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Kathy Sheridan: Eoghan Harris’s defence doesn’t stack up

There is a distinction between robust commentary and vitriolic abuse

No regular follower of Eoghan Harris would have been surprised by his RTÉ interview with Sarah McInerney. Certainly not by the line about a “ban” by RTÉ or being deprived of platforms. The complaint was as predictable as the sheer nonsensical incongruity of it.

Across the decades at pivotal times in national discourse, Eoghan Harris was the serial alpha male presence on the most highly rated shows of powerful platforms, mainly due to his media-policy adviser-advocacy role to various political parties and candidates. In print he not only commanded priceless space and freedom to express his views in Ireland’s top-selling Sunday broadsheet but shaped vital aspects of that paper’s agenda. What he did with all that power and exposure is another column entirely.

Some of us step back from broadcasting invitations for personal reasons, others get bored, most are out-run by fresher, more relevant voices. No one knows this better than Eoghan Harris. Throughout ageing and internal wars, he managed to maintain his influence and space in the Sunday Independent. His self-confidence never wavered. On October 4th his offering began: “Last week most of the good stuff was on Newstalk [a national broadcaster], starting with my post-mortem on the US presidential debate…”

He has never lacked a privileged, paid, national platform. More pertinently, he never lacked a sense of entitlement to one. That’s the part that astounds the many women (with apologies to all dismayed below-the-line posters for introducing “women” into it) who wonder how to acquire it.


Harris “needed” the Twitter outlet for himself and a bunch of cross people who did not include journalists or politicians, oddly, but demanded anonymity because they weren’t cross enough to front up to Sinn Féin. He wouldn’t have minded but he “just didn’t want to be sitting there having to consult with [his collaborators] all the time”.

This is understandable. No one accustomed to power, control and wielding a very specific agenda wants to be consulting a bunch of people. It’s a bore. And who needs editors, eh? But there’s a downside. If your modus operandi is to snipe at female political journalists with terms like “imbecile” and suggesting they’re “turned on” by a female political leader, who takes the hit when the worm turns?

Harris’s defenders accuse critics of kicking him when he’s down or of failing to expose him long ago. Which is to miss the point. Where is that spirited bunch of “older” unionists/trade unionists/historians/businesspeople et al who contributed their pensées to the Barbara Pym club? Where are they hiding now that their founder has lost his paid work?

Can any of them explain how a secret cabal of historians/unionists/businesspeople repeatedly targeting female journalists, politicians and academics among others, was supposed to reassure unionists who are hopping mad about the NI Protocol? Is this what we must expect on a shared island ? If that was indeed the strategy, as Harris suggested, it was risibly counter-productive.

As for failing to out the accountholders, here is the news: if you’re about to allege that a named person has abused or harassed you, you had better come armed with evidence. As it happens, one journalist had taken her complaint to the Garda. A man who believed he had been professionally and personally impugned was already taking legal action when Harris was unmasked.

Abusive tweets

Perhaps the least surprising part of the RTÉ interview was the revelation that Sarah McInerney herself had been a target of personalised and abusive tweets from the Barbara Pym club. Harris’s response was to double down – “you’re a strong presenter now… you’re no dying violet like, you know”, then to deny the tweets were personalised. She had muted them she said, precisely because they were personalised and abusive. He was right about one thing: Sarah McInerney is no dying violet. If this fearless interviewer was sufficiently unsettled by tweets to mute the accounts, Harris’s defenders might take a look at themselves again. In 12 years, she has muted only 15 accounts. His were among them.

Like many journalists I’ve had a few bruising mentions in his Sunday column and took them on the chin. Like many I’ve also had a glance off a suspended account or two. That’s hardly surprising in view of his sweeping comment that if the account “is tweeting criticism at people, they richly deserved it because they’re usually Sinn Féin enablers, or stooges, or pawns”.

Journalists expect routine malicious, public accusations of selling out, of corruption, of being shills for Big Pharma, vulture funds, FF-FG and worse but I suspect they never get used to it. This week, some journalists were slyly targeted for following certain accounts, the implication being that this was an act of fealty as opposed to doing the job of getting out of the echo chamber and attending to what others are saying.

Attempts to engage often encourage waves of retweets of the original post. Like McInerney and others, I rarely muted accounts or used the “mute this conversation” button in the past (rendering those accounts invisible to the muter only) because it’s not in a journalist’s nature to shut out exchanges or at least the knowledge of them. Now I do both, liberally.

There is a distinction between robust commentary and vitriolic abuse.

The lesson is to name it, fearlessly, loudly and repeatedly.