It is a great privilege to be asked to speak at the MacGill Summer School this year. The first and last occasion on which I spoke was in 2010, two years ago. And while sometimes it may seem that nothing ever changes, one only has to look back on the last two years to see how much has changed, all witnessed and documented of course by the media.
We have experienced massive upheaval in our economy with the arrival of the IMF, major adjustments in our public finances, and the rebalancing of our economy from one based on construction and property, back to one based on productivity and trade. Few, two years ago would have predicted the huge upheaval in our democracy that overturned the traditional two-and-a-half party order of Fianna Fail, followed by Fine Gael followed by Labour. And few, two years ago, would have predicted that Ireland’s once wealthy and powerful men could be facing jail or that the euro, the second reserve currency of the world, would be at risk. And, while most of us knew the internet was the future, who really foresaw the rise of Twitter and the impact that it would have on the public sphere, public debate and indeed, electoral contests?
Who can predict where we will be in two years’ time? As the old Chinese saying might describe it, we are destined to live in interesting times. What we can be sure of is that the media will be there to report, inform and analyse, and indeed to influence whatever takes place.
The topic of this session is the ‘The Media and Democracy – rights and responsibilities’. This discussion could be a wonderful opportunity for a politician at the end of a long and busy parliamentary session to have a go at the media and settle a few scores. Indeed it is tempting, but I am not going to do that (well I might a little bit later on!) but what I do want to do is to tease out the essence of the debate – the media and democracy: rights and responsibilities.
Politicians and journalists have a co-dependent, almost symbiotic relationship. We don’t always like each other or trust each other but we need each other to survive. Politicians need journalists as the medium through which we can communicate to the public our ideas and policies. Journalists need politicians, to give them information and content for their articles and broadcasts.
The starting point of this debate should be the recognition that there can be no democracy without a free press. As Thomas Jefferson said:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.
Secrecy is the enemy of democracy. And democracy is predicated on the belief that the public, properly informed, will make the right decisions in their own interest and that of society.
As John F Kennedy said in his famous address to newspaper editors:
In a free and open society, there can be no place for secrecy, secret societies, secret oaths or secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the concealment of the truth or pertinent facts and relevant information far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.
Today, around the world, there are societies in which the news is censored, debate is stifled, mistakes are covered up and facts that the public have a right to know are withheld.
We see in many parts of the world that the force of the State is used to ensure that policies are concealed not published, mistakes are buried not headlined, dissenters are silenced not praised, societies in which no expenditure is questioned, no rumours printed and no secret revealed.
No government should fear scrutiny of its plans and actions. For from that scrutiny comes understanding and from that comes support or opposition, and both are necessary. Without debate and criticism no government will succeed and nor will the country which it serves.
Indeed, in the days of the Greek city states, the first republics, it was decreed a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy and fail to speak his mind. And that should be our motto too. At least it is my motto, even if it ruffles a few feathers from time to time!
We should recall that our constitution, and I quote, ‘guarantees the liberty for the exercise of the following rights subject to public order and morality. The right of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions …. including criticism of the government’.
The rights we afford to the media are not given so that the public can be amused and entertained, nor so that they can emphasise the trivial and sentimental, but to inform, to educate, to stimulate and to reflect on the great threats and opportunities that challenge our society, to explain our choices, identify our crises, and even to cause anger when necessary. The greatest courage is not to tell the people what they want to hear or to give them what they want. The greatest courage is to tell them the truth and give them what they need.
We can think of many examples in which the media and media classes exercised these rights to great effect. These include the early photojournalists reporting on the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, war reports from Vietnam and Bosnia that changed public opinion and policy, Watergate, the exposure of child sex abuse scandals in Ireland, and investigations into the finances of some of our most senior political figures.
But we can also think of many other examples where the sole objective was to get good ratings or simply, or claim a scalp. These extend from newspaper reports about the children of public figures (such as a politician’s child being suspended from school) to the unfair hounding out of office of Peter Mandelson merely for passing an immigration query onto to the relevant authorities. The infamous Prime Time Investigates controversy and the false accusations made against Fr Kevin Reynolds, or the general sense that current affairs programmes must be dumbed down in order to reach a sizeable audience.
The media has a responsibility to democracy, to uphold the sort of free and pluralist society which makes a free press possible. Yet too often the media has failed to live up to this responsibility. Some politicians rather cruelly regard the media as a parasite that feeds on the body politic. I don’t agree. But I am concerned that the media now risks harming itself by damaging the body politic which sustains it.
The most recent Edelman trust barometer, for example, shows that the media in Ireland (at 35%) is no more trusted that the government. That is unusual in Western society. Usually the media is more trusted than government. The trend is interesting too. Public trust in government actually rose in 2012. But in the media, public trust fell. And at 35%, of course, neither the media nor the broader government sector is trusted very much.
I think in some ways, at the heart of it, is the fact that the media do not always understand the public in the way we do. To them, public opinion is reflected only by the person who rings into talk shows, or writes letters to the editor, or by those who take an active interest in current affairs. When you spend time knocking on doors or just talking to everyday people at meetings, matches or public events, you get a very different impression.
Tony Blair, in his biography, sums it up well:
To the media, a person is not a ‘real’ person unless there is anger and preferably rudeness, yet the truth is most real people don’t behave in that way at all. Most people are polite, they may disagree but they do so reasonably. You meet plenty of them, but they aren’t ‘real’ because they are not combustible. What we have more and more is the celebration of the protest by the media and the more people realise it, the more they tend to disrupt. Any argument conducted in heat is a clash of views not an exchange of views. But, no matter, it’s news.
One of the more frustrating aspects for Government Ministers has been the demand from the media for ‘real political reform’ coupled to their total disinterest in it when it happens. Objectively, this government has implemented more political reform in a year than the last one did in three five year terms. There were symbolic but important measures like a further reduction in ministers’ salaries, getting rid of State cars, reducing the number of junior ministers and Oireachtas committees and reducing the size of the Dáil and the number of local authorities, but there have also been substantive reforms. For example, all newly-appointed Chairpersons of State companies and agencies must now be approved by an Oireachtas committee and all appointments to State boards are publicly advertised. Ministers take their own adjournment debates in the Dáil and Seanad and take follow-up questions for the first time. They can no longer get away with reading a script or getting a colleague to do it for them. The Dáil sits longer and later than ever before and important legislation goes to Oireachtas committees in draft form (Heads of Bill stage) before it is published, thus giving backbenchers a much more important legislative role should they choose to take advantage of it. Watching Oireachtas Committees scrutinise public appointees or examining line-by-line the Heads of a Bill, whether it is on labour relations or private clamping, is watching legislators doing the business they should be doing. But the loneliest places in Leinster House are the seats reserved for members of the press down in the committee rooms. The 20 minute show at Leaders’ Questions makes better news.
For the first time in decades, a slate of independent Senators were appointed by the Taoiseach. Friday sessions are used to allow TDs to bring their own Bills to the floor of the house, some of which have actually been accepted for the first time in decades. Funding for political parties is being linked to gender quotas, an effective ban on corporate donations is on the way, lobbying will be regulated and whistleblowers protected. The Freedom of Information Act is being strengthened, not weakened. And a Constitutional Convention has been established.
Yet, if you spent too much time reading the papers or listening to the radio, you’d think nothing has been done to bring about a New Politics in our State. Of course, a lot more needs to be done, and this must only be a start, but for those of us who believe in reform, who really embrace the New Politics, it is harder and harder to maintain momentum and win the internal battles for reform, when we are given no credit for what has already been achieved.
Another issue is that of conflict in government. There is conflict in government and so there should be. We have tough decisions to make, and differences of opinion between two parties, among 30 ministers and over 130 parliamentarians, can be profound. They are real but regularly exaggerated. I learn about most of them from the press rather than from my colleagues and often conflicts or disagreements that arise on a Monday morning and are resolved by Tuesday afternoon are still being analysed in the Sunday papers and Sunday radio shows five days later, when the protagonists have long since moved on. The fact that there are differences should not be the story. It is the right of the media to report on natural and normal differences in government but it is a responsibility to expose and challenge groupthink in government and consensus in society. This does not happen enough.
I think, also, politicians are not willing enough to stand up for themselves. Take the Government jet for example – and incidentally, I haven’t ever been on it. The Government jet now carries ministers so rarely that the pilots now have to go on training flights with no passengers just to keep up their hours. To feed the lions, Ministers travel out the night before for meetings in Luxembourg, stay in a hotel and lose most of the next day traveling home just to attend a two or three hour meeting. In the process, Dáil debates are missed and important meetings at home are put off. With a European Presidency coming up, and the demand to spend a few days a week in Brussels, Luxembourg or Berlin, it is hard to see how continuing the current policy will allow us to do our job as Presidents of Europe properly, let alone well.
I think the debate about Special Advisers has also become rather absurd. Yes, we mishandled the issue of the pay scales. Whatever rate was set, it should have been adhered to. But the whole issue of Special Advisers is a broader one and Special Advisers are essential if government is to function. First of all, the title is a misnomer. Special Adviser does not sound like a real job, it sounds like someone who sits in an office all day and dispenses advice now and then. In truth, Special Advisers do work that civil servants cannot. They might be your Press Officer, someone who has a background in politics and media and knows how to deal with journalists in the way that a civil servant who passes through the Department press office on a rotation between a policy office and front office simply cannot. They might be your Parliamentary Liaison staffer, the person who deals directly with committees, committee chairpersons and TDs to ensure that they understand and get behind what you are trying achieve. Again, a highly political role, that cannot and should not be done by a career civil servant. Or they might be your Programme Manager, the one person in the Department making sure that the whole Department prioritises your Programme for Government, the one you got elected to implement rather than the Department’s own priorities.
These are the people who lose their jobs when you lose yours and the only ones totally committed to achieving and implementing the Programme for Government. They may often be the only ones in the Department, other than you, who really believe in it. That is why in most democracies it is the norm for ministers to bring their own ‘cabinet’ of people in with them and they bring many more than we do. The system is essential to effective government. And everyone in the system, and those who write about it, know it, but we are all just afraid to say so.
Before I finish, I just want to mention two important points. The first relates to media ownership. No society can benefit from an excessive concentration of media ownership in the hands of one individual or one company and legislation to address this is long overdue. But in doing so, we should not overlook other dominance in the media market. No company enjoys a more dominant position on radio, on TV and on the internet than RTE. RTE has a unique standing in Irish life. It performs an essential role, and in many ways it provides an excellent service. However, it also has the unique privilege of the licence fee. This carries its own responsibilities: namely the need to maintain high standards, consistent neutrality and proven objectivity. There have been huge changes in RTE in recent months. But we must always ensure that the regulatory structures in place for such a dominant player in Irish media are sufficient, and effective.
Of course, there can be no stronger challenge to dominance than diversity and this is why it has been such a shame to lose so many newspaper titles in recent years, and I sincerely hope we will not lose anymore. We also need to guard against excessive foreign ownership of our press and broadcast media. There is plenty of room in Ireland for British-based and British-owned press but we must also ensure that we maintain a vibrant Irish-owned and Irish-based press.