thehighhorse
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The Best of Myles from the worst of The Irish Times

We haven’t bought a Sunday newspaper since I can’t remember when and the only daily we buy is the Saturday edition of The Irish Times. We do subscribe to The Irish Times website. Absence can make the heart grow distant instead of fonder. I found myself spending less and less time flicking through the website the longer we spent abroad this summer. But on return late in August after six weeks away, habit reasserted itself and we picked up the newspaper as usual on Saturday, 27 August.

The two formats shape the news differently. The website delivers “rolling” news. What counts as current news and the order of priority afforded to individual stories shifts continuously throughout the day. This makes stories on the website seem more ephemeral if also more urgent than those in the printed paper which are obviously fixed in place in a certain order for the full day. But it also challenges the newspaper to pump enough dramatic steroids into the presentation of its stories, front page especially, to encourage you to fork out the cover price of €3.70 for the physical edition.

The headline over the lead story on 27 August read:

Consumers warned to expect further energy price hikes in coming weeks

As consumers have been on a continuous drip feed of warnings to expect an expensive winter since shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, I wondered what was actually new here?

In fact, the only hard “news” in the piece was the previous day’s announcement of impending price rises by SSE Airtricity. On “warnings”, the newspaper gave us this:

Sources briefed on the issue said last night that further price increases are expected, with one senior Government politician admitting that the spiralling cost of energy was now the Coalition’s single biggest priority as it faced into the autumn and winter.

We are truly fortunate to have a vigilant and unflinching free press drag out of a “senior Government politician” the “admission” that energy prices were the Government’s biggest current priority. We would never have guessed if the newspaper hadn’t told us.

And indeed, the article seems to concede that we might just have tuned in to the prospect of a dark winter before now. It continues:

This isn’t a surprise.” Said one Government figure, “and there’s going to be more of it.”

It may be general contemporary journalistic practice, but The Irish Times has a particular grá for blunt, plain-speaking, “between you and me” quotes like the one above from government “insiders” of one kind or another, speaking under anonymity. It heightens the sense of reporters being close to if not right in the scrum of “the action”, pencils perpetually hovering over open notebooks, and of their having some level of intimacy with these movers and shakers, involved rather than merely observing.

Anyway, the relentless journalists pursue their prey further, probing for illuminating insights for their readers, this time about the measures likely to be contained in the forthcoming budget.

When pressed, one senior decision-maker said these would be along the lines of the previous measures, which included VAT reductions, welfare increases and direct credits.

This is simply repeating what government “sources” have been briefing and The Irish Times reporting throughout the long hot summer during which the drumbeat of doom has beat unrelentingly. How hard did they have to “press” this time — and what form did this “pressing” take? Alas, we are not told.

I would love to understand too the demarcation lines between a “Government figure”, a “senior Government politician” and a “senior decision-maker”. But journalistic etiquette apparently forbids opening that kimono at all. And God forbid that they might actually name the sources for such risqué nuggets.

A few pages further on there is a lengthy report describing in overmuch detail the arrangements the civil service has established for contingency planning against an energy emergency this winter — because there is at least some risk of supplies being interrupted as well as their cost continuing to rise.

There is nothing remotely surprising in the story itself. Government Departments are co-ordinating though a structure that has been dubbed a “NPHET for energy” — exactly as you would expect them to do given the advance warning we have all had of the risk of some kind of energy crisis. It would only be surprising and, therefore, real news if they weren’t.

The Energy Security Emergency Group (ESEG) is chaired by the secretary general of the Department of the Environment, Communications and Climate Change, Mark Griffin. And that useful revelation provides an opportunity for more salty quotes from an anonymous insider.

He [Griffin] is said to be “no nonsense” in his approach, and unafraid to upbraid members on occasion.

“Its grown-up stuff. There’s no messing around here. If someone isn’t on top of their brief they’re called up fairly lively,” says one participant.

Getting this glimpse behind the curtain of how our country is run and the confirmation that “grown ups” are in charge and happy to throw their weight around is a considerable relief and reassurance early on a Saturday morning.

The same article affords us the insight that the ESEG was initially convened by Martin Fraser the outgoing and since departed secretary general to the Government. Notably, it was convened…

…before he left

…which is a bit like if, on his Sunday morning archives programme on RTE Radio, John Bowman were to describe an interview as having been recorded before the subject’s death, thus pre-empting any misapprehension that it might have been conducted post-mortem.

Anyway, when the group first met, Mr. Fraser…:

…told members to imagine the worst-case scenario and add to it. Ireland was living through times when worst-case scenarios were coming to pass.

…proof that journalists will always err on the side of implying a platitude is a profundity if it emanates from the country’s top ranking civil servant.

This was also the week that saw the resignation of Robert Troy as Minister of State over his sloppy approach to disclosing his property related investment interests. The newspaper gave a good account of the disclosures TDs are obliged to make regarding their interests before running through the drama of a week during which the ground collapsed under Mr. Troy’s feet, first gradually, then quickly.

The reporter ticks the box of mentioning briefly that Mr. Troy’s difficulties began on 10 August with a report on The Ditch, a thinly resourced, independent, on-line publication that, according to itself, “does news and comment”. This is indirect acknowledgment of the debt owed to The Ditch by the much better resourced national newspapers. The nationals are much better at writing down and regurgitating titbits fed to them by government “sources” than mining for hard news themselves.

Mr. Troy eventually resigned two weeks later. The newspaper reports that, at one point during this fortnight:

…anxiety levels among members of Fianna Fáil began to shoot up. His fellow TDs, who until this point had believed he would weather the summer storm, began to have doubts. Journalists began to receive texts from the worried factions asking: “How bad is this going to get?”

Think about that for a moment. Then ask yourself why any TD with even a tither of wit might send a text like that to a journalist? Are there really TDs in Dáil Éireann silly enough to imagine that political correspondents might have more of a clue about how events might unfold than they do themselves — and then even sillier enough to text such questions to journalists?

The newspaper adds the colour of more anonymous quotes from “players” about the reaction to a radio interview given by Mr. Troy.

One veteran Fianna Fáil [sic] was listening to the interview.

“I was cringing. I really was cringing for him.” Speaking privately, another senior TD said: “This definitely won’t cut it.”

Does the retailing of these lightweight snippets of gossip from the court of Leinster House really make us better informed or otherwise add to the quality of our lives? Are they of any interest to anyone beyond the media-political bubble within the M50 “beltway”? — or to borrow from Eric Cantona, the full court-press of journalistic seagulls following the Kildare Street trawler hoping to have a few gossipy sardines thrown in their direction.

Moving away from politics altogether, the most interesting story of the week appeared on the same page as the Troy inquest. I quote:

Harry Styles will headline Slane Castle next summer in the first concert at the venue since 2019.

The singer will join legendary artists including David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2 as the main act at the Meath venue next June 10th.

The story doesn’t reveal whether the late David Bowie will appear in a physical or incorporeal capacity, but like the other musical immortals mentioned, we can be sure he will be there. We can rely on our newspapers to print only what is good and true.

It is almost six decades since Myles na gCopaleen’s satirical Cruiskeen Lawn column was last published in The Irish Times. The newspaper has revived his light but is hiding it under a bushel. It should come right out and admit that it has revived the spirit of the column, imaginatively and subtly mingling parody and reality in the news columns of its Saturday edition.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

33 Followers

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.