Hard pressed newspapers take a lead from British tabloids


If Bishop Brendan Comiskey's press conference at St Peter's College, Wexford on Wednesday had been a football match, the score would have been Bishop Comiskey 3, the media 1.

It was felt that Bishop Comiskey failed to answer adequately questions about the handling of clerical child abuse in his diocese.

However, this was overshadowed by the media's own failures and the number of inaccuracies he listed during the press conference. Bishop Comiskey handled the press conference with confidence.

He had answers to most of the criticisms, including those about his holidays in Thailand, dismissing the innuendoes contained in the Thailand stories. Even the facts of where he had received his treatment for alcoholism were corrected not the exclusive Hazelden Clinic in Florida but a centre 1,000 miles away in Rochester, Minnesota.

Within two hours of Bishop Comiskey's going off the air, RTE's Liveline started receiving media bashing phone calls.

Des Cahill, filling in for Marian Finucane, commented at one stage that the media was really "getting a lash".

Even this week the Star published a photograph of Pattaya Beach, a notorious centre of the Thai sex trade, with the caption "A favourite spot", without actually saying whose favourite spot.

The Sun published a headline, saying "I didn't Bang in Bangkok," adding a quote from Bishop Comiskey "I did not set out to consort with prostitutes."

Inside the newspaper was a photograph of a Thai bar, with young prostitutes. "What the Bishop missed in Thailand ... hookers mingle with clients in one of the many sleazy bars," said the caption.

There are a number of factors which led to the sort of treatment received by Bishop Comiskey.

There is the Irish tradition of rumour and gossip, and also there are forces pushing Irish media towards something that increasingly resembles British tabloids. In the past few years a major change has taken price, with increasing sales of British newspapers and the development of more Irish editions.

This leaves the Star competing head on with the Sun every day and the Sunday Independent with the Sunday Times. There is increased pressure to get any Irish story first, so as not to give British newspapers a boost in circulation.

Irish newspapers are trying to compete for circulation with media groups which have vastly greater resources. Such pressure carries the risk of greater inaccuracy.

But the attitudes and policy of the Catholic Church with its obsessive secrecy are also an important element. And there is the belief among many within the church that there is an anti Catholic conspiracy within the media.

If someone had simply answered a few straight questions six months ago, Bishop Comiskey might not have had to answer so many questions last week and might enjoy more of the kind of privacy in his life that he said he so much wanted.