Varadkar’s attack on a free press: Opinions unbecoming of Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar’s bizarre attack on the Irish media has generated criticism not just from journalists, but also from a variety of politicians and others who value a free press.

His statement, at a lunch with younger members of the Irish community in New York on Monday, that he had “some sympathy” with US President Donald Trump’s attitude to the press, does him no credit. 

It aligns him with a man who has declared the media to be the “enemy of the people”.

In the Dáil yesterday, the Taoiseach expressed “regret” that anyone should take his remarks to suggest that he

has anything but the highest regard for the media, but it is difficult to draw any other conclusion.

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach complained that the remarks were quoted selectively and out of context and should not have been revealed, as he was attending a private event.

In the first instance, the context was that he made those remarks during his visit to New York to promote Ireland’s application for a seat on the Security Council of the UN, an organisation that regards freedom of the press as a corner-stone of human rights.

As for it being a private event, although the media were excluded, it was hosted by the Irish consul general and he attended as Taoiseach, not as a private individual.

The Taoiseach also told the Dáil that, no more than any major institution, the media in Ireland should not be beyond criticism or reproach. 

No responsible journalist or media organisation would argue with that, so the opinions he expressed can be viewed as either useful, justified, fact-based criticism or a whinge that exposes a freakish desire to control the narrative of his leadership.

There are two examples that suggest it is more the latter than the former: the Government’s short-lived Strategic Communications Unit and the Taoiseach’s weekly video messages to the nation, of which he is the sole presenter.

The SCU, commonly referred to as the Government’s spin unit, is to be wound down this month, following a review of its operations prompted by an overwhelming Dáil vote last March to have it disbanded.

Set up last year, the SCU was established to streamline government communications, but it soon became bogged down in scandal, in particular a Government advertising campaign around the Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework.

Another attempt to get an unfiltered message across was made by Leo Varadkar himself. 

It is almost exactly a year ago that the Taoiseach posted his first weekly video message on the Fine Gael Facebook page.

His first video came at a time when he faced strong criticism for comments he made about the gardaí in the Jobstown trial, but there was no mention of that uncomfortable reality in the message.

The Taoiseach must realise that in a free democracy, he does not get to control the narrative and attempting to do so exhibits an immaturity unworthy of his office.

We have a grown-up press in this country; we need a grown-up Taoiseach, too.

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