A political organisation is trying to take down the government.
To most people The Ditch looks like an independent news site whose reportage is mainly based on publicly available information. But you shouldn’t be deceived – its stories are funded by Vladimir Putin, who wants to undermine Irish democracy by forcing a junior minister to answer questions about allegedly corrupt practices while he was a county councillor in 2007.
Last month, after calls by Paul Murphy for Niall Collins to answer questions about his failure to declare an interest or withdraw from a discussion concerning the sale of public land that was bought by his wife, Micheál Martin abused Dáil privilege to slander The Ditch. In doing so he implied The Ditch is Russian-funded and exaggerated in popularity. He also explicitly said it is a “political organisation”.
The first two charges are straightforward and easy to understand. If The Ditch is a Russian psyop and uses paid ads to promote itself, then its stories are probably fake, untrustworthy and uninteresting. Politicians therefore shouldn’t be obliged to respond when The Ditch draws attention to possible corruption.
Martin’s third charge, however, deserves scrutiny.
He seems to believe The Ditch is a uniquely political media outlet, unlike, for example, the Irish Times or Newstalk. But he’s wrong. National media outlets are highly political organisations, which forge political allegiances and seek to influence the political decisions of the electorate. They just aren’t honest about it.
Martin’s comments, and Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne’s recent complaint to the Standards In Public Office Commission that the Ditch is a “political platform”, are cynical and brazen attacks on the free press.
Here’s what’s possible. And you’re gonna like it
Politics, newspaper columnists so often enjoy telling us, is the art of the possible.
Analysis published by newspapers, with its constant appeals to reality and maturity, is the art of explaining why only the ideas power deems possible are legitimate. It’s time to grow-up and abandon Irish neutrality. Nurses demanding safe working conditions and fair pay must realise the government has to make sensible decisions. Trans rights need to be subject to reasonableness and common sense. A united Ireland would be nice, but let’s be realistic.
Arguments like these accuse those who disagree of being in conflict with the way things simply are.
French economist and philosopher Frédéric Lordon, in a 2017 essay for Verso, described the pretenses of so-called “post-political” journalism as nothing more than “the deep desire of the integrated system of governmental politics and mainstream media to declare the age of ideology – the time of choices – foreclosed". He’s right. In media circles, right wing assumptions about politics are so taken for granted that they are not even regarded as political – neoliberal capitalism and its excesses are simply reality.
To fail to acknowledge the politics driving these assumptions is itself a political choice.
Conceptions of reality – and, crucially, who is perceived as in conflict with it – also determine what media outlets consider newsworthy.
That’s why we get stories about how lifting the moratorium on no fault evictions was a “nightmare” for landlords. It’s why we see longreads condemning Mick Wallace and Clare Daly for appearing on state television in another country. And it’s why, every once in a while, something truly big breaks – like Richard Boyd Barrett buying a coffee.
All of this, the tánaiste would have you believe, is completely separate from politics, published by outlets with no political agenda whatsoever.
An abridged history of impartiality
Journalists often present themselves as impartial and nonpartisan for commercial reasons. It’s in their interests to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
But true impartiality doesn’t exist. A story is by definition an account of an event or incident, not a mere recitation of facts. These facts pass through journalists, whose job is to present them in a certain way, typically one that doesn’t upset sources or advertisers and aligns with the expectations of an outlet’s audience.
This is reflected in the history of media in this country.
Throughout the Troubles, the Irish media excluded virtually all opinions sympathetic to the republican movement, aligning itself with the British government’s position that the Provisional IRA were irredeemable terrorists. In 1993, the Sunday Independent engaged in “persistent and vicious attacks” on SDLP leader John Hume for having the audacity to speak to Sinn Féin. By law Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act stopped republican representatives speaking on the airwaves.
During the Celtic Tiger, journalists developed a symbiotic relationship with developers and the property industry. Reports on property mostly relied on media-anointed industry “experts” and sources, who overwhelmingly believed the Good Times would never end. Establishment journalism was so unaware of the impending crash that in 2006 the Irish Times Trust bought MyHome.ie for €50 million. After the crash, the media was ready to be impartial again, presenting the economics of austerity as science and therefore – here’s that word again – reality, not subject to debate. Rather than challenge the government’s attack on some of the most vulnerable in society, Irish newspapers told hungry families to eat smaller portions.
The concentration of media ownership in Ireland remains a significant issue too; Reporters Without Borders have said it presents a potential threat to press freedom. Powerful people buy newspapers for a reason – and it isn't because they are so profitable. It’s because they have historically influenced popular opinion, which in turn has political consequences. Look at the Washington Post’s output since Jeff Bezos bought it in 2013, with pieces about how the billionaire space race is good for the world and how changing tax rules to “soak” billionaires is a bad idea.
Writing soap operas ≠ holding power to account
Politicians feed many of the political stories that appear in newspapers to journalists who spend their days hanging around Leinster House. (Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton, for example, sends a weekly brief on Fine Gael parliamentary meetings to a selected list of political correspondents through WhatsApp).
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting stories this way. But relying on government sources produces a specific type of journalism that can only be critical within narrow parameters. And this practice has made newspapers, in particular the Sunday Independent, into something of a battleground between competing factions of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, all leaking bitchy, embarrassing stories about each other.
Facilitating this kind of infighting is presented as holding power to account.
Couple the above with the perverse incentives created by the internet – which result in the most stupid, most annoying pieces often getting the most engagement – and you’ll start to understand why so many newspapers look the way they do: carefully curated leaks from cabinet; grown-up assertions about what constitutes reality; and ragebait so utterly banal and formulaic it can be produced by a literal algorithm.
I’m not suggesting that every journalist who spends time in the Dáil is consciously serving power. But I am suggesting the alliances and biases that shape the narratives presented by media outlets are rarely stated.
It is rarely noted, for instance, that the group director of news at Bauer Media is a former special advisor to Josepha Madigan, that the Ireland editor of the Irish Independent was chair of Young Fine Gael in University College Cork, that the executive editor of the Daily Mail Group Ireland is married to a Fianna Fáil senator or that a former Fine Gael TD returned to the RTÉ newsroom not long after resigning his parliamentary position.
Audiences can decide for themselves whether media outlets staffed by such people constitute political organisations and whether their output is impartial and somehow apolitical.
In the meantime, it would be worthwhile for journalists, particularly political correspondents, to reflect on why those in power don’t regard their work as threatening or “political.”