Media moguls and the gagging game

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

THE croissants and coffee were good at the media conference I attended recently in Dublin. So too was the line-up of speakers. But one stood out. Investigative journalist, Gemma O’Doherty.
Remember her? She is the ex-Irish Independent hack who became embroiled with the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan over penalty points for speeding which were wiped off the force’s computer system.
Six months later, in August 2013 she was made compulsorily redundant following her investigation into the widespread wiping of driving licence penalty points. It transpired that the INM’s Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Rae had also penalty points annulled. He had dubbed his award-winning journalist ‘a rogue reporter’ in the aftermath of the Callinan affair. O’Doherty’s professional integrity was subsequently vindicated after she won a defamation case against her former employer which culminated in a fulsome apology and an award of undisclosed damages. She is currently working on a number of documentaries about unsolved Irish murders, including the case of Mary Boyle, Ireland’s youngest missing person.

HOSTED by Nessa Childers MEP, “Newsocracy”, questioned ‘the concept of media diversity and ownership in both online and traditional print media’ and aimed to ‘explore the implication for traditional notions of democratic accountability and journalistic independence’.
In her address, O’Doherty praised Nessa Childers for having ‘the backbone’, unlike the majority of Irish politicians, ‘to tackle the critical issue of media ownership, which is having such a harmful effect on the public interest and democracy’.
“Journalism in Ireland is in crisis. This is primarily because ownership of so much of the media has been allowed to fall into the hands of so few,” O’Doherty said.
“Those of us who investigate corruption in public office are reminded of this every day. We make ourselves and our sources extremely vulnerable to those in power who would intimidate us, monitor our activities, threaten our safety and try to silence us. In return, we receive almost no support, particularly from unions who profess to care about our rights.”
She observed that ‘a culture of fear has consumed certain newsrooms creating a stifling environment where some reporters behave less like dogged agents of the public interest and more like compliant diplomats spinning for the powers-that-be as if their jobs depend on it’.
“They choose to ignore the true function of our still noble vocation: to hold power to account, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to defend the public’s right to know, to seek the truth and report it,” Gemma O’Doherty continued.
“In a country riddled with untold secrets and scandals that the public need to know about, they are afraid to dig, to be dogged and tenacious. And by their failure, they bring our profession into disrepute.”

RECALLING that when Taoiseach Enda Kenny first came into power in 2011, he promised and era of ‘integrity, accountability and transparency’, she argued that ‘a robust, independent, adversarial press’ was key to this.
Sadly, in 2016, Irish society has neither the promised accountability or the adversarial press. Instead, a wall of secrecy and obfuscation remains the modus operandi of Government press offices, she said.       
“I have no doubt that our neutered press has contributed hugely to the crises we have in policing, housing, health and other public services like water supply. Power can not be challenged effectively in the Ireland of today,” Gemma O’Doherty said.
“We need to smash the cosy cartel that exists between the press, politicians and the police in this country because it is so damaging to the public good.”
O’Doherty went on to focus on media mogul, Denis O’Brien’s control of Irish media outlets and a list of his efforts to limit press freedom and speech, even the satirical ramblings of Waterford Whispers.
Fortunately, The Mayo News is still teetering among the small handful of independently owned local newspapers. But in a ‘neutered press’, it is not just media moguls who are gagging journalists. The Fourth Estate – as it grapples with the hiatus of the insatiable appetite of new media –  is increasingly inhabited  by compliant journalists – self-gaggers –  who much prefer rewriting preaching press releases than holding the comfortable burghers of the status-quo to account.   
It is such a shame that journalists like Gemma O’Doherty are the exception and not the rule.