Media role as ‘cheerleaders’ under scrutiny in ‘Irish Times’ debate

‘Sometimes if the public demand more Ross O’Carroll Kelly you have to give them more Morgan Kelly’

There is a long tradition in college debating of being polite to the sponsor but that was gleefully disregarded by the winners of this year's Irish Times debate competition.

The motion was: “This house believes that the fourth estate failed the Irish people in their hour of need”. And if the proposing side had been dealt the easier hand it certainly took full advantage, not to mention great pleasure in knocking journalists from their pedestal.

Individual winner Eoin MacLachlan of UCD L&H said the media became "spectacularly good cheerleaders for the boom".

While there were occasional warnings, like Morgan Kelly’s Irish Times article in December 2006, "they were patchwork examples in a sea of adoration for what was going on".


Worst of all, the media relied on estate agents and other professionals with a vested interest in the property market to comment as "experts", without making these connections clear to the public, said Mr MacLachlan who received the Christina Murphy memorial trophy from the late journalist's son Eric Mullane.

The team winners from Trinity College Dublin Phil were also for the proposition.

Rónán O'Connor said that during the boom years the media was "less interested in being the fourth estate than being an estate agent", citing the purchase of by The Irish Times.

This couldn’t but influence editorial judgement, he argued, pointing out “there was no place on page one for Garret FitzGerald’s insightful analysis”.

Team-mate Hugh Guidera presented a long rap-sheet against the press, including Brendan O’Connor’s article in the Sunday Independent in July 2007 arguing the "smart, ballsy guys are buying up property right now".

Mr Guidera said there was “something rotten” in the way the media handled its privileged access, claiming it tended to exclude marginalised voices.

When abuse survivor Michael O’Brien spoke so powerfully on RTÉ's Questions & Answers in 2009 about the experience of child abuse he was "breaking through" this media-constructed barrier.

Dismissing the idea that ratings should dictate coverage, Mr Guidera added: "Sometimes if the public demand more Ross O'Carroll Kelly you have to give them more Morgan Kelly. "

Opposing the motion, the NUI Galway Lit & Deb society team of Shane Commins and Conor Kelly - who were runners-up in the competition - argued: "We don't think it's fair to say the fourth estate has failed when we have created a system where it's impossible for it to win".

The pair pointed to the decision last week to postpone an interview with Taoiseach Enda Kenny by half an hour to facilitate an episode of Eastenders because of public demand.

Investigative magazine Magill stopped publishing "because people would rather read fluffy pieces", and newspapers were under financial pressure because "we have become politically disengaged", said Mr Commins.

The UCD L&H team of Robert MacCarthy and Peter Murphy took a similar tact, arguing that the media “laid the tools at our feet” to act, while also identifying exactly “who betrayed us”.

Mr McCarthy said the fourth estate could generate change but “Fintan O’Toole cannot knock the phone out of Brian Lenihan’s hand and say, ‘don’t do it, Brian’.”

An original and thought-provoking contribution came from the independent UCD team of Susan Connolly and Muireann O’Dwyer who argued that the media had failed to tackle Ireland’s “fear of dissent”.

By “setting intangible standards such as balance”, and having a “fear of ridicule especially”, media organisations were excluding alternative voices, said Ms O’Dwyer.

Dissent was “a progressive thing” and the hallmark of pluralism, and “it’s not good enough to have to find it in the dregs of the internet”.

Ms O’Dwyer added that a newspaper should ask fundamental questions and challenge assumptions. “It should be more than a mirror. Why should I buy a newspaper when I also have a mirror in the bathroom?”

In a witty and well-crafted address, William Dunne of TCD Hist likened the property bubble to a version of The Emperor's New Clothes in which people went mad buying "invisible houses".

It was the duty of the fourth estate was not to marvel at the emperor’s tailor but “instead decry his nakedness”, said Mr Devine who was runner-up in the individual competition.

Other finalists were Matthew Collins of TCD Phil and Christopher O’Reilly of the Solicitors’ Apprentices Debating Society of Ireland. The former pointed to the role the public played in shaping journalistic values, while the latter highlighted how in the 2007 general election “we voted to keep the party going”.

Convenor David Hopkins, who was a runner up in 2009, had chosen the motion - which produced a hung verdict from the audience following the debate. The adjudicators included The Irish Times editor Kevin O'Sullivan, and the event was chaired by Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes, a graduate of hosts Maynooth University.

Mr Hopkins, a secondary school teacher in Bettystown, Co Meath, thanked the various mentors and judges who had given time to support the competition, and paid tribute to Janet Stafford of The Irish Times who had acted as its "trustee" for many years.

Previous winners of the competition, now in its 55th year, include journalist Eamonn McCann, Supreme Court judge Adrian Hardiman, broadcaster Marian Finucane and comedian Dara O’Briain.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column