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In the Eye of the Times – a week as seen by the Irish Times

 

For those who see the media affected by liberal or secular bias, for those who see the media as agents of corrupt power, reading the editorial direction of any particular newspaper is a simple task. They can always find confirmation of their view in particular opinion pieces or news stories.

Ireland’s newspapers do not define themselves as those of many European countries do, on liberal/conservative, left/right, secular/religious lines. Our newspapers, like our main political parties, have a bit of everything.

Assessing a newspaper’s orientation thus requires more than a reading the (little-read) editorial opinion columns or contributor opinion pieces. These can give us clues, but little more. Newspapers make it their business to ensure a spread of columnists: Joe Higgins TD and Senator Ronan Mullen write in the Irish Daily Mail; John Waters and Fintan O’Toole write in The Irish Times.

Inclusions and exclusions in news selection, the tendency and tone of headlines, the choice of vocabulary – all of these details, and many more, contribute to the impact a newspaper has on its readers. With these characteristics in mind I took a snapshot of The Irish Times in an arbitrarily chosen week, Monday 23rd to Saturday 28th April.

Several major themes ran through the news coverage and opinion pieces for some or all of those six days: the referendum on the fiscal treaty, the troika view of and the prospects for the Irish economy, media ownership and diversity issues and internal disputes at Independent News and Media, the French presidential election and its possible impact on EU policies. All of these were also extensively covered by other media.

The Irish Times also had its selected themes, carrying several stories prominently on education, and on the Catholic Church, and on the connections between them. It ran features under the rubric, The Politics of Water, and a series of pieces in the foreign news pages about the Caucasus region, ahead of a meeting in Dublin of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

No other Irish medium showed anything like the same interest in the OSCE meeting. The Irish Times’ piece in this series on Azerbaijan excluded any reference to the capital, Baku, as the location of the Eurovision Song Contest, so it did not try to connect the subject to a broad readership. The choice of topic and its treatment reflected the agenda of the inter-governmental organisation, OSCE, and of its host this week, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

The newspaper takes this perspective in many other matters, basing much of its agenda on the government’s and focusing its coverage on individual ministers. Front-page headlines of this week name-checked Varadkar (Monday), Gilmore (Tuesday), Howlin (Wednesday), Kenny (Friday).

Gilmore was centre-stage on a report about trade unions advocating a No vote in the referendum. Howlin took the lead on a report about public service employees’ allowances being under scrutiny. Kenny was credited in a report that the state (deferentially State in The Irish Times house-style) might get a possible larger-than-expected proportion of the sale price of state assets.

The first two of these stories, at least, could have been told from other perspectives, e.g. Pressure builds on ICTU to advocate No, or Public service unions vow to protect allowances.

The Irish Times’s choices indicate a primary orientation to those in political, economic, cultural, educational and other elites: other front-page names during the week included O’Reilly (Thursday) of Independent News and Media, Le Brocquy (Thursday), whose death was very generously marked, and Bono (Friday), in reference to his role in a spat between property developers. Two members of the European political elite, Sarkozy and Hollande, were named in a page-1 headline on the French presidential election (Monday) as presumably familiar to readers.

Personal names and personal agency were less clearly stated when it came to questionable behaviour by people in authority. A page-1 report (Monday) on ministers’ spending €7 million on outside consultancies merely listed the larger spends, without giving any standard by which to judge whether this was a lot or a little.

A story on Michael Lowry (Tuesday) was another product of the assiduous work of public affairs correspondent Colm Keena: the reports on page 1 and page 5 recorded that property owned by a Lowry company was not recorded on the TD’s register of interests, and listed documented details about the company and about Lowry’s connections with disgraced financier Michael Fingleton. The Irish Times did not state, “Lowry fails to register land ownership”, much less explore his previous record in this regard or the sanctions for not making complete returns.

As it turned out, there was no failure of compliance on Lowry’s part: The Irish Times (Saturday) reported that an Oireachtas committee had ruled that Lowry was not required to register details of the property transaction, just his directorship of the company involved. If this was a correction of the earlier report, it was not presented as such. The Irish Times, if we are to judge by the minuscule Corrections column, very rarely gets things wrong, and then only on relatively trivial details.

A muffled 38-word first sentence led a page-1 report (Wednesday) on a Catholic priest against whom sex abuse allegations were made being allowed to continue in service. Here too, the passive voice much favoured by The Irish Times was used: “the parish pastoral council was not given any of this information”, “Father Benito was allowed to serve”, etc. The paper did not identify who was responsible for these decisions.

Coverage of the Catholic Church also included extensive coverage of the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress (Tuesday), including a striking front-page photograph of a woman with the veil she wore to the 1932 Congress, and a long feature (Tuesday) about church influence in teacher education that included some critical from students. However, The Irish Times did not give as much attention as other media during the week to church-government differences over mandatory reporting of sexual abuse claims, nor to the church’s censure of broadcaster-priest Brian D’Arcy.

In the D’Arcy story, as in that of ex-hurler D J Carey’s collapse, that of nurse Laura White whose mortgage debt was written off, and that of ex-TD Noel O’Keeffe’s arrest on fraud charges, The Irish Times gave minimum attention to the personalities involved. The D’Arcy and White stories were told as stories of institutions and their policies. As with stories implicating the government, The Irish Times represents public affairs mainly from the perspective of institutions and very much less from that of the individuals and groups whose lives the institutions affect.

Personalities and their images are not absent, however: début novelist Kathleen McMahon was pictured three times (Saturday) in various versions of the same photo, one displayed over more than a half-page. The story of her big publishing deal was told at length and her first novel was reviewed generously by Maeve Binchy. McMahon – and we were told this – is the niece of the late literary editor of The Irish Times, Caroline Walsh.

There was coverage over three pages (Thursday) of artist Louis le Brocquy’s death, including a handsomely-illustrated full page with appreciation by the paper’s art critic, followed by an extensive obituary and editorial (both Saturday), that further underlined his significance in Irish cultural life. This represented many multiples of the volume of coverage in other media.

On the EU treaty referendum The Irish Times presented the case for a No vote (Wednesday) from trade unionist Eamonn Devoy, immediately answered (Thursday) by a plea for Yes from IDA chief executive Barry O’Leary and further pieces (Saturday) from political editor Stephen Collins and columnist Noel Whelan. Whelan’s support was qualified by a concern that the government was tardy in initiating its campaign, just as European correspondent Arthur Beesley criticised the quality of the government web site stabilitytreaty.ie (Tuesday). The government was being told: must try harder.

Sinn Féin’s use of partial quotes from economists on the downsides of the fiscal compact was reported (Thursday) from the perspective of a government critic, Fine Gael TD Paschal Donoghue and was the subject of a page-1 Martyn Turner cartoon (Friday) that played on previous Sinn Féin controversies with customary skill and bite. The Irish Times passed over the opportunity to examine further the economists’ criticisms of the compact. As 31st May approaches we can expect an editorial column that takes a measured view of the benefits and risks of the new fiscal rules and then plumps for a Yes vote. Within this framework, The Irish Times will likely strive to maintain some balance in its news coverage and invited opinion.

This orientation relates to how the Irish Times operates, at least in certain respects, as a public-service medium. The term has been appropriated for publicly-funded broadcasting only but can also apply to a newspaper whose operations are governed by a charter, that is controlled by a trust – however opaque its operations are – and is not beholden to shareholders.

Examples of public-service publishing included the well-presented, government-supported supplement marking the 100th anniversary of the first Home Rule Bill (Wednesday) and the weekly Health supplement (Tuesday) that provides guidance and information in quantity and quality not justified by the level of advertising the supplement attracts. (Actually, that might currently apply to the newspaper as a whole, with typically one to two pages of paid display ads in the 20-page main section.)

The business (daily) and property supplements (Thursday) are different cases. The former speaks to and about the business elite, though the slightly awkward inclusion of the consumer page, Pricewatch (Tuesday), tempers that somewhat.  This week’s property supplement was trailered on page 1 of the newspaper with a banner, “Families feeling the squeeze in tight market”. Far from being focused on families and their difficulties, the report in question detailed the difficulties of estate agents in finding family homes to sell. The supplement’s main story concerned a Dublin suburban property for sale for €6.5 million – the kind of piece that stimulates the reader’s fantasy and the estate agent’s continued advertising support.

So, “the quality newspaper”? “The paper of record”? “The liberal newspaper”? These labels for The Irish Times tell us little of how it selects and reconstructs events for its readers. Quality is a continuum, not an on-off switch, and certainly not synonymous with broadsheet as much commentary implies. Fortunately, we no longer need a newspaper to act as a stenographic record of important events and The Irish Times is often behind other media in telling us what it thinks is important to know. Socially-liberal covers some of what The Irish Times represents, but so too does economically-conservative.

The Irish Times – like many other long-established and respected publications across the world – is an elite newspaper with a significant public-service mission. It operates within the range of interests and views of Ireland’s closely-connected elites. It is published for the attention of those elites and other educationally and socially advantaged readers. It presents its content as self-evidently significant. It presumes it knows its readers’ interests and does not have to exert itself to get their attention.

 

Brian Trench is a former journalist and lecturer in journalism and science communication at Dublin City University