Fintan O’Toole: Communicorp fatwa is hysterical, but it’s not funny

Blacklisting ‘The Irish Times’ is an exercise in distraction but it raises important questions

By including Today FM, which has nothing at all to do with the original issue, in its fatwa, Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp has declared the separation, and editorial independence, of Newstalk and Today FM a fiction. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

By including Today FM, which has nothing at all to do with the original issue, in its fatwa, Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp has declared the separation, and editorial independence, of Newstalk and Today FM a fiction. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

There are two excellent reasons to stay silent on the fatwa pronounced by Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp group against Irish Times journalists appearing on its radio stations. One is that when people are determined to make fools of themselves, the wisest course is generally just to let them at it. The whole thing brings to mind the scene in Fawlty Towers in which Basil beats his own car with the branch of a tree. It’s hysterical.

The other is that this is a classic exercise in distraction. Page one of the Little Book of Crisis Management: when you’re in a mess of your own making, scream “Look! Over there!”

Communicorp actually concedes the substance of my column about Newstalk: that it has a serious problem with its lack of women presenters, a problem it claims to be anxious to address.

But instead of setting about doing this, Communicorp wants its unhappy staff to think of themselves as victims, not of their own management’s decisions, but of a vile plot by The Irish Times. Best not add more smoke to that smokescreen.

These two compelling reasons are just about outweighed, however, by three important things that need to be said. The fatwa is hysterical, but it is not really funny. It bears on the mood of fear in Irish journalism, on the regulation of broadcasting and on the broader political discourse.

When all else about this business is forgotten, what will be remembered by aspiring journalists is that George Hook is still working for Newstalk and that Dil Wickremasinghe is not

Firstly, I wrote that column about Newstalk because I can and other journalists can’t. I am white, male, long established and well paid. Most importantly, I know that when I write something that causes trouble, The Irish Times will stand by me. I know this because in almost 30 years of writing this column, not once has an editor refused to publish what I’ve written because he or she did not like what I said or because it might offend some powerful person. And when trouble duly comes, the paper backs me up. This is as it should be. But it’s not as it is for everyone, especially for young journalists working in non-unionised companies on temporary contracts.

Imagine, for example, that my column had appeared in one of the many newspapers published by Independent News and Media (INM), in which Denis O’Brien is also the leading shareholder. Would Communicorp’s demand for a grovelling apology, and for the column to be deleted from the web, have been refused? I like to think it would: INM has many excellent editors who value the principles of editorial independence.

But imagine, then, that the author of the column was a freelance and that Denis O’Brien called her – as he called me last week – “a nasty journalist” whose work “needs to be stamped out in Ireland”. Would she feel she had much of a future there?

Diversity of voices

This is not an abstract question. The most unfunny aspect of this whole affair is the sudden cancellation of Dil Wickremasinghe’s Global Village programme on Newstalk. The programme has been a great haven for the diversity of voices seldom heard in Irish public discourse. It means that when all else about this business is forgotten, what will be remembered by aspiring journalists is that George Hook is still working for Newstalk and that Dil Wickremasinghe, who issued a very measured statement critical of his comments about rape, is not. That is a powerful lesson – and a fearful one.

The second important thing about the fatwa is that it blows apart one of the assumptions of the licensing regime for Irish radio. The concern that the only two independent national talk radio stations are owned in effect by the same person has been countered by the assurance that Newstalk and Today FM are, editorially, entirely independent entities. They are supposed to be competing with each other. But by including Today FM (which has nothing at all to do with the original issue) in its fatwa, Communicorp has shamelessly declared this separation a fiction. The station is not free to make its own editorial decisions after all.

High Court

Finally, there is a bigger context to all of this. This autumn alone, Denis O’Brien will be appealing the High Court’s dismissal of his case against the State over statements made by two TDs in the Dáil about his banking affairs. His separate case for alleged defamation against Red Flag Consulting will continue in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. He is perfectly entitled to use the law to stop what he clearly sees as unfair criticism or overly intrusive scrutiny. There is no doubt that he is genuinely upset and affronted by criticism of his companies by journalists or TDs and that he finds it personally intolerable.

Most media owners, merely out of self-interest, tend to take a wide view of freedom of expression. But Denis O’Brien is not one of them; he is temperamentally disinclined to do so. And this is a problem for a small, intimate democracy in which one person (Denis O’Brien) has an unprecedented level of personal influence over print and broadcast media.

There is a rather unfortunate clash between the needs of an open society and the inclinations of the man who has such power over how it is informed. We should not be afraid to talk about that. 

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