The received narrative in a democracy is that there is an inherent adversarial relationship between politicians and civil servants on one side and journalists on the other.
The job of the diligent journalist is to pursue transparency by scrutinising policy; they should hold government to account through critical engagement in order to arrive at the truth, or at least an approximation of the truth. The citizen is then properly informed on government policy by the journalist acting in the public interest as a watchdog on power. Well, that’s the theory at least.
In Ireland and elsewhere however an incestuous nexus between media and government exists. Journalists frequently rely on anonymous sources—who are often Cabinet members and senior civil servants—to the detriment of real transparency and accountability. One story that illustrates this point well is coverage over the past year in the Irish Times of attempted reforms of the Direct Provision system and, more recently, the governmental response to the so-called ‘migrant’ crisis.
Following months of protest in Direct Provision centres last summer, the Minister for Justice set up a working group, chaired by retired High Court Justice Bryan McMahon, to look into reform of the system. The group was an ‘independent’ vehicle comprising members from various NGOs and representatives from the relevant state departments including the Department of Justice (DoJ).
A week after the announcement of the group, an article by Conor Lally headlined ‘Asylum claims increase for the first time in over a decade’ was published in the Irish Times. The article, apparently sourced from the DoJ, reported – accurately but well before official statistics were due to be announced – a 40% year-on-year increase in asylum applications. Lally, who is the Irish Times’ crime correspondent, had not written about statistics on asylum since 2006.
In December of that year, Lally delivered another article, headlined ‘Asylum claims up 45% in first rise since 2000’. In this second piece, which again included accurate statistics before their official publication, Lally allowed anonymity to a “senior justice source” who said that “the fact the Republic was regarded internationally as recovering from its recessionary years may be a contributory factor for some of the increase”. In other words, the implication is, the increase in asylum-seeker numbers is down to crafty economic migrants falsely claiming asylum in Ireland to take advantage of our growing economy.
At the time of the article, a number of “senior justice” officials were involved in the working group. The DoJ, in an attempt to limit the potential reforms being discussed by the group, had an incentive to push the narrative that the increasing numbers of asylum claims were due to an influx of ‘economic migrants’. Was Lally’s senior source involved in negotiations on the working group at the time? We may never know because Lally granted him or her anonymity for no clear reason except, perhaps, in the source’s interest.
Fast forward to June 2015. Barring a couple of contentious resignations, the working group successfully completed its task and produced a report which called for minor reforms of Ireland’s Direct Provision and asylum systems. On the morning after the report was delivered to government, the front page of the Irish Times featured a story entitled ‘Minister Raises Concerns over Immigration Spike’.
This article, by Fiach Kelly, was based entirely on anonymous sources. Before covering the McMahon report, Kelly gave his source prominence to say that “an estimated 700 migrants had entered the country in the space of one month”. Unlike for Lally’s statistics, there is no evidence to back up this ‘700’ figure. When he finally mentions the working group report, Kelly quotes “concern in the Coalition” that improving Direct Provision could make Ireland “a destination country for immigrants”.
As a journalist, Kelly has a duty to ensure his reporting is in the public interest. It is not clear that the public interest is best served by granting anonymity to senior government sources so that they can engender and promote, using unverified figures, a concocted anxiety about welfare-seeking migrating hordes. It’s not clear if the public interest is served by contrasting the release of a long-awaited report with anonymous ‘concern’ that any change to the status quo would lead to increased immigration by people “who are in essence illegal immigrants”, as another anonymous source said in the article. What is clear, though, is that some within government and the DoJ had an interest in controlling, directing and containing the immediate political and media discourse surrounding the publication of the McMahon report. Kelly’s article allowed his sources to do that; in effect he let certain figures distort the release of the report under cover of anonymity. The intricate and incestuous nexus between government and media in this instance, you could say, trumped the democratic theory, and the imaginary adversarial relationship which we are told exists.
After the release of the report, events in the Mediterranean and beyond overshadowed any Direct Provision reforms. The huge numbers of refugees arriving in Europe suddenly became big news after a number of tragedies including the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi in September. The EU slowly moved towards a response, finally agreeing to two refugee-relocation programmes in addition to a previous resettlement programme. Ireland agreed to take in around 4,000 under these programmes, and the government set up the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), led by the DoJ, to deal with the logistics.
The Irish Times’ coverage of the ‘migrant’ crisis on the fringes of Europe has been good. If you want to find out what’s happening in Serbia or on the Greek island of Lesbos, the Times will inform you. However, their coverage of the IRPP leaves a lot to be desired.
The government is setting up, as part of the IRPP, a series of Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres (EROCs) to host and process the relocated refugees yet to arrive. Kitty Holland has produced some excellent reports on the first orientation centre (for resettled, as opposed to relocated, refugees), the Hazel Hotel in Monastarevin, Co. Kildare. Holland, over several articles, described the hotel, its function, locals’ reactions to it and, crucially, criticisms from NGOs of its similarities to Direct Provision.
Similarly, in a series of articles on the IRPP, including detail on the Hazel Hotel, in September and October, Fiach Kelly keeps readers informed about the Programme—up to a point. For example, in September, Kelly quoted Minister for State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who said that “it would make more sense” if the EROCs were located “outside Dublin and other areas where there are already shortages as well as a homelessness crisis”.
Not present in either series of articles, however, is the fact that the Hazel Hotel was procured through the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), the agency behind Direct Provision. Irish Times readers were not informed that the centre is owned and operated by individuals who also run four existing Direct Provision centres.
Holland included harsh criticism from NGOs about the similarities between the Hazel Hotel arrangement and Direct Provision. By contrast, Kelly’s reports on the IRPP lack any analysis (except for the government analysis which is accepted as fact) of the potential ramifications of the EROC system. The comments by Ó Ríordáin about placing EROCs outside Dublin represent the DoJ’s policy of “dispersal”—locating asylum-seekers throughout the country, ostensibly to reduce the burden on services in Dublin— which is a key part of Direct Provision.
The introduction of EROCs mirrors almost exactly the introduction of Direct Provision in late 1999 and early 2000. The first new centre for refugees is a part of the existing Direct Provision system. Dispersal, which was justified in 2000 by a Dublin accommodation crisis, is being effected as part of the IRPP because of a homelessness crisis. The DoJ has advertised for “commercial providers” of accommodation to make premises available to them. The system of EROCs is being introduced in the exact same manner as Direct Provision was, by the same Department. But to read the Irish Times you would not know this.
All evidence suggests that the Department of Justice is perfectly happy to continue as it always has in relation to refugees. It looks set to continue with its system of commercially owned and operated centres —Direct Provision and the rebranded EROCs based on the same model. The DoJ’s flawed model is premised on warehousing humans and privatising the care of vulnerable refugees.
Direct Provision was introduced in 2000 partially on the back of a manufactured moral panic concerning welfare tourism by asylum-seekers, kindled by politicians and officials within the DoJ and stoked by media. The Irish state has consistently responded to this system with administrative tight-fistedness, a lack of compassion, and, at times, plain vindictiveness.
Until 2014, there had been no serious investigation by any branch of government into the impact of the system on the rights of asylum-seekers. The report McMahon working group offered a chance to pinpoiny a light on the system and its disastrous impact on those simply seeking asylum from multiple oppressions, a right long since codified in international law.
Instead of pouncing on the opportunity, the Irish Times, through Lally and Kelly, gave less space to any discussion of the contents of the report than it did to allowing anonymous DoJ and government sources to muddy the waters, as the group was sitting and as their report was presented to government.
The Irish Times did give some coverage to the establishment of the IRPP, but not enough. The media in a functioning democracy are supposed to be the public’s watchdog, overseeing the state’s actions and often secretive processes. After 15 years of Direct Provision, Irish Times journalists should distrust or at least be deeply sceptical about anything government or DoJ sources have to say on asylum. Yet Holland and Kelly’s articles about the IRPP and the Hazel Hotel have lacked essential detail and, in Kelly’s case, have been based on unanalysed statements from Ministers and “well-placed” sources.
The job of the media in a functioning democracy, as the fourth estate, is to facilitate discussion and debate of government policy. It would seem that the Irish Times are not living up to this ideal when it comes to migration.
Mark Kernan & Dan Delaney