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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 18, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

    Our cruellest month

    Harry McGee

    On this week, seven years ago, I sat down for the first time at a desk in an office in Leinster House, to begin a new journalistic journey – that of a political correspondent.

    Before I started, I thought the middle of August would be a good time to start. It was quiet. I’d have a bit of time to put my feet under the desk, read myself into the brief, and adjust to a new way of life.

    I had been appointed the political editor of the Irish Examiner. It was a big change for me. I had never worked for a daily newspaper before. I had come from The Sunday Tribune and had also edited the montly Magill. Long meandering pieces were my speciality so I was nervous about quick turnaround stuff with an emphasis on news yarns.

    Nor had I specialised before. Though politics infuses through all journalism, going into the Leinster House lobby was a different kettle of fish altogether.

    I was nervous the first week. John Downing (now the deputy government press spokesman) had been my predecessor but had departed some months beforehand. Fionnan Sheahan (a retiring young fellow – wonder what ever happened to him?) and Michael O’Farrell (now of the  Mail on Sunday) had been left holding the fort. Both disappeared on holidays as soon as I arrived.

    The first thing I realised that August wasn’t a really good time to start. A daily newspaper is like a baying beast, demanding to be fed every day. As soon as you feed it one day, you start all over again the following day. And during August that’s a nightmarish prospect. And you don’t have any choice. You can’t not have stories.

    And there was nothing doing in Leinster House that summer (or indeed in any summer since then, bar the general election of 2007). Our office was on the second floor of the old building with an uninterrupted view of Merrion Square. Nobody was around save for a couple of ushers and support staff. It was like the Overlook Hotel in the Shining, eerie and deserted (ok, there was no axe-wielding maniac).

     The only thing that passed for excitement was the roar you’d hear from the tourists on the Viking Splash tour as it passed by periodically.

    As it happened, a huge story came across our path in that first week. The Examiner’s property editor Tommy Barker got a tip-off that Haughey’s Gandon-designed mansion in Kinsealy had been sold for €30m.

    I was asked to quietly check it out. Which I did with a very well-established Fianna Fail handler, who said he had heard nothing about it but would find out. Then half an hour later, he rang back to say that it was true but the developer was going to sent out a press release.

    I groaned. It wasn’t going to be an exclusive any more. He protested. He said that they were going to release it anyway, which I consoled myself with. But deep down I sensed that I had made a wrong call by making that call. Sometimes it’s better to go with what you have, rather than to be sure to be sure.

    The rest of that first week was a terrible struggle as I tried to contact politicians or officials I had yet to get to know, most of whom were on holidays. It was like being given a fishing rod in the Sahara.

    What has evoked all that sentimentality and nostalgia, is that this week has powerfully reminded me of that August week in 2003.

    It has been as dead as vaudeville.

    When Ivor Callely (the non-entity politician’s non-entity politician) is dominating the political agenda you know what part of the barrel you are scraping.

    It’s been so bad that today’s Newsweek poll of world rankings that thrusts Brian Cowen into the top ten (itself something desinged for the still and taciturn days of silly season) has been like a Godsend. 

    For TS Eliot April was the cruellest month. For us, it’s August. Without a doubt.

    • Keith Martin says:

      Sounds like time for a couple of pieces on how quiet August is. Oh – already done! ;-)

      It’s just as tough for staff on the political side too. Think of the poor press offices trying to find something vaguely meaningful to write press releases about.

    • daisyroots says:

      Hardly Harry…The parochial may be prosaic but the there are some quite extraordinararily newsworthy items going on in ‘The World’ beyond ‘The Pale’…
      Please don’t say ‘holidays’ it’s so ..well… illiterate…
      You have been conspicuous by your absence recently so it would seem August is not the only ‘cruellest month’…

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      No surprise that the Irish political media, which the publc not unreasonably think is supposed to be reporting on the actions of the political class and holding them to account, or have the issues of NAMA, builders transferring assets to their wives, cuts to the most needing of society, political expenses all suddenly been resolved, seem incapable of doing anything proactive unless its fed to them by the very same political class they are meant to be holding to account.

      Then we wonder why so much goes on in Ireland which is hushed up and never investigated by the media – you can’t afford to bite the hand that feeds and all that.

      Harry, take a trip to Westminster and you’ll find to your shock and horror that politics continues over all 365 days a year and there is no time when the entire political class is on leave. Come see how the big boys run a country and how a proper media do their jobs.

      You might even learn something? ;)

    • robespierre says:

      While I realise what you are saying Harry, I would have thought this would be the month you might be able to chip away at a few pieces that are more investigative by nature. I know when you are on the treadmill that is difficult to do but I’d imagine you have a few things at the back of your mind that you’d like to look into.

      One that fascinates me is allegations of corruption in the appointment of Principals and teachers in schools. Not your space I know but an area that I know is wide open to abuse due to the powers bestowed on principles. How is it a good idea at primary level (educate together schools aside) to have every interview panel gender biased by the presence of a priest / vicar (most of whom are still male). I work in business and have no vested interest in this area but have analysed education quangos and agencies.

    • minxie says:

      I like these “august” reflections.

    • Des Canine says:

      Harry, I’m with you on this. Dog days these are.

      “Come see how the big boys run a country and how a proper media do their jobs.”

      He he! They seem to have made an equally debt-ridden mess of the UK and the “proper media” acted as cheerleaders for Tony Blair and the War Criminals.

      So you can probably save yourself a pointless trip to Westminister. Do as Sinn Fein big boys do – ignore the place.

    • kynos says:

      Why not just stand outside Leinster House throw a stone in the air and investigate the expenses digouts cronies controllers broken promises lies betrayals cowardice inhumanity and rapine of whatever politician it lands on? And if it doesn’t hit an FF’er well you’ve still a reasonable chance you can write about the laziness cowardice timorousness narrow-mindedness lack of imagination creativity and principles of whichever one it does. Call me a kynic but there you go.

    • kynos says:

      Silly of me. Sure there are no politicians around Leinster House at the moment. But are they all still claiming attendance allowance and related travelling expenses while they aren’t there? There’s an interesting thought. What other expenses are they claiming while ‘on holidays’? Officially on holidays as opposed to the rest of the time they’re unofficially.

    • Kynos says:

      Come ON Harry. We’ve got Ivor helping to throw a Leigh light on the rest of his FFormer gang. Listen to them squeal. Haughey junior gawd ‘elp us is the latest to demand Callely stop bringing disrepute (read: stop making the rest of them terrified they’ll be next) on Irish politics. I mean this just gets better and better and better. I hope Mr Calleley stays right where he is for as long as possible.

    • kynos says:

      If the experience of Mr Lowry is anything to go by, Ivor should stay in the game. He’ll probably get even more votes next time. Our politicians are but reflections of ourselves.

    • Frank Jameson says:

      @desmond fitzgerald
      C’mon out of that. Politics continues at Westmiinster? The big political stories there at the moment are Tony Blair’s memoir and the startling discovery that William Hague may once have shared a hotel room with an adviser.


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