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Thursday 30 March 2023 Dublin: 15°C
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The naivety of putting the word ‘sympathy’ in proximity to the US President’s take on journalism is breathtaking, writes the editor of

POLITICIANS AND JOURNALISTS have more in common than either group might like to believe or admit.

A healthy dose of ego, for one. It’s a necessary trait for a life in politics spent pushing yourself and your beliefs into the public arena with the endgame of embroidering those beliefs into the fabric of the nation. A solid sense of self-belief is also a prerequisite in journalism, a job where being comfortable with pushback comes with the pay cheque.

The moment to watch is when ego tips into the egotistical.

There isn’t a truthful journalist among us who will deny that the lure of self-righteousness can occasionally cloud the focus on what is right. Likewise, it’s the naive politician who can’t recognise the difference between calling out a wrong and simple wrongheadedness.

Naive and wrongheaded

Current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was both naive and wrongheaded in his comments about the Irish media on Monday to a room full of young Irish men and women in New York. It was a “private event”, he told the Dáil today. As private as an invitation luncheon in a banqueting room full of folk mostly known to you by seating plan can be, one imagines. Naivety, if we are to be charitable.

It is not clear if the Taoiseach was jet lagged at last Monday’s luncheon. He was certainly quick to mention today that he had only hopped off a red eye flight when facing the decidedly less appetising spread of TDs assembled at Leaders’ Questions at lunchtime.

It matters not a New York minute. He is standing firmly behind the comments he made at that luncheon, good (not reported, he says) and bad (reported and not denied).

This is where the journalist and editor could take the nit comb to the reported remarks.

This is where I could go into the editorial decision that saw decline the invitation to send a reporter to New York on our own dollar (accommodation would be financed by the government, I should clarify) to follow Bono and Mary Robinson’s support of the Irish bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council.

This is where I could outline how we understand the importance of that bid and gave it due coverage.

Procedural publicity tour

This is where I could explain how we deemed that otherwise tracking Taoiseach and team’s publicity tour for that bid was a procedural nice-to-have but trumped (no pun intended) by the need to divert that newsroom cost to must-have stories of urgent public interest.

Stories which the Taoiseach seems to be concerned are being neglected in favour of gossipy items about, oh say, novelty socks as a tool of diplomacy. The Taoiseach is embarrassed by that kind of thing and please don’t bring it up again, even at a totally private get-together with 50 of your closest friends.

Apologies if that skirts the line of the aforementioned self-righteousness but the Taoiseach, as a now self-professed supporter of public interest journalism, will surely forgive and approve the occasional lapse.

This is also where we could speak of how the follow-on clarification from the Taoiseach in the Dáil is disingenuous when he neither welcomes nor encourages the “free press” to ask hard questions.

Take for example, the Taoiseach’s reaction to just such a query made by at the Fine Gael conference late last year. The path to a direct and accurate answer was a long and tortuous one that involved blaming the question, blaming the context – dastardly context – and finally the arrival at a clarification, prompted by a spinproof FactCheck (go on that epic journey in more detail here should you so desire).

Thick hides, thick skins?

But let’s move on from all that. It doesn’t matter if Leo hurt the feelings of journalists. We’re well able to stand up for ourselves and we’re well used to criticism, particularly in the online world where the feedback can be unrelenting. In many cases, we should accept the feedback, engage with it if there is something to be learned and get better at our jobs.

Thick hides, thin skins; it’s a common appraisal of both the political and journalism sectors and it’s not always untrue.

What does matter is the one question the Taoiseach has yet to definitively answer in relation to his Monday lunchtime Ask Me Anything. How on earth did the leader of a country bidding to become a more prominent player on the peacekeeping scene, albeit temporarily, allow himself to be heard putting the words ‘Trump’, ‘media’ and ‘sympathy’ in any proximity to one another?

That was the chief question that journalists, the NUJ, opposition politicians and others were posing when the reports of his candid lunch emerged overnight. That’s one question that did not receive a direct answer when posed by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in Leaders’ Questions today.

The rhetoric of Trump

And it’s the only question arising from this incident that really, really matters. The US president’s rhetoric around the media and journalism that doesn’t suit his particular world view or agenda has been shocking and divisive. For the hard of listening, his recent escalation is to brand the free press an “enemy of the people”.

What traditionally happens to enemies of the people, to those viewed by traitors by tough-talking, ‘zero tolerance’ powers? Well, he has left that bit to the imagination of those with little imagination but all of it dangerous and, in some scary quarters, of violent intent.

So asked again this evening of the Taoiseach: What exactly did you say that had attendees at that luncheon running to reporters with that particularly incendiary melange of words. Please put our minds at rest.

This is the full statement we have received:

The Taoiseach has made his views very clear on numerous of President Trump’s policies, whether that concerns immigration, gender, race, trade, or other areas, multilateralism, the UN, Jerusalem, and the Iran deal.

The Taoiseach didn’t say he agreed with President Trump on anything, and that includes the media. His remark on ‘sympathy’ was that the President was willing to be critical, unlike traditional politicians, and that no group of people should consider themselves to be beyond reproach or immune from criticism. The Taoiseach explained this further in the Dáil today.

Consider us reproached, Taoiseach. Consider any past and future criticism as taken in the spirit in which it is intended. But consider, while rightfully lamenting the 88 Irish people who have died in 60 years of peacekeeping efforts, the power and potential harm words can wield and inflict, no matter the order in which they are strung together.

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