Analysis

Thursday 24 July 2014

How Myers tackled the single mothers 'issue' and became a national hate figure

Maeve Sheehan
Jim Cusak

Published 13/02/2005|00:11

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LAST Monday, Kevin Myers pressed the send button on his laptop computer and unwittingly set himself up as a national hate figure. The topic he chose for the Irishman's Diary was characteristically provocative: how state benefits encourage young girls to have babies outside of marriage.

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LAST Monday, Kevin Myers pressed the send button on his laptop computer and unwittingly set himself up as a national hate figure. The topic he chose for the Irishman's Diary was characteristically provocative: how state benefits encourage young girls to have babies outside of marriage. The week before, Dr Ed Walsh, president emeritus of the University of Limerick, caused a stir when he said state aid may "actively encourage" the formation of lone parent families. This was nothing to the storm Mr Myers was about to unleash.

One of his roles as a columnist for the Irish Times is to challenge orthodoxies, his editor said. So in his office, at home in Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare, Mr Myers had pondered on how he might present the topic of cash-fed single mothers in a new and provocative light. He took the trouble to check the etymology of the word "bastard". It derived from an old French word, "bast", meaning pack-saddle, a metaphor for a child born out of wedlock. It is also a term of abuse, described as "often offensive" or perjorative in dictionaries.

Mr Myers intended to use the word in its literal sense. As his readers discovered, it was an insult masquerading as a literalism and Mr Myers used it liberally. In a polemic on the "time bomb" created by bestowing benefits on unmarried mothers, he questioned how many girls - mostly teenage - embark on a career of "mothering bastards".

"Ah. You don't like that, do you?" he taunted readers before compounding the insult by repeatedly referring to "mothers of bastards" or "MoBs". Around midday on Monday, he finished, fired it off to his editors in Dublin, and resumed his daily activities, apparently oblivious that he had penned what his colleague, Vincent Browne, would later term the most outrageous thing written in a newspaper in a generation. The Irish Times was not oblivious to its contentious and offending phraseology when the column landed in the editor's office later that day. The steering room of the newspaper, the office is headed by Geraldine Kennedy, the editor, and includes her deputy, Paul O'Neill, the foreign editor, Paul Gillespie, and the managing editor, Eoin McVey. Senior editors read the copy. It reached Geraldine Kennedy's office at 6.15pm.

"I read it once, and then I read it again. I was unhappy about the use of the word 'bastard', he was deliberately, as he spelled out, using it as a shock tactic. I believed that it was deeply offensive to children and their mothers. It stigmatised them," she wrote in yesterday's Irish Times . At least two senior members of staff shared her queasiness. As the editor saw it, she had three options: delete the word bastard, pull it, or to publish it. She decided against sanitising it and went with publishing it in full.

But some sources have suggested that there may have been other reasons. The feeling among senior staff was that Geraldine Kennedy, having spiked one of Myers's columns in December - when he correctly blamed the IRA for the Northern Bank robbery - was reluctant to spike a second. Friends claimed that since the unceremonious dumping, Myers's copy was scrutinised by his editors. That night, as the newspaper rolled off the presses, Geraldine Kennedy experienced that "awful feeling" that she had made the wrong call.

The first complaints were slow to trickle in. Anna Nolan, standing in for Marian Finucane on her 9am radio show and, ironically, a sister-in-law of Mr Myers, broadcast the first complaints from irate callers. Sources at the newspaper claimed that the Irish Times fielded no more than a dozen complaints that day.

It was not until Wednesday that the depth of anger at Myers's words became apparent. All the current affairs shows took up the story. The heaviest punches were landed by some of Myers's own colleagues. John Waters, the Irish Times columnist who was himself briefly sacked then re-instated for criticising Geraldine Kennedy, limbered up for another assault on his boss. On Eamon Dunphy's radio show, he lambasted the judgement call of senior editors - it was potentially a resigning issue. He also criticised the self-congratulatory nature of the editorial and wondered if it was even true. There was also a personal dimension to his objection. He is the (unmarried) father of a child with Sinead O'Connor and Sinead was the only named person to feature in Mr Myers's column.

A second columnist, Fintan O'Toole told RTE radio he was disgusted by the column: the worst Irish tabloids would have rejected it, he said. More damaging for the newspaper was that, for the first time in its history, a member of the Irish Times Trust broke ranks to express his shock at the publication of the column. David Begg, the trade union representative on the newspaper's board of trustees, promised to raise the matter at the next meeting of the board. Mark Hennessy, on the paper's political staff, said on radio: "There is nobody in the Irish Times arguing that it is anything other than a mistake and a bad one."

Kitty Holland, daughter of unmarried journalists, the late Mary Holland and Eamon McCann, spoke of her terror as a child that would be found out as a "bastard" by school chums. Worse, she said, was that Tuesday's newspaper was delivered free to every primary school in the country, as part of a ?1m promotional campaign. On RTE's Liveline , the debate raged, but Mr Myers had already conceded that he was wrong. He rang Geraldine Kennedy on Wednesday morning. He was shocked by the depth of opprobrium heaped on him. Friends had telephoned him to urge him to switch off the radio and television, but even their second-hand accounts vividly portrayed the backlash. Mr Myers, who refused to discuss the internal workings of the paper, said: "I can say this because it's what I said in my column - I rang the Irish Times and I said 'Is it very bad?'. They said 'Yes, it is very bad.' I said 'Well look, we've got to get out of this as quickly as possible. I will write a diary saying sorry, that I got it all wrong.' Which is the case, quite clearly I triggered something that I didn't know was there." Geraldine Kennedy agreed. The pressing question for the editor was how was the Irish Times to respond? The newspaper's senior editors were divided, according to sources. Some backed Ms Kennedy's reasons for publishing the article. Others believed that the word "bastard" simply should never have made it into the newspaper. That afternoon, Ms Kennedy assembled a small group of her senior editorial staff to discuss the wording in the next day's editorial. Sources said the discussion effectively centred on two words: Did the newspaper "regret" the offence caused by Mr Myers's column, or was it "sorry"? The editors decided that "regretful" was the way to go. An editorial was prepared for Thursday. As one angry radio caller later noted, it devoted 47 lines to championing the newspaper's commitment to free speech and just one to expressing its regret.

On the same page, Myers offered an "unconditional" apology "from the bottom of a full and very contrite heart". He stretched credulity in some quarters by claiming that he used the term "bastard" because he genuinely believed that the word had no stigma, but nevertheless Myers's apology won him some reprieve. In comparison, the editorial appeared lacking.

John Waters dismissed its "weasel words". His colleague on the newspaper Vincent Browne used his Village magazine yesterday to pronounce that its two opening two sentences of "astounding self-regard" would haunt Geraldine Kennedy for the duration of her editorship. Five days after publishing the column, Ms Kennedy bowed to her readers and her critics. In a column on the opinion pages, she explained how she came to approve Myers's column and then regret it.

"I am sorry for the offence caused to hundreds of women and children, to many readers of this newspaper," she wrote. The turbulence of the past week has offered her detractors an opportunity to circle.

In the coming weeks, Geraldine Kennedy may still have to answer to the directors of Irish Times Board of Trustees to explain her decision. David Begg has already made his views known. Not for the first time in her editorship, she has had to set about restoring the newspaper's ethos as the protector of liberal values and civilised discourse.

When she first took the editor's chair, the newspaper was in financial crisis: about 240 employees were let go in a voluntary redundancy programme availed of by some of the newspaper's more experienced staff. The bitter pill was compounded in 2003 when financial details revealed the company's largesse to executive directors, who shared ?3.3m in a year when the newspaper lost ?2.8m.

When John Waters wrote a column examining how this corporate excess sat with the ethos of the Irish Times , it was spiked. When on radio he declared his editor "compromised" by structures she had inherited, she sacked him. The goodbye letter delivered at 10pm to his home didn't follow correct dismissal procedure: Waters was re-instated three days later, a decision that many perceived as weakening her authority.

That was pressed home when last week, Waters was one of the first within the newspaper to go public with his excoriating criticisms of the Irish Times , and questioning of Geraldine Kennedy and the "cardinals" he claimed surrounded her.

Other internal disputes are also souring the atmosphere. John Maher, the news editor, has resorted to lawyers to stop Ms Kennedy from moving him to another post. Suzanne Breen, a Northern Ireland staff reporter, won ?250,000 after bringing a case based on sexual and political discrimination. December brought Kennedy's clash with Kevin Myers, who was shocked that she had spiked his column attributed the Northern Bank robbery to the IRA. Meanwhile, a constellation of critics are gathering - some on her payroll - who have publicly objected to what, it now appears, was poor judgment at the highest levels.

As for Kevin Myers, he was chastened and deeply humbled this weekend. For the record, Mr Myers pointed out that his sister is unmarried and the mother of two children. Another sister has adopted a child. "Only idiots and fools have opinions about the value of a child who is born out of wedlock. It's just not an issue in my mind," he said this weekend. "It was the most emotionally gutting experience I have had as a journalist in my entire life. In terms of personal experience as well, it wasn't quite as bad as bereavement but was very close to bereavement. It was terrifying and demoralising."

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