Stop the Presses

Michael McDowell’s address to LawSoc on the role of the media was blinkered by narcissism, writes Jack Horgan-Jones

“The media doesn’t like being criticized. They don’t like being attacked in any way. They don’t like anything being said against them or their standards.”
– Michael McDowell, UCD, 6th October 2009

Michael McDowell’s recent lecture to the UCD Law Society was, unfortunately for him, prefaced by the announcement of the results of a first year Class Rep election. For the only sitting Tánaiste not to be returned to office in a general election, this must have brought up some uncomfortable memories.

mcdowellMcDowell’s talk, entitled ‘The Role of the Media in Irish Society’, seemed determined to frame Irish media, and the media at large, in the context of its least scrupulous practitioners. Time and again, McDowell referred to the evils of Fox News, the disproportionate influence of the Murdoch media, and the sprawling (but stumbling) cadre of titles owned by Independent News & Media in Ireland. If McDowell’s media is a woman, he seems unduly preoccupied with her unattractive face, and ignorant of the fact that she has, upon examination, quite a nice arse.

Only a fool would contend that the Irish media is composed solely of paragons of journalistic virtue, or that our red tops are staffed by chin-stroking hacks quibbling over the moral vagaries of photoshopping a composite image of Katy French and Madeline McCann onto the front page. However, to judge an entire profession by the failures of its most flawed practitioners would be serious folly. Imagine, for a moment, if we were to judge McDowell’s performance in his various professions by the actions of Messrs Burke and Lynn.

With all due deference to McDowell, allow me to surmise his argument for the benefit of those not in attendance.

The media, apparently, have great power to shape the form consensus takes in a liberal democracy, and this power is not interrogated enough by the media for self-serving reasons. This absence of interrogation manifests itself through an unwillingness by the media to apply the same standards to individual journalists and media organs, as would be applied to those in office.

Although McDowell argued his case persuasively – as, of course, would be expected by one who took silk before the age of forty – it was disappointing that he presented such a one-sided view of the debate. He failed to recognise that the supposed power of the media does not exist in any legislative sense, or that one can change the channel easier than one can change a government.

The worst example of this came when McDowell implied that The Irish Times was in some way complicit in the recent property bubble, evidenced by their €50m investment in the vastly unprofitable MyHome.ie website. While the media may not have looked closely enough at our rapidly expanding bubble, neither did they put in place the tax incentives that encouraged this bubble; they were no guiltier than the rest of the population in seemingly wanton ignorance. To suggest their role aggregates with that played by governments who allowed a society to be built around such tragically flawed parameters verges on the farcical.

Furthermore, to suggest that this is a one-way street is selective argument in its most extreme form. The notion that the political establishment might be virginally unsullied in their manipulation of the body politic through the press, is demolished by a brief consideration of the role Alistair Campbell played during the Blair years. Failing that, rent In The Loop from your local DVD shop.

One of McDowell’s most persuasive points, that media do not interrogate themselves sufficiently in the same way they do politicians, has been most serendipitously exploded in the days since his speech. He contended that the wages paid out by RTÉ were not scrutinized in the same way that those paid to politicians were. The recent outrage surrounding, and subsequent defence of, the wages paid to Pat Kenny etc. has put paid to this particular argument. One hopes it does likewise to the practice.

It is not within the scope of this article to fully discuss every point raised by McDowell in his address. Neither is it the intent to imply that he is grossly and dramatically wrong, and merely whining that the media give the political classes a hard time. He raised many fascinating and engrossing points, such as the deeply troubling fact that the support of the Murdoch press for the Labour Party in Britain was conditional on the leadership discussing any change in EU policy with Rupert Murdoch beforehand.

In the course of his speech, McDowell contended that a free press cannot exist without a free government. This writer contends that this is the central point of this article: journalists have a right, a duty and a responsibility to interrogate those who hold power. It is not their primary role to apply this duty to themselves.

In executing their duty, they lose their way, and are as totally imperfect as anyone else. However, to characterise an entire profession by these frailties is folly, one-sided, and ultimately ignorant of the many honest journalists who prosecute their roles with integrity and public-mindedness. Neither side is perfect, and both are best served by mindfulness of this fact.

To facilitate a consideration of the symbiotic and interchangeable nature of the relationship between government and media, one suggests the reader substitute the word ‘politician’ for ‘media’ into the quote that precedes this article.