The great magazine survivor divides commentators – Gerard Cunningham
Born out of the ashes of Hibernia magazine and the Sunday Tribune Mark I, the Phoenix magazine which a few years ago quietly passed from John Mulcahy to a new CEO, his son Aengus, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Modelled on Private Eye in the UK, the magazine produces a fortnightly diet of cartoons and satire, smutty and sexist schoolboy humour, financial analysis, and news with an insider slant from the worlds of security, politics, media, arts, and law. Like its UK counterpart, the Phoenix presents itself as lying outside the mainstream consensus in Ireland. Phoenix editor, Paddy Prendiville, has said, “their current affairs coverage relies more on humour than we do”. As with Private Eye, contributors remain anonymous. Prendiville has said “there’s no thought-out reason why we don’t name journalists other than what you read is more important than who writes it”.
With a sparse website, containing little beyond an invitation to subscribe (to the paper as well as online product; only overseas subscribers can avail of an online-only option) Phoenix takes an approach to the brave new world of internet publishing close to that of French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, whose website consists simply of a single page apology for the lack of online content, and an invitation to buy the paper edition. Even Private Eye, with its notoriously loyal readership, has bowed to pressure to put at least some of its leading columns online for free.
The Canard is a special case however. It has always refused to take advertisements, relying solely on newspaper sales, and positions itself as the most objective publication in France on this basis. Perhaps accidentally, that policy insulated it against the downfall in revenues throughout the newspaper world in the last decade. While circulation has fallen, the Canard never enjoyed advertising boom, and so isn’t suffering because of the current slump.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix finds itself with just over 14,000 readers at the end of 2012, according to ABC audited figures, down from over 21,000 a decade ago.
However, the raw number doesn’t tell the complete story. As its own advertising material points out, Phoenix is the ‘leading business and current affairs’ magazine in Ireland and boasts an impressive 70% of its readers in the ABC1 category, beloved of advertisers.
In a market where the combined pressures of recession and online competition are eating into the sales of all publications, the Phoenix still manages to stay the course. Despite competition from new online ventures like Politico.ie, its mix of business and political coverage – plus the attraction of glossy print – continues to bring in advertising revenues that newer ventures can only dream of.
Unsurprisingly, as a magazine which positions itself as not-quite-mainstream, Phoenix attracts both supporters and detractors.
In 1989 in an extreme instance convicted fraudster, John Carway, who felt he was being “hounded” by Phoenix printed two editions of Commercial Life magazine which contains a 16-page article attacking Phoenix then publisher John Mulcahy for his secretly-taped attempts to sell his British magazine The Digger for £45,000 which he wanted paid into an off-shore account, for tax reasons.
They publish the smoke and leave you to imagine the fire
“If you’re asking me what the Phoenix is, I’d say it’s a vehicle for [editor] Paddy Prendeville to say what he thinks about people every week”, says public relations consultant John McGuirk. “In other words it’s a glorified personal preachy blog, that’s my kind of feeling on it”.
“But I think it’s kind of harmless at the same time, I’m not aware of many careers that have been ruined by the Phoenix magazine, or indeed any major stories of national consequence that were broken by the Phoenix magazine. It’s something to read on the bus, don’t take it that seriously, that’s my view of it”.
“They get tidbits from people that fit the side of the story that certain individuals want told, and publish them. Are they fair? No, they’re not, but I think an informed reader will know that’s not the intent, you’re reading it essentially to get gossip”.
“I think it would be ridiculous for anyone to say that a source in the Phoenix is an authoritative, fair and balanced account of what is going on within an issue”.
“The profile published of me during a USI presidential election, I don’t think it was designed by the people they spoke to to be flattering. I think most people recognise that, and I think it’s the same in nearly everything they do”.
“By and large profiles are designed to create an impression, and I think in fairness to the Phoenix what they would say in terms of the profile of me is, ‘well this is a controversial person, and we’re trying to convey the controversies’”.
“Phoenix operates on the no smoke without fire principle, they publish the smoke and leave you to imagine the fire, that’s what they do. They find all the smoke they can, they billow it up in your face, and they say ‘if you look closely, you’ll find the flame in here somewhere. And sometimes you will, and sometimes you won’t”.
It is often said that people who have not featured in The Phoenix are more inclined to believe all of what is written there than others.
“People complain that The Phoenix isn’t always accurate. Maybe so, but who else is publishing things?” says Jason Walsh, Ireland correspondent of the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor currently researching for a PhD in philosophy centred on the newspaper.
“There’s a real hue-and-cry at the moment about the need for investigative journalism – often at the expense of, in my opinion, equally important humdrum daily reporting – so perhaps people should put their money where their mouths are and buy The Phoenix”.
“I’ll give you an example: with the notable exception of Vincent Browne, I can think of no-one else who probed the Workers Party and Official IRA. Even now, you’d think that with ex-Workers’ Party people in government and the rump party publishing Look Left, a Sticky magazine that everyone on the left has orgasms about, people would bother looking into that, especially during the Sean Garland extradition hearing. They haven’t”.
“In fact, the only person I’m aware of in the national media who ever brings it up is Marc Coleman, and he’s clearly grinding his own conservative axe”.
Broadcaster Éamon Ó Catháin is one who has mixed feelings about the magazine. In 1999 he presented one of several specialised evening programmes which lost out when RTé Radio One poached John Kelly from TodayFM (then Radio Ireland). The Phoenix broke the story.
“The word the Phoenix used was ‘shafted’”, Ó Catháin recalls. “ I lost my programme, that’s part of the risk in the world of freelance broadcasters. I was a bit miffed that they didn’t check with me first before using my name, obviously I wasn’t very happy with it, but they were kind of being put out about it on my behalf. I felt they were putting words in my mouth and in the mouths of the others involved”.
“I was told at the time that RTé had actually bandied about the notion of making me five nights a week, John Kelly was on Radio Ireland, – TodayFM – at the time, and somebody within the meeting said ‘No, let’s just buy the competition’, and so they waved a chequebook. Fair enough, that’s the name of the game”.
“Phoenix got wind of something, obviously from an insider position, and decided to blow the whistle on it, which is a bit much given that we hadn’t even been told at that point. It was all very strange. I did go to a senior producer at the time, my producer said ‘I found out in Phoenix as well’”.
“As much as I hate to be boring, I am, on the record, an admirer of Phoenix”, says journalist and DIT lecturer Harry Browne. “I’m in the relatively rare position of having had a byline there, when it literally donated space to a conventionally presented ‘supplement’ about the Goldstone report on the first Gaza war: I wrote the cover piece for that”.
“On a whole range of issues, including that one, I find it the most politically sympathetic mainstream publication on the market. Only Village, in both incarnations, has come close to its coverage of Corrib, for example. I’ve just finished a book on Bono, and the Phoenix archives are the only place in Ireland to find consistently astute and critical coverage of him — not merely ‘critical’ in a broadly rhetorical and political way, but detailed, careful and accurate about U2’s various companies and their business activities”.
“There have been a couple of occasions, of course when I’ve seen Phoenix get a story wrong with which I was familiar or follow a particular agenda a bit too transparently: some of the inside stuff from the anti-war movement back in 2003-04 comes to mind. You might argue that it’s in its nature, but I think the idea that its chosen style — overt riskiness, rudeness, anonymity of journalists and sources — is intrinsically more error-prone than the conventions we teach in journalism school is not supported by the evidence”.
Browne points to the story of Dervish, a traditional music group who pulled out of a tour of Israel last year, as an example of the kind of story the Phoenix excels at. The Irish Times coverage of the story led to complaints to the press ombudsman from the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign about misleading coverage of their campaign for a cultural boycott of Israel. The complaint was later rejected by the ombudsman.
“You’ve probably seen my Politico piece on the Irish Times’ Dervish story;” Browne says. “Phoenix were way ahead of me on that, getting it right with good journalism, when the Irish Times was digging in”.