters, the modern world is bursting at the seams with so-called citizen journalists. They operate without checks and balances and they set themselves up as arbiters of what is news and what is irrelevant. This phenomenon is attacking journalism at a time when it desperately needs support as traditional media forums struggle for survival and the age of misinformation takes ominous hold.

Martin was right about something else in his Dáil comments, when he said a pattern has emerged whereby other journalists and media are barracked for not running full pelt with stories produced by outlets such as the Ditch. According to this chorus, established professional media must be in the government’s pocket if it fails to give prominence to stories that its critics deem worthy of the front page. It is a common complaint and makes no allowance for the need for balance. Everyone has a special interest and the best media strive to cover a wide spectrum.

We journalists deserve criticism. We’re human. But let’s not forget the culture-changing work that has been done, leading to tribunals and commissions of investigation and revealing wrongdoing at least as bad as anything the Ditch has exposed, including the cover up of child sex abuse, forced adoptions, extravagant expenditure in the Football Association of Ireland and the deaths of asylum seekers in the direct provision system.

Giving money to news outlets is all well and good, but what journalism needs more than anything now, and in the public interest, is some acknowledgment of the good that it does. Only then can truth win out over cynicism.