Fintan O’Toole named European Commentator of the Year

'Irish Times' journalist recognised for his insightful commentary on Brexit

 Fintan O’Toole, columnist, The Irish Times, speaking at The Irish Times Corporate Tax Summit in  Dublin in January of this year. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Fintan O’Toole, columnist, The Irish Times, speaking at The Irish Times Corporate Tax Summit in Dublin in January of this year. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole has been awarded a European Press Prize for his work on the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. He is the first Irish recipient of the prestigious award.

O’Toole was announced as the winner in the Commentator category at a ceremony in Amsterdam on Thursday evening.

The judges hailed “his perspective, his acute observation - and the pungent writing style that make these ideas live”. His “vivid series” on Brexit added “an extra dimension of Dublin alarm” as the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, the panel added.

Also shortlisted in the Commentary category were journalists from Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK, including the late Sunday Times critic AA Gill and John Harris of the Guardian.

I think it was important for Ireland and for Irish journalism that there was a specific Irish response to Brexit

The annual European Press Prize, which is open to print and digital journalists from any of the 47 countries in the Council of Europe, awards four prizes, each worth €10,000, for Commentary, Distinguished Writing, Innovation, and Investigative Reporting.

‘Huge honour’

O’Toole, who is assistant editor at The Irish Times and has been a columnist with the paper since 1988, said he was humbled by the “huge honour” and paid tribute to the “formidable” journalists on the shortlist.

Fintan O'Toole writes on Brexit

“I think it’s particularly pleasing because the work is to do with Brexit. I think it was important for Ireland and for Irish journalism that there was a specific Irish response to Brexit.

“It’s obviously an enormous European story, but there was a very particular Irish take on it, and I think that’s where The Irish Times was really important for public discourse in Ireland, but also in Europe,” he said.

Ireland offered a unique vantage point on Brexit and its fallout, given the relationship between the two islands, he added. “I suppose we think we understand Britain in ways, both good and bad, that other European countries might not.

“At the same time there’s also a very particular kind of anger in Ireland because the effects on us are so profound.”

Fintan O’Toole is this year’s winner in a field that included John Harris’s brilliant commentaries on Britain’s EU referendum from the Guardian. Photograph: Clare Keogh/Provision
Fintan O’Toole is this year’s winner in a field that included John Harris’s brilliant commentaries on Britain’s EU referendum from the Guardian. Photograph: Clare Keogh/Provision

The winning series includes articles written before and after the referendum in June last year, including a front-page commentary in The Irish Times, published under the headline “Brexit fantasy is about to come crashing down”, on the morning after the result. The series included articles that also appeared in the Guardian and Observer.

O’Toole, who was previously shortlisted for the award in 2016, remarked that it was in times of crisis that readers were most engaged with opinion columns.

I think what we’re seeing now is that there is a swing back towards newspapers

“It’s not necessarily that they’re looking to agree with you, but they’re looking to formulate their own thoughts and it’s useful for them to have somebody articulate something.”

Palpable engagement

Despite the turmoil caused by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, however, O’Toole said he saw grounds for some optimism in the “palpable sense of engagement” both events had spurred.

“I think people are also coming back to newspapers. There is a sense that in better times, people maybe felt that they didn’t really need newspapers - that they were superfluous.

“I think what we’re seeing now is that there is a swing back towards newspapers. People are subscribing, people are engaging with newspapers more, because they do need sources of information that they trust, and they need a kind of analysis that is evidence-based.”

Among the projects shortlisted in the Investigative Reporting category was “The Panama Papers - The Secrets of Dirty Money”, an investigation by dozens of journalists across Europe, including Colm Keena of The Irish Times, into the secret world of Panamanian offshore companies.

This was published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in alliance with The Irish Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Guardian, Le Monde and 38 other major European publications.