Reaching out for a few raw nerves in the Irish Republic
As always I start my Sunday with The Wide Angle on Newstalk. Richard Aldous, in the chair, approaches the anti-Ahern stories with some scepticism. So do barrister Teresa Lowe and European expert Sadhbh McCarthy, who share the novel idea that the Taoiseach should be presumed innocent until found guilty.
But things take a nosedive when the show is joined by John Lee, Political Editor of the Daily Mail. Although not as bad as the monstrous Mail on Sunday (which astoundingly allowed Frank "Colombia" Connolly to set its anti- Ahern agenda) the Daily Mail has been targeting the Taoiseach since last September.
Sadly, Sadhbh McCarthy succumbs to the Stockholm Syndrome and makes some space for Lee's la-la spins on the Ahern affair. Luckily, Lowe continues to take the hard line and leaves Lee floundering in a sea of foolish suggestions -- like saying Ahern should either resign or alternatively step down until it is sorted out.
Lowe lands her most lethal blow when Lee complains that the previous day Ahern should have been going over his accounts for Mahon instead of fundraising in Clontarf. Lowe tartly tells him that fundraising is a fundamental part of parliamentary democracy.
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Skipping Marion Finucane's show -- she recently referred to the Sunday Independent as "banging on about stamp duty" (so much for her political nous) -- I turn to Sam Smyth's Sunday Supplement on Today FM where a relaxed Eoin Ryan MEP reminds us that all the allegations against Ahern are no more than allegations.
Later in the day I hear that John Lee of the Daily Mail, possibly still groggy from his going-over by Teresa Lowe, rang the Sunday Supplement looking for a transcript of Ryan's remarks. The team asked Lee did he want to speak to Ryan himself who was still on site, but Lee declined, possibly fearing for whatever story is forming in his mind.
When I hear about all this from a little bird -- and Sam Smyth is not that budgie -- I go to bed brooding about what the Daily Mail might have in mind.
Early on Monday morning I go the Esso station to find out. And it is worse than anything I had anticipated. "FF Old Guard Disown Bertie" the Mail howls. And adds: "Claim that constituency cash went to Ahern should be investigated says party stalwart," meaning Eoin Ryan, who said no such thing.
But it gets worse. Tuning into RTE's Morning Ireland at 7am, I find the normally reliable Paddy Clancy in 'What It Says In the Papers', blurring the boundaries in reporting the Mail's front page story as follows: "The Mail, which has been snapping at Mr Ahern's heels throughout the controversy over his finances, gives front page prominence to Helen Bruce's story that the Fianna Fail old guard has disowned him with MEP Eoin Ryan calling for him to be investigated like Charles Haughey before him."
Since 'What It Says In the Papers' is enclosed in the envelope of Morning Ireland I think the team should do two things to protect the public from the Mail's fantasy. First, it should add an "allegedly" to the second part of the sentence so it reads "with MEP Eoin Ryan allegedly calling for him to be investigated".
Second, the team should signal some scepticism. Are they not alerted by the strange fact that Sam Smyth and Stephen Collins -- who were in the same studio as Eoin Ryan -- have not filed stories along the same lines in the Irish Independent and Irish Times?
Eoin Ryan, when he comes on air, seems to share my concerns. Because before he answers Cathal Mac Coille's first question, Ryan is careful to raise the matter of 'What It Says in the Papers' and put something on the record as follows: "Well I mean, just to come back to the report, and your running it, and the 'What It Says in the Papers' part of your programme, that the Daily Mail has said that I called for the Taoiseach to be investigated -- I didn't."
But the damage has been done. And I am angry about it. So when RTE's News at One gives me a chance to balance the books, I robustly reject the Mail's agenda. Let me hasten to add here, that neither Cathal Mac Coille nor Morning Ireland subscribe to any such agenda.
But had anyone else except the courteous Paul Cunningham been in the chair I might have been tempted to re-visit a lot of RTE's skewed coverage in recent times -- ranging from the contemptible coverage of the Taoiseach's Westminster speech, right up to to last Friday week's Pat Kenny radio show -- which had three panellists, all critical of Ahern.
On my way to Leinster House for the Budget I listen to Miss Efftie Beatty, aka Nell McCafferty, tell Ryan Tubridy that I took "tainted money" to sit in the Senate. A legal friend calls to wonder what I am going to do about that allegation.
Nothing. Politicians and journalists look precious when they start to purse their lips and as a general rule should not sue each other -- a rule I might well, however, waive if defamed by the odious Mail on Sunday.
In Leinster House I watch a confident Brian Cowen confront the comatose economy and energise it with a slashing attack on stamp duty. And as I hear rumours of a move in the pay rise problem, I get the gut feeling that the tide is turning in favour of the Taoiseach.
Miriam Lord, in her mordant Budget piece in the Irish Times, says I was smiling at the stamp duty section of Brian Cowen's speech: "Senator Eoghan Harris -- has a man ever looked more happy? -- nodded his approval." But I was also smiling at the brotherly body language between Brian and Bertie -- who I now believe will only go when he is ready.
I wish Katy French could have gone when she was ready too. I only met Katy recently, and only for five minutes, but it was long enough to leave me with the firm impression of a sweet and talented woman whom I felt sure would soon be famous for more than being famous. God rest her restless soul.
Later, Prime Time reads out a response from the Mail which claims it has no agenda except to report the facts. Is that why the Mail on Sunday employed Frank "Colombia" Connolly, who is close to Tom Gilmartin, without whose accusations there would be no Mahon Tribunal?
Clearly the Mail realise that I have touched a raw nerve in the Irish people. And it seems taken aback. That is because the editorial end of the Mail group cannot read Irish cultural mores, is mystified by how these mores connect with the Irish media market, and has to guess where the Irish people put limits.
The Mail has never understood that Middle Ireland is much less tolerant of muckraking than Middle England. Accordingly, people will accept media campaigns aimed at real reform -- like the Sunday Independent's stamp duty crusade -- but it will not tolerate the gratuitous targeting of Irish politicians or public figures.
Until recently I regarded the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday's targeting of public figures as nothing more than a nuisance. Enough is enough. From now on whenever a malevolence of Mail reporters run across my path I shall reach into my republican roots and touch a few really raw nerves in the Irish Republic.