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Sunday 18 March 2018

London society burns Kevin Myers - but why did the Sunday Times publish toxic rant?

Exactly who saw the column by Kevin Myers before it went to print is one of several mysteries, writes Mark O'Regan

Frank Fitzgibbon, editor of the ‘Sunday Times Ireland’ (right). The controversial column (top left) was written by Kevin Myers (bottom left)
Frank Fitzgibbon, editor of the ‘Sunday Times Ireland’ (right). The controversial column (top left) was written by Kevin Myers (bottom left)
Mark O'Regan

Mark O'Regan

'What. The. Actual. F**k.' So went one of a flurry of early morning tweets in a firestorm of outrage on social media last Sunday.

The outcry related to an ill-judged edition column in The Sunday Times Ireland edition by journalist Kevin Myers. In Dublin, the senior editorial executives of the newspaper apparently didn't realise what all the fuss was about.

Myers would later state that one of his editors was "surprised" by the "online uproar" over the column.

It was not until the controversy reached the higher echelons of London society that the columnist's fate was sealed.

Kevin Myers. Photo: Tony Gavin
Kevin Myers. Photo: Tony Gavin

Lionel Barber, the editor of the influential Financial Times, described the piece as "undiluted anti-Semitism and misogyny".

The former Europe minister Denis MacShane said controversial views publicised in the piece were "truly shameful".

And Danny Cohen, the former director of BBC television, called on The Sunday Times to prevent Myers from writing for any News UK paper ever again.

Myers, the Irish edition's 'star' columnist, was now toxic. By mid-afternoon there was panic on both sides of the Irish Sea and not just in London among Rupert Murdoch's senior execs of News UK.

Within a matter of hours it led to the controversial summary dismissal of one of Ireland's most provocative journalists and a subsequent scramble by the newspaper to limit the damage.

What had started as a trickle on social media became a torrent, a dam-burst of disgust as word spread about what Kevin Myers had said about Jews and women in what turned out to be his last Sunday Times column.

Myers, of course, has been involved in countless controversies in the past, but one way or another, survived them all. However, it soon became clear, this time things would be different.

Powerful forces in the UK became embroiled in the affair. Soon strongly worded charges of anti-Semitism against the columnist were swirling around social media on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In particular the segment of the column, which suggested BBC presenters Vanessa Feltz, and Claudia Winkleman, were well paid because they were Jewish, sparked online fury in the UK.

Under the headline 'Sorry ladies, equal pay has to be earned', Myers wrote: "Good for them. Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity."

He sparked further anger when in the same column he suggested men are often better remunerated than women, because they often work harder, get sick less frequently, and do not get pregnant.

Denunciation of Myers was soon joined by incredulity that Irish editor Frank Fitzgibbon or his deputy John Burns had allowed it to be published. Competitor media refer to the pairing of Fitzgibbon and Burns as the Two Geezers, the first to condemn perceived shortcomings in others. Had they not read it? And if they had, were they blind to the anti-Semitic trope enunciated by Myers?

Frank Fitzgibbon, editor of the ‘Sunday Times Ireland’
Frank Fitzgibbon, editor of the ‘Sunday Times Ireland’

"The anti-Semitism in this article is f**king disgusting. Kevin Myers needs to be fired immediately.

"Fingers crossed Kevin Myers gets fired again," raged the tweets.

By now the pressure on senior Sunday Times executives in London was acute. With the BBC and other media outlets giving the story prominence, reaction was inevitable.

And when retribution came it was swift and brutal. A terse statement was issued on behalf of the paper's overall editor, Martin Ivens, in London. Referring to Myers directly he said: "He will not write again for The Sunday Times Ireland. A printed apology will be appearing in next week's paper."

Ivens also said the Myers column was "unacceptable and should not have been published".

"It has been taken down, and we sincerely apologise for both the remarks, and the error of judgement that led to publication."

Strangely Myers, who was attending a history conference in Skibbereen, Co Cork was not immediately informed of his dismissal.

"I heard after everybody else had heard," he said later.

He eventually received a text message telling him to phone a UK number. "I rang London as requested - and I was told my services were being dispensed with."

"This is where we part company. You won't be writing for us again," he was told.

Meanwhile, there is now growing evidence of the huge pressure for his dismissal, which gathered pace early on Sunday.

The influential "Campaign Against Antisemitism" in the UK reacted almost immediately to the contents of the column, and directly contacted News UK, the parent company which publishes The Sunday Times, as part of Rupert Murdoch's worldwide News Corp behemoth.

The organisation insisted Myers should not be allowed write for the newspaper again, and that an appropriate apology should be published.

The tsunami crossed the Irish Sea to hit The Sunday Times Ireland edition, and its editor, Frank Fitzgibbon, was also obliged to issue a condemnatory statement.

"On behalf of The Sunday Times I apologise unreservedly for the offence caused by comments in a column written by Kevin Myers.

"It contained views that have caused considerable distress. As the editor of the Ireland edition I take full responsibility for this error of judgement.

"This newspaper abhors anti-Semitism and did not intend to cause offence to Jewish people."

Meanwhile, an emotional Myers later apologised profusely for any upset he had caused.

He also accepted he deserved to be dismissed by the paper.

"I am the author of my own misfortune. I am the master of my soul. I must answer for what I have done," he said on the Sean O'Rourke radio programme.

But he also suggested the way he was sacked was unnecessarily harsh. "The manner in which I was disposed of was wrong. I think it could have been done more gently.

"I could have been treated with more dignity. Anyone should have a second chance for making an error of judgement'" he pleaded.

He conceded he has some "serious professional flaws". "One of my weaknesses is for facile terminology," he said.

"The throwaway line is so often my pitfall - my downfall."

However, despite accepting responsibility for what he had written, he also said he does not plan to personally apologise to the two women referred to in the column.

"Whereas I do understand their indignation, they have said things about me, that are far sterner than I think I merited,' he said.

"I think that Vanessa Feltz called me a racist. Calling me a racist? The Jewish community in Ireland has said I am not anti-Semitic. I made a mistake - but I'm not an anti-Semite."

He said "great damage'' had been done to him, adding: "I'm going to suffer for the rest of my life.

"A stigma has been placed on the name Kevin Myers which I don't deserve."

Ms Feltz questioned how such a "blatantly racist" article was allowed to be published in the first place.

Mr Myers said that "five or six" people could have seen the piece before it went to print.

The question remains unanswered as to who those five or six may be, and whether any of them raised a red flag, and if they had, whether their concerns were ignored.

It also raises questions about the judgement of the senior Irish editorial executives who allowed such an insulting double assault against both the Jewish community and women to make it to print.

The Sunday Times has a rigorous editing process involving both its London headquarters and its senior editorial and production staff in Dublin and Mr Myers's column and its content would have been seen by many eyes.

The Sunday Times Ireland edition evolved under the late journalist Alan Ruddock, from a team of two or three in the 1990s to the operation it is today.

Ruddock's time as editor of the Irish edition was the paper's golden period which the title has failed to replicate with its current alpha male swagger. Ruddock attended every Friday morning news conference in London, at which section editors outlined for the editor the stories they planned to run for Sunday. Over time, the requirement for the Ireland editor to be in London for the Friday conference lapsed.

Yet it is clear that London remains the centre of power, and Dublin is a satellite in the News UK operation.

News lists for the Irish edition are still run by London editors at the Friday news conference, which is headed by UK editor, Martin Ivens. While there is a general interest in what Irish columnists are writing about, reading, parsing and editing the actual content of those columns is obviously the job of the editor of the Irish edition.

When columnists file copy to The Sunday Times, it usually first hits the desk of the editor designated to look after the opinion pages.

The copy is dispatched to the London office, where it will pass through the hands of several "benches" of sub-editors, who will read and re-read it. When they are done, the page is printed and proofed in Dublin for errors and for legal assessment, by the editor, section editors and lawyers.

With all the support of the London office and his own team, observers would say that Frank Fitzgibbon should have the time to assiduously read the proof pages of the Irish edition before it goes to print.

However, as Mr Myers was penning his column, the senior editorial executives of The Sunday Times Ireland edition were also dealing with the time-consuming fall-out of a serious error which had appeared in the paper the previous Sunday.

As Mr Myers's column appeared on Page 15, six pages further back on Page 21 of the main section, the newspaper also printed an apology and correction to the son of the Garda Commissioner, Ciaran McGowan, journalist Paul Williams and the publisher of this newspaper, Independent News & Media, which related to The Sunday Times Ireland edition coverage of the Disclosures Tribunal.

It could not be established last week whether senior executives in Dublin had taken their eye off the ball to agree and finalise this apology.

The Sunday Times Ireland edition failed to respond to a number of queries on the matter. Unusually it also refused to clarify if the paper's Irish editor Frank Fitzgibbon, or associate editor John Burns, read the column before publication.

The newspaper also declined to say if any editorial or legal changes were made to the copy submitted by the columnist.

The paper has remained tight-lipped as to whether company owner Rupert Murdoch was consulted on the decision to summarily dismiss the veteran journalist.

Both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste condemned the article. Leo Varadkar described it as "misogynistic" and "anti-Semitic". "The Sunday Times has taken the appropriate action," he said. Frances Fitzgerald said there is "an onus on everyone, including the media obviously, to make sure articles like that do not appear."

The Sunday Times is conducting a review into how such views were allowed appear in the paper, the details of which, may or may not be published in full or in part and whether this will be enough to draw a line under the controversy.

Certainly Frank Fitzgibbon and John Burns will hope so. The pair are always at hand to criticise their competitors and Saturday nights when the paper is published is their busiest on social media. Fitzgibbon himself was tweeting heartily the night he was steering his ship close to rocks with the Myers article on board.

For Kevin Myers, though, now aged 70, the fallout from this latest controversy in which he find himself embroiled, has been dramatic.

He said he has lost his livelihood. "I haven't slept in two nights. Personally I am in a very bad way. It has done me terminal damage.

"I am not sure if there is any redemption for me now - which will give a lot of people satisfaction." He will have his defined benefit Irish Times and Irish Independent pensions to console him and a possible legal action for unfair dismissal.

As for the two smirking geezers, Fitzgibbon and Burns, they're not sneering now.

Frank Fitzgibbon

Frank Fitzgibbon often clowns around on social media, cracking jokes here, promoting his newspaper there, and taking the odd swipe at its critics. He’s a voluble guy, known for his frequent barbs against other media, including papers published by INM (owners of this newspaper), the Irish Times and RTE.

The fact that he hasn’t posted a single tweet since the Sunday Times Ireland edition hit the stands last weekend speaks volumes about the gravity of the controversy engulfing its Dublin offices. Newspapers make mistakes, as do editors. As Fitzgibbon once posted about one of this newspaper’s mistakes: “That’s gotta hurt!”

In fact, as the incendiary Kevin Myers’s article was still ticking away last Saturday, Fitzgibbon sent out 16 separate tweets on various issues in the hours before the paper went to press.

Frank Fitzgibbon

Fitzgibbon started his career as a business journalist. He worked for RTE and various publications before co-founding the Sunday Business Post in 1989. He left the newspaper in 1991. Six years later, two of his co-founders, Damien Kiberd and Aileen O’Toole, were each rewarded with a £1m windfall after Trinity International Holdings bought the Post.

Fitzgibbon spent the 1990s working on various media publications. He was appointed business editor at The Sunday Times Ireland edition in 2002 and editor in 2005.

He has tried to market his paper through social media. He also went out to defend his role in several controversial episodes, particularly during the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 when the newspaper was accused of an anti-Lisbon Treaty bias.

However for all his online japes, he has found it hard to emerge from the long shadow of the stewardship of Alan Ruddock. Many were perplexed he allowed a pro-Brexit editorial to run — without a single change from the UK edition.

In his absence from the online world last week, it was noted how few outside colleagues came to his defence. At one stage, some of Fitzgibbon’s acquaintances thought he would rise to be Sunday Independent editor. That did not come to pass. There is no suggestion that his antipathy to INM is any way related to his long tenure in the one job.

John Burns

John Burns is the longest serving staff member in The Sunday Times’s Dublin office.

He joined the newspaper in 1993, and worked under the late Alan Ruddock, who was the first editor of The Sunday Times Ireland edition.

Burns has been a correspondent, news editor and is now associate editor.

He is second-in-command to Frank Fitzgibbon. His remit had broadened too, covering opinion, arts, culture as well as news. The media is his most frequent target. He writes a bimonthly column in the Irish edition of The Sunday Times culture section on media matters, offering often critical commentary about journalism, media organisations and regulators. The Myers controversy would have been right up his street — had the error not occurred in his own newspaper under his watch.


Although a low-profile figure, Burns found fame of sorts on Twitter for his waspish Saturday night tweets promoting the following morning’s stories in his newspaper.

In the process, he often took pot shots at rivals, dispensing barbed put-downs and revelling in their mistakes.

His Twitter profile once said that “disparaging remarks about other newspapers” were his and not those of his employers. That’s, like, funny. It will be interesting to follow the relationship between both editor and his loyal deputy over the next few months.

Sunday Independent

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