A dispute between a journalist and Nama over the meaning of the word "including" has spent four years travelling through the Irish courts with a final judgement expected from the Supreme Court soon, the Cleraun Media Conference heard this afternoon.
Journalist Gavin Sheridan detailed his long-running battle with the State-owned property agency which started in 2009 when he attempted to use European environmental legislation to extract some information about its operations.
Nama was not covered by Freedom of Information legislation but it was Sheridan who discovered that it could be forced to shine at least some light on how it was doing business by way of an Environmental Information regulation which covers public bodies “including... a board or other body established by or under statute”.
Initially Nama denied that it was a public body and then, when it was forced to accept that it was in fact such a body, it claimed that the “including” in the legislation actually meant “may include”.
Sheridan took the case to the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, Emily O'Reilly who ruled in his favour. This then prompted Nama to take the case to the High Court which also ruled in his favour, prompting the agency to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, which is still deliberating.
“Everyone has a right to freedom of expression but freedom of expression is useless without access to freedom of information,” Sheridan told the assembled delegates at the 15th Cleraun Media Conference which had as its theme: Getting It Right This Time:
“Your right to access information is a fundamental right, and a core principal while empowers all citizens.”
There was also a lively exchange at the conference between UCD academic Julien Mercille and economist Dan O’Brien.
Mr Mercille said that while economists were “mistaken about the bubble, training journalists [to be more economically literate] would not have changed too much”.
He also claimed that sceptics who suggested that all was not right with the economy “were drowned out in print”.
He said a media consensus and an unwillingness to challenge political and business consesnsus had played a role in the magnifying the scale of the crisis.
Mr O’Brien disputed this view, placing the blame squarely on economists. “We didn’t think [the banking sector] was a risk and that was a major mistake. We were supposed to be the experts. Journalists are not the experts,” he said.
Mr O’Brien, a former economics editor of The Irish Times who now works for Independent News and Media, said “the notion that the media did the bidding of Government and business is completely at odds with my experience”.
He pointed out that bubbles are very hard to spot even by self-styled experts. “Forecasters can’t predict that much at all and they tend to stay with the herd,” he said.
He said Mr Mercille had "quite correctly lionised" Morgan Kelly - who first indentified the bubble in this newspaper in 2006. O'Brien also singled out Richard Curran's Future Shock progamme on RTÉ the following April for praise.
He did say the newspapers had made mistakes - most notably in listening to economists. “Media should ignore economic forecasts and not report them because they are rubbish,” he said. He also suggested that fewer platforms should be given to vested interests and spokespeople put forward by such groups “should not be considered experts”.
Irish Times journalist Colm Keena gave a masterclass in investigative journalism during the first session on Saturday. He stressed the importance of establishing contacts and scratching the surface of PR spin to get to the truth. And he highlighted the need to build trust between journalists and both their sources and their readers.
“If you are not casual with the facts then people close to the story will begin to trust you and they might be more inclined to respect you,” he said.
In the final round table, called squaring the resources circle, the editor of
Irish Times editor Kevin O’Sullivan and RTE’s current affairs managing editor David Nally spoke of the importance of investigative journalism and the future of news in an age of digital dissonance.
Mr O’Sullivan described investigative journalism as a key component of the added value a newspaper can provide.
He said the traditional information flow from news organisation to reader had changed and become “a grand conversation” and one which has become two-way. He said a challenge facing newspapers was how to respond to the changing patterns of digital consumption among readers.
He said newspapers would have to develop multiple revenue streams and said a “digital pass” will become a source of revenue from digital content on the Irish Times beginning next year
Mr Nally rejected the notion that RTÉ “got it wrong” in relation to the property bubble and he showed multiple clips from 2003 and 2008 in which the station broadcast warning of the possibility of a crash.
However he accepted that lessons would need to be learned including the need to be “more alive to the vested interests that some economists serve” and to play closer attention to personal debt and the role of regulators.