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27 September 2007 Edition

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Media View

Real issues sidelined as rat pack focus on Bertie

The Mahon Tribunal and Bertie Ahern’s less than coherent evidence to it has dominated the media over the past week or two, and, if the media have their way, will continue to dominate over the next few months.
Republicans generally will purse their lips at the idea of a senior finance minister being in a position of financial dependency on businessmen even if they are “long term” friends.  There is something distasteful about all of this, and the media smell blood.
What is interesting though is the way the media have acted as a united rat pack, baying with increasing hysteria and trying to whip up even the most tedious details into something significant.
It really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans whether Bertie’s business friends gave him sterling or dollars, yet the media have been united in reading significance into this dispute.
The fact that these dubious money transactions had nothing to do with the allegations against Ahern which are supposedly being investigated by the Tribunal has gone completely unremarked on by the media commentators.
But it’s worth looking at what they have done.
The Irish Times, the self-professed ‘paper of record’, has almost wet itself in its anxiety to pursue this issue.  It fronted the campaign during the election, successfully managing to drive any examination of the issues on which people cast their votes out of the newspapers.
And it has continued to push the question since.  For example, at the recent Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting in Galway, Enda Kenny was interrogated by the Times spokesman who demanded he admit that he had made a mistake in not following the Times’ agenda during the campaign!
Nor has RTÉ been backward about coming forward.  In an ethically dubious manner it put up an actor to play Bertie’s part on its main news bulletins, and while Bertie is certainly not the most coherent of people when he doesn’t want to be, he is certainly not the bumbling eejit that RTÉ presented.
In fact, on his first day at the Tribunal Bertie stole the show, by getting a pre-prepared speech on the record.  It took the Tribunal lawyers five hours of tedious reading of correspondence to take the sting out of Bertie’s performance, but day one was certainly the Taoiseach’s.
This was too much for RTÉ’s Charlie Bird who let the cat out of the bag when he declared live on RTÉ’s Six One News (live - so there was no opportunity to edit it out) that “it didn’t go according to script”.  ‘Whose script?’ one has to ask.
On this issue it happened to be Bertie, but the unanimity shown by the media - with the sole exception of the Sunday Independent whose services to Fianna Fáil Tony O’Reilly guaranteed at that infamous meeting during the election campaign - shows how they operate.
Why was this?
Well, in the first place the journalists were encouraged to go for the jugular.  News desk after news desk wanted their man or woman to get the killer blow, and objectivity was definitely not on the agenda.
For the journalists there were dreams of emulating Woodward and Bernstein (the American journalists whose Watergate investigations brought down Richard Nixon).  To go down in history as the journalist who brought down a government would be some achievement.
Secondly, there are the news desks and the newspaper proprietors and, in the case of RTÉ, the Establishment.  They want to demonstrate the power of the press, but in a safe context.  Bertie’s removal would not endanger the basic policies on which the state’s main political parties operate, while the smearing of politics - which is a constant refrain of the press - undermines the democracy which can potentially change these policies.
The Irish Times might tut-tut at the profits made by sordid builders and at the dubious ways they make them, but the directors of The Irish Times Trust sit on the boards of banks, insurance companies, private hospitals and all the respectable businesses that look down their noses at those whose exploitation is a little bit more first hand.
It’s not the use of public money to bolster business interests that worry them, but whose business interests benefit.
Bertie, of course, is on his way out anyway, and all that is at stake isn’t what Charlie Bird breathlessly calls ‘his legacy’ but his next job: yes, Europe beckons for our beloved Taoiseach and how dearly would the Times like to stop him getting it.
Of course, Ireland won’t do any good out of Bertie being made President of Europe (or whatever high-falutin’ title they have in mind) but it won’t do Ireland any good if anybody else gets it either.  So what is going on is a row between different vested interests.
Meanwhile back the ranch, the real issues that matter are sidelined: the sell-out of Shannon and the West and the mockery of the state’s regional policy; the implications of privatisation of strategic state companies; the blatant problems of cancer care services; the worries about economic prospects; the problems of incipient racism which could emerge from the schools crisis; the frenzied attacks on the Irish language; and the deaf ear which is turned to calls from the North to be heard in the Dáil.
None of these are questions which upset the owners of the press, and the concentration on Bertie helps to bury them.

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