The Taoiseach has confirmed he told a private event in New York that he has “sympathy” with US president Donald Trump and his criticism of the media.
Mr Varadkar was forced to ask his party last night for “forbearance” after the fall-out over his remarks. But he remains defiant about his right to censure the media.
Ministers privately say that his remarks to a private lunch in New York this week were “unfortunate and silly”, but also reflected a view among Cabinet about negative coverage in the media.
Mr Varadkar asked his Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last night for “forbearance” for having to answer questions about something in which they weren’t involved.
He denied aligning himself to Mr Trump, as reported.
The comments were made on Monday at an event hosted by Ciarán Madden, the consulate general of Ireland in New York.
Mr Varadkar told the Dáil he took questions there over two hours from young Irish people living in America. He admitted saying journalists were under pressure and that “investigative journalism was not always true”, where he referenced RTÉ’s Prime Time.
“That happens and we should not be afraid to say it. In private, we talk about stories that were sensationalised and, as politicians, we should not be afraid to say that,” said Mr Varadkar.
It was reported that he said Mr Trump’s criticism of the media was one of the few things he could sympathise about with the US president.
However, there was confusion last night when his spokesman denied Mr Varadkar had agreed with Mr Trump, but added: “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 backlash over the remarks forced ministers to defend Mr Varadkar. Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said he “unreservedly” supported the functioning of the media. This was also the view of the Taoiseach, he said.
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said there was “crystal clear” support for the media in Government.
Others had reservations about the comments. They were “unfortunate and silly”, said a Cabinet member; another called them “surprising”.
However, one minister said Mr Varadkar’s thoughts reflected a wider view in Government about general negative media coverage. The Taoiseach’s comments were seen as something that was “on his brain” about having to close down the Strategic Communications Unit.
Opposition leaders rounded on Mr Varadkar. Labour’s Brendan Howlin said it was “disquieting” that Mr Varadkar used an opportunity to align himself with Mr Trump’s views.
“Trump regards the media as his enemy and the people’s enemy.”
Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne said Mr Varadkar in the Dáil previously accused newspapers of creating “fake news”. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said citizens resorted to media platforms “to get the ear of Government” and yet the Taoiseach had a problem with journalism.
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