Leo Varadkar’s love-hate relationship with the press is well-known, as is his desire to control “the story”. However the Fine Gael leader seems to have made a rare public misstep in his comments at a private function in New York when he expressed some sympathy with Donald Trump’s criticisms of the news media in the United States. Comparing press coverage of US politics to the situation at home, the Taoiseach suggested that Irish journalists were little better than their American counterparts, more interested in political gossip and tittle-tattle, and rarely held to account for their errors.
As we have seen from the current Disclosures Tribunal on suspect relations between the print and electronic media and An Garda Síochána, the institutional ethics of the press in Ireland are certainly open to question. The profession’s defining characteristic is its club-like atmosphere, with some newspaper rooms in the recent past looking more like family gatherings than business places. With broadly similar beliefs – economically conservative, socially liberal – most domestic journalists follow a fairly narrow line of reporting, rarely stepping outside long-established boundaries. Despite some claims to the contrary, and some praiseworthy examples, the Irish media largely reports the news: it rarely makes or investigates it.
All that said, Leo Varadkar and his former exorbitantly-funded unit of spin doctors is very much part of the problem. Politicians feed off the press and vice versa. There is a democratically unhealthy relationship between both in this country, acting more as mutually-beneficial colleagues than friendly or inquisitive adversaries. Above all, like our political system itself, it is the lack of plurality, the absence of alternative voices and views, which has stifled public interest and debate in our republic. This defect accounts in large part for the online popularity of certain social media users and platforms, as citizens on the left and the right seek out opinions excluded from the established echo chamber. A “solution” which is itself problematic.
Aligning with the anti-journalism sentiments of Donald Trump is clearly ridiculous, no matter what excuses are being offered by the well-oiled Fine Gael PR machine and its co-opted government equivalent. However, our disgust should not blind us to the extraordinary failings of the Irish press since well before the gaining of independence. For much of that time, journalists have been the servants of those in power rather than those who hold power to account on behalf of the citizenry as a whole. There is little evidence that this base dynamic has changed, despite the Taoiseach’s whining.