In August 1922 a newspaper publisher named Robert W. Sawyer attempted to define what constitutes “news”.   The nearest he could come, he said, is: “If the paper wants it worse than the person handing it in, it’s news….if the person handing it in wants it published worse than the newspaper, it’s advertising.”

A variant of this has been attributed variously to Lord Northcliffe, William Randolph Hearst and others: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

It helps to keep this principle in mind when reading the “Letters to the Editor” section of one’s newspaper.

The letters page with which I am most familiar is that of the Irish Times, which newspaper I still consume daily — albeit sometimes with gritted teeth, thanks to its over-concentration and preachiness on gender issues, an approach exemplified by (but not limited to) Una Mullally.

If you think that the “Paper of Record” would have the sense to shield its readers from too much propaganda and special pleading in its letters page, think again. Most days, the letters originate from people who have a vested interest in the matter on which they are commentating, and the writers appear to be given free range by the editor to bang their own drum.  Maybe the editor reckons that the readers of the Irish Times are a sophisticated lot who can see through such obviously self-serving contributions.  Or maybe he is fixated with the concept of “balance” and is afraid to close off his columns to all and any hired guns – sorry, lobbyists – sorry, I mean spokespersons.

Today’s letter page is not untypical. A mere 6 letters, so a bit smaller than usual.  But they include letters from:

  • three “masters” of Dublin maternity hospitals, explaining why the mastership system needs to be retained;
  • a senior executive with the International Energy Research Centre, advocating greater stimulation by the government of low-carbon technologies;
  • a representative of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation LGBT Group, voicing concern about how teachers are expected to deal with the recent papal document Amoris Laetitia;
  • a resident of one of Dublin’s most expensive neighbourhoods arguing that the local property tax is unjust and should be the subject of greater agitation (as in water-tax-protests).

Insofar as I can tell, the remaining two letter-writers have no vested interest in the matter about which they are writing.

So two-thirds of the letters appear to be from people expressing views which they are paid to propagate or which are in their own personal interest. This is not to say that the views being expressed are wrong, or that they are not genuinely held; however it is helpful (nay, vital) to understand the context in which the letter-writers operate, and how that context might be influencing or accentuating their views, or making it much more likely that they will feel the need to publicly advocate them in the letters pages of our newspapers.

So I have adopted an invariable practice when reading these letters: start at the end of the letter, and take note of what role the writer performs or is representing. Not only will this help to put the content of the letter in its proper context (as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”), but it also allows me to forego reading the letter completely on some occasions, on the grounds that my store of objective truth will not be thereby enhanced, and life is too short to waste on mere propaganda.

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If you were a senior politician in this decidedly unpopular Government and wanted to promote yourself through the medium of a laudatory and unchallenging newspaper profile, preferably one that takes up almost two whole pages in a weekend edition (which more people have time to read), how would you fancy your chances of achieving same?  Well you might reasonably think that the probability ranked somewhere alongside the chances of winning the Lotto jackpot, even if you have a fleet of handlers and spin-doctors who are paid handsomely to promote your merits on a daily basis.  After all, our newspapers are usually wall-to-wall with caustic and unflattering articles about politicians of all parties, particularly the current Government parties, it would seem.

But there is one class of politician, and one particular newspaper, to which this does not seem to apply.  They are, respectively, well-educated women and The Irish Times.

On Saturday 1st November, the wimmin who pull most of the strings in our Paper of Record excelled themselves by according our new Minister for Justice a lavish and soft profile on the lead page (and most of the second page) of its Weekend Review section.  You will get a flavour from the heading “Minister with a Mission to Deliver”, and even more so from the sub-heading “Practical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is showing she has a flair for the feasible”.  Enough to make even a politician blush, I would have thought.

The writer, Kathy Sheridan, also makes sure to provide space in the article to promote Ms Fitzgerald’s suitability as our next Taoiseach:

She could yet make it to Taoiseach. Does she want it? “I’ve had a chequered political career, so I don’t even go there,” she says.  True. But surely she would say yes, if offered?  “There’s no question of the Taoiseach going anywhere.”   But supposing it opened up? “You’d have to examine the circumstances . . . I don’t think a woman should say no to anything.” So she would take it? “Of course,” she says, with some exasperation.

I can picture other senior Government members, and potential successors to Enda Kenny, gnashing their teeth and shaking their head in disbelief as they read the article.  But there’s more:

Many doubted her ability for justice – why is not clear, since she had been a resounding success elsewhere. In a glowing reference, Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos Ireland, said she had “worked tirelessly” as minister for children. “She wasn’t afraid to listen, learn and debate with those working directly with children . . . Her commitment to the role is evident from her long list of achievements, accomplished in an impressively short tenure.”

Now Ms Fitzgerald is probably one of our more capable politicians, despite her less than stellar electoral record, but it’s a bit tiresome to have to continually witness the gender bias of the Irish Times, particularly in its coverage of politics (see here for another example).

And even she, as Minister for Children for the past 3 years, might have been slightly embarrassed by the proximity in the Weekend Review of another article, this one about child poverty, which starts with the words “Before the recession, Unicef ranked the State as one of the 10 best places to be a child.  Now it is one of the worst, ranked 37 out of 41 countries.”  No mention of that in Kathy Sheridan’s article.

Ms Fitzgerald, a former head of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, can be confident that the sisterhood, and particularly its many representatives in the Irish Times, will be looking after her interests in the months and years ahead.

 

..

This article  in yesterday’s Telegraph is the most interesting and effective summary (so far, and to my eyes) of the infection of British politics by the Murdoch virus.  The relegation of the role of Westminster to a bit player in policy formation, and an afterthought in policy announcement, has echoes in the Irish political scene.

Here are a couple of extracts from a fascinating article.

During the Blair years, News International executives, Mrs Brooks among them, would attend the annual Labour Party conference, but they were scarcely treated as journalists. When Tony Blair gave his leadership speech, they would be awarded seats just behind the cabinet, as if they had been co-opted into the Government. Arguably they had. The first telephone call that Blair made after he had escaped from the conference hall was routinely to Rupert Murdoch himself….

…There was a very sinister element to these relationships. At exactly the same time that Mrs Brooks was getting on so famously with the most powerful men and women in Britain, the employees of her newspapers (as we now know) were listening in to their voicemails and illicitly gaining access to deeply personal information.

One News of the World journalist once told me how this information would be gathered into dossiers; sometimes these dossiers were published, sometimes not. The knowledge that News International held such destructive power must have been at the back of everyone’s minds at the apparently cheerful social events where the company’s executives mingled with their client politicians.

Let’s take the case of Tessa Jowell. When she was Culture Secretary five years ago, News International hacked into her phone and spied on her in other ways. What was going on amounted to industrial espionage, since Ms Jowell was then charged with the regulation and supervision of News International,  and the media group can scarcely have avoided discovering commercially sensitive information, even though its primary purpose was to discover details about Ms Jowell’s private life.

Couldn’t happen here, of course.  Irish politicians traditionally don’t have a great fear of what newspapers might reveal: the thicker the envelope, the thicker the skin.

Conrad Black does a job on Rupert Murdoch in yesterday’s Financial Times – worth reading.  Link here.

The punchline is that “There must be a reckoning with decades of establishment cowardice towards  someone whose nature has been well known throughout that time. The fault is the  British establishment’s and it must not be seduced and intimidated, so  profoundly and durably, again.”

According to the FT, Black is  “the former chairman of the Telegraph Newspapers and of many  other newspapers. He was convicted on four counts of fraud and obstruction of  justice in 2007. He served 29 months in prison until the Supreme Court vacated  the convictions. An appeal court restored two counts. He will return to prison  for 7½ months. He continues to assert his innocence.”

Seems to me that Black would never get a job writing for Murdoch’s newspapers.  He writes too well.

Great coverage in yesterday’s Irish Times of the General Election results.  Over 12 inside pages, there are stories and statistics from around the constituencies, plus plenty of photographs of successful and unsuccessful candidates at the various count centres.

Now only 15% of the total candidates in the election were women, and the same proportion of the successful candidates were women.

However, the Irish Times seemed to be adhering to a 40% quota rule, as 10 of the 24 candidates it featured in photographs from count centres were women (including all 4 on page 15).   This is nearly three times the number one would expect, if the photographs chosen for publication were selected randomly and accurately reflected the gender divide among candidates.

I’m not complaining about this, as nothing much turns on it.  Just pointing it out.  I suppose that if I were a sub-editor in the Tara Street gynecocracy, I too would be keen to show my awareness of gender issues by including as many photos of our TD sisters as is possible.  The fact that 85% of voters actually choose to elect men is neither here nor there.

Today’s Irish Daily Star is a keeper.

FF and “high moral ground”

21 September, 2010

A bitter laugh was to be had from a remark on Eamon Dunphy’s radio show on Newstalk last Sunday.

A panel member (I think it was Ger Colleran of the Irish Daily Star), contrary to the rule that dog does not eat dog,  was giving out about Kathy Sheridan’s Irish Times’ article about Garglegate, and about its coverage of Fianna Fáil generally.  The words he chose to condemn the Irish Times were so revealing: he said that they were always taking “the high moral ground”.

These particular words are usually heard from Fianna Fáil politicians or their apologists and, you no doubt realise, they are intended to be a severe criticism

That sums up the ethical morass that passes for public discourse in Ireland and in Fianna Fáil in particular.  To adopt the high moral ground is to be deviant, elitist, priggish and judgemental (the last being used in its now-normal pejorative sense, although of course the continuation of civilisation depends on people making value judgements, and acting upon them, every day of their lives).

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be sitting (standing?) on the high moral ground.  In most parts of the world, that would signify that one is taking the side of the good guys, and not the sinners and criminals.  Obviously we do things differently in Ireland.  Or at least they do in Fianna Fáil.