Writing the history of a daily newspaper is extraordinarily difficult. That history is not defined by the paper’s profit or loss, by its circulation or readership, by its ownership or by its technology. It is defined essentially by the product itself, but this is different on each of the 300 days of the year it appears on, and is sold to a consumer base that also changes, over time, in an unpredictable and frequently volatile way. Multiply all of that by 150 years and you get a sense of the Sisyphean scale of the task.
Terence Brown has, wisely, not attempted the impossible but concentrates on the newspaper’s content, as it has been shaped not only by the circumstances of its creation but also by the people who created it – the journalists and, above all, the editors – up to March 2009. In all of this we are in his debt. It is impossible to think of anyone who would have achieved a better, or more stylish, resolution of such a difficult task.
His ambitious objective is to detail the newspaper’s experience “of a challenging modernity” and its “adaptation to modernity itself, in the context of an island nation within the European Union trading in the globalised economy of the late 20th and early 21st century”.
The adaptive responses he traces demonstrate that there were many subdivisions of the old unionist-nationalist dichotomy. The smoothness of the transition from empire to Free State, under the editor John Healy, was remarkable, even though Healy’s prediction in March 1920 that the Government of Ireland Act would “doom the Irish people to secular unsettlement” was, in a way, prescient.
Brown makes clear, however, that the paper’s unionism, originally red in tooth and claw, had, before 1920, already been softened by the realisation that the northern unionists, on whom southern unionists had depended for support, had decided to go it alone. This created a situation in which, as Brown observes, southern unionists “had to shift for themselves” and facilitated Healy’s no doubt reluctant transfer of focus.
The leopard kept some of its spots. The Irish Times's 1913 description of Jim Larkin as the Great Anarch is a case in point, and, as Brown points out, the reason George Russell's letter to the employers of Dublin at this time was afforded such prominence was because it was fundamentally a defence of Home Rule.
Conservatism with a green tinge
The next 10 years were marked by “conservatism with a green tinge” – one of Brown’s many apt phrases – as well as by the paper’s “characteristic Victorian disdain for concentrations of urban working-class people.” A perhaps even more surprising adaptation was the response to Éamon de Valera’s access to power: as early as February 1936 Bertie Smyllie, Healy’s successor, was editorialising mildly: “On many points of policy we agree, more or less cordially, with Mr de Valera.”
This is adaptation in spades, and Brown charts its course with a journalist's unerring eye for significant detail, as well as a historian's sensitivity to trends and a writer's gift for language. It is hardly coincidental that every chapter begins with an invocation of a writer, from Anthony Trollope to Eavan Boland, in a way that would look mannered if it did not emanate from such a skilful pen. One page namechecks no fewer than 18 of The Irish Times's literary contributors. It also is a strong pointer to Brown's personal, and highly cultural, agenda.
There is, though, a problem with the book's subtitle, 150 Years of Influence, which in all probability had nothing to do with the author. This smacks of a kind of genteel self-regard that has little enough to do with the rough and tumble of good journalism, is a huge oversimplification of the notoriously uncertain study of media effects and is, in any case, incapable of definitive proof.
It is hardly credible, for example, that in 1913, as suggested, The Irish Times's journalistic rival in Dublin was the Freeman's Journal; the real battle in this arena and elsewhere was between the Freeman and the Irish Independent. The Irish Times, then and for quite a few decades afterwards, was nobody's rival; the issue was not how much influence it had but how faithfully it represented the identity and priorities of the dwindling, and threatened, Protestant professional and middle classes, and whether that constituency was large enough to support it.
Long into the 20th century the circulation of The Irish Times was not only small but also largely confined to Dublin, and to south Dublin at that. Influence it may have had, but how much, and where? During the Mother and Child controversy of 1951 the circulation of the Irish Catholic was 83,000 – higher than that of The Irish Times today. And as late as the early 1960s The Irish Times was regarded as more or less irrelevant by the editorial staff and the circulation managers of the Irish Independent, locked as they were in a struggle to the death with the papers from Burgh Quay.
It was not until 1968, as Brown perceptively observes, that "the paper had become national, inasmuch as it was hard to think of the country without it". But even before that there were important straws in the wind. Among those Brown identifies are Hubert Butler's 1955 criticism of Irish Protestants as "one of the most inarticulate minorities in the world", Michael Viney's 1966 series on young offenders, and the outreach to Catholic Ireland (although Douglas Gageby's decision to publish an encyclical of Pope John XXIII in its entirety was perhaps a tad over the top). The country itself was now changing decisively, The Irish Times was changing with it, and its influence, however problematic the measurement, was growing.
This more modern phase of the paper’s existence benefits from a number of recent memoirs and assessments, whose relevance Brown generously acknowledges. But despite the paper’s pivotal role from the 1960s onwards it is hard to avoid the impression – which Brown hints at politely – that its view of Northern Ireland and its politics in part of this period was frequently distorted by a jejune romanticism.
What also has the ring of uncomfortable accuracy is his criticism of the “umbilical” bond that united Douglas Gageby and John Healy in defence – and sometimes in admiration – of Charles J Haughey, and of Gageby’s mind-boggling characterisation of Haughey as the contemporary reincarnation of the mythological Ulster hero Cúchulainn. He also expresses more directly his view that Gageby, whose first decade as editor was transformational and nationally influential, exhibited, in his second editorial decade, “a degree of obtuseness at how his own paper was changing and was itself helping to change Ireland”. Nobody is perfect.
The editorial reigns of Conor Brady and Geraldine Kennedy, which are dealt with briefly here, were most significant when they reincarnated the courage of the 1960s in modern dress. Douglas Gageby himself was fond of recalling how Mother Jones, the early 20th-century American feminist and agitator, defined the primary purpose of a newspaper as one of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
It is difficult, at the best of times, to deliver on these objectives when the need for adaptation continues to be pressing, and particularly when, as newspapers today know only too well, the comfortable are those who are paying for your lunch. But ideas like these, and the never-ending task of adaptation to the real, cut-throat, socially complex and technologically challenging world it inhabits, are what will determine not only a newspaper's continuing survival but also its relevance and value for the society it serves. John Horgan was an Irish Times journalist from 1963 to 1976, a professor of journalism from 1989 to 2006, and press ombudsman from 2007 to 2014