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It’s now more difficult for Irish journalists to hold those in powerful positions to account

Ireland’s small community of hard-pressed crime journalists are up in arms, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan

THE ADMINISTRATION OF justice in Ireland has come into focus once again. Yet another inquiry, investigation, review – whatever term applies – is now being mooted into the accessing of crime correspondents’ phone records by Gsoc, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman’s Commission.

In the Ireland of 2016, a crime reporter’s lot is not a happy one it seems. For the most part, Ireland’s crime reporters are a very close-knit group.

They have an unusual beat by international standards. Many of our crime correspondents cover both crime and security – that is to say, unlike their EU counterparts, they cover crime, intelligence and national security or defence issues.

This is becoming increasingly difficult. As government spends more and more taxpayer’s money on expensive ‘media advisers’ and a wide range of communications consultancy, the power relationship between journalists – especially crime reporters and political correspondents – has shifted dramatically.

With traditional news media organisations in crisis – due to shrinking audiences, budgets and resources – privileged sources such as government and big business have become very powerful gatekeepers of news and information.

In other words, it is becoming more and more difficult for Irish journalists to hold those in powerful positions to account. In the case of crime correspondents – all of whom work under difficult and stressful conditions – many complain that official briefings from the Garda Press Office have become problematic.

Unlike times past, critical information and detailed off-the-record briefings on investigations and other issues high in news value, are no longer as frequent as they once might have been.

Individual crime correspondents have also come under intense personal pressure with regard to the reporting of certain garda matters. Some crime reporters have even been formally questioned by gardaí in relation to their work and professional routines.

Within An Garda Síochána itself, members of the force themselves have been arrested and questioned under caution about their relationships and communications with journalists.

Whilst relationships between most journalists and most gardaí remain good, recent events run the risk of creating an atmosphere of frustration and mistrust between media organisations and our policing authorities.

Whether intentional or otherwise, this would have very negative consequences for de-facto freedom of speech in Ireland as it applies to the vitally important area of the administration of justice.

Karlin Lillington in The Irish Times this week quite rightly observed that this issue is not one which ought to be the sole concern of crime correspondents. She eloquently points out that our draconian laws in relation to data retention and data access have been described by the European Court of Justice as unlawful.

She also asks the rhetorical question as to why this serious infringement of Irish civil liberties has gone relatively unreported or unremarked upon in Irish media.

A good question. But, not one that should be addressed exclusively to crime reporters. It is a question for the leadership of our national media – our powerful editors and media owners, both public and private sector.

In relation to crime for example, Ireland has some of the highest rates of homicide by firearm in the EU. According to the UN Global Study on Homicide, Ireland’s homicide rate is higher than that of most EU member states, including, for example, the UK, Sweden, Italy, Spain and Denmark.

In Ireland, homicides by firearm account for approximately 50% of all murders. In short, Ireland has a major problem with gun crime associated in the main with so-called organised crime, drug trafficking and dissident terrorists. The discovery of the dismembered remains of a murder victim in the Grand Canal this week further highlight the barbarity to which mostly urban communities have been exposed in recent years.

During the Troubles, when Irish politicians and the judiciary were potential targets of firearm offences, significant resources were allocated to the gardaí in order to counter the threat.

In 2016, the principal targets of gun crime are young men from disadvantaged areas in Dublin, Limerick and Cork. The Fine Gael/Labour government have not prioritised this threat to marginal communities and gardaí are seriously under-resourced and under-equipped to deal with the serious issue of organised crime and the remnants of terrorist networks in Ireland.

This analysis falls to hard pressed crime correspondents who do their utmost to highlight these stark issues in our mainstream media.

Karlin Lillington is right. The Gsoc issue is a microcosm of a wider set of challenges that confront Irish citizens and the type of society that they wish to inhabit.

The political economy of Irish media is such that many Irish political correspondents are so close to and often so beholden to powerful political sources, media advisers and heavy handed ‘spin doctors’ that they are unable to provide a meaningful context for many government policy decisions.

Against a background of ‘austerity’, many of Ireland’s vital public services such as health and policing have become politicised, hollowed-out and demoralised.

Some of our political reporting consists of a gossipy soap-opera type commentary of the conservative bubble that is Leinster House. In the meantime, out in the real world, public confidence in health and the administration of justice has hit the floor.

Despite the massive spend of taxpayer’s money by the FG/Lab coalition on communications ‘advisers’ and ‘spin doctors’ – public trust in politics and media is at an all time low.

The annual Edelman ‘trust barometer’ shows this to be particularly the case in Ireland.

In relation to the particular issue of data retention and access – our government need to act on the recommendations of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and end such unlawful practices here.

In relation to the wider issues raised by Karlin Lillington, Irish journalists need to be fully supported in their attempts to hold those in power to account.

Some of our political correspondents in particular need to stop acting as unpaid spokespersons for government. The bigger picture represents not just a crisis of confidence in the administration of justice – but also a crisis of public confidence in journalists as trusted story-tellers.

If journalism is to survive, it must never function as the seamless extension of the establishment.

Read: There’s going to be a review into the law allowing Gsoc to access journalists’ phone records>

Read: Gsoc access to journalists’ phone records ‘really worrying’>

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