Tuesday 19 February 2019

Government 'crystal clear' in appreciation of media – Finance Minister

Minister Paschal Donohoe.
Minister Paschal Donohoe.

Kevin Doyle and Laura Larkin

The Government is “crystal clear” in its appreciation of the media’s role in Ireland, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has insisted.

Amid intense criticism of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for disparaging comments made in New York, ministers have been claiming he was taken out of context.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said he should be given “time and space” to clarify his remarks.

Mr Varadkar told a private lunch gathering that he has “sympathy” for the Trump administration in its battles with the media.

He criticised Irish political correspondents who he said spent more time ‘gossiping’ about unimportant issues than covering real stories.

He said that 20 years ago there were fewer journalists in Leinster House but now they are trying to compete with each other for gossip.

Mr Varadkar pulled out of a scheduled media opportunity this morning, instead leaving Mr Donohoe and Mr Murphy to defend his comments.

Mr Donohoe said the media are “an absolutely essential element of how our country conducts itself”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Laura Hutton/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Laura Hutton/PA)

“Both he and the Government are crystal clear in our appreciation of how vital it is to have a strong and independent media in Ireland,” the minister said.

Eoghan Murphy suggested the Taoiseach’s comments were taken “out of context”.

“Thankfully in Ireland we have a very health, robust and independent media,” he said.

Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea said the Taoiseach’s comments point to a “sinister trend” which showed an “authoritarian approach to the media”.

“Donald Trump’s whole modus operandi is to undermine the media, so Leo Varadkar appears to agree with that,” he said.

Mr O’Dea urged the Irish media to scrutinise Mr Varadkar’s government’s performance but also to: “Let him off on his own now, let him be his own greatest invention.”

“He accuses the media of trivialising politics - this is the guy who arranged for a photograph of himself putting a spoon in his dishwasher,” he said.

Mr O’Dea said he believes that the Taoiseach has enjoyed an extended honeymoon period with the media.

Fianna Fáil's Education spokesman Thomas Byrne referred to comments made by Mr Varadkar about the media about Davos. 

“He has a track record on this, he has form on this,” he said.

The TD said: "Fianna Fáil is always available for a media briefing" and said Micheal Martin regularly does lengthy interviews when asked about the party leader's lack of appearances of late on the plinth in Leinster House.

Mr Varadkar was due to face reporters at the long awaited sod-turning for the redevelopment of O'Devaney Gardens in Dublin, but has pulled out of the event in the wake of his attack on the media.

A spokesperson for Mr Varadkar told Independent.ie that he was not able to attend this morning’s event in O’Devaney Gardens as his flight back from the United States was delayed.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Varadkar must clarify the "disparaging" remarks.

She said: "The remarks as reported are very troubling and the Taoiseach should clarify and explain what he said.

"The freedom of the press to write, broadcast and report freely in the public interest and to do so without coercion, without pressure and without undue influence is vitally important.

"Of course, this flows both ways and the media is not above criticism and must be able to stand over its reporting."

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said: "The Taoiseach may believe that 'a free, fair and balanced press is the cornerstone of our democracy', but his deeds and moral leadership carry more weight.

"No-one doubts that Ireland's links to the United States of America are hugely important, and that such trips to New York are strategically valuable to Ireland's interests.

"But whatever about criticising the media when at home on the campaign trail, for Ireland's head of government to attack the Irish media when on a diplomatic and strategic trade mission is wholly inappropriate."

Seamus Dooley, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists has called on the Taoiseach to clarify his comments.

He said in a statement this morning: "He said: "Respect for freedom of expression is a core value of the UN.

"Attributed comments are damaging to Ireland's reputation as a modern democracy, given Trump's views on press freedom."

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