What Makes a Free Press?

 DOD, Baile Átha Cliath

On January 11 many of us awoke to the news that Ireland had topped the charts. We were number one! The “best little-country in the world to do business in” had beaten the odds and topped the polls ahead of economic superpowers like China and the USA. Journalists across the world scrambled to cover the story of Ireland’s rise to the top. Unfortunately, the chart that we’d topped was the incidences of COVID-19 per capita. Ireland, a small island of just under 7 million is the world leader in the spread of COVID-19 with 10,100 cases of the virus per million in the 26 counties alone, and only 37 ICU beds remaining. Chronic underfunding of our health system has put our most vulnerable at even graver risk.

It would be expected that, in the wake of this government’s train-wreck COVID-19 response, our dutiful media would be like a pack of rabid dogs waiting to tear them to shreds and hold them to account. However, the response from sections of our media has been more akin to a group of loyal lapdogs than a pack of wolves.

The Irish Times’ website on January 12 littered with pro-government propaganda akin to the caricature they so adamantly paint of socialist states. Simon Carswell’s article seems to paint an Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, as a brave maverick who won’t be told what to do by those out-of-touch bureaucrats in the  National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), when he opted to take the oh-so brave stance of ignoring the advice of an emergency health board set up by his government. Instead he favours kowtowing to Ibec and other lobbying groups, whose stance on COVID isn’t far off that of the brain-melting, anti-lockdown protesters. The justification for this article was given by the mountainous outpouring of support for Varadkar’s stance after his appearance on Claire Byrne Live, which, in reality, amounted to 55 emails, obviously a suitable sample size of the 4.9 million people who live in the South. Might I suggest to Mr. Carswell for his next pro-Government spin piece, to consult a magic 8-ball, or perhaps his local supermarket queue. When it’s pro-Leo who cares about something as trivial as accurate data? That article was published on  January 10, the day before we actually managed to outpace China, a country of almost 1.5 billion people, in COVID-19 cases. Spectacular work for an island nation.

Leo Varadkar’s abortive publicly funded spin team – the Strategic Communications Unit, aimed at emulating Blair period corruption and media control, badly backfired and led to a media debacle rather than a more pliable environment as intended.

All joking aside however, it’s important that we analyse the nature of these spin pieces. To ask why they’re so common, and why a soft, pro-bourgeois press only enables the further destruction of our class, and will lead us into economic, and physical devastation. The concept of a free press has always been pushed in capitalist society. Journalists and newspapers, we’re told, act as a force of neutral arbitrators, who bring the truth to the people and offer honest analysis of current affairs. This simplistic definition, however, hides the true nature of the so-called “free” press and, in the name of free speech, affords them freedom from criticism. Though individual journalists may write with ethics, and genuinely see themselves as honest truth-seekers, the “for-profit” model of the press leaves them with their own inherent biases and motives.

Take, for example, Denis O’Brien. The billionaire media mogul owns the media conglomerate Communicorp, which, in turn, controls radio stations such as: SPIN 1038, SPIN Southwest, Newstalk, Today FM, and 98FM. The two national radio stations, Newstalk and Today FM, make up 22% of all national radio listenership (11% each) and are the largest non-state affiliated radio stations in the country. The regional stations make up 8% (Today FM) and 13% (SPIN 1038) in Dublin and 20% (SPIN Southwest) in the Southwest region. Overall, this amounts to a significant portion of national listenership on the island of Ireland. O’Brien’s other media assets included a stake of 29.9% stake in Independent News Media (which he sold, along with other major shareholders, in 2019, to Belgian multinational Mediahuis, meaning a significant portion of our media is controlled by a company based in Antwerp). Mediahuis is a media conglomerate that controls various newspapers and magazines in Ireland including; the Irish Independent, The Herald, the Kerryman, the Drogheda Independent, The Sligo Champion, the Wicklow People, the Belfast Telegraph, the Corkman, New Ross Standard and The Argus, among others, owning 18 in total.

Denis O’Brien has threatened to sue multiple journalists and presenters, and his ownership stake and monopoly in the Irish media combined with his unique access to Irish establishment politicians has induced a chilling effect on what can and can’t be covered, and fostered a hesitancy through elements of the media to tackle the capitalist class on key issues.

Does this monopolisation of the press affect us, I hear you ask? Imagine a scenario where you work in a supermarket. You’re just a normal, average worker, doing your 9-to-5 and trying to get by like everyone else. One day you’re changing in the staff room before you start your shift when you notice the owner going through the wallet of one of your co-workers. Outraged, you go straight to the store noticeboard which normally features lost-and-found items and community events, and post about your boss’ thievery. After 15 minutes you’re called in to the office where you’re told that unfortunately the store can’t keep you on. Luckily for us, we don’t have to imagine. In 2016, Today FM host Sam Smyth was sacked from his position after he made comments on the Moriarty Tribunal. The same tribunal which implicated O’Brien in allegations of financial irregularities and political corruption. It emerged that O’Brien had made a €50,000 donation to Fine Gael to secure a contract for his company ESat Digifone. The free and fair press in action! Not satisfied with having control over the largest private radio stations in the country as well as a significant number of the regional and national papers, O’Brien moved onto legal action against a number of papers not under his arm after a number of stories were published detailing his storied history of backhanders and brown envelopes. Some of those on O’Brien’s hitlist included: journalist Vincent Browne, the Sunday Business Post, the Irish Daily Mail, and satirical site, Waterford Whispers News.

Parallels can be drawn between O’Brien and James Connolly’s famous adversary during the 1913 Lockout, William Martin Murphy. Murphy used his paper the Irish Independent to crush worker’s movements and slate the ITGWU, unsurprisingly, it would seem that greed trumped any journalistic principles in this case. Corrupt owners aside, how else can journalists benefit the ruling class? For many journalists in Ireland it is in their class interest to softball politicians. They operate in the same circles, share the same friends, and are members of the same golf clubs. Aside from social ostracization, however, many journalists see politics as a long-term career for themselves i.e. “If I ask a few easier questions here that make Minister X look good, he might let me write his biography when he retires”. Lenin describes how “seats on Supervisory Boards… are freely offered to persons of title… who are able to do a great deal to facilitate… relations with the authorities” and how “usually, on the Supervisory Board of a big bank, there is a member of parliament or a… city councillor”.

Willim Martin Murphy’s legacy, still championed in many ways by the orientation of the Irish Independent in favour of big business interests today, draws significant parallels in comparison with Denis O’Brien’s contemporary hold over the Irish media.

In order to fully understand the nature of the “free press” we must leave naivety and old ideals of journalistic ethics at the door (see for example the News International phone-hacking scandal). For-profit newspapers are, first and foremost, a capitalist enterprise, the golden rule for which is that “profit trumps all else”. Private newspapers will print 1. What sells best and 2. What promotes their class interests. Just as the wolf won’t tell the sheep that he’s going to eat him, neither will the private newspaper show the way for the workers’ liberation.

 A truly free press is one made by and for the workers, subject to review and criticism by workers and free from the control of the outside influence of bourgeois spoofers and grifters.

Nuachtán an Phobail abú!

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