An interview by Miriam Cotton of Media Bite with the journalist, activist and lecturer Harry Browne, who is also the author of the recently published book ‘Hammered by the Irish’ (Counterpunch and AK Press), also reviewed by MediaBite.
This interview with Browne, which took place last November, explores his views on journalism and its function within the corporate context. It was also an opportunity to discuss aspects of the Irish news scene, where it is now and where it’s future might lie.
[HB – Harry Browne, MC – Miriam Cotton, MediaBite]
MC: About your new book, ‘Hammered by the Irish‘ I wanted to focus on media coverage of the Pitstop Ploughshares themselves, their actions, their journey through the legal system as represented in the media. In your view which journalists and media outlets were the most hostile – and in what way did they distort the motives and actions of those involved? Deirdre Clancy, Nuin Dunlop, Karen Fallon, Damien Moran and Ciaron O’Reilly were as much challenging the complicit failure of mainstream news outlets to cover the proposed invasion of Iraq in the outraged tones and terms that it warranted – as they were the war itself? I know that was not their stated objective or even necessarily what they had in mind even in part, but almost by default, to have mounted the action and to make the point inevitably involved some expectation that the media would cover it. And so, in effect, were they saying too that the media had been inadequate to that point?
HB: I think that’s an interesting perspective but I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, for two reasons. In addition to the Pitstop Ploughshares Mary Kelly took an action at the time and I know that when she was mounting her defence in at least one of the cases that I was consulted on, I want to make a completely different case to the one you’ve just made – that reading the media at the time – as she was doing – she was properly outraged at what was about to befall the people of Iraq – that she had been properly informed by the media about what was going to happen.
The other thing is that having just been involved in an academic study about the anti-war movement, the coverage in the run up to the war, I don’t think that you can actually conclude with any solidity that in January 2003 the media weren’t sufficiently outraged about what was going on at Shannon and that they weren’t giving sufficient ventilation to the views of the anti-war movement, or that Tim Hourigan and Ed Horgan weren’t getting a shot – they were. I think that focusing on the media, though it’s what I do for a living, and I think it’s important – but I don’t think the Pitstop Ploughshares were acting out of frustration at any thing – be that the media, or the behavior of the Irish government – I think they were acting out of righteous anger and a genuine desire to try to do something that would make a difference.
It was the case that the media coverage of them was absolutely disastrous. The coverage of their action in the media was disgraceful. I would single out, because it is the most important outlet in the country, RTE on the day of the action. The mid-western correspondent Cathy Halloran over-interpreted the phrase that came from the Garda statement that they had overpowered a member of the force and she elaborated to the extent that she said they had been charged with criminal damage but could face much more serious charges on account of having overpowered the garda. She raised the stakes and she raised the spectre of violence and that was taken up in interviews with Bertie Ahern and Seamus Brennan: ‘I don’t think they’re one bit peaceful’ – and this sort of carry on. So the Pitstop Ploughshares were very badly defamed by RTE in particular.
To an enormous extent the print media had already self-corrected in subsequent days and that particular slur about overpowering the garda and the implication of violence wasn’t really repeated in print. The worst print manifestation was probably in Ireland on Sunday, the following Sunday, where the Pitstop Ploughshares were painted as a kind of cult. ‘Runway Voodoo‘ was part of the headline on that story. There was this very salacious and sensational account of who they were and what they were doing that certainly wouldn’t be recognizable to someone who has read the book and knows much more about them. But then the media in Ireland did this thing that it does in relation to criminal cases, it went into sub judice mode. Sub judice means that when a case is before the courts that you are not supposed to publish anything that might prejudice the case, so anything that goes to the facts of the case or to the legal argument shouldn’t be in the public domain – lest any potential juror be poisoned. Coming from America where that just doesn’t happen, it always seemed funny to me. By and large the Irish media errs on the side of caution in criminal matters and once someone is charged there is very, very little said about a case.
MC: The same effect is evident when a big institution is accused of something. It goes to court knowing that by doing so…
HB: …it’s going to kill it, yes. Absolutely.
MC: Even though they anticipate losing the case years down the line…
HB: …when people have stopped caring about it, yes. So the Pitstop Ploughshares fell into a media black hole as a result of the sub judice considerations. In spite of the efforts of Damien and Ciaron at some points – generally not supported by the women – to gain publicity, not about their specific action but to use their corporate identity as the Pitstop Ploughshares to attract attention – that was largely an abject failure. They were almost completely ignored other than at their trials and when their trials were on, the coverage of what happened in court was largely focused on what they did there and didn’t discuss extraneous issues. The only exception was an interview with Ciaron O’ Reilly in Village [bi-monthly current affairs magazine] magazine at the first trial when John Byrne interviewed him. It was very clearly on the part of the editor of Village, Vincent Browne, a pressing at the boundaries of the sub judice rule – Vincent is a barrister himself and very strongly of the view that the media in Ireland is much too cautious in its reading of the restriction. He published that and there was no fallout from it whatsoever. So in that sense it was tried and tested and proven that you could have done something about them in that period of time – or without at least attracting the opprobrium of a judge.
But the really interesting thing is that once they were acquitted, the media also ignored them – with the exception of the now forgotten paper Daily Ireland, published in Belfast. Daily Ireland decided that they were the best thing since sliced bread and had them covered for a couple of days. A Sinn Fein councilor said they should be given the freedom of the city – and Daily Ireland highlighted that. Liveline [radio programme] picked that up – the people producing the programme on the day were very sympathetic to it and were happy with it. But that was about it for mainstream media.
MC: Gene Kerrigan in the Independent covered it sympathetically in his column.
HB: Yes, I’m talking about the news coverage, though. That’s an opinion piece so that’s a different thing. Gene Kerrigan was about the only one to write a supportive opinion piece – there were many more who wrote derisively about them – including in that same edition, Eoghan Harris and Emer Kelly in particular.
MC: So Kerrigan was ‘balanced’ out?
HB: Yes, he was. Gene Kerrigan is a fantastic journalist. But in terms of news coverage, the news of the Pitstop Ploughshares acquittal got an initial flurry of attention – certainly it was in the news that day but it wasn’t really followed up and nobody sought them out for interviews – except finally some time later, in 2006, Damien Moran was profiled on the ‘Would You Believe?’ series. Ciaron had been interviewed before the action on the same programme so it had come full circle. In between no one had ever treated them or the women as potential human interest stories. I found that really extraordinary.
The trial was not covered well either. It was not an easy one to cover from a journalist’s perspective because of the legal argument. You’d end up going in for a day and come out with nothing you could use and that not’s usually regarded as a good way to spend your day. The fact that the final trial, the third trial, was the one that ended in their acquittal – and some of the testimony had already been reported on from trials one and two, meant there was a certain sense of fatigue about it as well. The Star on the day after the action 26th July 2006 did a very good news analysis of the verdict – no one else really explained it. Going back to the time of the action, I’m pretty sure it was Tom Cooney from UCD who had been on the radio the day after saying there could be no possible justification for their actions and with that being the best of the legal expert opinion that was out there, when the verdict came in, very few outlets chose to try to redress that.
MC: In 2006 in The Dubliner  you did a survey of Irish Times journalists about the paper’s perceived swing to the right. You said ‘some worry that such an uninspired newspaper won’t have anything to fall back on when the goose stops laying the golden egg of property and recruitment advertising, the Irish Times could eventually pay for its small ‘c’ conservatism”. It seems pretty clear that we have now arrived at exactly that point. Do you think that under the editorship of Geraldine Kennedy the paper is even capable of a serious reassessment of its editorial ethos and perspective – of attuning itself more relevantly to the seriously altered circumstances of post-boom Irish society?
HB: That’s a very good question. I’m not particularly interested in personalizing it. I don’t think that it’s much to do with Geraldine Kennedy’s editorship or the editorship of nearly anyone you could imagine at the Irish Times. I suppose with the obvious exception of Fintan O’Toole, who was a contender for the editorship when Geraldine won it. I was happy that she was the right choice at the time.
MC: Why did you support Geraldine Kennedy for the editorship?
HB: Well, Geraldine is, I always found a very straightforward, honest, good colleague. She was not part of any of the elaborate office politics and factions that I would have known of in the years that I was there. I liked and admired her – she is a very good reporter and editor. I obviously don’t have a political view in common with her. In retrospect you can argue about whether someone who is so focused on news and on politics is the right choice to lead a newspaper in an era when by necessity newspapers have to be a lot more than political news but given the alternatives at the time, I thought she had the right mix of experience and general cop on to be a good leader, for what it’s worth. Whether the paper can make the changes that need to be made, I don’t know that any paper can make the changes that need to be made right now – or that any group of editorial executives can cope with what is happening because obviously the bottom has fallen out of those two important sources of income but also people’s sense of their disposable income has catastrophically declined as well. With the newspapers hurt in terms of advertising revenue – which for the Irish Times is the significant majority of the revenue and it’s going to be hit now without a doubt in its circulation figures which will be poor in spite of the fact that we have had an extraordinarily interesting time in recent months. It’s the one time when you think you want to pick up a newspaper and read about what’s going on.
From what I gather, the circulation has been hit so it’s a tough time and print newspapers in general are affected. You go into a class of journalism students here and ask about what the last newspaper they bought was – they might ask you to spell that word. They do not read newspapers so there is a real problem there. The Irish Times doesn’t make it any easier by being the conservative institution that it is; the IT had a kind of a re-launch in the last year with a redesign that was supposed to make the website look more like a paper – and the paper look more like a website. This was a process that they call integration. People who were working on the website were brought in at the same salaries as the people on the paper and like most attempts to bring about change in the Irish Times there were a lot of big ideas thrown out there, there were proposals put – and counterproposals made, committees formed and reformed – with subcommittees tasked and there were consultants brought in and at the end of the day, they re-launched the paper and most readers would have looked at it and said ‘Hmmm, did they change something about the Irish Times?’ So, the Irish Times is a peculiarly conservative institution in ways that have very little to do with who the editor might happen to be at any given time.
MC: Do you not think though that, for example, because Geraldine Kennedy – who after all is an ex- Progressive Democrat – it is unquestionable that under her editorship the paper has been very favourable to corporate interests and it has tended to be loathe to really go after certain situations?
HB: I’m loathe to agree with you saying that it is unquestionable that all those things have happened. The extent of the research that I’ve done on it is the article that you cited – from The Dubliner – a survey of other people’s opinions on the subject of whom probably a majority or at least a plurality believe that the paper has moved to the right and is more subservient to corporate interests or whatever. I would like to see the research – maybe at some point I will do the research. I would hesitate to agree with you that that is unquestionable. It certainly is my impression. But it would be irresponsible for me to say it is unquestionable. Certainly, I have had the conversation with many people who feel that that is the case.
Geraldine’s personal politics may be part of that equation but the general political realm in which she lives is a largely consensual middle ground establishment one and it is shared by most of the editorial executives and commercial executives in the paper. The idea that the Irish Times at any point in its history would be hostile to the interests of major businesses in Ireland – even at its most campaigning, reforming, Douglas Gageby radical thing – it’s radicalism was about questioning the church but it wasn’t about questioning the Bank of Ireland – it was about divorce.
MC: I don’t mean that the newspaper should be required to be positively hostile. I’m thinking of a number of situations but to take one I am familiar with and in which I had a personal interest. When Gerry Wrixon was president of University College Cork and was coming up to the end of his tenure there, he was a highly controversial President and lots of very serious questions were raised about his stewardship of the university. Time and again information was presented to the Irish Times about UCC and they never, ever presented that side of the story – aside from a few timid articles. Overall the paper was relentlessly pro-Wrixon.
HB: I have to declare an interest as well in that I worked in the education section of the Irish Times for a long time. I worked closely with the then and current education editor, Sean Flynn, and obviously formed views at close hand about his work and in as much as those views were formed in that setting, I have generally been loathe to comment.
MC: I understand, but I’m not asking you to comment on the issue itself – just the fact of the failure to give both sides equal treatment…
HB: How a story, like the one you have cited, plays over a period of time isn’t necessarily a matter of editorial direction from on high, it’s more often a question of who the journalist on the beat is and what his or her own prejudices are.
MC: Lorna Siggins seems willing to take a fairer approach but she is drowned out by the editorial pieces and the other reporting.
HB: Yes. That’s been well documented. I’ve written about that myself.
MC: We are all capable of being influenced by our individual prejudices in anything we write. At the same time GK has what in reality amounts to a public office and ought to be as accountable as any newspaper editor for whether the truth gets told?
HB: I’m glad that you said that because I don’t think that the editorship of any newspaper including the Irish Times amounts to a public office – with the same sort of accountability, or sense of transparency. If you start with that idea then you also have to conceive to conceive of a regulatory framework that ensures it meets its responsibility in that regard – so who do you put in charge of that framework? This wouldn’t be an Irish Times view at all but I have a real sense that journalists and editors should as often as possible be not too cognizant of their responsibilities – not too concerned about whether this is the right thing to publish for the good of society or whether, proper order will be maintained. But where I think journalists should go for it – I think they should go for the story and let the readers sort out what the meaning of it is for society and of course I don’t mean that journalists don’t have an interpretative role but I do mean that whenever we start conceiving of journalism as a public good and a realm in which responsibility is one of the nouns which we attach, I think we are in danger of getting it ‘American’ if you like. I mean the journalists institutions which are most concerned about all of this are American and are also some of the most ridiculous, overblown, self-important and consistently wrong publications in the world – even though they have their public editors and their readers response and internal investigations and all this sort of stuff – I think that my friend Alex Cockburn once wrote that responsible journalism should be an oxymoron.
Journalists should be irresponsible. Mark Twain has a few quotes along those lines as well. Whenever journalists think of themselves as being part of the fourth estate, as being part of the maintenance of democracy it’s dangerous.
MC: I don’t disagree with that, what I meant really was that it is GK and journalists themselves who have made themselves a hostage to that particular fortune – they can be a bit pompous about it too.
HB: Yes, of course! And the Irish Times is one of the worst offenders. You only have to recall the editorials that I presume Geraldine wrote in the aftermath of the ‘mothers of bastards’ scandal. It was basically a sort of ‘we’re sorry but don’t forget we’re the Irish Times – and you’d all still be muck savages if only for our leadership and propriety and sense of moral purpose here.’ So, yes, absolutely journalists are the worst offenders. However, we should keep in mind all the time that newspapers are commercial institutions.
Journalism is a different thing from what newspapers are – and it’s important that we separate what it is that journalists try to do in terms of good journalism and what it is the newspapers do in the business of doing a newspaper which in the end is the business of acquiring an audience for its advertisers.
A journalist is in the business of telling the truth and we can’t necessarily expect that the organs through which we try to do that are going to have that same priority. I don’t want to get too high and mighty about it myself. I think that our expectations of newspapers as though they were part of the structure of public service in our society is unreasonable…
MC: And yet GK has said on the IT website that the paper’s objective is to ‘lead and shape public opinion’. That is appointing yourself to public office?
HB: Of course it is – rather than saying ‘live up to it’, I say tear it down – don’t let them take that role onto themselves.
MC: To discuss the Irish media more generally, could we talk about the Irish Examiner, for example?
HB: I’m going to make a terrible confession here. There is no Irish newspaper that I read fairly regularly – and certainly not in print form. I will make sure to pick them when I’m going into a class to talk about them or check them out online to see how they are covering particular stories but I am now one of these people who doesn’t often buy newspapers. But yes of course I’m familiar with the Examiner.
MC: The Irish Examiner doesn’t have anything like what could be called investigative journalism or sustained criticism of the dominant political and corporate class but is nevertheless I think genuinely concerned with social issues such as disability, poverty and other impacts on people of government policy. It’s still perceived in Dublin as a provincial paper to an extent.
MC: And yet some of its coverage, for example Harry McGee reporting the Mahon Tribunal, in comparison to all the mainstream papers writing at the time, made a great job of reporting it. I think it was far superior to anything that the Irish Times or The Independent printed.
HB: I think that that is a widely held view among people who get to read the Examiner. Unfortunately most of those people are in Cork and are therefore deemed to be highly biased. Certainly, somebody I spoke to for the piece for The Dubliner a few years ago thought that the Examiner was really going to overtake the Irish Times in terms of concern for the downtrodden – that it was going to become the go-to paper for stories about disability, as you have mentioned, and stories about educational disadvantage, immigrants – but I’ve also heard it said that it didn’t quite maintain that momentum – and it doesn’t do it consistently. But I think the Examiner is a fine paper. I also think that by limiting our scope of our examination to the Examiner, The Times and the Indo you are missing what I think has consistently been the best paper in Ireland – for many years – The Star. It was best on the anti-war movement and it was best on the over 70s medical cards. It’s a paper that is prepared to be campaigning.
MC: That’s deserved criticism of us as a media monitoring project – that we have overlooked The Star.
HB: Of course there is not enough reading in it for people who are likely to be readers of MediaBite and there is an awful lot in it that those of us who are likely to be readers of MediaBite aren’t going to want to read. You are going to find yourself flipping past pages of celebrities you don’t want to read about and you’ll think why did I spend money on this paper? But in terms of its political independence, its nerve, its irresponsibility in the way that I was talking about earlier – I’d take The Star over any of them.
MC: What do you think of Aengus Fanning’s editorship of The Sunday Independent?
HB: The story of The Sunday Indpendent under Fanning has been so well ventilated at this point. I’m not interested terribly in rehearsing it. It is what everybody says it is and maybe the most important adjective that you can use to describe it over the period has been ridiculous. More often than not, the times when I have actually flipped through the pages of any Independent Group newspaper has been on a Sunday because that’s the day you are on a train and your neighbor has a copy of it. It is such a popular paper and you just shake your head and laugh that this is what somebody has decided is journalism. This gratuitous and highly deliberate kind of political gang-banging that they used to indulge in where ‘this week’s target ‘is…’ is just extraordinary. And one of the things that is extraordinary about it is, I think, that by and large the majority of Irish people never share those particular prejudices. Be it against John Hume and Gerry Adams, or against the anti-war movement…
MC: It does tend to dull people and create a kind of uncertainty. You’re probably right that most people don’t agree with a lot of it but there it is, it’s written in the newspaper so maybe there is something to it. It’s that of kind of doubt that it creates which makes people more acquiescent.
HB: Quite possibly yes. It’s never been a source of pleasure for me but it is the most popular paper in the country. You do obviously have fears about how you intervene in the body politic in which the particular poisons which the Sunday Independent deals in is flowing through the veins. At the same time without getting too post-modern about it readers do have agency and readers are capable of reading Eoghan Harris for fun instead of for information, for instance. And people are also capable with the Sunday Independent of turning over to the back page and reading Gene Kerrigan – probably the best columnist in Ireland over the last 20 years. And that’s a pretty good antidote to the poison. And it is right there in the same paper so you have to give them credit for that.
MC: Might the Sunday Business Post be more appropriately re-titled The Progressive Democrats on Sunday? Tom McGurk and Vincent Browne notwithstanding, it has an insufferably patrician tone much of the time. To take just two examples, Cliff Taylor has said ‘that it was nonsense to talk of taxing the rich’ as part of the solution to the financial crisis without qualification. I don’t think he quite meant it as baldly as it came over but even so, to actually be able to write that down and not pause to think about it. Aileen O’Meara in the same edition contrived to suggest that Mary Harney’s ‘generous subsidies to private healthcare companies’ was a ‘more equitable distribution’ of public money.
HB: Again, it’s one of those things where it is a relatively small number of people given the size of the institutions concerned who have quite a large influence on the tone of what comes out. Cliff was a colleague of mine and a nice fellow but he is a business guy. It’s been his beat for a very long time. He can do all sorts of things in journalism but that is what he has been doing. He’s part of that world. The Business Post for years was seen as a republican as in Provo paper dressed up with a few business statistics – that it’s real priorities under its original incarnation – was to be the one Irish paper that was sound on the national question. It was terrific actually and it had other good content in it as well – and that was about a couple of important people in important positions. In a weekly paper the tone can be set so easily but a couple of people – I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to say that the tone of the paper can be patrician. I think at the same time when you’ve been a freelance journalist like me you’ve been in almost all of these publications and I’ve been in the SBP and again had no trouble with them. One of the good things about having somebody who has worked in the business – I think we do get co-opted a bit but it’s nice to be an academic and to be able to say ‘ok there are certain structural reason why a certain kind of journalism works this way but there are also highly contingent reasons why journalism turns out the way it does. It has to do with who was on the desk that day, it has to do with what it said on the press release, whether he had time to re-write it – it has to do with an awful lot of things that are routine and practice into which ideology gets embedded but not to do with somebody making it ideological necessarily – and not with making a decision that today the ideology is going to be patrician. It just sometimes happens like that.
MC: In a column that you wrote for the Irish Times in June 2003 ‘Knowing the Family Tree of Irish Public Life’, you made the interesting and honest observation that ‘in such a small media-politics-business eco-system as exists in Ireland, journalists can’t really be expected to live and work by the principles of independence that they blather about in public. I knew a hack years ago who said that he could draw a friends and family tree that connected virtually all of the stories that appeared on the features page of a particular Irish newspaper and your radio reviewer endeavours to practice the principle of full disclosure about often opts for selective avoidance instead. Thus, the only mention of Ciaran Cuffe above [Green Party TD, referred in the same article] is a neutral parenthetical one because I am not fully confident that my personal acquaintance with the guy wouldn’t colour any coverage I might give to his difficulty.’ This goes to the heart of what MediaBite is about as a project.
HB: Well it also says something that nails me for what I have been doing in this interview which has been kind of – probably – avoiding some of the questions that you have asked which raised some personal conflicts of interest where I am concerned so I have avoided personal criticisms of people that I have worked with and things like that. It is hard. It would be a lot easier to be working in a much bigger media environment but even say, if you are working in Washington, it ends up being a very small world – and too many people know too much anyway.
MC: You describe the phenomenon that Medialens in the UK and others call the revolving door. It goes to that issue. The revolving door refers not just to the relationships among journalists on a given newspaper but can just as easily be observed between journalists, the subject matter of their coverage, the politicians they write about, PR gurus and management consultants. These are all manifestly interchangeable roles as anyone who has been following the fortunes of the Progressive Democrats, for example, can see.
HB: PR is the key. I hope you are planning on doing something about this at MediaBite because there has been some comment about that but it has never really been done properly before. I’ve also supervised some dissertations here which do great work. We had a student here who demonstrated that the majority of news coverage in The Irish Times over a particular period was not actually news – it was what he called pseudo-events – that these stories were basically things constructed to be news – invented by PRs so that someone would come along and take news out of it and that is extraordinary on the face of it but also it’s the ecology that has evolved. It means that the professional news business is perhaps hopelessly corrupt. I’m not even sure there is a perhaps about it. The corruption isn’t about people living large or anything like that – the benefits are small – but the influences that even small relationships can have are huge. I’ll give you an example that is self critical so I don’t seem like I’m mouthing off about other people. When I was desk editor of the Education Supplement at the Irish Times I had a particular slot that I had to fill with a photograph every week and sometimes I’d know the story that I wanted to get a picture of. Sometimes it would get towards the end of the week and I wouldn’t really know what the picture was going to be and there were a couple of PRs out there who knew that that was my weekly dilemma. They knew right around the time that I was going to be feeling it and the phone call or the email would come in at just that time saying ‘we had a launch yesterday and there are some lovely pictures’ – and I loved them. There’d be lovely pictures of a lovely show and their clients didn’t get criticized – I don’t mean I went out of my way to say nice things about their clients but certainly I was very happy to enjoy the fruits of their observation of my need. And I didn’t bite the hand that fed me. I don’t think I’m different from other journalists in that.
MC: We find that journalists are resistant to acknowledging the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon and curiously more especially so among the established, so-called standard bearers of the liberal left. They are seen as the ‘good guys’ and to some extent feel quite comfortable at being seen that way. So when people like us come along and says it’s precisely because you are seen as the good guy that it’s really pernicious when you fail to get it right because people have this trust relationship with you. We expected that these ‘good guys’ would be the most willing to say ‘sure, fair enough, maybe you’ve got a point’ and that they wouldn’t get really defensive about it.
HB: Yes, you’re supposed to be grateful that there are people like them looking after your interests.
MC: But they are very prickly about being criticised at all.
HB: Nick Davies book deliberately sets out to show in particular that liberal institutions are the most guilty of some of the crimes against journalism.*
MC: We went for some avoidance of our own at the DIT / MediaBite ‘Reporting War’ debate last March. When Pepe Escobar said that he wanted to say that anyone interested in becoming a good and truly independent journalist should stay well away from schools of journalism and all forms of official training, to our regret, we stopped him from saying that. We were so conscious of the venue – and your and your colleagues endorsement of the event. I think we should have let him say it but I wonder as a lecturer in a school of journalism what do you think of what Pepe says?
HB: I don’t think that Pepe Escobar meant that in the way that a lot of journalists say it. When most journalists say that it’s part of the reverse snobbery of journalism that says ‘stay away from those schools of journalism, they just produce robots – what do you need to know to be a journalist anyway? All you need is a bit of a nose for news, common sense and a notebook and you’re away.’ And there is something in that. I still say it myself – my students will come in to start their year and I say ‘to be perfectly honest with you I’d have you out of here in a month’. If all we were doing was learning a few tricks of the trade so that you can go out and work because it ain’t a year’s training to become a journalist and it ain’t four-years training which we do here as well – we have a four-year undergraduate course in journalism. In some ways it’s absurd but then on the other hand it’s an education. It’s not just about learning the craft and the tricks, it’s about – as far as we are concerned – learning about the media, the history of the press and having to think critically and constructively about the press. I’m not saying that my colleagues here would all share my views about the press – far from it. We try to create what we call critical practitioners. It’s definitely not about knocking a lot of boring rules into people. Unfortunately it’s the journalistic institutions that do that very well themselves. And we have to tell our students, guess what, it’s going to be very boring when you get out there and work because it mostly is.
Stay away from journalism school politically? No.
MC: I thank that is what Pepe meant – that journalism schools are churning people out who are ready to flood that same revolving door system.
HB: Yes, I know that is what he meant but I don’t agree. We teach our students about that revolving door system. Without being utopian about it maybe in the long run they can do something about that.
MC: I wonder how many lecturers in journalism take your point of view? I don’t think there are too many.
HB: I don’t get to sit in other people’s classes very much – that’s not the way that academia works. You’d have to look at dissertation topics that people get around here to appreciate that we foster a critical spirit about journalism. I think we try. I do it and I have to say that it’s important that I do it without shoving left wing politics down students throats. My students all know my politics because they are in the public domain but I don’t think that you would find that they say I inflict them on them. I don’t use my lecturing as a platform.
MC: Where do you think hope lies for the future of truly independent journalism? Indymedia Ireland has been a great facilitator of real citizen journalism since it came online in approximately 2000. Contributors’ coverage of events is often superior to anything seen in mainstream media – not always – but a lot of the time. From your book, it’s clear that Indymedia played an important role in countering the hostile responses to the Pitstop Ploughshares.
HB: And Indymedia played an important role as a resource for my book. The book would have literally been impossible to produce in anything like the form in which it is without the fantastic material generated by the contributors to Indymedia over the years. It was the one place were I could go and know I could get the record. Obviously the record with plenty of annotation but a record I knew I could trust when I was reading it.
MC: And also in getting out the facts that had not been recorded in the mainstream news. Mainstream news in Ireland never acknowledges Indymedia – sometimes I wonder if that’s deliberate or just indifference. Where do you think, on the Irish scene, is the future for really independent journalism?
HB: I think that journalism is in such a state of chassis now that it is so hard to say what the future is for any kind of journalism. I think Indymedia offers one kind of a model and maybe the most important aspect of the Indymedia model is its non-commercial nature. It’s difficult for Indymedia contributors because they have to devote time in between their working hours, their home and caring for children – or in whatever way they can make contributions and it can mean it’s difficult to do the sort of research that mainstream journalists can do. On the other hand mainstream journalism is characterized by less and less investigative work, and less and less time to do research so they have converged to some extent there anyway. And the desire of ordinary people to do journalism without pay is something that has been clouded by a century or more of professionalisation of journalism. Amateur journalism, or journalism done by people who are not primarily journalists is probably the real story of the history of newspapers and other forms of media going back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The idea of the professional journalist is an interruption on the real story which is people like James Connolly – an activist who brought out a wonderful newspaper but whose primary role was to be a union organizer. I do a lecture in my history class where I show a bunch of great Irish figures from the beginning of the last century – WB Yeats, Helena Moloney, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington – people who we don’t think of as journalists – it’s not the first word that comes to mind for these people – but they were not only journalists, they all edited newspapers or other publications. Yeats edited theatre publications. So that for me is the future of journalism – people who do it out of love, do it in the spaces and it’s certainly the future of journalism that can be viewed as in any way independent because the commercial media models that exist already and that are evolving online and that look like they could be there for the future seem to me to have so much potential for corruption built into them. There may be a future for some small number of outlets that have a subscription base that can pay journalists to do really extraordinary work – The Real News Network being a great example. I hope that there is a future for some subscription-based journalism – but I don’t think that is going to be the governing commercial model either. People are going to have the expectation that they can read from a number of different sources and are not going to want to pay subscriptions. So I think that the future is going to be people who know how to do journalism but don’t necessarily expect to make a living out of it and whose freedom from that commercial constraint gives them that other kind of freedom, which is all important – freedom from the revolving door, freedom from the needs of the institution, freedom from the pressures of advertising – freedom in the most rich sense of that word to tell the truth. I think that we actually take for granted that the internet is going to be the means by which journalism will be delivered – whether its video or audio or copy – it’s going to be delivered online – there is no question about that.
*A few days later Nick Davies gave a talk at a conference in Dublin and when asked about it, refused to agree that senior correspondents and editors were themselves responsible for much of the bias of their own news coverage, whatever pressures they may be under additionally.
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