Editor's death frees us to appreciate success of "Sindo"

 

IT’S BEEN my experience of media that, whenever I am somehow implicated in a story, I find that virtually all the minor details are reported inaccurately and several critical ones not at all. This leads me sometimes to wonder if anything we are told about anything is more than about 50 per cent reliable.

Ten years ago, I was the plaintiff in a libel action against the Sunday Times, when its gossip columnist Terry Keane misappropriated part of a speech I made in the Abbey Theatre about a production of the Euripides play Medea.

The libel was so barefaced and malicious that I eventually won the action by a knockout, but you wouldn’t have known this from most of the media coverage, which seemed deliberately to avoid explaining how blatant the lie had been.

On the very first day of the trial, the jury was shown the paragraph from my speech on which Terry Keane had based her attack and could see that she had omitted about 20 key words from her quotation, utterly changing the meaning. All that week, however, not one media report referred to those 20 words, which meant that most people I encountered thought I was mad to go to court.

Then, halfway through the trial, the Sunday Independentcarried a report by Liam Collins in which the full extent of the libel was laid bare. They just published those 20 words. People who had been wondering if I had gone crazy started asking me what on earth the Sunday Timeswas doing defending this article in court.

That’s when I started rethinking Aengus Fanning. We had long been at loggerheads, dating back to 1995 when Tony O’Reilly bought a significant stake in Independent Newspapers’ main rival newspaper group, the Irish Press. Having warned of the dangers for media diversity, I became embroiled in skirmishes with several Independent scribes.

On radio last Sunday, a former editor of this newspaper, Geraldine Kennedy, spoke of “agendas” being pursued by the Sunday Independentand people being “targeted” under Fanning’s editorship. As one of those who might have grounds for such a complaint, I feel a need to say something about this.

One of the things I eventually came to understand about Aengus Fanning was that his personality was too buoyant and ironic to carry anything as heavy as malice. He actually had no “agenda” other than to produce newspapers that people wanted to read. His Sunday Independentdid, of course, have agendas. (What else is a newspaper, but an agenda for the day?) But it carried a far broader range of views than any other Irish newspaper, and cannot plausibly be said to have presented a narrow or easily diagnosable agenda.

Absorbing the tributes to Fanning last week, I found it interesting that what might cursorily be interpreted as a commendable wish to speak well of the dead was harmonising with what we knew about the remarkable success and impact of the newspaper he edited for 28 years. Normally, when the subject of the “Sindo” comes up in polite society, all parties to the discussion seem to feel the need to decry the newspaper they have all read from front to back. (I say this as someone who has uttered as many pieties as anyone.) Last week, people seemed to become liberated to say things that corresponded to what the circulation figures had been telling us for years.

Fanning understood that there are things people feel and think that they do not feel permitted to speak, but that they may gain courage from somebody else speaking them first. Unlike many of his critics, he had a genuinely liberal view of public thought and discussion, believing that nothing is lost by enabling something to be said. He had a genius for going about the place picking up what people were really thinking and finding ways of putting it into print.

He perceived that, with the proper leavening, a newspaper could handle any level of complexity, yet remain popular. The Sunday Independentweekly testified that people like gossip, sex and fashion as much as intense arguments and occasional bursts of wild rhetoric. Fanning understood that such mixed desirings don’t necessarily characterise different sets of people – that most people have their light and heavy sides.

He and his wife and deputy Anne Harris harvested the slightly hidden complexities of Irish society and put them into their newspaper, which people bought in their droves. Other editors envied their achievement but hadn’t a clue how to emulate it. Could anyone conceive of a newspaper as popular as the Sunday Independentthat somehow managed to have everyone agreeing with everything it contained?

No, it was inevitable that such journalism would create discomfort, especially for those who, like myself, occasionally rode or blundered into some melee. The “Sindo” created turbulence, but it was, on balance, a redemptive turbulence – that of the spring clean or the detox. The measure of its contribution has resided as much in how it incensed us as in its capacity to utter what we were secretly thinking to ourselves.