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Reaction to Varadkar’s criticism says more about media insecurity

Silly season and hypersensitivity turn offhand comments into front-page news

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photograph: Kim Haughton/EPA

The coverage of and criticism directed at Leo Varadkar’s comments about journalism in New York earlier this week reveals more about the insecurity of Irish media than it does about the Taoiseach’s views.

The story broke in Ireland on Tuesday night. Before breakfast on Wednesday the National Union of Journalists had denounced the remarks “attributed” to the Taoiseach and called for them to be clarified “as a matter of urgency”.

The NUJ went on to criticise the Taoiseach for what it described as his “particular criticism of RTÉ” which it said was “especially concerning” because it suggested “a hostility” on the Government’s part to the public-sector broadcaster. The NUJ added that the Taoiseach’s reported comments on Prime Time “if true” were “gratuitous and insulting”. It accused the Taoiseach of having “targeted” named programmes and groups in a “cowardly” manner by doing so “off the record”.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin, ever attuned to the media opportunities which arise from defending the media, quickly got in on the act

Early on Wednesday morning, RTÉ’s managing director of news, Jon Williams, rushed out a series of defensive tweets about how award-winning RTÉ’s investigative journalists have been of late. He did so having assumed, it seems on the basis of the newspaper reports, that the Taoiseach’s remarks amounted to a generalised attack on RTÉ’s investigative reporting. Many readers, however, would have promptly spotted that any reference to RTÉ in that context by the Taoiseach was more likely to have been a specific reference to RTÉ’s disastrous Prime Time Investigates programme in 2011 which falsely accused an Irish priest of raping a teenage girl in Kenya.


Outrage

One of Williams’s tweets was typical of the way in which the media over-reacted to the story. He tweeted “To be clear #Trump called the media ‘enemy of the people’. He’s wrong. If the Taoiseach really sympathises with that view, he’s wrong too. #PressFreedom”. The outrage in that tweet of course was contingent on whether the Taoiseach shared Trump’s view that the media is the enemy of the people, a patently inaccurate presumption, for which there was no basis even in the reports of Varadkar’s New York lunch. Williams was rewarded for his tweet with 49 retweets, many of them from RTÉ journalists.

In the following hours, chapels of journalists weighed in against Varadkar. The collective and definitive view of the political correspondents was that the Taoiseach had made “a considerable gaffe”, and that he had scored “a major own goal”. Political commentators derided Varadkar’s remarks as “utterly ridiculous” and “pathetic stuff”, and dismissed him as a “boy leader”. Some even wondered aloud whether he had been suffering from jet lag or had “bumped his head”.

Once fired up, the journalist mob got no time to pause and reflect on the story, so busy were they tweeting their own “outrage” or “disappointment” or retweeting the outrage or disappointment of colleagues. The BBC’s Fergal Keane tweeted: “Ill judged comments of the year award”.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin, ever attuned to the media opportunities which arise from defending the media, quickly got in on the act. He was the first politician out with a press release criticising Varadkar for his “attack on the Irish media”. Howlin was duly rewarded with a place on a panel headlining on the topic at the start of Today with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio 1. Howlin expressed himself “disturbed” and “disquieted” by the Taoiseach’s remarks, particularly at “this juncture”. He went on to rapidly reference not only Trump, but “Orbán in Hungary” and “the situation in Poland” to suggest that “pillars of a democratic society [are] under strain” and implying that Varadkar in his remarks was somehow contributing to all this.

Leaders’ Questions

Not to be outdone, Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea appeared on the Leinster House plinth, where he bravely defended the Leinster House media. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald followed suit. She regarded the controversy as of such national importance that it was worthy of discussion in the Dáil at Leaders’ Questions. She too accused the Taoiseach of “attack[ing] Irish investigative journalism” on the basis of a reported reference to Prime Time.

This was a story which one would hope in a busy month might have just about made the cut for Miriam Lord’s Saturday omnibus in this newspaper or some of the political gossip columns in other publications. A combination of news drought at the start of the silly season and hypersensitivity on the part of the media, however, meant it was carried on the front page of two national newspapers and became the main political news story on much of the broadcast media.

In an ironic twist, some media outlets, including this newspaper, accused the Taoiseach of having a “tin ear”.

One wonders whether on calmer reflection the media might have the insight to see that its reaction this week was a tad over the top.