ALISON O'CONNOR: Varadkar comments align him with an enemy of democracy

How would any right-thinking person make this comparison, a week after five people were shot dead at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, writes Alison O'Connor

When Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative journalist with the Guardian and Observer newspapers, won the Orwell journalism prize at the end of June, she described the work as akin to “being strapped to a freight train for the last 18 months”.

The prize, awarded by the Orwell Foundation for the best political writing of the year, was for her investigation into the collapsed political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, an agency that helped to elect Donald Trump to the US presidency.

Her writing resulted in Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg apologising for the misuse of data. Facebook shared its users’ personal details with Cambridge Analytica and these were utilised politically.

Cadwalladr is tenacious, having faced a number of legal challenges and some horrible, intimidation tactics.

At one point, the Leave.EU campaign, a pro-Brexit group backed by Nigel Farage in the UK, posted a photoshopped video of her being beaten up.

This was a sprawling, multifaceted story and the Observer shared it with the New York Times and Channel 4 News, thereby increasing resources and bringing it to a wider audience. Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, tweeted that it was “surely the story of the year, if not the decade”.

Any of us who saw the footage of the two Cambridge Analytica bosses telling undercoverChannel 4 reporters just how they had manipulated voters in countries around the globe, particularly the US, with made-up tales, extremist views, fake news, not to mention honey traps involving prostitutes, will remember it.

Woven into this intricate web is right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser.

Fast forward to last Monday and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, chatting to a group of people gathered for lunch in New York, said he “sympathises” with Trump’s views of the media.

Varadkar appeared to question the motives of some investigative journalists, citing as an example the investigation into Cambridge Analytica.

The print media, he said, liked to focus on technology and social media companies, because they were such a threat to traditional media.

I’ve given only a brief summary of the prize-winning journalistic investigation, and the amazing work done by Cadwalladr, but how truly extraordinary that the Taoiseach would use as an example investigative journalism that was so incredibly important to the functioning ofdemocracy. He aligned himself with Trump, who is an acute threat to global democracy.

What goes on in the head of Leo Varadkar? What is he really thinking, behind the mask he presents, which appears to slip when he travels to a different time zone.

At a more basic level, these sorts of utterances reek of political stupidity, especially from a man who had remained in quite the honeymoon period with the Irish media, more than a year after he was elected Taoiseach.

Oh, my, how the Fianna Failers must have been rubbing their hands in glee. They’ve been frustrated and somewhat impotent in the face of Leo’s increasing popularity, not just with the public, but also the media.

Then, he hands them this absolute howler.

How would any right-thinking person make this comparison, a week after five people were shot dead at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland?

Donald Trump has repeatedly called journalists the “enemy of the people” (a term once used by Joseph Stalin) and describes anything he does not like said about him as “fake news”, a phrase that has been picked up by many other politicians when they wish to dismiss something, even if it is obviously true.

He has retweeted a doctored video in which he wrestles to the ground a man whose head is labelled CNN.

It is a horror show to watch Trump’s efforts at gaslighting and attempts to utterly undermine the media.

These efforts have become so frequent that by now even journalists fail to feel outrage at the latest dig — and that is dangerous in itself.

US reporters have spoken about how it is now routine for them to be physically attacked in the Trump era and of the fear of being penned in at the media enclosures at a Trump rally, when the latter stokes the crowd about the evils of journalists.

Ryan JFoley, of the Associated Press, has written about how Trump’s campaign to discredit the news media has spread to officials at all government levels, with the term “fake news” being used as a weapon against unflattering stories.

“It’s become ubiquitous, as a signal to a politician’s supporters to ignore legitimate reporting and hard questions, as a smear of the beleaguered and dwindling local press corps, and as a way to push back against what they call biased stories.”

Perhaps our Taoiseach has been doing some wishful-thinking on how to control the media.

Let’s issue a quick reminder that Trump has also dominated world headlines for his policy of separating young children from their parents, after their attempts to illegally cross the border into the US, and so haphazard was the process that some of those families may never be reunited again. This is the man with whom our Taoiseach aligns himself?

The Taoiseach also joked during that lunch that political correspondents outnumbered TDs in Leinster House and that they spent more time covering gossip heard in corridors than substantive political issues.

Nobody knows about this gossip better than Leo Varadkar. He is rather more circumspect now, in his elevated position as Taoiseach, but, let me tell you, the young Deputy Varadkar, or even Minister Varadkar, was always worth bumping into on one of those corridors, or for a quiet word elsewhere.

As far as the members of the media are concerned, you’ll forgive us for being confused, given that ministers, politicians, and even taoisigh have uttered complaints that not enough attention is paid to what goes on in Leinster House.

It’s only fair to record that the Taoiseach apparently did tell that New York audience that he was biased because his work was covered by the same reporters he was criticising.

How can a journalist address the Taoiseach’s criticisms without being seen to be unable to take it, even as you dish it out?

Quite easily, actually — you just keep typing, all the while acknowledging your own prejudices, especially if you wrote an exceedingly positive column about him just two weeks ago, to mark his first year in office.

But Varadkar’s comments won’t settle the nerves of his Fine Gael colleagues, with a general election looming in sight.


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