Business Irish

Friday 19 January 2018

Media chose to opt for caution over courage

Michael Noonan's behaviour ought to be a matter of discussion among his colleagues and within his party, writes Gene Kerrigan

Catherine Murphy
Catherine Murphy
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Things that didn't exist now turn out to exist. Things that clearly haven't happened are, with great ministerial authority, said to have happened. We were told that the things that didn't exist - but now do exist - were definitely not where you might expect them to be. But it now turns out that's just where they were all along.

And the inquiry that Catherine Murphy TD has been requesting for months, and which was totally inappropriate - well, the people who said it was totally inappropriate now say it's the very thing we need to solve the problem.

(That, by the way, is the problem they told us didn't exist.)

People in power kept straight faces as all this unfolded.

And, of course, you may have noticed that as tension ratcheted up, the Taoiseach went into hiding.

With so much nonsense flying about, it's best to go back to basics.

IBRC is not a bank. It's the wreckage of a bank. It's a "bank resolution corporation". An outfit designed to salvage as much as it can from the results of greed and stupidity.

Greed and stupidity ran Anglo Irish Bank into a wall. We citizens might have looked on and said, 'Well, that's what you get for greed and stupidity'. We could have watched the rich people involved take responsibility for their actions - as we're always being told we must do.

Instead, our leaders, and the European Central Bank decided that no bank should fail, even a bank that had - beyond any and all criteria - failed spectacularly.

The bank was propped up, its customers and debtors told not to worry, business would continue as usual. And its bondholders, to their great surprise, were paid every cent they'd have got if they hadn't made a bad gamble, as if the bank hadn't become a basket case.

Someone had to pay for this, so the politicians borrowed 30 billion on our behalf and bunged it to the rich folk.

They then thought up a load of taxes and charges and levies and cuts in social welfare and education and health - after all, they said, with straight faces, the State has been borrowing too much.

Such was the stink off the name Anglo, the Government renamed it IBRC. It was supposed to recover as much as possible of the billions we were forced to give the rich folk.

One of the jobs of a TD is to keep an eye on the running of the State - and to use Oireachtas privileges to do so. Many TDs prefer to concentrate solely on being re-elected. A handful do a proper job.

Infamously, Catherine Murphy had to ask 19 parliamentary questions related to IBRC and the sale of Siteserv before she got a proper answer from Minister Michael Noonan.

Noonan, like some other ministers, believes that one need only murmur some words faintly related to the subject and it counts as an answer. Such conduct has broken the system of parliamentary questions as a form of oversight.

Murphy bunged in a lot of Freedom of Information queries. She established that there was departmental disquiet about the conduct of IBRC's business. Her work was unquestionably in the public interest.

Noonan appointed a KPMG chap to review a matter in which KPMG was involved. Then he appointed a judge to keep an eye on the KPMG chap. On a simple level of competence, this should have seen Noonan quietly retired.

Separately, Denis O'Brien threw a team of lawyers at RTE, to prevent the broadcast of a story on his dealings with IBRC. When Catherine Murphy proposed a Bill that would have crushed the KPMG "review" and created a proper inquiry, she said that O'Brien paid a low interest rate on his loans.

O'Brien's lawyers claimed the injunction they got against RTE prevented the publication of what Murphy said.

It may be the case that IBRC negotiates special interest rates with all rich people - and did no special favours for O'Brien. Few would be shocked to learn - if it is the case - that banks are equally deferential to all rich people. Those who have had their throats squeezed by the banks might question if that is how a state-owned bank should operate. published Murphy's speech - and when they were threatened by O'Brien they stuck to their guns. Almost everyone else held back. The legal hammer hurts. It can end careers. It can cost newspapers huge amounts of money they don't have. It could have closed down

For most editors, it seemed a matter of timing rather than press freedom. Legal advice said wait. Within days, the High Court would rule if the RTE injunction could stop coverage of a Dail speech. And it appeared, on the face of it, it would rule against O'Brien. That, though, was far from certain.

Risk it all on how the judge will call it? Or wait a few days? Editors chose caution over courage.

In the meantime, Murphy's speech was on the Oireachtas website. Social media went ballistic, with demands for the "mainstream media" to show its balls. Social media pundits agreed that this signalled another step on a downward road for the mainstream media - and they might be right. Though, what they'll write about when we're gone I can't imagine.

Social media treated RTE in particular with derision, for not publishing Murphy's speech - though it was RTE that had broken the story that provoked the injunction.

Gifted an opportunity to display their courage, few social media pundits published Murphy's speech, though they had the means.

Noonan claimed - although it wasn't true - that there were a whole lot of "new allegations" from Catherine Murphy. This gave him the excuse to kill his KPMG "review" - which had become so questionable that its conclusions were awaited breathlessly by exactly no one. And which by just existing was guaranteed to provoke non-stop controversy.

Suddenly, he decided, the Commission of Inquiry that wasn't previously appropriate was now manifestly necessary. And, now that the general election looks sooner than anticipated, the inquiry will allow the government evade answers until it's over.

Suddenly we found out we'd been wrong in thinking IBRC had written off €110m of our money, in the Siteserv deal. Turns out it wrote off €119m. Perhaps, among these people, a spare €9m is neither here nor there.

By "coincidence", according to Noonan, the minutes of IBRC meetings turned up that very day - minutes he'd denied existed. They turned up in his department. Where no one thought to look for them. And where those who handled and scanned and "misfiled" them apparently didn't notice the Minister denying they existed.

Catherine Murphy legitimately sought information on the running of IBRC. She discovered enough to know there was more relevant information that should be made public. She used whatever scraps of evidence she could to bring the process forward - and we won't know how reliable that information was until we see it in context.

Murphy did well to get as far as she did, given the extent to which Michael Noonan was blowing smoke in her face.

Noonan's behaviour ought to be a matter of discussion among his colleagues, and within his party.

The magical disappearing Taoiseach is something we have to live with. That's the level to which we've been brought.

Sunday Independent

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