Monday, October 17, 2011

We Are Sam Smyth

The ironic thing about it all, of course, is that Sam Smyth’s show isn’t even that good in the first place. Look at this picture of Smyth and Alastair Campbell – think that’s the picture of a man about to grill Campbell on dodgy goings-on in Whitehall during the Blair years?

It always seemed that Smyth’s guests were drawn from a very small circle, and the show was a sort of dry dinner party held ten hours before its natural time. There was never any danger of real world experience breaking in; it was for people who inhabit that awful Irish Bermuda triangle whose points are the Shelbourne Bar, Paddy Guilbaud’s and Dáil Éireann, and for those elect alone.

But even that has now proven too much. Sam Smyth, a man who does so very little to rattle cages, has found that even a little can finish a man.

It all goes back to 1997 and Smyth’s role in breaking the story that lead to the Moriarty Tribunal. Smyth got a lot of praise for his work as an investigative journalist, but the reality is someone picked up the phone and spilled the beans to start the ball rolling in the first place.

If that phone call hadn’t been made, just how hard would the awarding of the Esat license have been investigated by the Irish media? About as hard as the awarding of the drilling rights to Shell in Rossport, or of planning permission for three hundred house estates outside villages with a population of 150, not counting the idiot.

Maybe Ireland is too small to have a functioning media. Everybody gets to know everybody else very quickly, and it’s hard to be objective about people with whom you socialize. There are so few media outlets, it’s very easy for the powerful to blackball someone and put them out of a job. Investigative journalism of the Woodward and Bernstein school is cripplingly expensive. And of course, like any job, youthful enthusiasm wanes and it becomes easier to go through the motions after time.

The problem is that if Ireland is too small to have a functioning media it is also too small to have an independent government. This cannot be emphasized enough.

It is impossible for the people to make informed decisions about who governs them unless there is a mechanism by which the people can inform themselves about the alternatives. That ability to make informed decisions is now under its greatest threat since independence. What can be done?

The Government talks a lot of hot air about press freedom but the reality is no Government wants a free press. Governments want to control news, so the existence of press barons is in their interest. Once the baron is on board, the rest will follow – vide Blair’s courting of Rupert Murdoch across the Irish sea.

It’s up to the people to demand what the powerful will not give. Right now Smyth is doomed. They’ve put a fork in him, and they’re going to replace his cuddly beltway chats with a PR consultant who likes to talk about motor cars that people up to their snouts in negative equity can’t afford.

But there are still journalists of influence and repute who can challenge for press freedom. Wouldn’t it be great if Matt Cooper and George Hook used their drivetime radio shows tomorrow to explain the importance of a free press to their listenership, and just how vital a free press is to a democracy? Wouldn’t that be so much better than just taking a shilling? An Spailpín is looking forward to seeing people taking stands and putting their money where their mouths are.

I am Sam Smyth. And so are you. Don’t let them keep us in the dark. Don’t let them.