The first time I ever came across the whole idea of reporters being curtailed in regard to what questions they could ask politicians was way back in the 1980’s.
I was editor of the Derry Journal when Mrs Thatcher paid her first visit to the city as Prime Minister and I sent a reporter and photographer over to cover the event.
The reporter came back somewhat annoyed and informed me that Bernard Ingham, Maggie’s press secretary, had informed them beforehand that she would not be taking questions on certain issues that day.
I wasn’t aware of it then but this was the relatively early days of spin, a new departure in media relations where professional handlers were being used to attempt to control the news agenda.
A more minor bit of attempted media manipulation I recall was a young reporter coming to tell me that she had attended a meeting of Inishowen councillors in Carndonagh where a couple of controversial statements had been made. She was subsequently told that she couldn’t report them as they were ‘off the record’ and that if she did she would get no co-operation in future.
She actually fell for this blackmail and didn’t report them, only informing me long after the incident had happened.
I got annoyed with this reporter. Really, really annoyed. I remember telling her that anything said at a public meeting was covered by what is known as ‘qualified privilege’ and she should have known that, and it was not up to some jumped up official to decide for us what we could or could not publish.
Call me old fashioned but I do believe in the freedom of the press, in the idea that society needs a watchdog to keep check on the politicians and to hold those in power to account. It’s what separates democracy from dictatorship.
Freedom of the press is, most clearly, either very ill or already dying in many parts of the world.
The best example by far is in the United States where Donald Trump is day and daily blasting the free press as the ‘enemies of the people’. And it’s working for him.
The latest example was last week when CNN’s Senior White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta tried to get Trump to actually answer a few direct questions rather than engage in his usual ‘baffle us with bullshit’ routine.
Acosta was having none of the bluster and it was clear that Trump was getting really annoyed. When he couldn’t handle it, Trump told the reporter to sit down. Acosta was having none of that and refused. You all know the rest.
But it is what happened afterwards that is real cause for concern. Not only did the Trump White House revoke Acosta’s press credentials but they also, in a very ham fisted way, attempted to smear him by suggesting he was guilty of assaulting a young intern who attempted to snatch the microphone from him; the ‘assault’ was the pretext to the withdrawing of his press pass. This, as anyone who has watched the actual recording of the incident, was a blatant smear.
Closer to home we have a different kind of media manipulation, much more subtle. One example last week was the Taoiseach coming out with a real doozy when suggesting that hospital managements should ensure full staffs be available over the Christmas and New Year periods.
On the surface that sounded oh so reasonable, a Taoiseach stating the obvious that this was a busy time of the year. What was not so obvious is that it was a real cheap shot.
Front line hospital staff are working way beyond the call of duty in our hospitals. There are nurses not taking coffee or dinner breaks, doctors staying on wards way after their finishing times, staff helping patients while their own families are losing out.
Rather than accepting responsibility for his government’s failure to address the massive deficit in the staffing and bed numbers Leo was trying to spin it so that Joe and Josephine Public would think it’s those bloody doctors and nurses who are to blame for all that's wrong in the health service.
He, rightly, got called out on it.
In regard to our political freedoms let me leave you with a warning…the author George Orwell wrote in 1948 that the time was coming when ‘the party’ would tell you a lie and repeat it so often that even though you originally were aware it was a lie you would eventually come to believe it the truth.
That’s now happening.
STRICTLY NOT THAT EXCITING!
I find it amazing how many people can get really excited and involved in reality television programmes.
The other day I overheard two women getting into a real heated argument about Strictly Come Dancing. You would have sworn one of the dancers – the one they were arguing about – was a personal friend. And don’t get me started on ‘Big Brother’. A very right wing, daily Mass going woman I know tells people not to come to her home when it’s on. Is that not bordering on some sort of personality disorder?
Give me a good book any day. By the way I’m reading ‘The Lost Girls of Rome’ if anyone is interested. It’s described as ‘the Italian literary thriller phenomenon’. It’s a cracker.
AND FINALLY . . .
Bertie Ahern told some time back in one of his interviews that one of the last things his mother said to him was beware of the British, that you couldn’t trust them.
As he was in the middle of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement it was probably a good bit of advice. The old adage of ‘perfidious Albion’ didn’t come out of nowhere.
The DUP might wish they had a mother like Bertie’s to have given them a similar warning. At the time of writing it would seem that British Prime Minister May is trying to pull a bit of a stunt by giving the unionists all sorts of verbal assurances while being prepared to sign up to a legal agreement with the European Union that will screw them. Now that's hardly a first.
Didn’t Thatcher tell them Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley only to then go ahead and sign the Anglo Irish Agreement. Maybe the DUP should check it out..... but last I heard the Irish government didn’t have a consultative role in decision-making in Finchley.