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‘True democracy is impossible without independent and professional journalism’

Wednesday, 18th July, 2018 5:10pm

Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil spoke to the Association of European Journalists last week on 12 July. Here is an edited version of his speech:

When I accepted the invitation, it was at a more innocent time when private lunches were viewed as a relatively safe space for politicians to speak broadly about their policies and perceptions.

Following recent events I think we can all agree that this cannot be taken quite for granted.

This said, I suspect even the Taoiseach wouldn’t use an occasion such as this to sympathise with someone who believes you are the enemies of the people.

I would like to use this opportunity to primarily focus on two major political issues, stability in Government and the handling of Brexit – but before I do that I think it is important to address the controversy caused by the Taoiseach’s comments about Irish journalism.

One of the great problems in political discourse is that everyone involved, politicians and journalists equally, can fall into the trap of believing that every event is significant and that whatever they are involved in is the centre of the world.

In recent years, this has become even more obvious with a relentless daily routine of over-briefed, over-sold and over-selfied events.

Let’s be clear there is a serious discussion to be had about the number of trivial political stories and the dominance of half-informed commentary on some issues – but there’s also a lot of deliberately-generated and expensively-promoted triviality which needs to be abandoned before that discussion can be had.

The point which has been missed in commentary about the Taoiseach’s ill-advised and highly-revealing comments in New York is that they were not throw-away and accidental. In fact, they confirmed what has been his defining approach to communication over the last year.

What is more important is his idea that there is a supposedly ‘modern’ way of talking to the public and this should, as much as possible, cut-out professional journalists. Back in March, as he was confronted with having to close his beloved Strategic Communications Unit (SCU), he delivered what has been by some distance his most impassioned speech to the Dáil as Taoiseach.

He was genuinely furious to be losing his grand design even though documents demonstrated that all substantive claims for the unit in terms of savings or international best practice were an illusion.

Ultimately what the SCU was about was an attempt to use the weight of public funding to grab control of the coverage of Government.

What the Taoiseach and his Government have done is to see the economic troubles of professional journalism as an opportunity. They have sought to create a dependence linked directly to the promotion of political priorities on a scale and with a systematic discipline never before tried in Ireland.

I believe that true democracy is impossible without independent and professional journalism. When the new online world is added to the edited content of professional journalism, you have something which has many exciting and positive dimensions.

However, when all you have is the uncurated and unaccountable, then it is almost impossible to have a strong democracy which actually empowers people. The way to achieve this is not to throw around millions in advertising on the basis of private conversations and in the service of political priorities.

What is required is a systematic, permanent and non-political way of supporting professional journalism. Many countries do this already and the need for action in Ireland is now urgent.

My party has proposed measures to address this and we intend to keep pushing this policy. If we want to have competitive, accountable and inclusive Irish politics, then we have to take action to prevent the gradual but inevitable economic undermining of professional, independent Irish journalism.

As we look at this moment in our public affairs, there are perhaps two dominant issues which we should be focusing on.

The first is the ability of the Government to tackle a series of crises on vital policy areas and the second is the handling of the fallout from Britain’s disastrous Brexit decision.

What they share is the challenge to us all to understand that traditional frames of reference are irrelevant – these are new challenges with many unique features.

The scale of current crises in health, housing and general pressures on household income are enormous. While Government encourages a focus on the macroeconomic figures which reflect the strong economic foundations built up over many decades, the public is experiencing a different reality.

There may be lots of photos of cabinet members in high visibility jackets, but the 12 months since the Taoiseach took up office have actually seen an escalation in homelessness. Overall homelessness is up by nearly a quarter and there are a thousand more children homeless today than there were twelve months ago. And don’t forget that these are the figures after they have been massaged downwards.

There are undeniable emergencies in key areas of public policy and that these must be our priorities. What the confidence and supply agreement has provided the Government with is the opportunity to tackle these problems. It has been given this opportunity within a wide latitude as long as it adheres to an agreed fiscal framework and does not return to the regressive budgets of the last Government. It cannot dictate to the Dáil on every issue but is has in its hands great power and wide freedom to act on vital public issues.

Yet for the last seven months, the Taoiseach and his ministers have been talking at length about how they need an assurance of two more years in power if they are to be able to do their jobs. In a lengthy series of interviews and in strategic briefings, they have not only demanded that my party give them a guarantee of two more years, they have said that a failure by us to do so immediately might require them to call an election.

From the first moment it has been clear that this has all been about putting politics before policy. The idea that a Government can’t do its job unless it has a guarantee of an extended term is palpable nonsense.

The Agreement says three budgets and then review. It couldn’t be clearer and it was accepted by the Taoiseach when he negotiated it and when he assumed his new role last year.

There is simply no reasonable doubt that he has decided to play some form of political game. Why else would a head of a Government actively talk up instability where none exists?

The evidence for this being a cynical political manoeuvre is widespread.

The most obvious point is that if the Taoiseach’s primary concern was to actually try and extend the agreement he would have raised it directly with Fianna Fáil – something which he continually failed to do.

Perhaps the Government is simply afraid of the health and housing figures at the end of the year – or some other factor not yet in the public domain?

Fianna Fáil’s position remains unchanged. We have a deal which we are honouring and which will be reviewed in accordance with the agreed procedure.

This gives clear stability in relation to the Budget for next year and allows the Government the space to address issues which it is conspicuously failing to get on top of.

Ireland has a stable Government which is failing to demonstrate that it is a good government. It still has time and it still has the powers necessary to show that it can get on top of the serious emergency faced on critical policies. That should be its focus instead of the political game-playing we’ve seen far too much of over the last year.

Of course, Brexit is another urgent and dramatic issue confronting us. Equally, it is one where we would be better served by less spin and more openness and consistency.

Quite rightly there has been a ‘green jersey’ agenda shared by most parties and most parts of the media when dealing with Brexit. It poses a huge threat to our country and we all want whatever the final status is to limit the damage as much as possible.

Over the last seven years European policy has been a priority for me and my party. Alone of the major parties, we addressed the issue of Brexit in our last election manifesto and during that campaign.

We have very serious concerns about the growing lack of transparency in the position of the Irish Government and how it has appeared to be seeking to use the issue of Brexit for electoral purposes rather than maintain inclusive dialogue.

Brexit is first and foremost the destructive folly of a particular type of little Englander which has elevated prejudice to the level of ideology. It is one of the great tragedies of our times that in the United States and in Britain, massive damage is being done to those countries and to western democracy by people who spent forty years gathering in think tanks and telling themselves how high-minded and principled they were.

I have no doubt that we can get through this difficult period in relation to Brexit and the deep crisis in vital areas of public policy. In order to do this, we need the Government to put aside its obsession with marketing and the next election.

It has been given the table opportunity to show that it has the commitment and the ability to tackle these problems.

This is what it will be judged on whether it likes it or not.

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