Past 50 years have seen big changes in the way Irish business is reported
Everything changed the beef tribunal, and we have been living with investigations and business scandals ever since
When you look back at Irish business journalism over the past 50 years and business journalism in The Irish Times in particular, the temptation is to divide it into two periods. The years prior to the collapse of Larry Goodman’s beef empire and the 20 odd years that followed.
The events of 1989 and 1991 – which culminated in the setting-up of the Beef tribunal – were not the first big Irish business controversy. There had been plenty of them before then, including the collapse of Patrick Gallagher’s Merchant Banking in the early 1980s, but business journalists seemed reluctant or unable to dig deeper. The true extent of Gallagher’s bankrolling of the then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey would only emerge at the Moriarty tribunal in 1999, almost 20 years later.
Something seemed to change after Goodman, and we have been living with tribunals, investigations and business scandals ever since. As the Beef tribunal got under way there was controversy brewing over the purchase by Telecom Éireann of the Johnson Mooney and O’Brien site and allegations that well-known business figures such as Dermot Desmond profited from the sale. The financial interest of certain executives including Chris Comerford in subsidaries of Irish Sugar also caused consternation.
The McCracken tribunal was set up in 1997 following revelations of payments from businessman Ben Dunne to the then Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry. Details of Dunne’s payments to Haughey soon followed, and the Moriarty Tribunal was born. But not before McCracken found that a secret offshore banking operation called Ansbacher had permeated the upper echelons of Irish business including the boardroom of CRH. Reputations tumbled as another tax-avoidance scheme was revealed at National Irish Bank, and AIB was rocked by allegations of overcharging and massive fraud by a foreign exchange trader named John Rusnak, who worked at its US subsidiary.
The awarding of Ireland’s second mobile phone licence to rank outsider Denis O’Brien, ahead of some of biggest names in the business, spawned bribery allegations which the Moriarty tribunal only finished investigating last year: concluding he paid large sums of money to Lowry, who improperly assisted him in winning the licence.
The turn of the century brought the dotcom crash which set in train events resulting in the fall of Jim Flavin, one of the country’s most respected business figures, amid allegations of insider trading.
Global credit crunch
The global credit crunch revealed the weakness of the regulatory system; the incompetence of many bankers and the breathtaking venality of a handful.
It is tempting to see the collapse of Goodman’s ABP as some sort of Watergate moment which changed the relationship between business journalists and business in Ireland and resulted in a light being shone into the hitherto dark corners of Irish business.
It is a pleasing narrative and appeals to journalists’ abundant vanity. (The thesis is also undermined by our collective failure to see the bomb ticking away in the banking sector, a subject tackled by Kevin Rafter in the pages that follow.)
It is fair to say that the people entering business journalism around that time approached their job in a different way to their predecessors, but that is not in itself enough to explain the relentless
excavation of the dark side of Irish
business that followed.
To understand how and why business journalism changed over the past 50 years you have to look other factors, particularly how the economic backdrop has affected the appetite for business news and the case for newspapers devoting resources to covering it.
Fifty years ago this year, The Irish Times started its Business and Finance section. It was the first daily financial section in any Irish newspaper. The decision to start the section – and to appoint Nicholas Leonard as the first full-time financial journalist in Ireland – was a reflection of the optimism of the early 1960s resulting from the successful opening up of the economy by Seán Lemass through the implementation of TK Whitaker’s economic blueprint.
In 1963, the year the section was launched, the Second Programme for Economic Expansion was introduced. A cursory reading of the business pages of the time shows a very strong emphasis on providing information about companies.
A similar investment in business journalism happened in the late 1980s as the economy stabilised after the horrors of the mid 1980s, and the Celtic tiger became a glint in the national eye.
Newspapers, including this one, added extra pages and business supplements. A new paper dedicated to business, politics and economics was born in the form of The Sunday Business Post. Its founders were drawn from the ranks of the existing papers, and their decision to set up their own paper reflected in part a frustration with their employers’ reluctance to take advantage of the demand for news and information related to business.
It was the time at which many of today’s flagship businesses such as Ryanair and Kerry Group came into being, and the multinational foundations of the technology and pharmaceutical sectors were laid. All this investment in business journalism, fuelled by the growing economy, meant that, by the law of averages if nothing else, more stones would be turned over.
Business journalism became emboldened and less deferential. The same can be said of Irish journalism in general, and that was a reflection of the wider upheaval in Irish society and battle for what came to be called the “liberal agenda”.
Journalism in Ireland changed as society changed, and business journalism changed with it. The extent to which so many pillars of the business establishment were shown to have feet of clay ensured the momentum of the change was kept up.
Ireland is changing once again, and journalism will have to change too.
Our exit from the bailout will hopefully come to be seen as the point at which the economy returned to growth. This, however, will do little to stop the migration of readers to digital media. The search for new models to underpin quality journalism of all kinds – including business – will continue.
If the past 50 years are any guide, people will still put a value on trusted independent journalism, the hallmark of which is a willingness to bite a hand that feeds when necessary.