The Irish Banking Crisis and Corporate Elite Capture

Not so long ago, when I was doing my Masters degree, I wrote a thesis on the disastrous flotation of Eircom and how the Irish financial media failed to inform the public of the risks of share ownership, an oversight which resulted in thousands of small investors losing their savings when the company’s shares nosedived.

I concluded that a media phenomenon known as ‘corporate elite capture’ was at work. Boiling it down to its basics, the concept attempts to explain the influence that corporate elites, such as bankers, have on the media. It rejects the conspiratorial argument of direct manipulation but argues that journalists can, if they are not careful, end up losing sight of the bigger picture and start advocating the views of their sources at the expense of other stakeholders, such as the general public.

Although I had hoped following the financial crisis had eradicated corporate elite capture from Ireland, an article that I read in the Irish Independent earlier this week gave me flashbacks from my thesis. It was an opinion piece by that newspaper’s banking correspondent, Laura Noonan, arguing that the state had to make a €3.1 billion payment  due this weekend to keep the zombie bank formerly known as Anglo Irish Bank afloat.

This post isn’t about the rights or wrongs of taking such action but about the language used by Noonan in her piece, which set my alarm bells ringing. For a start, she consistently uses bankers’ shorthand to refer to promissory notes, the instrument of payment involved.  From my brief investigations, the shorthand term “pro notes” seems to be rarely used outside the elite circle of analysts and bankers who still populate the state’s shattered banking system.

Most worrying though was the casual disregard of the impact that the payment – which bankers and bondholders desperately want to see happen – would have on the non-banking elites such as the general public. According to Noonan, the question of altering the terms of the note is an irrelevance because:

“It is paid from the state coffers to Anglo — another arm of the state. It’s like if you regularly pay money from your current account to your savings account — the net impact on your finances is the same. It simply does not matter.”

But it does. The allocation of government funding has a profound impact on the type of lives experienced by the general public. Even at a fixed level of expenditure, the usage of that finance can result in a myriad of different outcomes. For example, if the government slashed its education budget and spent all the money on nuclear warheads, you would end up with a highly militarised country with an uneducated population (like an Atlantic version of North Korea perhaps). If it took the same level of finance and invested in watersports, we’d end up in a state festooned with swimming pools.

For those bankers, who seem keen to get their hands on the €3.1 billion, this point needs to be seen as an irrelevance. It is arguable whether handing over €3.1 billion to the former Anglo, while slashing public services to do so, to please the financial elites is a desirable use of public money. In a perfect world, journalists shouldn’t dismiss such issues out of hand but in instances where corporate elite capture is at play, such outcomes do occur.

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The Irish Times and archival censorship

Note: The author is a PhD researcher specialising in media archives at the University of Ulster. This piece has been edited following a complaint from the Irish Times.

Weeks after promising its arrival, the Irish Times’ online editor Hugh Linehan has finally published a blog post on the newspaper’s website seeking to explain its policy towards its online ‘archive’ in the wake of the Kate Fitzgerald affair.

A lengthy and comprehensive piece of work, it nonetheless fails to answer the key questions regarding the newspaper’s purging of Kate’s original article from its online archive on foot of complaints from her employers, the Communications Clinic.

Effectively, the Irish Times attempted to pass an altered piece off as the original and then resorted to the most totalitarian methods possible to wipe its existence from its archive. Indeed, there wasn’t even an explanation given as to what might have been in the blacked out space apart from the words ‘legal retraction’. This is sort of funny given that the newspaper’s subsequent apology to the Communications Clinic never precisely identified what the original article was and the alleged inaccuracies contain within it were. Incidentally, my old involuntary penpal Kevin O’Sullivan still hasn’t enlightened Kate’s family as to what these inaccuracies might be.

In any case, it’s becoming rapidly clear that whatever the Irish Times is selling on its website isn’t an archive but a selection of pieces from the paper published subject to any future whims of its editors or their lawyers. Despite Linehan’s claims, this is not what an archive is about. The basic definition of an archive is that it is a collection of original documents held in the custody of individuals whose basic aim is “to hand on to future generations the documents confided to [them]”.

This means that archivists view any alterations to an archive as unethical, not matter what the reason is. This is because archival material represents the raw material upon which historical narratives are built. For instance, Kate’s piece might be useful for future narratives regarding the portrayal of depression in the Irish media or the career of the Communications Clinic’s high-profile founder, Terry Prone.

Kate Fitzgerald's article as blacked out on the Irish Times web archive

In addition, the presence of alterations raises questions over the rest of the material held in an archive, particularly if the newspaper continues to resort to Stalinistic means to airbrush its history. How can anyone be certain of what each black box originally held or why it was removed? The precedent of blacking out material is quite dangerous because it could be used to disguise a multitude of sins. An embarrassing article about the brilliance of Sean FitzPatrick could easily be hidden behind a box. So could articles questioning the Taoiseach’s suitability for office. So could those referring to criminal convictions of prominent businesspeople. And so on.

Not coming to a TV near you: The Black and White Minstrel Show. (c) BBC

Other media institutions tend to deal with problematic material in a more mature fashion even if limits to its accessibility might need to be imposed. The BBC is highly unlikely to ever repeat an episode of the Black and White Minstrel Show but owns up to its existence and even explains why it is not widely distributed. In addition, copies of the programme are made available to those researchers, authors and historians who are involved in producing narratives on the representation of race on British television.

The relationship between the news media and its audience involves a significant element of trust, particularly for newspapers such as the Irish Times which seek to morally elevate themselves above the rest of the pack. Linehan’s blog does nothing to address reader concerns regarding the apparent manipulation of the newspaper’s online archive and the ensuing loss of trust that this has created. I suspect that the only way of mending this trust is for the Irish Times to cease marketing its online services as an archive and to deal with issues such as those raised by the Kate Fitzgerald affair as other media institutions do – in as straightforward and honest a way as possible.

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The Irish Times likes mentally ill people. It’s their best friend. But it doesn’t trust them.

The editor of the Irish Times, Kevin O’Sullivan, obviously has shares in JCB as his latest response to the Kate Fitzgerald affair indicates that he has no intention of ceasing to dig a hole for himself and his paper until he reaches Australia.

Last month, the Irish Times censored and then apologised for an anonymous piece it published calling for greater understanding of depression among employers after the author was identified as Kate Fitzgerald, a PR executive with the Communications Clinic, a firm with links to RTE, the Catholic Church and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The apology, issued after complaints from the Communications Clinic, referred to significant factual errors in Kate’s piece and also undisclosed addition information from the managing director of her employer, PR man Anton Savage (although the Irish Times can’t bring themselves to naming him). Given the Communications Clinics own claims of mastery of the dark arts of PR, it is surprising that the Irish Times were sufficiently convinced of the accuracy of this information to publish an apology without contacting her family or friends.

Anyway, O’Sullivan has now backed himself into a corner and now appears to be mounting a defence which is in breach of his newspaper’s apparent editorial policy on mental health issues.

At a meeting earlier this week with Kate’s parents, O’Sullivan claimed that even though the paper had publicly claimed there were factual errors in Kate’s account, it didn’t mean that it was calling her a liar. The obvious interpretation of this defence is that the Irish Times’ defence is that Kate was a mentally unstable fantasist who dreamt up all the issues she had with the Communications Clinic.

This sits very badly with his claims that the newspaper has “a long-standing policy of encouraging a more open approach within society to the reality of suicide”. Such an approach would naturally entail challenging the stigma and erroneous beliefs surrounding suicide. But O’Sullivan’s defence essentially relies on some of the worse and most stigmatising stereotypes about people with mental illness – that they are unstable, untrustworthy and have a tenuous grip on reality.

In addition, his handling of the affair has raised questions over his newspaper’s ability to champion society’s underdogs against the forces of the establishment or to even achieve the basic task of holding the establishment to account.

Despite O’Sullivan’s weasel words, it is becoming clear that the only reason why the Irish Times has consistently bowed to the Communications Clinic on this issue is because of its political influence. When challenged by Kate’s parents to pinpoint the factual inaccuracies in Kate’s piece, O’Sullivan was unable to reply. The fact is that there don’t appear to have been any.

We now know that the Irish Times has placed a price on its integrity and the Communications Clinic was able to meet it. The one remaining mystery is what the price was. Was it an exclusive interview with the Taoiseach, who is advised by the company’s founder Terry Prone? Was it soft coverage from the station broadcaster, RTE, whose board is chaired by Tom Savage, who is also the Communications Clinic’s chairman? Or did O’Sullivan want to ensure that his writers regularly appeared on the Anton Savage’s national radio show? Or was it something else? Will we ever find out? 

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Heil to that, Max! The Irish Times guide to defamation

I haven’t visited the Kate Fitzgerald saga for a while but seeing as The Irish Times’ editor, Kevin O’Sullivan, is due to meet her parents tomorrow over the censoring of her final words, I decided that this observation might be quite timely.

What is the bigger crime for a newspaper to commit – to falsely accuse somebody of being a Nazi or to annoy some PR consultants? I had always assumed that it was the former but The Irish Times has shown me the error of my ways in its recent handling of the Kate Fitzgerald affair. Let’s compare the cases….

Max Mosley

Personality

Terry Prone
Former Formula 1 boss, road safety campaigner, recipient of Légion d’honneur

Who?

Former TV Presenter, PR Consultant, government adviser
The Irish Times implied that Mosley was a Nazi sympathiser in an article which included the phrase “Heil to that, Max”. (September 11, 2010)

The Claim

That one article read in conjunction with another might suggest that her company may not have been fully understanding to a depressed employee.
False

Veracity

Unclear
47 days

Speed of apology

7 days
Upon receipt of a solicitors letter

Circumstances

Upon a complaint from Prone’s company

Still available
(see above)

Web publication

Original article blacked out of Irish Times website

It seems pretty clear from the above evidence that the Irish Times obviously regards falsely alleging that someone is a Nazi sympathiser is far less serious than upsetting Terry Prone. I wonder whether Kevin O’Sullivan will illuminate the thinking behind this point at his meeting with the Fitzgeralds, whose dead daughter’s reputation was sacrificed to placate Prone and her company, the Communications Clinic.

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An open letter to Kevin O’Sullivan

Note I have fixed a slight grammatical error since I originally posted this – it can be hard to be coherent while emotional

To Kevin O’Sullivan, editor, the Irish Times

Dear Mr O’Sullivan,

I don’t normally conduct my correspondence in public but in this case I feel compelled to make an exception to highlight how you have betrayed my friend, Kate Fitzgerald, and her memory through the actions of your newspaper over the past week.

Despite what your article implies, I am not motivated by a desire for retribution. Such an exercise would be futile because I doubt that any of us will ever know why Kate decided to take her own life.

My actions are solely motivated by a value that Kate held dear –integrity. This attribute is one that your newspaper appears to be unfamiliar with, judging by your attempts to censor Kate’s final words and then, on Saturday, to attack her good name.

Although your newspaper claims – indeed continues to claim – that it holds integrity dear, events of the past week have demonstrated that, in reality, it is beholden to vested interests with a side order of cowardice.

This yellow streak is so pronounced that when you published Saturday’s apology, you couldn’t bring yourselves to publish Kate’s name. It is so intense that you, the editor of the newspaper, cannot even name the interest that your newspaper is beholden to. Can the name of Kate’s employers, the Communications Clinic, really be that hard to write?

Indeed, you are so committed to protecting this company that you have deliberately sought to muddy the waters by falsely claiming that Kate had alleged in her article that her friends had failed to support her in her fight against depression. This falsehood has caused all of us much grief over the past couple of days: from the onset of her illness, those close to Kate sought to do everything in their power to support her through it and get her the necessary treatment.

In general, I can only conclude that your newspaper’s claim to act with sensitivity when handling stories such as Kate’s is some form of elaborate sick joke. You attacked Kate’s integrity on the very day that her friends gathered at Dublin City University to remember her contribution to their lives.

Although you claim to have held Kate’s family at the forefront of editorial decision-making during this sad affair, you conspicuously failed to inform them that you were publishing an apology that would defame their dead daughter. But then again, we both know as journalists that they had no comeback – under Irish law, you can’t defame the dead and Kate could hardly exercise her right of reply, could she?

There aren’t sufficient words to express the pain that your actions over the past week have caused Kate’s family and friends. When we should be grieving the loss of a friend and mourning the fact that she never achieved her full potential, we are instead battling to preserve her good reputation and ensure that her final message to the world is heard.

Although her case appears to have triggered a useful public discussion on suicide, her voice has effectively been silenced through your acts. It is impossible to access her original message – what remains on your website are a sorry appendage robbed of its sense. Other media outlets are unwilling to discuss key aspects of her story because the nature of your apology means that they have become toxic in a legal sense.

Although I do not believe in the value of retribution, I do believe in rehabilitation. The Irish Times still has the opportunity to reawaken its dormant sense of integrity and fairness and honour Kate’s memory. You still have the power to republish Kate’s final words in their original form. You are still capable of admitting your mistakes and apologising for the pain that they have caused.

Kate never realised her full potential but she did leave us with a powerful final public statement that may allow us to remove the stigma surrounding depression so that others may escape it and go on to achieve their goals. Do you really want to be remembered as the newspaper editor that fought to silence it?

Yours Sincerely,
Ken Griffin

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How to complain to the Irish Times

A few people have asked me over the past day to provide them with pointers as to how to officially complain about the treatment of Kate Fitzgerald and her final words by the Irish Times.

It goes without saying that those who are concerned about the newspaper’s handling of the affair should stop buying the title and continuing placing public pressure on it through means such as twitter and Facebook. But for those of you who want to take it further, here is a brief guide to the process.

There are three potential avenues of complaint: the Irish Times itself, the Irish Times trust and the independent Press Ombudsman. You can complain to the Irish Times and the members of the Irish Times trust directly but you must have sent a letter of complaint to the Irish Times and received a response from the newspaper before you can approach the Ombudsman.

Writing to the Irish Times
The most effective way of registering a complaint with a newspaper is by post. In my experience, emails and phone calls still don’t get treated as seriously as a good old-fashioned letter.

The letter should be addressed to:
Kevin O’Sullivan,
The Editor,
The Irish Times,
PO BOX 74,
Tara Street, Dublin 2.

The letter should politely and concisely outline your concerns about the Irish Times’ handling of the issue. Potential areas of complaint could involve the re-editing of Kate’s article and nature of its apology to the Communications’ Clinic.

After outlining your complaint, you should ask the newspaper to take a course of action, such as issuing a retraction of the apology or ask it to explain in detail why it re-edited Kate’s article and what elements it believes weren’t factual.

Writing to the Irish Times Trust
The Irish Times has an unusual ownership structure and the newspaper’s operations are theoretically overseen by the Irish Times Trust, a body which aims to ensure that the newspaper’s operates in an independent manner and doesn’t fall unduly over the influence of, for example, a PR company. The current members of the trust are listed here.

I would recommend that concerned readers should approach the members of the trust independently, express their concerns and ask them for a commitment to raise the issue at the next meeting of the trust. Remember that the trust is only an overseer and would have had no role in the editorial decisions which culminated in the desecration of Kate’s memory.

This is what you get when you attempt to view the Irish Times online guide to complaining to the ombudsman.

The Press Ombudsman
The Irish Times’ web page detailing the process of raising concerns about its publication to the Press Ombudsman is non-functional at the moment. But the basic procedure is that you can approach the Ombudsman if you complain in writing to the Irish Times and are dissatisfied with their response.

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The Irish Times speaks (in triplicate)!

Remember Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? It appears that the Irish media has its equivalent in the Irish Times, which managed to publish no fewer than three contradictory and hypocritical statements yesterday as it sought to satisfy its readers and a PR company regarding the Kate Fitzgerald affair.

Kate was a PR consultant who killed herself just after submitting an anonymous piece to the Irish Times pleading for employers to show more understanding towards staff with depression. The revelation of her identity last week has led to a pretty squalid affair where the newspaper has sought to suppress key elements of her message to satisfy her employers, the Communications Clinic.

The first message, an apology published in the newspaper, was clearly aimed at the PR company. To put it bluntly, it portrayed Kate as a fantasist who had written false allegations about her treatment at the hands of her employers.

The second, aimed at the mob rightly baying for the newspaper’s blood on Facebook, suggested that the newspaper supported Kate’s message and that its treatment in the newspaper was “consistent with a long standing policy on the part of The Irish Times to encourage a more open approach within society to the reality of suicide and to provide a forum for debate about it and related issues”.

The irony of this second missive is that the Irish Times have been far from open in this affair: it secretly re-edited Kate’s article after complaints from the Communications Clinic and only confessed under immense pressure from her friends. It has also sought to kill off the debate on employer’s attitudes to depression provoked by Kate’s article by dismissing her as a fantasist whose article contained “significant assertions… [where] were not factual”.

The third message of the day from the Irish Times, however, really took the biscuit when it came to hypocrisy. In it, the paper’s online editor Hugh Linehan, stated that the Irish Times’ comments to date had been limited due to the “highly sensitive nature of this story for the people involved” and that its response “should be measured and be published at the right time”.

This is a bit rich from a newspaper which had just accused a dead woman of being a liar as her friends came together to remember her and the impact that she had on their lives.

My only conclusion from all these mixed messages is that the Irish Times is either (a) staffed by fools and cowards; (b) staffed by people who take their readers for fools; or (c) a bunch of hypocrites. No doubt the newspaper will respond in triplicate as it attempts to cover all its bases.

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