Thursday 17 January 2019

Taoiseach 'profoundly regrets' suggestion he doesn't respect the media

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar 'profoundly regrets' if he has given the impression he doesn’t respect the media
Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA wire.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar 'profoundly regrets' if he has given the impression he doesn’t respect the media Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA wire.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Laura Hutton/PA)

Kevin Doyle and John Downing

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he “profoundly regrets” comments which cast doubt on his respect for freedom of the press in Ireland.

Speaking in the Dáil Mr Varadkar tried to defuse a row over remarks he made at a lunch in New York.

These comments included an expression of sympathy with US President Donald Trump in his criticisms of the media and political journalists.

Mr Varadkar told invited guests to a lunch in New York that the media was not interested in the facts – only in getting a story.  He added that political journalists focused on “tittle-tattle” and “rumour” rather than important issues which affected people’s lives.

The Taoiseach was challenged in the Dáil about these comments in New York by Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald.

Ms McDonald asked:

How he could have sympathy with President Trump’s attacks on a free press?

Claim Irish journalists’ were not interested in the truth?

Minister Paschal Donohoe.
Minister Paschal Donohoe.

Attack RTÉ's Prime Time which exposed child poverty and problems in health and housing?

The Sinn Féin leader accused the Taoiseach of ignoring the “stand-out issue” in Irish media which was the dominance of ownership, especially the number of media outlets owned by businessman, Denis O’Brien.

The Taoiseach insisted that he always supported free speech and a free press in Ireland.

“In a democracy, the work of a free press is as important as the work of parliament and the judiciary,” Mr Varadkar said.

Mr Varadkar said he had read newspaper accounts of his comments at the lunch in New York. “I profoundly regret that anyone believes that I don’t respect the free press,” he told TDs.

Mr Varadkar said the comments arose at a private function given for young Irish people in the US, which ran over two hours, and had a very wide range of conversation topics. He said there was no tape and no specific record taken.

The Taoiseach said he had only made one comment about RTÉ and Prime Time, which was to note that it was not always correct. He cited the programme “Mission to Prey” which was shown to be wrong.

This comes after the Taoiseach faced criticism for disparaging comments made in New York, which ministers have claimed were taken out of context.

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.

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

“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 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."

Varadkar made the controversial comments at a lunch yesterday, where he answered questions from invitees who were described as "young Irish people who are doing interesting things in New York."

It involved men and women people from the acting world, advertising and several from the tech industry.

Mr Varadkar criticised Irish political correspondents who he said spent more time "gossiping" about unimportant issues.

He said: "Twenty years ago you’d have a few journalists in Leinster House who acted with dedication."

"Now they’re all trying to compete with each other for gossip, and there are more of them than there are TDs", he said.

“It was the way he said it that really shocked me” said the source.

He said "they spend more time worrying that one or the other will get a story that they won’t have."

And essentially 'journalists spent more time gossiping and not checking stories', said one of those present.

He also then said there were "never any consequences for those journalists who got things wrong."

"I think he was really trying to point out how bad things are with the twenty-four hour news cycle and that journalists are under so much pressure these days" said one of those at the table.

"I also think he was trying to be a bit funny but ended up being socially awkward; but you could see how uncomfortable everyone was", said the attendee.

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