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How the media lion became a pussycat

It's official, 2012 is going to be a "very rough" year for jobs. "The next 12 months are going to be difficult on the employment front," says Richard Bruton. Translation: government policies will force redundancies and close countless workplaces. That won't be the way it's explained, of course.

The media will convey the currently fashionable fairytale. It seems Ireland is thriving under the dynamic leadership of Kenny and Gilmore, but the rest of Europe is dragging us down, endangering the "hard-won gains" of austerity.

In the rough years ahead, we could do with an inquisitive, sceptical media. We could do with a media that questions dogma. A media that challenges the mindless repetition of failed political policies.

Unfortunately, the media is in poor shape these days.

Currently, there are serious -- but relatively short-term -- issues sitting on the media's chest, weighing on its credibility and confidence. And there's one big bruiser of a problem that won't go away anytime soon. And that's not to mention the challenge of the internet. And the effects of the recession. Among the short-term issues are the extent to which the UK phone-hacking scandal degrades the reputation of journalism. And the Fr Reynolds libel at RTE.

It doesn't matter that the phone hacking is primarily the work of scummy little chancers across the water, rooting through the dustbins of the mildly famous in search of used condoms. The smell clings to us all. When they're caught, the chancers scream about the public's right to know. They warn that any limitation on their freedom to sniff celebrity underwear puts press freedom on the slippery slope.

The online broadcasts from the Leveson Inquiry are depressing. Just when we most need a confident, trusted media, we're immersed in the foul stench of juvenile hacks with the morals and intelligence of rabid ferrets.

The RTE libel debacle is at the other end of the media trade. It didn't arise from seedy snoopers in search of petty tittle tattle. RTE has since the Nineties courageously taken on the clerical bullies and their protectors. The revelations changed the course of history. Had it not been for Mary Raftery, Louis Lentin and others, many more children would have been beaten and raped. The field would still be relatively clear for the abusers. It was always dangerous, difficult territory, and most of us don't venture into it -- whether through lack of opportunity or initiative, or through fear of making a career-crippling mistake.

Those who do venture into that area know they risk a journalist's nightmare -- making an accusation that proves to be unfounded, as in the case of Fr Kevin Reynolds -- with all the moral, legal, professional and personal consequences that follow. With wearying predictability, the usual propagandists claim the Fr Reynolds libel shows up the media as having an anti-Catholic bias. They look at the questionable behaviour of RTE when the libel became clear -- and they compare it with the questionable behaviour of the bishops when child abuse was uncovered.

The comparison is without merit. RTE's behaviour at worst delayed the clearing of Fr Reynolds's name. RTE apologised (properly, after first broadcasting a bizarre "apology"), then set the record straight and paid substantial damages. This doesn't make up for the libel, but it greatly mitigates the harm done to an innocent man. The behaviour of the Catholic hierarchy, moving rapists from one parish to another, ensured the attacks on children would continue for decades, causing damage that no compensation could undo.

The propagandists say the media has given citizens a vastly exaggerated view of the number of priests who abused. Possibly true. But this isn't just about the gropers, beaters and rapists -- it's about the huge number of facilitators and cover-up merchants who put the reputation of the institutional church before the welfare of raped children.

The fact that the Fr Reynolds libel originated from a TV programme with a record of rigorous public service journalism -- and the fact that outstanding journalists were involved -- makes the case more perplexing. It heightens the need to explain how such a dreadful mistake was made. That, hopefully, will be done soon. In the wider context, just when we most need RTE to be alert and pugnacious, it may -- in reaction to the libel screw-up -- become fainthearted and fearful. And the Lord knows we've got more fainthearted and fearful journalism than we need.

Which brings us to the one big bruiser of a problem that won't go away anytime soon. The media likes to portray itself as tough, cynical, watchful. For instance, Friday's state paper revelations of Charlie Haughey's abuse of state funds will no doubt provoke journalistic reminiscences about how a combative media, with Vincent Browne in the lead, challenged Charlie the Chancer -- trying to get at the source of his wealth.

In truth, the media is a pussycat. Browne was virtually alone in his questioning. At press conferences, many of the leading journalists of the day didn't disguise their irritation at Browne, because he was pissing off Haughey.

And they happily threw Charlie a lifeline as he sought to avoid Browne's questions.

"How do you expect to do in the marginals, Mr Haughey?"

"I'm glad you asked me that."

Think back four or five years. Where was the media support for George Lee, David McWilliams, Richard Curran or Morgan Kelly? They were sneered at, accused of a lack of patriotism, for daring to raise doubts about the Celtic Bubble.

In the current crisis, the disastrous bank guarantee was initially cheered by the media, as was the Nama bailout of builders and the austerity programme that is crippling the domestic economy. When government policy became impossible to explain, much less validate, the leading journalists adopted an inane mantra: "It's the only game in town".

The nature of the EU/IMF "bailout" was for a long time ignored. It was portrayed as a rescue, rather than what it was -- the imposition of massive debt on Irish citizens in order to make up to reckless Irish and German bankers for their gambles.

Prior to the recent Budget, we saw the ease with which politicians manipulate the media. In return for a few trivial (and mostly untrue) stories, the media helped them massage public expectations.

This month, starting from next Tuesday, Irish citizens will generously pay €3bn, of money we don't owe, to failed gamblers. There could be daily coverage of this, with regular backgrounders on the biggest story of this era -- the massive transfer of wealth from the citizens to the financial sector. Ah, but, sure, we don't want to bore the punters, do we?

The case for abolishing upward-only rent reviews is irrefutable, but we don't ask why Mr Kenny favours bankers over job-creating businesses. The corporation tax is fetishised, with no examination of the reality. Major elements within the media write about Kenny's performance with all the scepticism and intellectual rigour that An Phoblacht brings to its analysis of the speeches of Gerry Adams.

Not to worry. Twenty years from now, we'll hear the media war stories, the journalistic reminiscences, about how we bravely resisted the pillage and the plunder.

Sunday Independent