Independent investigative journalist, Gemma O’Doherty, has slammed a culture of fear in Irish newsrooms and a stifling environment, as media ownership is concentrated in fewer hands.
Speaking at the the Newsocracy conference organised by MEP Nessa Childers in partnership with the Institute For Future Media and Journalism (FUJO) at Dublin City University, O’Doherty addressed the topic ‘When Journalists become Spin Doctors’.
O’Doherty, who wrote for the Irish Independent for 17 years, is currently working on a series of documentaries on unsolved Irish murders, including the disappearance of Mary Boyle, Ireland’s youngest missing person.
“Most politicians have neither the courage nor the backbone to tackle the critical issue of media ownership in our country, which is having such a harmful effect on the public interest and democracy”, O’Doherty told the gathering.
O’Doherty was made compulsorily redundant by the Irish Independent in August 2013 following an investigation into the garda-penalty-points scandal, during which she called at the home of the former Irish police commissioner, Martin Callinan. She later settled her case for unfair dismissal at the unemployment appeals tribunal.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”, she said.
“Journalism in Ireland is in crisis, and this is primarily because ownership of so much of the media has been allowed to fall into the hands of so few. A culture of fear has consumed certain newsrooms, creating a stifling environment where some reporters behave less like dogged agents of the public interest, and more like compliant diplomats, spinning for the powers-that-be as if their jobs depended on it”.
“They choose to ignore the true function of our still-noble vocation, to hold power to account, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to defend the public’s right to know, and to seek the truth and report it.
A robust, independent, adversarial press is the lifeblood of a functioning state and a free society. But in Ireland in 2016 we have nothing close to that”.
O’Doherty said that it would be necessary to “smash the cosy cartel that exists between the press, politicians and the police in this country, because it is so harmful to the public good”.
“In order to tackle these incestuous relationships, we must talk about the elephant in the room. The fact that the pet-name of the biggest owner in Irish media is ‘Redacted’ says it all. One big voice has far too much power and prominence in our small country. Let’s just look at some of the ways Denis O’Brien has tried to limit press freedom and free speech in our country.
O’Doherty noted the proposed “journalists’ charter” introduced at INM in 2013, the court case last year which led (temporarily) to several media outlets being unwilling to report a speech covered by Oireachtas privilege, and said that Transparency International had reported O’Brien to the UN for making legal threats against journalists.
“Is it healthy for democracy”, O’Doherty asked, “that someone who takes such an interest in silencing our right to speak be in control of so much of our media? I don’t think so”. O’Doherty also criticised “the lazy propaganda that RTÉ pumps into Irish households night after night”.
“There is no doubt that a culture of institutional complacency now dominates RTÉ, where some presenters earn more than David Cameron and Barack Obama, and no one wants to tell us what some of the senior management earn”.
“But for me, their greatest failure has been how they have shut the door in the faces of victims. Victims who have damning stories to tell, especially those who have suffered at the hands of An Garda Síochána.
O’Doherty said in the case of Mary Boyle, a six-year-old girl who disappeared and was believed murdered in 1977, the authorities “refused to bring the chief suspect in the case4 to justice, amid allegations of garda corruption and political interference”.
She said that when she visited a US Congressman in Washington to highlight the case along with Mary Boyle’s sister Ann Doherty RTÉ, “despite countless requests”, refused to inform the public of the visit. And she charged that the national public broadcaster also ignored visits to Stormont, Westminster, and Brussels, and a case against the state instigated by Ann Doherty.