Bertie and the Sindo: An affront to democracy

ON THE TV3 documentary Print And Be Damned, Anne Harris, the Sunday Independent editor, gave her account of the relationship the paper forged with Bertie Ahern prior to the 2007 election.

Bertie and the Sindo: An affront to democracy

According to Harris, Ahern met the newspaper’s then editor, the late Aengus Fanning, at a function in the Shelbourne Hotel in April of that year. At the time, the Mahon Tribunal was investigating Ahern’s finances. A file on Ahern’s finances, originating in the tribunal, but dispersed to various parties, had come into the possession of the newspaper. It was reputedly explosive stuff, although lawyers cautioned against publication.

Harris told TV3 that at the Shelbourne, Fanning put it to Ahern that the paper had a “massive file” on him. Fanning then asked Ahern for some stories, particularly the date of the forthcoming general election.

“He said he would think about it and he went away and the weeks passed,” Harris said.

Then, one Saturday, Ahern phoned the paper, saying he was calling the election and “I won’t be going to the [Phoenix] Park until after you’re off the press with the first edition”. He gave the story to the paper, at a time when even some of his cabinet colleagues didn’t know he was going to call the election.

“That’s what journalism is about,” Harris said. “You work your way around to get people to tell you things. And thereafter he [Ahern] gave many stories exclusively to the Sunday Independent.”

Pic: Sunday Independent Editor Anne Harris

The revelation has passed with little comment. Yet it throws a completely different light on Ahern’s final year in power; how he won the election; how he managed to stay in office for six months after the truth about his finances began to come out; and, arguably, the slow reaction of his successor in getting to grips with a collapsing economy.

Politicians and newspapers have often found a confluence of interests. But is this the first time that a leading national newspaper acquiesced to ignoring serious questions about a prime minister’s alleged financial impropriety for a series of front-page exclusives? The Sindo had been highly critical of Ahern in the early months of 2007.

Consistently, headlines such ‘Bertie sinks as house market goes under’ (March 4) ‘Fianna Fáil resort to auction politics to woo voters’ (March 25); ‘Ahern denies airtrip with a case of cash’ (April 15, in relation to a tribunal story which had been out some months) cast Ahern in particular, and his government generally, in a bad light. Then, a few weeks before the election, all changed, changed utterly. Ireland’s biggest-selling newspaper found itself backing the outgoing taoiseach to the hilt.

The volte face had long been ascribed to a meeting between the paper’s then main shareholder, Tony O’Reilly, and Ahern and his minister for finance, Brian Cowen.

The three men met in O’Reilly’s Fitzwilliam Square pad in early April. Thereafter, the Sindo’s coverage turned totally in Ahern’s favour.

Received wisdom had it that the two politicians appealed to O’Reilly to intervene with the Sindo in particular, to call off the dogs, and perhaps convinced him that his own interests would be better served by the re-election of an FF-led administration.

The hatching of any agreement was denied by all involved. In any event, favourable coverage only ensued in the Sunday paper. The dailies in the group continued as before.

Others have ascribed more benign motivation to the Sindo’s volte face. Former government press secretary Mandy Johnson said in an RTÉ interview in 2008 that the Sindo’s editorial line chimed with a public mood that Ahern was getting a raw deal from the tribunal and media in general.

“The Sunday Independent took the view that the vast majority of Irish people felt what Bertie was going through was unfair and they wanted to give him a voice during the election campaign to put his side across,” said Johnson.

One way or the other, the Sindo’s coverage arguably had a major role in getting Ahern re-elected. On the Friday prior to polling day, the paper’s leading light, Eoghan Harris, made a passionate case for Ahern on the Late Late Show. The performance has been credited in most quarters as pulling in voters for Ahern. Would Harris’s defence of Ahern have been as well received if everybody knew of Ahern’s deal with the Sindo? Two months after the election, Ahern appointed Harris as a nominee to the Seanad.

Crucially, favourable coverage of Ahern continued in the following months, as he began to give evidence about his finances to the Mahon Tribunal. While most of the media cast a sceptical eye over tall tales of dig-outs and horses, the Sindo continually attacked the tribunal, and anybody it perceived as dissing their man. (There was some balance in the papers, through columnists such as Gene Kerrigan and the late Alan Ruddock, but the front page was consistently pro-Ahern).

The boost to Ahern’s PR battle against the tribunal evidence may well have prolonged his tenure. Favourable coverage — aided by cabinet ministers such as Willie O’Dea — managed to project his travails as a “he said, she said” battle of two sides, rather than the unravelling of Ahern’s threadbare narrative on where he got his money.

EVENTUALLY, Ahern resigned in the wake of the evidence of his former secretary, Gráinne Carruth. That was in April 2008, just as the economy was beginning to hit the skids.

We now know that Ahern’s tribunal woes distracted the cabinet — and the media — from the gathering economic storm. His successor, Cowen, and his minister for finance, Brian Lenihan, didn’t begin to get to grips with the crisis until the back end of the summer of ’08.

What role did the Sindo play in Ahern’s final year in power? Did the paper’s support for him through his tribunal evidence prolong his time as taoiseach? Perhaps. After all, it managed to muddy the waters, inferring that a witch hunt was underway, rather than a straightforward uncovering of evidence.

What is astounding is not that a leading newspaper would have played such a role, but the basis on which it did so. While there is little tradition in this country of newspapers plumping for one side or another in a general election, it is commonplace in other democracies.

In the UK, for instance, some newspapers openly endorse the Conservatives or Labour, based on tradition, or even policies enunciated in a specific election. Individual leaders also elicit overt support in medial organs. Rupert Murdoch was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, and this was reflected in his newspaper’s coverage. Business interests of media proprietors have also featured in election coverage.

In the 1997 general election in this country, the three main independent newspaper titles published prominent editorials advocating a change of government. This line was believed to have reflected Tony O’Reilly’s anger at the serving administration for failing to tackle the operation of illegal TV deflectors, which cost his business huge sums of money.

The revelation from Harris is in a different league altogether. This was not about ideology, nor about party politics. It wasn’t, as Johnson believes, about a sense of fair play. It wasn’t even about keeping an eye out for the interests of the paper’s owner.

It was a straightforward deal between the paper and a taoiseach who had some serious questions to answer about his personal finances. The paper would steer clear of publishing damning information about the money in return for frontpage exclusives which would pump up sales.

Then, after the election, the relationship continued, arguably undermining the Mahon Tribunal, which was an instrument of the Oireachtas. Viewed through the prism of the media’s ostensible role in a democracy, the revelations are astounding.

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