Tuesday 18 December 2018

'Motor mouth' Varadkar backtracks over 'sympathy' for Trump on media

Leo Varadkar with US President Donald Trump at the White House. Picture: Getty
Leo Varadkar with US President Donald Trump at the White House. Picture: Getty

Kevin Doyle and Shona Murray

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has backtracked on his sympathy for Donald Trump in his battles with the media amid a backlash from within his own party.

Minsters were privately "baffled" and "really surprised" by Mr Varadkar's comments at a lunch in New York on Tuesday.

He suggested the US president was correct to attack the media narrative and claimed there were too many journalists in Leinster House.

The Taoiseach also noted how investigative journalism is not always accurate, citing RTÉ's 'Prime Time Investigates', 'Mission to Prey' programme.

In the Dáil, Mr Varadkar repeatedly dodged direct questions on whether he sympathises with Mr Trump.

But last night, his spokesman told the Irish Independent that Mr Varadkar "didn't say he agreed with President Trump on anything, and that includes media".

"His remark on 'sympathy' was that the president was willing to be critical, unlike traditional politicians, and that no group of people should consider themselves to be beyond reproach or immune from criticism," he said.

The Taoiseach offered what one TD described as a "sort of apology" for the controversy at a private Fine Gael meeting last night.

He thanked TDs for their "forbearance" in the face of difficult questions as a result of his New York comments.

A number of ministers who spoke to the Irish Independent yesterday expressed surprise at the Taoiseach actions.

One said he was turning into "a motor mouth".

The controversial lunch was held at the home of a senior diplomat in New York and involved the Taoiseach and around 20 young Irish-Americans working in media, finance and technology.

A source who attended said it was "initially so polite until he made the Trump comment".

It is understood Mr Varadkar never directly named the US president but said he had sympathy with "the current administration".

"Leo had been very circumspect about Brexit and other areas. We discussed US politics and how Ireland was well received by both Republicans and Democrats," said one person who attended the lunch.

"But people got annoyed when he said he had sympathy for the administration. He said 'obviously I'm biased because I'm a politician'."

Mr Varadkar came under attack from Opposition leaders for his comments yesterday.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said: "Trump is probably one of the worst examples of a political leader who regularly demonises the media and media personalities.

"The Taoiseach should not have any sympathy with him or his plight with the media."

He said claims by Mr Varadkar that print media are "jealous of social media" is not the case as social media "has been shown to distort news".

Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald said: "Time and again, citizens have had to resort to media platforms to get the ear of Government and of ministers and yet he has a problem with investigative journalism."

In response, Mr Varadkar said he "supports the work of news media" and tries to be accessible to journalists.

"I profoundly regret if anyone in the country thinks that in any way I do not support a free press or respect the work of journalists," he said.

But he defended his right to criticise the media, saying: "On many occasions in Irish society, we have had times where groups of people or institutions felt themselves to be beyond reproach or above criticism and we know what the results and consequences of that were."

He also listed ways in which the Government assists the media, including the 9pc Vat rate on newspapers, and bursaries to young journalists working in local radio.

He also said the Government increased its contribution to the television licence fee in respect of older people last year.

But Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said these were not enough.

"The real problem is that Sky, Netflix, Virgin Media, Google and Facebook are sucking every penny out of the market and there is no money left for Irish media. It is on its collective knees and needs both help and funding. If we are to have a fair and balanced media, we must pay for it," he said.

Irish Independent

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