Wednesday 22 January 2020

Paul Kimmage: 'What price our press freedom?'

Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn at the Diriyah Arena in Saudi Arabia: 'But we can’t accept a deal to have a fight with another man in the most brutal sport because of someone's opinion on sportswashing?' Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn at the Diriyah Arena in Saudi Arabia: 'But we can’t accept a deal to have a fight with another man in the most brutal sport because of someone's opinion on sportswashing?' Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

'Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?'

'What? Well . . . I'd . . . yes . . . yes I would.'

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'How about ten pounds?'

'Are you joking? What do you think I am?'

'We've already established what you are. We're just trying to agree a price.'

Anon

Eddie Hearn didn't get where he is today by pretending to be Mother Teresa. The boxing promoter and managing director of Matchroom Sport was making headlines in Riyadh last week, defending the millions Anthony Joshua received for performing in a country best known for repressing women, bombing Yemen and chopping up journalists.

Show him the money, not the morals baby.

And he's not alone.

The Times reported yesterday that Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid "will split £34m" when the Spanish Super Cup is played in Jeddah next month. In February, the Saudi International golf tournament returns, followed by the world's richest horse race - The Saudi Cup - and a new bike race, the Saudi Tour.

And sport is the least of it.

"I was driving up looking at House of Fraser. Gucci, Chanel, Starbucks - major corporations willing to trade here," Hearn told Matt Dickinson. "But we can't accept a deal to have a fight with another man in the most brutal sport because of someone's opinion on sportswashing?"

But it was his interview with Dan Roan, the BBC's sports editor, that most struck a chord.

"No individual, no journalist, no media outlet can possibly tell a fighter where they can or can't go to earn money in a sport like this. There are so many hypocrites . . . I mean, the people who are involved in the event - you're here. You're covering the event. Why are you covering the event? Because you want to see it get as many eyeballs on the BBC website and the BBC news as possible.

"We're here to do a job for our client. I could have presented all of these opportunities to Anthony Joshua . . . London . . . Madison Square Garden . . . Saudi Arabia. He would have chosen Saudi Arabia."

"Because of the money?" Roan asked.

"Of course."

But what if Hearn had stopped talking? What if he'd paused for a moment and made Roan answer the question: 'You're here. Why are you covering the event?" What would Dan have said: It's my job? Sure, but he didn't have to travel to Riyadh. He could have informed his employer he was taking a stand. It's not his job to take stands? Sure, but why should that apply to Joshua?

Journalists make their names by talking the talk but are often found wanting when it comes to walking the walk. Not Fintan O'Toole. In September of 2017, The Irish Times columnist prefaced a stinging critique of George Hook at Newstalk, and the lack of female presenters at the station, with a pledge that he would not be appearing on its airwaves again.

"From now on I won't be appearing on any Newstalk programmes . . . It is long since time for anyone with a conscience to stay out of its airspace."

A right of reply from Patricia Monahan, the station's managing editor, was published four days later but a demand for an apology was refused and Communicorp - the Denis O'Brien-owned group which runs Newstalk, Today FM, 98FM and Spin - responded by banning journalists from The Irish Times from appearing on its stations.

And for two years that ban has endured.

In September, some fresh names were added to the list with the banning of journalists from The Currency, a fledgling news and business website damned by the suits at Communicorp as "a competitor platform". It was an unfortunate coincidence that The Currency's founders, Ian Kehoe and Tom Lyons, are former journalists at The Sunday Business Post and had won a libel case brought against them by Denis O'Brien in March.

And an unfortunate coincidence that two of The Currency's star contributors - Anne Harris and Sam Smyth - had also crossed swords in the past with O'Brien.

"The result of the broadcaster's boycott," Justine McCarthy noted in a column for The Sunday Times, "is that some of Ireland's best journalists, who are producing important public interest stories, are precluded from discussing their work on a radio bandwidth owned by the people of Ireland.

"In this age of global information wars, self-styled citizen journalists, newspaper closures, fake news, alternative facts, the manipulation of information sources and lies repeated so often that they become the truth, the ostracisation of journalists within the professional media is nothing short of autocannibalism."

The response, she concluded, must come from within: "More than any other group of people, however, non-Newstalk and Today FM journalists should refuse to appear on the stations. If we do not take a collegiate stand against censorship, how can we expect others to do it?"

Tim Vaughan, a former editor of the Irish Examiner, made the same point last month in the closing speech at the National Journalism Awards. "While we look to our politicians to act, should we not ask what we ourselves can do in the face of attacks on press freedom and freedom of expression in this, our own country?

"When we have the outrageous situation where Communicorp has banned all Irish Times journalists from its stations, including Newstalk and Today FM, simply because it didn't like what Fintan O'Toole wrote. I still find it hard to believe that this has happened - and that it can happen without consequence. It's pernicious and it's intolerable, and an urgency needs to be applied to implementing whatever is necessary to have it stopped.

"They mightn't have breached current BAI regulations, but the fact remains that these are public airways that Communicorp is using to ban and boycott at will - and for that there should be consequences."

And what happened? Well, some of those newly-acclaimed journalists of the year stood and applauded and cheered . . . and headed straight for the Communicorp studios with their trophies under their arms.

I messaged a few of them last week and asked for a view. The response was a recurring theme:

"It's a rotten industry from top to bottom. To stay afloat, you're compromised at every step. I care about my family and keeping a roof over their heads. That's my only priority, doing the best work I can to keep the show on the road."

And that's fine, I get that, but can we honestly criticise boxers or golfers or tennis players for doing the same? But they're earning big we'll say. Maybe. Maybe not. But here's the bottom line. We've established what we are . . . we just haven't agreed on a price.

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