In a Word . . . Media

Irish media for a long time did a medium job – at best – of holding power to account

There have to be times when our politicians and others in public life must long for the good old days in Ireland when, as the late Dick Walsh of this parish once put it, "the press wouldn't say boo to a goose". It's not so long ago.

Writing in 1999, following Mary Raftery's RTÉ series States of Fear, which exposed the abuse of children in orphanages, industrial schools, reformatories, and parishes in Ireland, Walsh wondered how this could have happened in a country with an active media.

He offered: "The Irish Independent, a respected and authoritative newspaper, was too busy with [Catholic bishops'] Lenten pastorals. The Irish Press sheltered a fine collection of sacked schoolteachers, spoiled priests and lapsed republicans but, with Fianna Fáil in power, steered clear of controversy. So did Radio Éireann and the Cork Examiner, as they then were; and The Irish Times, selling fewer than 30,000 copies a day, hardly mattered."

An illustration of how this newspaper "hardly mattered" in those mid-20th-century decades was the work of the great Michael Viney, still writing for the paper today.

His 1966 series The Young Offenders exposed the dismal condition of children in reformatories. In 1964 his No Birthright articles reported on the abuse of unmarried women and children in Ireland. And no one shouted “Stop!”

It would be 2009 before the Ryan report was published, with its scathing findings on abuse of children in orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories. And – 43 years later – it quoted from Michael Viney’s Young Offenders series.

Last January the Mother and Baby Homes Commission report was published – 56 years after Michael Viney's No Birthright series.

Without media, in particular Mary Raftery and the earlier work of Michael Viney, authorities here would never have felt impelled to investigate the outrageous treatment of women and children in those woeful institutions funded by the State.

The media does indeed do some service. Yet, I always feel a deep unease when I hear it proclaimed by colleagues that media is essential to democracy – it is so overblown and embarrassingly self-serving.

True, when we are good in media we can be very good, but when we are bad we are awful. Worse, in cases. We do our bit.

Media, plural of medium, from Latin, for "that which holds a middle place or position".

inaword@irishtimes.com