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Stephen Collins: Support for Rusbridger has hollow ring to it

Episode could undermine Future of the Media Commission and its likely recommendations

The decision of the Future of the Media Commission to rally behind one of its members who published a blogpost critical of a rape victim has raised uncomfortable questions about whether the government appointed body believes the media should be exempt from the standards it demands from everybody else.

The episode has the potential to undermine the credibility of the Commission and whatever recommendations it makes about how a healthy independent media with a commitment to truth and transparency can continue to survive in the era of social media and fake news.

The suitability of former Guardian newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger to be a member of the Media Commission was raised last weekend by rape victim Máiría Cahill. She complained that he had facilitated an attack on her credibility by publishing a blogpost by Roy Greenslade questioning her motives after she went public in 2014 about being raped by a leading IRA figure in Belfast.

Greenslade revealed in a recent article for the British Journalism Review that he was a supporter of the IRA and Sinn Féin at a time when he was a senior figure in the British media world. During that period he wrote a column for the Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht under the pseudonym George King.


His disclosure simply confirmed what was widely known for a long time in the media world. Back in 2008 Guardian journalist Nick Davies revealed in an acclaimed book about the British media called Flat Earth News that Greenslade wrote for An Phoblacht . Years earlier conservative commentator Stephen Glover pointed to Greenslade’s friendship with IRA army council member Pat Doherty in an article in the Spectator magazine which provoked a furious reaction from Rusbridger.

In 2014 Máiría Cahill went public about her experience of rape by a leading republican and demanded an apology from Sinn Féin on the BBC Spotlight programme. Greenslade then wrote a blogpost in the Guardian questioning her credibility on the basis of her past political associations and attacking Spotlight. In response she complained to the Guardian but failed to elicit a correction or clarification never mind a right of reply.

Cahill holds Rusbridger responsible for the publication of Greenslade’s attack on her at a time when he was surely aware of the commentator’s Sinn Féin associations. In the past week she wrote to Minister for Communications Catherine Martin and spoke to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who had supported her in 2014, asking them to review Rusbridger’s membership of the Media Commission.

Labour leader Alan Kelly and Fine Gael senator Regina Doherty last weekend backed Cahill and questioned Rusbridger’s suitability to be a member of the Commission in the light of her treatment. It was widely reported in the media that the cabinet would consider the issue on Tuesday.

However, before that happened the Commission met in a Zoom conference and decided unanimously to back Rusbridger’s continuing membership. In a statement the members said: “We believe that it was important for Alan and The Guardian to apologise to Máiría Cahill, who has exposed important issues of media standards and transparency. These issues will continue to form part of the Commission’s ongoing work.”

Incredibly, the statement accepted that Cahill’s treatment by the Guardian had raised important issues of media standards and transparency but, nonetheless, proposed that one of the people ultimately responsible for the failure to implement those standards should remain on the Commission to help it work on its approach to those very issues.

The government then meekly followed the Commission’s lead. In a statement Catherine Martin said that she was “appalled at the abuse suffered by Máiría Cahill and the subsequent horrendous ordeal that she had to endure. The actions of Roy Greenslade in seeking to undermine Ms Cahill by questioning her motives, while failing to reveal his own allegiances, were abhorrent.”

In spite of that she agreed with the Commission that Rusbridger should remain a member, saying he had told her he was not aware of Greenslade’s column when it was published or the subsequent legal correspondence with the Guardian about it. She then went on to cite the Commission’s commitment that the issues of media standards raised by Cahill would continue to form part of its ongoing work.

Martin’s acceptance of Rusbridger’s explanation contrasts sharply with her decision to depose the chair of Fáilte Ireland and another of its board members last year for travelling abroad contrary to the government’s policy on non essential travel. Her Green Party colleague Eamon Ryan also showed commendable swiftness last month in removing the newly appointed chair of Shannon Development when some offensive tweets of his came to light.

The contrast between the government’s ruthless treatment of such individuals, and indeed the treatment of some of its own politicians who were deemed to have transgressed the highest standards, is striking. Of course government action in all of those instances took place in response to a storm of media outrage about standards in high places. Is it the noticeable lack of outrage in the media about the behaviour of one of its own leading members that has prompted such tolerance by the government in the Rusbridger case?