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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 19, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    The Feral Media

    Harry McGee

    The phrase is Tony Blair’s and I love it. I came across it last night when reading a piece that the Labour MP for Sunderland (and former journalist of Birmingham 6 fame) Chris Mullin wrote for the Guardian. You can read the article in its entirety here.

    I know, I know. Before your fingers start thumping the keyboards in the Comment section,  I’ll be the first to admit that there was no better man for manipulating the British media than the sooon-to-be failed candidate for President of the European Council.

    But Chris Mullin is different. He was a great journalist and is a thoroughly decent man. And what he wrote hit the nail on the head on a theme I’ve been following a lot of late – the role of the media in reporting and commenting on the crisis.

    Here’s the relevant extract from Mullin’s piece, which I say also largely applies here:

    “The past two decades have also seen the rise of a new British phenomenon, the feeding frenzy – a subject worthy of a PhD thesis. There is now a range of subjects – tax policy, immigration and asylum, the treatment of sex offenders – where no rational discussion is possible without the risk of triggering hysteria. Tabloid culture thrives on ignorance….

    Feeding frenzies come and go. Some fail to take off and disappear as quickly as they appear, only to be replaced by new ones…  Blair used one of the final speeches of his premiership to reflect on what he called ‘the feral media’.  The deterioration of political reporting had, he claimed, had ‘sapped the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions in the right spirit for our future’. He added that the increasing momentum of the news cycle was “seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted’.”

    I would submit that I am being driven deaf by the moral shrillnes and intolerance of some of the reporting on the crisis. THE MINISTER HAS ALOWED COLM DOHERTY TO BE APPOINTED BY AIB. HE IS AT FAULT. HE IS INCOMPETENT HE SHOULD BE EXECUTED IMMEDIATELY. I would also  submit that there is a feeding frenzy on politicians’ expenses here.

    A newspaper reported a couple of weeks ago that an executive from Udaras na Gaeltachta had claimed five Eddie Rocket ‘cheese please’ deals at €13.50 a pop during five separate trips away from his base in Kerry. That’s not a story. That guy should be given a pat on the back for costing the State so little in subsistence while travelling for his job. Instead he get a kick in the pants. Do journalists get paid expenses for mileage and for out-of-pocket expenses? Erm, yes they do.

    Another paper recently reported that the limousines supplied to the four former Taoisigh living in Ireland cost €800,000 a year to run. So what! I don’t know of any toher European country where the former prime minister is told to drive his or her own car. And if you accede to the principle that they are entitled to a car, that is the price you pay for a car and two drivers.

    Now John O’Donoghue did run up an exorbitant and unjustifiable expenses bill. But when you look at the analysis of his trips, you will find that the figures aggregated in some reports. Caught in the vortex of a feeding frenzy  he had no defence. What was presented as bills run up by himself and his wife was in reality bills run up by the entire delegation, comprised of two, three and sometimes four others. That makes a difference. The hotel room that cost a grand cost a grand for three rooms and not one. It makes a little difference. But, in fairness, not all that much.

    Of course, it is the role of the press to be fearless sentinels and to expose lapses in, or absences,  of standards, where standards should apply.

    But we journalists are not immune as a species from taking the odd junket or from benefitting from freebies. Grand. If you are a motor correspondent or travel correspondent, it goes with the territory. But if you look at the famous FAS trips to the US, there were certain journalists who travelled more often to Florida than board members of the training organisations. And for many years Enterprise Irelaan offered business journalists slots on trade missions to far-flung destinations. That entailed free business class flights and billets in the same fanch hotels as everybody else. The quid pro quo was that the trade mission got guaranteed coverage in the newspaper. A couple of days ago I spoke to a journalistic colleague who was taken on an all-expenses paid trip to New York for a week.

    It doesn’t stop there. Corporate level tickets at sports events. Free tickets to concerts. These are some of the perks of the trade. Is there a pay-off? Well, at some level there has to be. Ok, none of us are elected. But should such interest be declared before we launch into morally superior rants? Yep, of course they should.

    I’ve never been a fan of journalists going places or getting stuff for free.  It’s not that it happen all too frequently and most journalists will tell you that getting the odd ticket for a game or for a concert is certainly not going to colour their attitude.

    I’ll come now to what bugs me. Governments must be held to account. Yet, I sometimes rail against the blanket intolerance that you sometimes see. Here is an example. There are two ways of looking at Brian Lenihan’s little row with AIB this week. He put his foot down and inisted that Colm Doherty’s salary was limited at €500,000. Or he ceded to the bank by allowing it to pick its own man for the job. Biased assimilation came into play here. It’s the intellectual laziness of choosing the argument that happens to fit your own argument.

    What’s good for the goose has to be good for the gander. It’s as simple as that.

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