Media's role in O'Flaherty case under scrutiny

Dr Jim McDaid may have had a minor attack of histrionics when he declared the Irish media to be a threat to democracy as great…

Dr Jim McDaid may have had a minor attack of histrionics when he declared the Irish media to be a threat to democracy as great as that found in 1930s Germany. But he did raise an interesting question. Have the media lost the run of themselves entirely over the Hugh O'Flaherty case? Are they representing public opinion or fuelling and stoking it?

A foreign visitor might wonder what heinous crime was committed by this Hugh O'Flaherty. There were a few who declared in various ways that Mr O'Flaherty was being hard done by, such as Vincent Browne, Tom McGurk, Damien Kiberd, Kevin Myers and John Waters, but the vast majority of the commentary went entirely the other way.

It is interesting that very few were willing to explore the idea that Charlie McCreevy may have done the wrong thing for the right reason, or indeed, that Mr O'Flaherty may have done likewise. Given that the poor and powerless are never likely to have such an influential advocate as Mr O'Flaherty to expedite their cases, what the former judge did was unfair and wrong. But is it not just possible that he acted as he did because of unwise and ill-judged kindness? As for Mr McCreevy, when it comes to his economic policies such as individualisation, I persevere in criticising them at every available opportunity, despite the somewhat irritating knowledge that the bould Charlie is sublimely indifferent to anything I might write. But in this case the possibility exists that he did the wrong thing for the right reasons.

The standard interpretation is that it is typical Fianna Fail golden circle cronyism, a sign that Fianna Fail has learned nothing and never will. But what if Mr McCreevy judged that Mr O'Flaherty was being punished to a cruel and unusual degree for something which was admittedly wrong?


The key to this analysis is Cyril Kelly. Almost everyone is agreed that his role in the Sheedy case also raised serious questions. Yet we are not inundated with daily calls for him to clarify his role in the case. He has well-nigh disappeared.

The reality is that Mr O'Flaherty is a godsend, a story which can be resurrected and re-run with increasing degrees of self-righteousness. If Mr McCreevy is possibly doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, the media could be judged to be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

The media should not just shrug when an appointment like this is made. But neither should they milk it to the very last degree. There is a great deal of hand-wringing about the Ryan family who lost their mother, but how real is the sympathy? How weary are the Ryans of seeing the story splashed day after day in the papers?

This saga amounts to an irresistible opportunity to bash Fianna Fail, combined with the sniff of an election. There is a great self-pitying tradition in Fianna Fail which blames all the ills of the party on the media. But just because Fianna Fail is paranoid does not mean that the media are not out to get them. Conversely, just because significant sections of the media are pathologically opposed to Fianna Fail does not mean that Fianna Fail does not deserve a regular smacking around the head from the media. But it is all a question of balance, and in Mr O'Flaherty's case, balance has flown out the window.

Not for the first time. Those in the media who despise Fianna Fail often do so for very mixed motives. For some, Fianna Fail is shorthand for all that is wrong with Ireland - conservative, rural, Mass-going rednecks who impede the glorious march forward to a secular, multicultural, pluralist, tolerant Ireland. Tolerant, that is, of anyone who has the good taste to agree 100 per cent with the ruling opinion formers.

For such commentators, the war against Fianna Fail is not just a war against corruption and cronyism. It is a war against everything which Fianna Fail stands for, some of which might not be so bad.

The odd thing is that the Fianna Fail which these commentators so despise may exist only at local cumann level. At party leadership level, Fianna Fail is pretty indistinguishable from any other party.

Media people always salivate at the prospect of an election and have been doing their damnedest to precipitate one for weeks. But is that responsible behaviour?

Do we need an election right now, particularly since most of the major parties have nearly identical economic and social policies? Will it really make an enormous difference? Is it not most likely to result in more politicians being elected on an anti-political ticket, that is, more independent deputies, who will assiduously work the system for the benefit of their own patch? And those poor suckers who have neither a minister nor an independent deputy in their constituency can continue to rot.

Is this not precisely what we accuse Mr O'Flaherty of - that he worked the system to the advantage of the kind of people he knows best? Why do the media want an election which will in all likelihood increase the amount of this kind of behaviour, not decrease it?

By now, some will be hopping up and down and yelling that the media were only reflecting public opinion. I wonder. There is deep and genuine anger out there. However, the media seized upon that anger and amplified and reinforced it at every turn. No one likes admitting that we are influenced by what we see and hear, but we all are.

Not that it is a simple cause-and-effect relationship. Witness the divorce referendum. Despite the fact that the vast majority of media people would approve of and advocate the legalisation of divorce, almost half the voters managed to vote against it.

No, the truth is probably closer to the old dictum - "the media cannot tell us what to think, but they can tell us what to think about." It is interesting to see what news took a back seat recently. For example, the opening of IRA arms dumps passed almost by the way, despite the fact that it had been demanded for years.

What would happen if the media were as energised by other things as they are by the prospects of an election? What if day after day after day people ran stories with the same obsessive attention devoted to Mr O'Flaherty, but instead demanding the decent treatment of those with disabilities, or calls for residential treatment centres for young drug addicts, or a huge investment in new kinds of social housing? Day after day after day? But these won't lead to elections or increased media consumption and so it will never happen.