One thing you notice when you’re abroad is how often, we as Irish people, use the word ‘sorry’. Sorry could I get the Sangrita please? Sorry…dónde está la biblioteca? In most cases it’s a harmless habit. Charming even and might just land you a round on the locals – or just weird looks (speaking from personal experience).
Far less harmless is when our cultural quirk is picked up by the national state broadcaster – RTÉ. Our most recent apologist being Morning Ireland’s Dr Gavin Jennings and his subject Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohue. To set the scene, Jennings had begun with a soft serve of the latest COVID-19 controversy, namely that children’s shoes be classified as an essential retail item followed up with an icy jab at Fine Gael’s “particular history when it comes to children’s shoes”. Said history of course being the 1982 VAT increase on children’s shoes by none other than Fine Gael Minister John Bruton.
The Minister reacted angrily. Or about as angry as current Level 5 restrictions permit and expressed righteous mid-morning indignation at the gall of Jennings to associate him with an action of his very own political party “that was made decades ago” before Poor ‘aul Pascal “was even in politics”. Before then going on to reject the “implicit assumption” that he or his party are unaware of children’s health needs.
On cue, Jennings rolled over and apologised for… well I’m still unsure what. For a legitimate question that raises Fine Gael’s honed antipathy towards the needs of those less fortunate? Perhaps a more recent example would have been more astute. Say a dog whistle campaign for those who don’t ‘get up early in the morning’? Or as Tanaiste Leo Varadkar helpfully put it during his time as Minister for Social Protection – ‘welfare cheats’.
Donohue and Co. don’t get to decide which bits of party political history are aired and which are not. Once one nails one’s colours to the bluey banner, one accepts its history, warts and all. Varadkar cannot sing the praises of his party’s role in founding the State on Claire Byrne Live while shying from its complicity in more compromising moments. Whether or not that history means anything is decided by voters at the ballot box and if any party politicos still find any of this distressing – Sinn Féin should be able to provide some knowing words of comfort on this score.
But back to that apology. Following a swift assembly of FG’s ‘Best and Brightest’ an act of penance was sought from the Broadcaster and one swiftly returned with an RTÉ Producer issuing an apology later that evening. Aside from the ‘never not worrying’ sight of a Minister and Party bullying a journalist into apologising for doing their job, this scene points to a greater malaise within the Irish media landscape.
Journalism’s purpose when performed correctly is inherently adversarial; their role is to test, prod, question and uncover whatever politicians or any other authority figure have chosen to hide. Any concern for that figure’s personal feelings should not feature when the public interest is at stake. If Shane Corr had cared for his boss Robert Watt’s feelings when deciding to speak out against the Department of Health’s secret collection of information on children with autism for use in legal actions, how much longer would it have continued?
Done this way, the interests of authority and journalism are mutually exclusive. Done incorrectly, these interests become mutually inclusive and as a believer in the news media it’s becoming easier to be cynical about this. Particularly as the list of journalists-cum-politicians grows by the day with Colette Brown this week, pulling on the purple jersey and jumping over the Irish Independent’s wall to join the SocDems next door. She follows a trail well trodden by Chris Donoghue of then Newstalk, now Special Adviser to Minister Simon Coveney and George Lee’s return to RTÉ following a sojourn as Fine Gael TD for Dublin-South.
As members of the public, we should not have to worry that a trusted source of news is only a hop, skip and a handshake away from appearing at the next Ardfheis. Journalists should be journalists and politicians should be politicians. You needn’t feel sorry for thinking this way.
Rowan Kelleher – Assistant News Editor