I had six honest serving men,
They taught me all I knew,
Their names were What and Where and When,
And How and Why and Who
It’s many a long year since first I saw that piece of doggerel pasted to the newsroom door where three of us had been seconded on ‘work experience’. But as a primer for news reporting, it has lost none of its down to earth, practical wisdom.
No story, we were warned, should ever appear unless it conformed to those six cardinal rules, and woe betide the scribe whose copy or report had missed out on any one of those essential details.
Journalism has come a long way since then, but it sometimes seems that RTÉ and the national media could well do with a copy of that old rhyming rule-of -thumb stuck over every reporter’s laptop. For there seems to be a marked inability on the part of highly paid interviewers and journalists to get to the heart of a story, to ferret out the real information, rather than being diverted down all sorts of trivial cul-de-sacs.
Nowhere was this ineptitude more marked than in the coverage of the recent debacle over the Katherine Zappone appointment as UN special envoy for freedom of expression. What should have been a story of real meat and substance escaped the net while the media took off in pursuit of a shoal of red herrings that added nothing to public knowledge but managed to take the spotlight off the central issue.
Thus the media contrived to make chewing gum out of such peripheral questions as Minister Coveney’s ham-fisted case management, and who leaked the news out of the Cabinet meeting, and who approached who in the first place, while the far more telling details were left untouched.
Perhaps it is that national interviewers – with a few notable exceptions – simply don’t know how to ask the forensic, probing questions that would yield real information, or that interviewees are too skilled at steering the conversation away from the more dangerous reefs and rocks. In any event, the coverage of the Zappone affair was remarkable in that a sheaf of obvious questions were left unanswered; unanswered, in the main, simply because they were unasked.
In hindsight, the information gleaned in relation to the now-ditched Zappone appointment was so nebulous that it can only be a source of acute embarrassment for Minister Coveney. Without a blush, he was able to say that the issue was not flagged at Cabinet because it was not of sufficient importance, before going on to add that the new post would require ‘high-level engagement’ in New York.
But what we really needed to know was whether it was the UN that came to us seeking help in relation to freedom of expression, or whether – like the man who came to dinner – we simply pulled up a chair at the freedom of expression table.
And we needed the answers to other questions too, such as for whom will the Zappone replacement – if there is to be one – be urging the UN to advocate for free expression? Will it be China or Russia or Belarus or Hungary, or will the new envoy be advocating for improved freedoms for the country he or she represents? And yes, who drew up the supposed concept paper for the job of special envoy in the first place? And who will the holder be answerable to? And what are the Irish human-rights priorities vaguely referred to? And how long does the job last for? And how much freedom will the envoy enjoy as the voice of Ireland?
And so on. And so on. And so on.