Op-Ed: Stopping the Presses

Gavan Reilly argues that reform of Ireland’s political society to make it more transparent must include newspapers, or risk losing the press altogetherIt may seem like a long time ago now, in these times of constant talk about Brian Cowen and Anglo Irish Bank, but it was in fact only barely two weeks ago when Fianna Fáil first flew a kite to discuss the potential abolition of the Seanad and the most recent blaze of ideology about political reform was sparked off.Much of the talk at the time was focused around whether Irish democracy, or government oversight, would be generally improved by the abolition of what many see as an ineffective chamber of parliament, or whether political transparency was better fostered by tinkering with the Oireachtas in some way as to ensure greater honesty in our elected officials.But already, just a mere fortnight later, talk about such political reform has been swiftly brushed off the table – and since it has been knocked off the front pages, the general discussion about political transparency and openness (qualities which are almost universally agreed to be good things, right?) has, unfortunately, overlooked a bigger and altogether more touch-and-go issue affecting the scrutiny that our public officials are subjected to.On January 7, the publishers of the Irish Daily Star Sunday announced that they were ceasing all operations at the newspaper, with immediate effect. On January 13, one of the country’s better-known local newspapers, The Kingdom, announced that it would also be shutting down; its own last edition is published on the same day as this issue of The University Observer.If asked to close your eyes and to recall any major feats of groundbreaking journalism, it’s almost guaranteed – and certainly forgiveable – that few people would cite an example for either paper. Perhaps an observer might suggest that the Watergate scandal, revealed through the probing of the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, was the last great example of journalism that revealed wholesale corruption. More recent examples, closer to home, could include Sam Smyth’s Irish Independent revelation that Michael Lowry had allowed Ben Dunne to pay for an extension to his house, valued at IR£395,000.Others, again, may think of Tom Lyons of The Sunday Times, who was the first to reveal that Anglo Irish Bank had lent millions to ten major investors, so that they could in turn buy shares in the bank and keep its stock market value artificially high – hiding what would ultimately become the most expensive government mistake in Irish history. You could, perhaps, cite the Sunday Independent’s Shane Ross and Nick Webb who first uncovered the remarkable expenses claims of senior staff at FÁS, like Rody Molloy.Or – and again, perhaps forgiveably – you may not have realised that each one of the above scandals was identified, and publicised, by journalists: average citizens from the media corps.While neither the Star Sunday nor The Kingdom would rank in the potential chart of the papers that have blazed the trail in terms of major scoops, to merely write off their functions – and their closures, both amid unsustainable losses and rising debts – as being dead weight is an unfair and dangerous proposition, for a single reason: despite all of their losses and their reputations, journalists and newspapers perform a whistleblowing and overseeing function that is rarely practiced elsewhere in society.The closure of local papers is, to a reasonable degree, foreseeable – more and more local newspapers are stopping their presses, falling victim to the slowdown in advertising spending, demographics (the population is slowly converging towards cities, where ‘local press’ is much less significant), and the obvious hindrance of the fact that younger generations have little love for the inherent formula (council meeting reports, local press releases, parish notices, local hurling reports) of their content.But the closure of local newspapers is merely an outward symptom of an industry that, at large, has far greater ills. It’s not just local papers that are struggling to stay afloat amid falling revenues and the continued wane of advertising spending – national and international papers are equally, precariously, perched on the brink of the financial abyss.The Irish Times, for example, made operating losses of €4.6m in 2009 – an €11m turnaround from the previous year. The Irish Independent’s parent company, Independent News & Media, recently sold off its main UK title for £1 (the same price as a single copy of that paper) after Denis O’Brien estimated the paper was losing as much as €80,000 every day. The Guardian, which has been to the forefront of the news in the last six months as a partner in WikiLeaks’ three major operations and is seen as one of the more tech-savvy and innovative publications, ran up an operating loss of £54m in 2009-10 – and has, famously, only ever been subsidised by AutoTrader and other more resilient publications owned by its publishers.What all of this points to is a major malaise in news journalism: while there will always be an appetite for news, and a demand that our leaders and those who spend public money be held to account, it’s not necessarily safe to assume that those news organs will always be around. All of the examples of groundbreaking journalism I mentioned above are, gradually, going to fall victim to the reality that newspapers need their writers to produce content every day – and that fewer and fewer journalists will be blessed with the resources to follow the tenuous leads they come across that may eventually blow the lid on public corruption.As I was finishing this piece, news was breaking that Ivor Callely had won his High Court appeal against the Seanad committee that recommended his suspension over his travel expenses. Ivor the Terrible’s mileage expenses were uncovered by the Sunday Independent’s John Drennan, and his mobile phone expenses were revealed by the Irish Mail on Sunday’s Luke Byrne. I’m not advocating that newspapers be taken into some kind of public ownership – to do so would fatally compromise a paper’s editorial independence – but we must guarantee, if we’re reforming public society, to either give the press the resources it needs to do its job, or be prepared to find out whether ignorance of public wrong-doing is, indeed, bliss.Gavan Reilly is a former Deputy Editor (Volume XVI, 2009-2010) of The University Observer and a staff writer at TheJournal.ie.