There-In Lies The Rub: The Role of the Media in Modern Irish Society.

Lord Justice Leveson
RightsNI welcomes guest blogger Conchubhair Mac Lochlainn to cast some light on Irish media practices.

Conchubhair  is a digital consultant, broadcaster, lecturer and blogger. He currently teaches television skills in  Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge’s Gaoth Dobhair campus, contributes to various publications and radio outlets all over the country, and is co-author  of the satirical political / societal blog ‘The Blarney Times’.

With the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press still hearing evidence on its first module in London, a debate has recently emerged in the Republic into the ongoing practices of the Irish media, largely based in Dublin. This debate has been fuelled by several recent incidents in the Irish press, their subsequent handling, and on some level by a tacit acknowledgement that much of the daily print consumed in the society is provided by Irish subsidiaries of larger, better-established British parent companies already under the gaze of the Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson.

There also appears to be a severe distrust of public Ombudsmen and Regulators in the wake of a perceived lack of regulation in other industries, most notably Financial Regulation, and this zeitgeist seems also to be stoking the fire. Coupled with several recent high-profile incidents concerning the deaths of Former TD Liam Lawlor and the equally tragic case of Kate
, it is perhaps high time that a serious debate on the same journalistic practices currently under investigation elsewhere is held in Ireland.

This therefore becomes a convoluted practice, as it is stymied from day one by several factors. Most notably, the fact that Ireland is such a small place. It is an oft-remarked upon phenomenon that the usual game of six degrees of separation can often be resolved in a maximum of one and a half degrees anywhere on this island. Everybody knows everybody, everybody works with everybody and everybody has to continue in their interactions with everybody else for the forseeable future. The lines are often blurred. So much so, that the modern professional journalist has been largely replaced by a new phenomenon: The Journalist / Broadcaster. Ireland is not unique in this, but this blurring of the lines has led to an increased proliferation of certain views / attitudes / morals / ethics across all media outlets as the same people / groups disseminate their views through several media outlets

The recent furore over RTÉ’s handling of the Fr. Kevin Reynolds libel case has led to the ordering of a Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) enquiry, due to issue its findings in two months. This is coupled with RTÉ’s own enquiry, the findings of which have been held over at the BAI’s request until their own work is completed. Now, whilst many might baulk at the prospect of self-investigation into a matter this serious, the question still remains that if the pool of jobbing journalists / broadcasters is so small, and the social / professional
circles in which they move so enclosed by dint of simple geography, how does one achieve objectivity and fairness out of such a process? The counter-argument is simple: What choice is there in the matter? The legally enforceable independence of such bodies as the BAI and an Ombudsman is to be welcomed as a buffer for people who could otherwise be left out in the cold by their peers as a result of their activities, but the fact remains that all things being equal there should not be as glaring a need for such regulation were sound journalistic best-practices being observed, i.e. If you’re not sure, and you can’t prove it, don’t say it.

This might seem like a clumsy, ham-fisted approach to a difficult and nuanced subject matter, and in many ways it is. But it is vastly preferable to the alternative of State control and ‘spin’ ruling the roost in media circles. The media is a private concern, and its right to freedom of expression is sacrosanct, especially in a societal context. Access to  information provided by media sources is any community’s lifeline to the outside world, and prevents enforced isolation of a people (North Korea being a topical case in point). But, as with everything, with great power comes great responsibility.

Freedom of expression and speech are fundamental human rights which we all hold dear. But they do have to be weighed up against a person or group’s right to their good name and to live their lives free of unnecessary and invasive intrusion. The mantra of sensationalist headlines being ‘In the public interest’ wears somewhat thin when ‘the public interest’ is itself a
non-definable entity, and especially when the spirit in which it is alluded to is so open to mis-management and manipulation by cynical profiteers. There-in lies the rub.

The media has to remain independent. To do so, they rely on advertising revenues and sales. Big headlines shift papers, and encourage viewers / listeners to tune in. The web is making it increasingly easy for consumers to find information, and conversely increasing the pressures on editors to attract the same consumers to their offerings. This pressure has
apparently in some cases led to the chasing of the story / payoff becoming more important than the right of those concerned in the pieces to live their lives free from impediment / obstruction. It’s not unique to this island, but in a place as small as Ireland, its effect can often be magnified, to all our detriments.

The need for a rational, grown up discourse on this matter therefore becomes more glaring by the day.

For all our sakes.