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Column: 'The press is becoming the battleground for thought control'

Nobody is investing in newspapers for profit any more, writes Michael McDowell. Instead, it’s driven by political and editorial control and influence.

Michael McDowell

Last night, Michael McDowell spoke at the launch of a book by Elaine Byrne on corruption in Ireland. During his speech, he spoke about media ownership in Ireland. This is an abridged version of what he said:

IT SEEMS TO me that two issues arise from a consideration of this book. The first of those issues is the way in which we establish and vindicate standards by which our society is to be run and judged.

The second major issue is how we respond as a society to proven departures from those standards.

As to the first issue – the establishment and vindication of standards – it is not enough to investigate by retrospective civil inquiries cases of suspected wrong-doing. Such inquiries are necessary but they are not sufficent.

We need significant deterrents to wrong-doing.

“In Ireland, the oligarchs are on the march”

If in politics, “daylight is the best disinfectant”, the role of our media cannot be ignored. The printed press is facing a technological challenge to its very existence. It now seems to be becoming the battleground for thought control as well.

As a society, and as a democracy, we need to face up to the challenge to freedom and liberty which stems from the total absence of laws diversifying the media and their ownership.

Nobody is investing in the print media these days for profit; on the contrary, it seems plain as a pikestaff that investment is driven by considerations of social, political and editorial control and influence.

Our media must be diverse in their ownership and editorial policy. They are not trophy possession for the surplus cash of plutocrats and oligarchs like large hotels and Premiership football clubs.

The Leveson Inquiry, even as we speak, shows how media control and the political system interact, and underlines the mortal dangers to democracy of surrendering ownership and control of our media to the agendas of those with demonstrated low standards coupled with ruthlessness and greed.

In Ireland, the oligarchs are on the march.

They have some allies, alas, in high places who fete them as much as they can get away with while feigning distance from them.

It was interesting to note recently how some who hold office holders took pains to condemn hostile comments made in the past about the Mahon Tribunal while posing for pictures and slapping the backs and whispering in the ears of those who subjected the Moriarty Tribunal to a sustained campaign of vilification and abuse.

If the two parties in our Government cannot unite in challenging on our behalf the culture of impunity fostered by the rich and powerful, they will deserve the consequences. As British politicians are hourly learning to their pain at Leveson, snuggling up to the oligarchs doesn’t seem so good the morning after.

Sam Smyth and the Moriarty Tribunal

I want to finish by expressing my admiration for the bravery of those who speak truth to power and wealth.

Many journalists, editors and commentators put their professional duties and convictions before their own self-interest. Some alas do not.

Elaine Byrne is brave in her commentary and research.

So also is my good friend, Sam Smyth. Sam has paid a heavy price for standing up for decency in journalism. Some of you will recall that his radio show was closed down to make way for something else in a programme that doesn’t immediately spring to mind. We were assured, of course, that it had “nothing to do” with his coverage of the Moriarty Tribunal.

But those of you who care to Google broadsheet.ie and the words “smoking gun” and “editorial interference” may form a different view of the real agendas already at work. Strange too that Sam personally (and not his paper or the broadcasters) is being sued in the courts. Those cases are obviously not about compensation – they are about silencing an investigative journalist without whose work we would never have known the truth about the former Minister and the coming Oligarch in the first place.

Michael McDowell is a Senior Counsel and former Minister for Justice.

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Michael McDowell

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