Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Freedom of the Press

The Father Kevin Reynolds libel case has opened Pandora’s Box for the Irish media. Things will never be the same again.

People who believe the Government’s request to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to investigate how Mission to Prey, the Prime Time Investigates program at the root of the problem, is a knee jerk response are completely mistaken.

The Government have no option but to initiate an inquiry, and it’s entirely possibly as a result of this that the Irish libel laws, which are restrictive in the first place, will become like an iron maiden for press freedom and for the public’s ability to correctly inform itself of what’s going on in the country and in the world.

This will be a disaster for the country, and if it comes to pass it will all be RTÉ’s fault.

Some weeks ago, the Phoenix magazine outlined the efforts made by Father Reynolds to clear his name before the program was broadcast. If even half the details outlined in that Phoenix story are true, this isn’t a case of an accidental libel, like printing a photo of a protest with a libelous placard that the picture desk didn’t spot in time. There were several stages at which RTÉ could have said: hold on, this doesn’t add up. Go back and make sure its true. They didn’t.

What RTÉ did, according the Phoenix, was the equivalent of climbing up on the roof of the house, standing on one leg, drinking a bottle of whiskey, dancing a jig and then being astonished when you fall off the roof and break your bloody neck.

Any step on its own was looking for trouble. To combine one after the other until disaster was categorically guaranteed suggests that RTÉ deserved all they got, and more.

The tragedy is that Ireland has never needed a free press more. One of the reasons that Irish politics is in such a wretched mess is because the journalism and reporting is so bad.

There is more than one reason for this, of course, and some of them are to do with the journalists themselves. Journalists are too easily swayed in Ireland because the country – and particularly the Bermuda triangle bound by Dáil Éireann, the Shelbourne Bar and Doheny and Nesbitt’s – is so very, very small. There is no self-regulation either because jobs are so few and so hard to come by. Nobody will bite a hand on which he or she may later rely for food.

But the other reason standards in Irish journalism are so low is because it’s so very difficult to raise legitimate issues of public interest without involuntarily libeling someone.

The press is permanently muzzled, and that stops them from doing their job, of holding the powerful accountable to the powerless. For instance; wouldn’t it be interesting to know just exactly how planning was granted for the different ghost estates in the country? Who voted yea, who voted nay, and why? But that question never gets asked, because councilors get their lawyers to write letters, and no provincial paper, in these times, could defend a hideously expensive libel case.

People don’t realise that they’re being kept in the dark because they do not trust the press to use their power wisely. You may think a particular politician a bum, a thief and a louse, but every five years you get a cut at him. You do not get a cut at the editor of a major national newspaper, or some wise guy who take a piece of you in print and make you a laughing stock in your community.

One of the editors of a major national newspaper – about to retire, if reports are to be believed – likes to complain loudly about the libel laws. His complaints would be easier to take if it were easier to believe that they arose out of a passion for freedom of speech, rather than freedom of his own speech. His frequent hectoring media performances suggest that he has a very particular view of who should be free to speak, and who should not.

And that won’t wash with people. The press, like Caesar’s wife, has to be above suspicion. People will not write a blank cheque for the Irish media until the Irish media proves itself responsible and worthy of the people’s trust.

The USA has the freest press in the world, and consequently the most responsible. For instance: The Chicago Sun-Times fired a TV critic for inaccurate reporting during the summer. Specifically, she wrote a review of a Glee concert that mentioned a song that was not performed at the concert. A Glee concert is about as trivial a thing as you can imagine, and they still canned her after seventeen years.

A famous writer and four editors of the Detroit Free Press were suspended without pay in 2005 because the writer wrote in a column that two former members of a College basketball team were at a game that they did not actually attend.

The players told the writer they were going but missed their flight or didn’t make it some other way, but really, it doesn’t matter to buggery whether the lads were there or not. The Detroit Free Press didn’t care. They issued the suspension on a matter of principle.

Hard to imagine anyone getting a hour on the naughty step for that sort of carry-on here – eh, readers?

RTÉ have pushed the cause of press freedom back to the Victorian Era, if not further, and the press are the people on whom we’re relying to investigate the Chinese walls between NAMA and the National Pension Reserve Fund, on whom we rely to tell us what our TDs do as we cannot possibly otherwise know, and on whom we rely to tell us what is going on Brussels and how will it shape our lives.

I hope RTÉ didn’t break that bottle of whiskey when they came off the roof that time. I think we could be glad of some anesthetic thinking about this.