Ireland’s liberal media must reassess the gap between the values it professes and those it acts upon

My grandmother was effectively a single parent by 1930 after my granddad emigrated to New York in early 1929 when the bottom fell out of the cattle trade in County Down. She and the kids were to follow, but her long illness meant they couldn’t.

After I’d become a parent myself, my mum told me that every time a plate cracked granny would put it away in the kitchen press. Then when the kids got out of hand, she’d go to the cupboard, take out the old plate, and smash it on the ground.

It commanded an immediate silence, and restored order. The sepia images that survive, show from the smiles on her kids’ faces that they prospered despite such moments of percussive clarity. It may even have helped them to a better life.

Last Sunday, it was Eoghan Harris’s turn to “crack some Delft”. His uncommonly direct column (even for him) calling for the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to resign after recent revelations had an almost immediate effect.

Rusbridger now knows (if he didn’t before) the Irish politics he once dabbled is a real bear-pit. If English politics is about materialism and class, ours is about culture and, until quite recently, it involved a quite lot of death, injury and mayhem.

Where you stand on that revolutionary bloodshed and later civil infractions of the legal and social codes still matters. Yet his resignation as chair of the southern government’s Future of Media Commission was both sudden and unexpected.

Conor Brady put up the thinest possible defence on his behalf, but it did little other than reanimate Rusbridger’s callous insouciance over Roy Greenslade’s cold partisan attack (now removed) on Mairia Cahill:

…Greenslade did not try to deny Cahill had been raped by an IRA member.

The principal point in his blog was that the BBC’s Spotlight programme “lacked balance” in that it “did not take account of the fact” that Cahill was a “leading member of a dissident republican organisation with an anti-Sinn Fein agenda”.

This meant “vital information was denied to viewers”, he claimed. Of course the innuendo, citing unnamed “critics” of the programme, was that her complaint was motivated by politics.

Note the repetition of that familiar old line, the ‘anti Sinn Féin agenda’ and fair gaming of Cahill by Greenslade’s parti prix pen. It’s routinely thrown at anyone who questions that party’s right to do whatever it thinks is in its own interests.

Before I come to why he had to go, let me say Rusbridger had great convening power. I doubt anyone else would have brought in someone like Simon Kuper and his fearless and penetrating insight on the media’s systemic failure on populism.

I never worked at the Guardian as such but from 2006 I was regularly commissioned by the late Georgina Henry, deputised by Rusbridger to run the paper’s Comment is Free digital platform to write online. It was fun and it took me places.

For instance to the Editor’s summer party on London’s South Bank in 2006. Being early I met and chatted with Ken Livingstone about a year or so before losing the Mayoralty of London to the man who is now the British Prime Minister.

He was, he argued to a small crowd of us, a policy man, and thought his Tory rival in 2008 would ‘cowpe’ under pressure of his command of the detail. Turns out that this was a complacent view of the oncoming reality truck that was Boris Johnson.

And complacency is the word. In his book (H/T Tim) Evil Geniuses, Kurt Andersen tells how US liberals, who enjoyed hegemony back in the 60s and 70s, first indulged new extreme market ideologies. Then adopted those values as their own.

He connects these soixante-huitards with a new capital class that subsequently freed itself from any obligation to wider society or set its vastly privatised wealth to work. This ‘accommodation’ with monied individualism was both easy and pain free.

Andersen recalls a moment from 1975 when journalists crossed the picket line of striking printers at The Washington Post, including Bob Woodward, from the start. It was the beginning of the end for the Pressmen, the US print workers union.

Forty years on “watching journalists get washed away and drowned by the latest wave of technology induced change” Andersen notes that if he’d been one of those print workers he’d “have felt some schadenfreude“.

It’s odd to watch liberals co-opt themselves into defending ideologies that, on the face of it, are inimical to their professed values. With Greenslade (for many years Fleet Street’s own watchdog) that means accepting some very odd behaviours:

In 1989 Roy Greenslade made a series of hoax phone calls to his own newspaper, writes Marcus Leroux . Putting on an Irish accent, he pretended to be the friend of an airline pilot who overheard SAS soldiers chatting about an operation in Gibraltar – Nick Davies reported in the 2008 book Flat Earth News.

The Newsletter reported Kathryn Johnston’s response to hearing a recording of the original conversation between Davies and Greenslade …

“As a self-appointed media scruineer it doesn’t sit very well to hear him laughing and joking about making a fake phone call to pass on information which he says came from republican contacts – and using a fake Irish accent to a colleague in the Sunday Times. It is deeply unethical.”

It doesn’t end there. The Mail reports that Greenslade accused Kathryn’s late husband and former colleague Liam Clarke of…

…colluding with the security forces to publish false stories about the IRA’s commitment to a ceasefire. ‘It was a malicious attack, based on no more than tittle-tattle, yet the damage was real,’ Mr Clarke later complained.

‘The allegations were wild, wrong and, for me, dangerous. For a journalist living and working in Northern Ireland to be accused of collusion with the security forces is life-threatening. Once a lie has been printed, it is repeated with regularity. Greenslade was unrepentant.’

Journalists were not targeted during the conflict, though several were civilian casualties in the IRA’s indiscriminate bombing campaign. The one obvious exception, Martin O’Hagan was killed by loyalists during the so call peace process.

But anyone who has read Malachi O’Doherty’s Telling Year will know that journalists on the ground, were under constant pressure from one group or the other to turn their copy one way or the other.

In Rusbridger’s final apologia the Guardian editor recounts a bizarre conversation in 1999 between himself, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and a retired British spook “James” who told the two leading members of the Provisional movement…

…their silence on decommissioning the IRA’s weapons was seriously damaging their credibility and was leaving Tony Blair and Bill Clinton looking increasingly exposed.

Rusbridger unquestioningly recalls the response from McGuinness “If Gerry were to make a speech about decommissioning,” said McGuinness, “some young lad would come and shoot him tomorrow.”

Months later the official deadline in the Belfast Agreement for IRA decommissioning passed in May 2001. As we now know Adams was merely using that collapsed deadline as a bargaining chip for indemnity for IRA men.

You might think Rusbridger would have been aware of this when he committed those thoughts to paper but his willingness to accept the SF leaders at their word (or their, ahem, partial disclosure) is a too common feature within liberal media.

On both islands. Harris condemned the piece as “both arrogant and self-absorbed”. And further stated that…

…in a piece of 23 paragraphs, Máiría Cahill’s name wasn’t mentioned until the 21st paragraph.

He also tried the ploy of wrapping himself in the peace process – this despite Máiría Cahill’s ordeal having taken place well after the Good Friday Agreement. [Emphasis added]

He makes a further point too about the silencing of a woman who has not only undergone the original rape, but during this (post conflict) same time period that Rusbridger references was being actively re-traumatised by the IRA themselves.

It’s not as though we don’t have a problem getting rape prosecutions to where they need to be on these islands. In Northern Ireland the number of crown court cases for rape fell by about a quarter from 2017-18 to 2018-19.

And whilst the figure in the south increased by 35% last year…

Chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Noeline Blackwell, welcomed the increase, but she said the number of rape prosecutions is “still far too low” and represents “only a fraction” of those reported to gardaí.

The support service estimates around 14 per cent of rape cases reported to gardaí are sent forward for trial, while it believes 90 per cent of rape victims do not report such crimes at all.

Some complain about the Cahill case as though it were just an inconvenience to the new politics-as-usual. But she only came forward (and later waived her right to anonymity) after Gerry Adams’ niece sought her own father’s prosecution.

Having heard Harris’ plate smash, Rusbridger has done the decent thing and walked. Ireland needs its media and in particular, its liberal wing. But that wing must reassess the gap between the values it professes and those it acts upon.

And to begin to consider the likely outcome of the stories they choose to print.

Photo by moritz320 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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