Looking through some of the online coverage of the launch of Fine Gael’s Vote Yes campaign, one exchange on Twitter was particularly interesting.

Hugh O’Connell, Political Correspondent for The Sunday Business Post, was obviously impressed by the written material which Fine Gael’s leadership have produced in their push for abortion to be introduced here.

“Lots of information very clearly presented in this leaflet,” O’Connell wrote. “Best I’ve seen from Yes campaigners thus far.”

Other tweets followed in a similar vein, as O’Connell dutifully transmitted the key points from various Fine Gael speakers to his 19,000 followers.

Eventually, Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Donnelly decided to ask him a question.

“Are you now working for Leo and Fine Gael now? (Officially I mean 😉 ).”

A Family Matter

Donnelly’s question was posed in jest, but in Hugh O’Connell’s case, the question is a reasonable one, given his personal connection to the party.

O’Connell is engaged to Therese Newman – younger sister of, and parliamentary assistant to – Deputy Kate O’Connell.

Kate O’Connell has been the leading pro-choice voice within Fine Gael since entering the Dáil virtually as a single-issue candidate in 2016. She has long been a champion of policies which other leading luminaries within Fine Gael only recently embraced, and will be to the fore in the coming referendum on the 8th. 

I use the word virtually deliberately. There are other items on Kate’s agenda; the foremost being to advance members of her own family within Leinster House.

She risked the wrath of Fine Gael High Command to hire Therese Newman: partner to the lovely Hugh O’Connell. Since then she has worked hard to elevate her older sister Mary Newman also.

Mary recently missed out on the Fine Gael nomination to contest the next general election in Tipperary. Since then, Kate has confronted the Tánaiste Simon Coveney in the Dáil members’ restaurant about his failure to support Mary’s candidacy for an open seat in the Seanad.

The Newman girls are nothing if not determined, and are likely to advance within Fine Gael in the coming years.

Hugh O’Connell, as the prospective brother-in-law to Kate and Mary, now finds himself almost a member of House Newman. What’s more, he is reporting on a prominent debate which his (soon to be) immediate relatives are clearly heavily involved with on one side.

All things considered, one can forgive Councillor Donnelly for any possible confusion about who O’Connell is really working for. However Donnelly’s quip does bring into question how easily journalists move into the political sphere in Ireland, and what little distance separates the Fourth Estate from politicians, particularly those in Fine Gael.

Since Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach less than a year ago, four important figures within the Irish media have taken up roles as advisors to Blueshirt ministers.

Chris Donoghue departed from Newstalk to work for the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, while the Defence Minister Paul Kehoe lured Niall O’Connor away from his role as political correspondent for The Irish Independent.

More recently, the Press Association reporter Ed Carty took up employment with Chief Whip Joe McHugh, while long-time RTÉ employee Caroline Murphy – a regular voice of Morning Ireland’s ‘It Says In the Papers’ – is now labouring in the service of Justice Minister Charles Flanagan.

Many others have made the jump too. Newstalk’s former news editor John Keogh is working for the Culture Minister Josepha Madigan. The Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor has hired TV3’s former Director of Content Lynda McQuaid. Mitchell O’Connor has a taste for TV3 journalists: she previously hired their news anchor Alan Cantwell.

The practise extends further than Fine Gael. In 2016, the Transport Minister Shane Ross hired The Sunday Independent columnist Carol Hunt as his press adviser.

Altogether, there’s a 45-strong team of policy and media advisers lurking around the various departments, and costing the taxpayer more than €4 million annually. Increasingly, many more of them are being drawn in from the ranks of the media.

With newspaper sales continuing to decline, salaries are being squeezed across the board in the private sector. In contrast, a ministerial advisor can expect to earn €80,000 or more. Moreover, the experience of George Lee – who moved effortlessly from RTÉ to the Dáil and back to RTÉ again – shows clearly that a leap into partisan politics does not necessarily end a career as an Irish journalist.

For politicians, the advantages of hiring journalists are numerous.

Journalists bring with them good communication and writing skills, a first-hand knowledge of how the media works and a wealth of contacts.

Of course, their actual knowledge of the political process can be rather weak.

Clear evidence of this was shown by the recent fiasco whereby Simon Coveney looked to provide cover for his convenient change-of-heart on abortion up to 12 weeks by proposing that any future changes to Ireland’s abortion law should require a two-thirds majority vote in the Dáil.

This proposal, which would clearly have violated the Constitution, appears to have been cooked up with some help from his star advisor and media household name Chris Donoghue, who certainly played a key role in transmitting it to his former colleagues in the media.

Close Collaborators

Announcement of media departures to the political sphere invariably focus on the backgrounds of those involved, the salaries which they will be paid, and so on.

But there’s a bigger story here.

The purpose of political journalists is to report on what is happening in our political system, to record events truthfully and to obtain from politicians answers to the questions which the public is asking.

This is vital work in any democracy. Politicians have to be held to account, and it has to be clear to them that details of their actions or inactions will be relayed to the public through the news media.

However, the fact that many Irish journalists are being hired to work for politicians begs many questions.

It stands to reason that politicians would want to hire people who support their agenda, broadly speaking, given that it will be their job to try to advance it.

The readiness of journalists to abandon their profession to work for ministers suggests that many are believed to be supportive of those government politicians and their policies. It also casts major doubt on the idea that the role of an Irish political journalist is that of an impartial and inquisitorial watchdog.

Yet journalists and politicians mingle freely in and around our parliament, and politicians often develop close relationships with individual journalists, to the benefit of both parties.

Indeed, it is quite a strange experience to visit the canteen in Leinster House. The journalists and the politicians, whom they are employed to report on, take their meals together. A duo who you would see facing each other during an interview today might well be found at the same table tomorrow, chatting merrily about the affairs of the day.

In and of itself, this might not seem like an enormous problem. But with the various sectors of the media struggling financially, and with many of their former colleagues having chosen to switch careers, there is a real chance that Irish political correspondents are pondering about which circumstances could see them take up more lucrative roles as political advisors.

In such an environment, the normal rules of journalistic practice begin to break down, with the attitude of journalists to politicians switching from being adversarial to being collaborative.

Would this affect how a journalist reports on a politician? Could it affect how he or she covers certain stories, or whether he or she chooses to cover a story at all?

Many Journalists, One Voice

Abortion is an area where the Irish media are frequently criticised for being biased towards the pro-choice position.

But there are many other social, economic and foreign policy issues which need to be properly thrashed out through open debate, the sort which cannot be facilitated without a properly functioning media.

These issues include: the ongoing dysfunctions and cronyism of our political class, the long-term implications of the Apple €13 billion tax ruling, the degree to which Ireland should participate in the EU’s growing and deepening defence projects (PESCO), whether or not we should follow other European countries in sanctioning Russia (regardless of whether there is conclusive evidence or not), and so on and so forth.

In spite of the fact that many newspapers and broadcast stations still exist, it is increasingly clear that the parameters of public debate are narrower than they should be, with many pertinent issues rarely being examined except in a very limited fashion.

Part of this lack of debate stems from how the Irish media is structured.

Concentration of ownership is an obvious problem, and has recently resulted in Ireland slipping down the worldwide rankings in press freedom. The Independent News and Media group controls 40% of the newspaper market and may yet grow larger; The Irish Times is taking over The Irish Examiner along with several other publications and radio stations. But the problem extends further than this.  

Unlike in other countries, no clear left-right divide exists in Ireland’s media. The Irish Independent is to the right economically, but overall it is broadly centrist; The Irish Times is slightly to the left, The Irish Examiner is similar to The Irish Times; The Irish Daily Mail is far closer to the centre than its sister publication in the UK; The Times (Ireland edition) and The Sunday Business Post are strongly liberal.

Indeed, the Irish media as a whole can be characterised in broad brush terms: strongly liberal on social issues, and ever-so-slightly conservative on economic ones, if only for fear of the consequences which could ensue should a radically different set of policies be pursued.

It just so happens that this is also the consensus view within Irish politics, and in the geographical community where politicians and journalists work, meet and socialise together, namely South Dublin.

Within Irish politics and Irish media, there is an ongoing conversation about what Ireland is moving away from and why, and little or no discussion about where we are going or why.

Debate is dead. Discourse is dead. And faced with multiple publications saying the same thing, people who used to buy newspapers are turning away in their droves, while faithful readers are fading away and not being replaced.  

Can Ireland’s Media Be Saved?

Even the most disillusioned member of society should know that we need a media, one which is not made up of people searching for future employment by politicians, and one where journalists aren’t asked during the course of their work whether they work for Leo, Fine Gael, or anyone else but the public.

Currently the public interest is not served by the perpetuation of the status quo, or by the proposed solution of Fianna Fáil for our hard-pressed newspapers to become taxpayer-funded organs of the state, a suggestion which is sadly catching on among those who really should know better.

The uneasy relationship between the Irish media and the state was further revealed in the unveiling of “Project Ireland 2040”, where public funds were spent by the government’s Strategic Communications Unit to advertise the project in local and national newspapers. The Times reported: “a number of journalists at Independent News and Media were asked to write positive news pieces, which could not include negative or critical content”.

These pieces were then reportedly made to look like actual news stories, and not as the paid government advertorials which they were.

All this must be recognised as nothing less than a government agency acting as a fifth column, deliberately using taxpayer funds to subvert the goodwill between journalists and the public.

Writing a century ago, Hilaire Belloc described how the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few had caused people to believe that the solution lay in the growth of the centralised authority of the state, when in fact this merely seems to make the problem worse.

What was true for the economy then is true for the media industry now. It’s in serious trouble now, and an ever-closer attachment to politicians will only further its ruination.

Instead of looking to politicians for state aid, journalists need to do what is right, and we the public must ensure that they do just so. Otherwise it will be the public’s interests, our interests, that will be left indefinitely upon the chopping block of crony politics.