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6 September 2007 Edition

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Media View

When silly gives way to sleaze

Summer is traditionally the “silly” season for newspapers and broadcasting media, as the shortage of news means that pages have to be filled with stories that normally would not make the grade.
The most famous of these was a traffic jam in London many years ago when a dead donkey in the middle of the road caused a snarl-up that lasted several hours.
Even the television stations were poised to run with this story, when ‘something’ political happened, and the news editor made room for the new story with the classic line: “Drop the Dead Donkey”.
Such, however, has been the scale of the dumbing down of Irish newspapers that it is now very difficult to identify stories that would normally not make the grade.
An example of this is last Sunday’s Sunday Independent.  Ever on the look-out for sleaze and trivia, the Labour leadership contest gave the sewer rag a prime opportunity to indulge its penchant for spite and taking pleasure from the difficulties of others.
Liz McManus’s decision not to go forward in the leadership or deputy leadership contest was a chance to trot out a story about the break up of McManus’s marriage.
This is really nobody’s business outside the small circle of those directly involved, and no public interest could have been remotely served by publishing the story.  The link with the Labour leadership was tenuous in the extreme, but it filled some space on the front page – and why should the Sindo be concerned about the feelings of people named.
Once you’re a public figure, they believe, then anything’s fair game in the struggle to increase circulation and make more profit for the paper’s owners.
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Meanwhile the real leadership contest has petered out in a failure of nerve by prospective candidates to take on the challenge of early front-runner, Eamon Gilmore.
But the most noteworthy aspect of Gilmore’s leadership challenge was completely ignored by all the media, big or small, sordid or serious.  And that is the fact that he deliberately drew back from the argument he made after the 2002 general election that Labour should work to build a united Left (including Sinn Féin, the Greens and sundry Left figures).
Time will tell whether Gilmore has actually abandoned that view, or whether he was making a tactical ploy to avoid giving hostages to fortune, but it’s such a major change that some discussion of it would have seemed appropriate – even if the media were merely to welcome the shift.
The most serious analysis of the leadership contest came from the Irish Times’s Fintan O’Toole.  For many years the leading exponent of the ABFF (Anyone But Fianna Fáil) syndrome, O’Toole, since the election has moved to urge Labour willingness to enter a coalition with Fianna Fáil (to keep Sinn Féin out?) and the need for Labour to develop a new non-Blairite presentation of Labour as the party of equality and solidarity – buzzwords that figure prominently in Gilmore’s own programme.
But despite devoting a whole page to an examination of the options facing Labour and the difficulties of various approaches, the one option that O’Toole did not discuss was that Labour should actually follow James Connolly’s example and pursue a republican and nationalist programme.
O’Toole did recognise that Labour has only a small share of the working class vote which goes mainly to Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, but he remained totally oblivious to why.  The why, of course, is the national question which has repeatedly been the Achilles heel of the Labour Party, but which is determinedly ignored in the polite discourse that the Irish Times encourages.
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Back to sleaze, and the Father Michael Cleary story was tailor-made for a bit of indulgence in bashing clerical hypocrisy and double standards, and that of course, is the way the Sunday Independent and Evening Herald dealt with RTÉ’s documentary on Ross Hamilton, Michael Cleary’s ultimately unacknowledged son.
“He was a bastard’,says Ross” was the Sindo headline.  The only problem was that he didn’t use those words.  This was what the Sindo felt he should have said, but it’s not what he actually said.
In the programme Ross came across as a very decent, but very hurt, individual – one as much a victim of the media as he was of Cleary’s fear of public disclosure and the Cleary family’s rejection of him.
Ross’s account presented a very complex picture which did not paint Cleary in out-and-out black terms.  But it’s another illustration of the impatience of the profit media with real ambiguities and their infatuation with pettiness and malice.
Cleary was a political reactionary as well as someone who manifestly did not practice what he preached but the Independent Group prefer to use the chance to decry the individual rather than analyse the context.
And, as a final word, can no one do anything about Paul Williams seizing every opportunity to tell us what an important journalist he is? Monday’s programme provided a classic example of the ‘journalist is more important than the story’ syndrome, of which Williams has the worst case ever witnessed in the Irish media.

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