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'Bizarre': Heavy criticism of Taoiseach's remark that he 'sympathises with Trump on media'

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach insisted his comments were being quoted out of context.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Updated Jul 4th 2018, 10:20 AM

THE NUJ, OPPOSITION politicians and a number of high-profile journalists have criticised Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for remarks made at a private event in New York this week at which it’s reported he said he sympathised with Donald Trump’s views on the media.

Reports in The Irish Times and the Ireland Edition of The Times this morning detail how Varadkar told guests at a lunch on Monday that he had some sympathy with Trump’s attitude to the press.

According to the Ireland Edition of The Times, he said that political reporters spent more time covering gossip than substantive issues. The Irish Times reported that he said that some investigative journalism in Ireland was incorrect, and singled out RTÉ for particular criticism.

The remarks were made at a lunch for members of the Irish community in the city on Monday.

A number of media outlets have sent reporters to the US to cover Ireland’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council this week.

Bono and Mary Robinson were drafted in to help the media and diplomatic effort. As part of the charm offensive, all UN ambassadors were invited to U2′s concert at Madison Square Garden.

Seamus Dooley, the Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists, called for the Taoiseach to clarify his comments.

“Respect for freedom of expression is a core value of UN,” he said on Twitter.

“Attributed comments are damaging to Ireland’s reputation as a modern democracy, given Trump’s views on press freedom.”

In an interview on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland Dooley described the incident as a “rather bizarre occurrence”.

Jon Williams, the managing director of RTÉ News, issued a series of tweets early this morning defending the national broadcaster’s output.

“To be clear, #Trump called the media ‘enemy of the people’. He’s wrong. If Taoiseach really sympathises with that view, he’s wrong too. #PressFreedom.”

Williams pointed out that, “just last month”, Varadkar had praised an RTÉ investigation into hospital consultants, broadcast on Prime Time, when he said RTÉ “did the country a service”.

He added:

This year, #RTEinvestigates honoured @NYFestivals, @CelticMediaFest & @IFTA. Investigative reporting key pillar @rtenews. Proud of its journalism.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin issued a press release criticising the reported comments.

Whatever about criticising the media when at home on the campaign trail, Howlin said, “for Ireland’s Head of Government to attack the Irish media when on a diplomatic and strategic trade mission is wholly inappropriate”.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald called for Varadkar to clarify his remarks, saying that the comments as reported “are extremely dangerous, especially when made by the head of government”.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said it’s “unfortunate” that Varadkar “chose the occasion of such an important overseas trip to denigrate the Irish media in such an apparently petty fashion”, and added a call for him to clarify the comments.

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach issued the following statement this morning:

“The lunch, hosted by Ireland’s Consul General in New York, was a private event.

“Attendees included young Irish people based in New York working across a range of sectors, including media, finance and tech. They shared a wide ranging discussion. This conversation is now being quoted selectively and out of context.

The Taoiseach believes that a free, fair and balanced press is a cornerstone of our democracy.

Speaking on Morning Ireland, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy insisted that the Taoiseach believed in a free media, telling presenter Brian Dobson that it was a subject he had personally discussed with Varadkar.

Varadkar had often stressed the importance of making ministers available to the media and regularly took part in press conferences and interviews himself, Murphy said.

The New York comments had been selectively leaked and were now being taken out of context, he said. Asked whether he would like to see the Taoiseach clarify his remarks, Murphy said “I’m sure he’ll get an opportunity to clarify it if it’s raised in the Dáil later on”.

He expected Varadkar would also make a “very robust” defence of the media as part of those public remarks, he added.

At a press event later Murphy and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe continued the defence of the Taoiseach, with Donohoe saying that both Varadkar and the government were “crystal clear in our appreciation of how vital it is to have a strong and independent media in Ireland”.

The Taoiseach would give a full clarification of his remarks in the Dáil later, Donohoe said.

Murphy said he didn’t know if there was an audio recording of the comments, which he said he understood were made as part of a private conversation with a group of young people “and the privacy of that conversation should be maintained”.

Asked by a reporter whether he accepted that Varadkar sympathised with Trump’s view of the media, Murphy said:

How can I accept what he said when I don’t know whether he said it or not? These are just reports of a conversation or things that he is alleged to have said. And he has said himself through his department that these reports have been taken out of context.

Other criticism

Cork journalist Samantha Barry, who formerly worked at RTÉ, Newstalk and CNN and who now edits Glamour magazine, was also amongst those criticising the Taoiseach’s comments this morning.

Tom Lyons, the Deputy Editor of the Sunday Business Post, described the Taoiseach’s comments on Twitter as “pathetic stuff” and “tone deaf at a time when journalism is under attack in America”.

TV3′s political correspondent Gavan Reilly tweeted:

“Every major Irish media outlet spent a four-figure sum following the Taoiseach to New York this week to cover exactly the sort of topics he’s complaining we ignore. To say this sort of thing behind our backs, at an event closed off to us, is really poor form.”

- Additional reporting Paul Hosford, Sean Murray

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