Wednesday 23 January 2019

Multiplicity of media does not stop monopoly on meaning

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

The coverage of the Drew Harris appointment taught us two media lessons.

First, a multiplicity of broadcasting outlets means nothing if both RTE and Virgin Media News create a monopoly of meaning by singing from the same hymn sheet.

Second, that the print media are less susceptible to what Lenin used to call "excitative terror", the tendency of extremists to work up the public with conspiracy campaigns.

The biggest Irish campaign of excitative terror is the Sinn Fein-sponsored campaign of what I call Nornporn - smearing all members of the RUC to make us forget that the Provisional IRA killed far more Roman Catholic nationalists than the security forces.

By and large the print media were far more positive about the appointment of a Northern Protestant, pointing up its symbolic as well as its practical value.

In contrast, the broadcast media were suckers for the two main propaganda smears against Harris - his alleged role in the Smithwick Tribunal and as an alleged spook for MI5.

First, the Smithwick Tribunal's finding of collusion was based not just on Drew Harris's testimony but also that of gardai.

Second, Harris's role in the PSNI required him to share intelligence with MI5 - just like our gardai who also work closely with MI5. How else would we keep track of Islamist terrorists?

Declan Power, a security journalist, writing in the Irish Independent last Wednesday, was particularly scathing about those making a meal of the MI5 angle.

As Power pointed out, "the Gardai itself is required to maintain a high level of liaison and interaction with MI5 regarding security and intelligence co-operation".

The recycling began last Monday on Morning Ireland when Paul Reynolds harried Josephine Feehily of the Policing Authority, doing a lot of mansplaining and raising security "concerns" without referring to Sinn Fein's role in these "concerns".

Reynolds also queried Smithwick as if the decision of a tribunal carried no weight whatsoever.

Reaching deeper for objections, Reynolds told her that Harris "will not be able to walk around the country, around the streets of Dublin or indeed the streets of any town in this country, without security".

Does Reynolds not realise this simply proves that Harris has hurt the IRA - the only threat to our State?

Does Reynolds not recall that Dessie O'Malley had to carry a gun to protect himself, not from the RUC or MI5, but from the IRA?

Later, on RTE's Six One News, he did not correct Caitriona Perry when she referred to "concerns that some people have raised about his past life as such, as an intelligence officer for a foreign agency" (my italics), but ended both TV bulletins repeating "concerns" about Smithwick and MI5.

Having recorded the 5.30pm News on Virgin, I sat down to watch it hoping that it would be a change from RTE negativity about the arrival of a Northern Protestant commissioner.

Instead I found myself watching the worst example of what, in training lectures to RTE producers, I dubbed 'locationism' - losing your studio edge because you are sharing an out-of-town location with your subject.

Gavan Reilly, Virgin's overly confident political correspondent, badly needed that warning at Sinn Fein's think-in at the Kilmore Hotel in Cavan.

Locationism caused him to lower his guard and let Mary Lou McDonald locally affect the tone of what should have been a balanced national report.

The result was massive and uncritical exposure for Mary Lou McDonald on Virgin as follows:

From Colette Fitzpatrick in studio we went to reporter Niamh Kinsella in Dublin about Harris's swearing in ceremony.

Tacked on to the end of Kinsella's report was a preview clip of Mary Lou McDonald's upcoming Cavan criticism of the Harris appointment.

Back to Fitzpatrick backed by a big image of the tricolour and Mary Lou McDonald's face and then over to Gavan Reilly live. "So Gavan, what did she have to say about him?"

Reilly's reply was supported by cutaways of Mary Lou McDonald and SF members walking around the pretty hotel gardens.

Over these pastoral images, Reilly uncritically recycled almost the entire spectrum of Sinn Fein's unproven charges of alleged RUC collusion, finishing with the bombing of McGurk's bar in 1971 - when Drew Harris was six years of age - as follows:

"She's been elaborating a little bit, Colette, on something you heard in Niamh's report. Particularly the concerns around Drew Harris's role given his previous position of deputy chief constable of the PSNI."

But Reilly was only warming up. "And the alleged role that many people within the nationalist and republican communities in Northern Ireland think he has had in their attempts at trying to get justice regarding long-running atrocities, particularly ones in which nationalists and republicans were largely the victims, particularly the McGurk's bar bombing in Belfast in the 1970s."

Reilly also recycled the MI5 mutterings before moving to "interview" McDonald on location where she pontificated some more about Harris without being asked one awkward question.

To top a fine day for Sinn Fein, Reilly finished with a reference to the prospect of Liadh Ni Riada being SF's presidential candidate.

By Tuesday, however, Harris's transparent decency and quiet passion for policing was going down well with the public.

Fergal Keane, reporting for Drivetime from the Garda press conference, pointed up the positivity of the occasion.

Finally, Paul Reynolds began to calm down and confined himself to straight reporting without tacking on his obsessions with Smithwick and MI5.

Best of all, Bryan Dobson, covering the same Cavan Sinn Fein gathering as Gavan Reilly, gave both him and Virgin Media News a masterclass on how to interview Mary Lou McDonald.

Dobson has been around long enough not to fall for the laxities of locationism, the twitterings of Sinn Fein trolls, or Nornporn charges from suspect sources.

He pressed McDonald hard on who runs Sinn Fein. Was it by public faces, like herself and Pearse Doherty or by "shadowy figures in Belfast or elsewhere... who have or had connections with the IRA"?

He also put her under pressure over her flip-flop on the border poll, asking: "Who nobbled you?"

Dobson concluded by raising the important issue of bullying in Sinn Fein, referring to the dozens of councillors who have left the party in recent times.

To all these questions McDonald's answers were platitudinous and lacking in passion and conviction.

Looking back over the week, let me give Virgin TV News a reality check. There is no incentive in switching channels to watch an inferior repeat of the radical chic line of RTE News.

The Tonight Show has so far escaped the dead hand of political PC parroting - thanks largely to Ivan Yates, who never looks over his shoulder. Matt Cooper also makes up his own mind.

We are entitled to the same edge from Virgin's political correspondents.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss