“The point about a free press as presided over by O’Reilly’s INM is that editorial content is a matter for journalists, not proprietors.”
So says Eamon Dunphy in his April 12th Irish Times article about the battle between Denis O’Brien and Tony O’Reilly for the ownership of Independent News and Media. The article has raised the hackles of Vincent Browne in the latest edition of Village magazine and with good reason. The article, Browne argues, is a “characteristically sycophantic peon of praise for Tony O’Reilly’s stewardship of Independent Newspapers”.
It seems that whenever anyone wants to cite a benchmark for journalistic integrity or demonstrate the existence of a press free from the tyranny of government, they look to Woodward and Bernstein. And so, it is no different with Dunphy. While listing the “controversies” during his time at the Sunday Independent, Dunphy mentions a conversation he had with O’Reilly to indicate the level of support the proprietor was willing to offer.
“Although I was no Carl Bernstein, and wouldn’t want to be Bob Woodward, O’Reilly referred to the legendary journalists who broke the Watergate story that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall. His friend Ben Bradlee edited the Washington Post during Watergate. The late Katherine (sic) Graham was the publisher.
At a certain point in the Watergate drama, Bernstein and Woodward’s copy became almost too hot to handle. To publish or not a story that would ensure the end of a presidency? Bradlee and Graham stood by their hacks.
O’Reilly belongs in that tradition.”
Reacting to this pomposity Browne writes,
“Ludicrously, he compared O’Reilly to Catherine (sic) Graham of the Washington Post, who stood by Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate scandal. Does Dunphy know about what happened to Joe MacAnthony?”
It is difficult to know if Dunphy is aware of MacAnthony or not. As a journalist of many years standing and of a certain age, it’s more than likely that he does, though of course very few people who are younger than 50 or who are not in journalism have ever heard of the former Sunday Independent investigative reporter.
It’s also possible to assume that Dunphy is completely ignorant of MacAnthony, as he is of many things. The list of controversial opinions he chose to express in his weekly Sunday Independent column, and for which O’Reilly apparently stood by him, is nothing other than a profession of ignorance and stupidity.
There is another fact that Dunphy appears to be ignorant of: Controversy sells newspapers. That is the only reason O’Reilly supposedly supported him. The more controversy his articles generated, the more newspapers were sold; it was that simple. Indeed, if the history of Irish journalism was to be written in an accurate way, it would be shown that the journalism of MacAnthony was its apex, while the drivel which Dunphy points to so proudly is its nadir. Both worked for the Sunday Independent. MacAnthony, though, was elbowed out after writing a very accurate and well-supported story about how Ray Burke accepted money from property developers in 1974, shortly after Fianna Fail contributor Tony O’Reilly took over the newspaper. Dunphy quit the paper after 13 years, but not before O’Reilly, the great benefactor of a “free press” could visit him in his Cork home to offer sweet homespun whimsy about O’Reilly’s “friend”, the Washington Post editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, and the right to publish and be damned.
But it is a testament to how Ireland is now that when it comes to journalism, very few people know who Joe MacAnthony is, while Eamon Dunphy has a weekly program conducting saccharine-drenched interviews with the great and the good on RTE radio and appears as one of the “three wise men” on the Late Late Show, presented by your host, “Plank” Kenny, to use Dunphy’s phrase for him from his Sunday Independent days.
So, perhaps its time to redress the balance a little. A couple of weeks back, the media monitoring website Media Bite conducted an interview with Joe MacAnthony that discusses two of his best-known stories, his own self-imposed professional exile, and the state of the media in Ireland. It’s a very entertaining and informative interview and tells us all we need to know about how media and political power operates in Ireland.
Perhaps most significantly though, it is the point of view of an insider – a reporter who loves his trade and continues to work in it. Often, commentary about the media is provided by those who are consumers rather than producers of news. With MacAnthony’s account, we have the views of someone who has worked within the newspaper industry in Ireland and, when faced with political displeasure at what he has written, provides testimony of how, rather than supporting him, they did the opposite.
If you Google “Joe MacAnthony” you will find little information. However, one thing that comes up in the search is an Irish Examiner article from 2002 by Carl O’Brien which was written after the Flood Tribunal published its report on Ray Burke indicating that he had in fact taken money from property developers, as MacAnthony had proved 18 years earlier.
As Carl O’Brien explains, MacAnthony’s 1974 Sunday Independent article:
“..told of a close relationship with property developers Tom Brennan and Joseph McGowan. It told readers that Deputy Burke had been selling houses for the developers through his company PJ Burke Ltd, named after his father for “sentimental reasons.”
Much of this information was also uncovered by journalist Joe MacAnthony in the Sunday Independent. In 1974 he reported that a document had been sent to the Companies Office in Dublin with the returns for Dublin Airport Industrial Estates Ltd, a company connected to Brennan and McGowan.
The document contained the following reference: “Ray Burke planning £15,000?.”
Shortly after MacAnthony’s article was published, however, things got difficult for him on a professional front, as Mediabite co-organisers David Manning and Miriam Cotton explain:
“MacAnthony had apparently gone too far. [...] Doing what journalism is supposedly all about – ‘truth-telling’ had his wages cut and … effectively squeezed [him] out of both the paper and the Irish media as a whole. He describes in his interview with [Bob] Quinn how he turned up at the RTE Donnybrook studios where he was to begin a six-month contract for RTE’s ‘7 Days’ only to be told that he no longer had access to the building. He had been given no notice by RTE of that decision, though he still received a pay cheque every week.”
This professional ostracism by his employers was not met with any outcry from his colleagues. Perhaps one of the reasons that MacAnthony was able to slip quietly away to work in Canada and in effect, be forgotten, was because of the silence of some of those who worked alongside him, although he acknowledges his debts to certain journalists. This silence is perhaps understandable, though, considering that most simply want to keep their jobs and livelihoods.
There is that other story that MacAnthony is “well known” for (and I put that phrase in inverted commas for a good reason). In 1973, MacAnthony wrote a report on the Irish Sweepstakes, which was bankrolling politicians, paying for parades, employing hundreds of workers and keeping the McGrath family in comfort to which they’d become accustomed. The article is currently available on Media Bite and even today it reads like an exemplar of perfect investigative reporting. The article is long because the editor publishing it was afraid that if they made it into a two-parter, the story would get pulled before the second part could be published. Listing the charges at the beginning of the article, MacAnthony states,
“Our investigations show also that the persons legally responsible for managing and controlling the Sweepstakes – The Associated Hospitals Committee – are not fully aware of the true figures involved in the operation of the Sweep.
Nor are Dail deputies – even though it is Dail Eireann which provides the authority by which the Sweepstakes are run.
These disclosures are only part of what must be one of the most extraordinary, yet least publicised, stories in modern Irish history.
For the facts show:
- that the Act which licences the Sweep was so framed as to prevent the Irish public knowing the real amount of money spent in running the scheme.
- that the figures published by Hospitals Trust (1940) Ltd after each sweepstake are considerably less than the true amount involved.
- that the hospitals receive only 75% of the sum described as the Hospital Fund – because the only tax on the Sweep is taken from the hospitals not the organisers.
- that agents of Hospitals Trust Ltd. are engaged in selling tickets abroad at prices far above those sanctioned by the Minister for Justice.
- that leading shareholders in Hospitals Trust Ltd. have also been involved with a bookmaking group in buying up ticket shares which allows them to win their own prizes.
It is also true that while the leading family involved in the Sweep, the McGraths, are increasing their wealth at a rate of 8,000 pounds per day, most of those who have retired after giving 25 years service to Hospitals Trust Ltd. are receiving a pension of less than 4 pounds a week.”
In the interview, MacAnthony mentions how, during his period of professional exile, so few in the Irish media contacted him to follow up on the stories he had written.
“I went into professional exile just four months after breaking the Ray Burke story, in June 1974. In the fifteen years that followed, I got just one call of any kind from the Irish media. That came from RTE and is a story in itself. Michael Heney and Charlie Bird wanted to do an interview for a documentary about the Sweep. That was around 1978.
I agreed and they came to see me at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where I was then doing exposes for their current affairs programme – neatly called the fifth estate. We did a humungous interview on film in which I told them everything I knew. Needless to say, knowing RTE, I expressed doubt that it would ever get to air. They insisted it would.
They were right about the documentary. After a short delay, it lasted 16 years, it finally came to air in 1994. But my interview was not to be seen. In fact, the only mention I got was as having written an article on the subject. Some time later, curious as why not even a single sentence was used, I asked a knowledgeable source in RTE to look for the film and perhaps see the reason for the blanket rejection. He made an extensive search but the film was not to be found. In the archives or anywhere else.”
In a 2003 Irish Independent article by Stephen Dodd written around the time that a Hidden History documentary on the Irish Sweepstakes was broadcast, MacAnthony indicates the influence of those behind the Irish Sweepstakes:
“You would find that people who were directors of the Irish Sweepstakes were also directors of 20 to 30 other companies as well,” Joe MacAnthony remembers, “so their influence and their money spread into other areas of the Irish economy.”
Heney, who, as we’ve heard, interviewed MacAnthony, also features in the article and describes how that influence prevented any new information coming to light:
“We had chapter and verse,” said reporter Michael Heney. “We should have broadcast it; we should have broadcast something close to what we presented to our management. The fact that we didn’t, I think, was a failure by the state broadcaster.”
As for Charlie Bird, well we can hear RTE’s chief political correspondent today giving his loved-up account of Taoiseach Bertie Ahearn’s address to the Joint House of Congress.
Dunphy’s claim that “INM journalists are broadly free, even as they sometimes savage each other” also is given short shrift in the MacAnthony interview. MacAnthony worked in Canada after his move out of Irish journalism in 1974. But he returned to the Sunday Independent in 2001 when offered a one-year contract by Aengus Fanning to act as a “masthead figure” – this was after the paper became embroiled in controversy when one of its columnist referred to athletes competing in the Special Olympics as “cripples”.
“What followed was a dampening experience, to put it mildly”, says MacAnthony:
“Articles I wrote that related to American policies involving Israel, Afghanistan and Ireland were kept out, although I was still paid for them. The most striking example of censorship came when one of my articles actually got into the first edition of the Sunday edition of the Independent.
It disclosed that the Israelis were removing the bodies of dead Palestinian guerrillas from a site adjoining Lebanon to an area deeper inside Israel. It was commonly regarded as a prelude to aggressive action by the Israeli army, who exchanged these bodies for their own soldiers when taken prisoner. The article was pulled bodily from the paper in the night and replaced with a pro Israeli article on the lines of ‘Arafat fiddles while restaurant burns’. I was told that Mr. O’Reilly was in Dublin that weekend with pro-Israeli backers who were also potential investors and that may have been the reason the story was pulled. But who’s to say?”
But perhaps the most striking thing about the points made (and he makes many more, so I’d encourage you to read the full interview) was that this is not just journalistic history. The Ray Burke story by itself, and the fact that it was MacAnthony who was forced out rather than Burke, despite having the document that proved Burke’s guilt, determined the quality of Irish politics in the following decades.
In effect it allowed politicians to act in a corrupt way knowing that no one could stop them.
As MacAnthony puts it:
“What puzzled me about the Burke case was that I had found the document in the Company’s office that damned him. And still nothing was done. Just as the detective who came to interview me predicted. Certainly, if I had stayed with the Sunday Independent, I would have stayed on his tail, and on those who made contributions to his phantom political fund, including Tony O’Reilly.
I put down the welter of corruption in Irish politics to Burke’s escape from retribution after that exposure in 1974. It gave everybody in the game a licence to steal.”
Of course, we know that Burke went on to steal. Indeed, it is a case that Eamon Dunphy has chosen not to mention – though he could be ignorant of it. It involves Ray Burke when he was Minister for Communications, Tony O’Reilly and the sum of £30,000. As Vincent Browne, reporting in Village magazine, put it,
“The investigation of that £30,000 payment offered the prospect of the most intriguing insight into the interface between political power and big business/corporate media. Ray Burke at the time was Minister for Communications, and Tony O’Reilly’s Fitzwilton had associations with media companies, one of whose interests Ray Burke had the ministerial capacity directly to affect.
Fitzwilton plc, which is controlled by Tony O Reilly, paid £30,000 to
Ray Burke, on 7 June 1989. The payment was made by way of a cheque made payable to “cash”, drawn on a subsidiary company of Fitzwilton plc, Rennicks. Fitzwilton has acknowledged the payment of the £30,000 to Mr Burke, which, it said, was intended for the Fianna Fáil party. The cheque was handed to Mr Burke at his home in Swords by Paul Power, then a director of Fitzwilton, and Robin Rennicks, of Rennicks Ltd, which had been taken over by Fitzwilton. Mr Rennicks was uncomfortable about being drawn into this transaction and agreed to take part in the meeting with Ray Burke reluctantly, on being asked to do so by Fitzwilton. He was also unhappy that Fitzwilton chose to make the payment to Ray Burke through the company formerly owned by him.
Fitzwilton has said that Mr Power and Mr Rennicks asked Mr Burke
to whom the cheque should be made payable and that Mr Burke said to make it payable to “cash”.”
It is interesting too, that as Bertie Ahern makes his speech today, those close associates he has invited along and who will be sitting in the gallery listening to his speech, are people who have become notoriously known as Bertie’s cronies, the property developer Sean Dunne and Des Richardson among them.
Vincent Browne also interviewed Joe MacAnthony for his radio program on the 1st of November 2006.
In the interview, 29 minutes in, Browne says,
“This is an amazing story because we are all led to believe this phenomenon (corruption) in Irish politics started in maybe the 60s, or the 70s or maybe even later still…”
MacAnthony replies simply:
If we had a true free press, one that was capable of at least trying to stand up to vested interests perhaps we’d have to read less of it.
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