Eoghan Harris: Pat Kenny programme paroled by a supine media
Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00
LAST Wednesday, the Irish Times carried a strong front page story by its political reporter, Mary Minihan: 'Man in Gallagher Row received nearly €3,000 from McGuinness'. The story reopened a bigger story: how the Pat Kenny team had handled the bogus tweet which finished off Sean Gallagher's presidential bid.
The reaction to the story revealed how RTE uses its massive monopoly to set the media agenda. Not just for itself, but for its private competitors. Because there was no reaction. Not only did RTE political staff ignore the story -- so did its commercial rivals.
To explain why, let's look at the background to the Gallagher saga. For five months now, most media pundits have been parroting the same mindless mantra -- that Sean Gallagher handled it badly. Far from closing the case, this media consensus merely raised two further questions in my mind.
First, if Sean Gallagher had something serious to hide, surely he would have prepared a suitably slick story before coming on Pat Kenny? Isn't his incoherent response to the planted tweet a strong presumptive indication of his innocence?
Second, why have the media stayed so narrowly focused on the Terry Prone- type issue of presentation? We all know Sean Gallagher handled it badly. But why are the political pundits dodging the more important issue: whether the Pat Kenny programme handled it badly?
You don't have to dig too deeply to find two answers. The minor one is that most of the media picked the wrong side. Like lemmings, they had followed a few leading presenters who laid down the lazy party line -- that Sean Gallagher handled it badly -- and now don't want to hear anything new that exposes their evasion of the main issue.
Vincent Browne was one of the chief cheerleaders in selling stock in 'Gallagher handled it badly' (GHIB) instead of in 'Pat Kenny handled it badly' (PKHIB). Last Tuesday night, confronted by the challenging Irish Times story, he tried to prop up the price of his GHIB stock.
Turning to the camera for maximum effect, Browne delivered this unconvincing dismissal of the Irish Times story: "Em . . . but in any event, the reality is that what this thing revealed was that Sean Gallagher had far closer ties to Fianna Fail than he had let on up to that point." Talk about waffle.
The other reason for the private sector media's reluctance to raise awkward questions with RTE political programmes is a practical one. Although their advertising departments are rivals, the editorial side of the commercial media has a co-dependent relationship with RTE. Pundits like Fionnan Sheahan of the Irish Independent are almost fixtures on the Pat Kenny programme.
Last Wednesday, Pat Kenny brought in Sheahan and Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein to talk about the Irish Times story. Sheahan summarised the chronology fairly clearly and then moved gingerly towards the minefield of the Pat Kenny presidential debate. As he did so, his syntax began to sprawl. You can check it for yourself on RTE Player. Meantime, in the interest of fairness, here is the relevant section in full.
SHEAHAN: "You'll recall . . . yourself, of course, on the night of your Frontline debate where Martin
McGuinness dropped the bombshell about Mr Gallagher's direct approaches to people involved, eh, in the, eh, or attended that fundraiser, that he had said that he had been approached by a businessman earlier that day who had provided him with this information. Mr Gallagher's difficulty was that he had been out the previous week, when we had reported in the Irish Independent that he was involved in the organisation's fundraiser, and he had said that he had only passed on the information to a couple of people who he knew and that he had no involvement whatsoever in soliciting donations. Mr McGuinness's claim was quite clear. You were directly involved in soliciting and collecting a €5,000 donation from somebody you didn't know personally who was a businessman in the area. Now, Sean Gallagher knew straight away, strangely enough, who Martin McGuinness was talking about and he pointed out that this was a convicted fuel smuggler and also the same individual was renting Gerry Adams a constituency office in Dundalk. So there was a link there, obviously, with Sinn Fein straight away in that he was renting the office, but I suppose it was curious that Sean Gallagher knew straight away who Martin McGuinness was talking about, which I found curious because that wasn't the only business person talking at the time about, shall we say, Sean Gallagher's involvement in this fundraiser. We know what happened from there . . . Sean Gallagher got, rather . . . he deflected it off quite well initially, then came the famous tweet from an alleged Sinn Fein account saying that this businessman would come out and go public the following day, and then Sean Gallagher basically tripped over himself, used the word 'envelope' and that was the end of his campaign. Good luck and good night."
This is a muddle from start to finish. Sheahan even muddles the Ed Murrow quote by reversing it: the correct phrase is "Good night and good luck." But the total effect is not good for Gallagher. Let us move on to the next key Pat Kenny question: what did Sheahan think of the Irish Times story -- where Kenny's syntax suffers, too.
KENNY: "But are you . . . in your paper today . . . the Irish Times kind of makes a big headline of it on their front page -- 'Man in Gallagher row received nearly €3,000 from McGuinness' -- which looks as if it's cash for doing nothing rather than cash for a commodity -- are you suggesting that there is any untoward stuff in your paper?"
SHEAHAN: (incredulously) "No. The suggestion is quite clear, that the McGuinness campaign was obviously in contact with Morgan Fuels throughout the course of the campaign. They were using Morgan Fuels for topping up their campaign vehicle, so I suppose in terms of Mr McGuinness and Mr Gallagher, you'd say there was a pair of them in it."
After that non-sequitur about the "pair of them in it", Sheahan makes his sole mildly critical comment about Martin McGuinness: "No, you'd have to say that there is nothing untoward about using a fuel company to top your campaign vehicles up with petrol over the course of a campaign, but it does just show that there was that direct link that Mr McGuinness certainly didn't divulge at the time, so a bit of a sin of omission on his part." Just a "sin of omission".
Kenny, now more relaxed, then brings in Pearse Doherty, using a breezy tone. "What do you make of the way this story is being told this morning?" Doherty echoes Kenny's breeziness. He breezily dismisses the Irish Times story as "a storm in a teacup". In passing he gives Sheahan a patronising pat on the head. "I listened to Fionnan and I think he was right there. There was nothing untoward here."
So that's all right then.