Wednesday 16 October 2019

Anne Harris: Confronting our truths requires a free media

Two ministers told the truth this week. About the referendum and about RTE. It was good for the psyche and for democracy, writes Anne Harris

'The best way out is always through," said the poet Robert Frost. Out of danger, he meant. May is a dangerous month. Literally and metaphorically. The scaraveen, the biting north-easterly wind, demands a fat surplus of the mind, as well as the body, to withstand its savage capacity to cut. Literally and metaphorically.

This week we were fortunate to have two ministers with a healthy quotient of mental fat to help us through these dangerous times.

The tinted window rolled down on Michael Noonan. He looked his interrogator in the eye and gave us exactly what we were looking for: a great big grievance. Vote 'No' and we will have the mother of all austerity Budgets, he said.

To a nation of grievance hunters, it was manna from heaven. You couldn't hear yourself think for the carnival of excitative terror. "Gun to the head", "blackmail", "threats". Yes, it was certainly a threat. But look beyond Noonan's puffy face and bereaved eyes and you will hear something very rare in the Ireland of today. The truth.

If we vote 'No', there is no alternative to a draconian Budget in December. We are short almost €18bn a year for running the country. Either we raise it in cuts or taxes. Or we don't run the country. To pretend otherwise is delusional.

Pat Rabbitte took one look at the BAI report into the Prime Time Investigates programme A Mission To Prey and named it at its core. A betrayal of trust, he said. For a national broadcaster which is statutorily obliged to be fair and impartial, there is no greater indictment. Pat Rabbitte is taking steps, meeting the board, to determine where the buck stops.

It's a black weekend for RTE -- not the broadcaster's first black day on this one. But it is probably, as Rabbitte pointed out, worse than had been expected. Self-scrutiny was promised by director-general Noel Curran on the last black day -- has it slipped away in the exigencies of getting programmes out?

RTE has apologised, albeit belatedly, and promised to make amends. But the fault of which it stands accused -- "groupthink" -- is both ideological and ineffable and therefore demands not just amendment but a form of exorcism. It is, as Leo Varadkar might say, an embedded culture out there.

But a national broadcaster which has been chastened is no harm. Like a Government with a slim majority, it has to show some manners. Too much power, as we all know, is very bad for the psyche.

Rabbitte is well capable of action. And as Minister for Communications, there is another theatre of war demanding his urgent attention.

Last week, Denis O'Brien made a significant advance in his stated intention to gain control of Independent News & Media, the biggest media group in the country. He has now bought the maximum number of shares he can hold before being obliged to make a bid for it.

Denis O'Brien must not be allowed to gain control of INM.

I do not believe he is a fit person to control it -- on at least three counts. Mr Justice Moriarty found that he had donated IR£937,000 "in clandestine circumstances" and loan support to Michael Lowry, the politician who, according to Moriarty, as a minister in a Fine Gael-led government, helped O'Brien to acquire the second mobile phone licence, the most lucrative licence in the history of the State, on which he built his fortune.

O'Brien is still close to many in the current Government and has had extraordinary access to major government functions. He already owns a number of radio stations. He has sent libel letters to 17 journalists in the last ten years.

These things -- a judicial finding of willingness to assert pecuniary influence, his proximity to power and his current media ownership -- all have implications for freedom of speech. This week's development raises alarming questions.

The silence from Fine Gael on O'Brien's stated ambition, which would have one man owning a huge chunk of the media in Ireland, is spooky. As spooky as the "one oligarch is the same as another" argument, which was trotted out by people like Senator John Whelan and myriad commentators, to avoid facing the real O'Brien ownership dilemma.

Would they say "one rich man is the same as another"? I doubt it. Even they must know that money does not of itself confer good or evil upon a person. It just makes it harder as the Bible says, to be good.

Not all rich men are found to have funnelled money to ministers to get licences. Nothing O'Brien can do will change Moriarty's findings on him.

INM is an important arm of free speech in Ireland. There are others, but freedom of speech must be protected for, and by, us all.

This is a very important time in Ireland. A lot of truths are being confronted.

The clerical child-sex abuse scandal, a hugely dark and deep wound in our psyche, is being processed. Dealing with it is a delicate balancing of acknowledgement of -- and justice for -- the victims with an avoidance of the kind of stuck victimology which gives demons and demagogues a way in.

We are processing many other truths of nationality and religion too. In our free press.

All institutions are flawed. But in the end, it all boils down to the value we place on truth. And a belief that human dignity is an absolute. Rupert Murdoch didn't place enough of a value on either. And now he is having an unhappy old age.

None of us is perfect. What we need in the media is, at the very least, for our intentions to be good. I believe that from now on RTE's intentions will, in all likelihood, be impeccable.

We have had enough of demons and demagogues. We can do something about them. If not about the scaraveen.

Sunday Independent

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