Journalism (Michael Commane O.P)
My first link with the world of newspapers was in the late 1950s when my uncle, John D Hickey, would come back to my aunt’s house in Thurles having covered a Munster final. He had to file his report back to Abbey Street and I was given the job of turning the handle on the telephone to get through to the operator to call Independent Newspapers in Dublin.
Ever since Sister Helen Mary invited me to give this talk on the media I have been amazed at the number of articles in the Irish newspapers on media affairs. Indeed at one stage I began keeping newspapers that carried articles on the media but soon realised that I would quickly run out of space if I were to keep all the newspapers that carried relevant articles.
I have been working as a journalist since 1998. Let me stress, my area of competency is with the print media. I am not terribly familiar with radio and television. I do some work with pitching stories to local radio stations and I had column on Radio Kerry for about 12 months. When the late Fr Paul Hynes was editor of Intercom he asked me to do a piece for him about my experience of the church in Germany. The previous summer I had cycled from Ostend to the parish where I was working. It was between the cities of Frankfurt-am-Main and Wuerzburg. When it appeared I was so excited as it was the theme of the cover page, which showed a picture of the cathedral in Cologne. Then later Tom Jordan asked me to edit ‘Far and Near’. I cannot express to you how I enjoyed doing that. It was at the beginning of the new technology. And I did the lay out and a parishioner in St Saviour’s did the graphics. I would mail the copy-ready disk to the printers in Cork O’Learys. And if I missed the post I would cycle up to Heuston Station and put it on the mail train to Cork. Mail trains have gone and when did anyone last use a floppy disk?
In 1997 I went back to school and did a post graduate course in journalism at DIT. From there I spent three months working in The Irish News in Belfast, then six months at the Newry Democrat. I saw an ad in the Sunday Independent for a journalist at the Kerryman and got the job. I spent the next six years working as a sub editor in Tralee at the Kerryman. They were great years. I cannot express to you how happy I was there, how happy I was that I was working for Independent News and Media – doing a mix of jobs laying out pages and writing a column. I loved it and miss it terribly.
There is no job in the world as good as being a newspaperman or woman. Being a journalist is great fun and a great honour too. Driving back to Castlegregory in West Kerry on a summer’s evening with the sun in my face I would say out loud. Michael you work on a newspaper. While there I was also property editor – God love us and letters editor too. A very tricky job as so much libel can happen on that page, especially in a regional paper.
Libel has to do with the written word, slander with the spoken word. The broad definition of libel is that if in the common estimation of the ordinary person someone’s character is unjustly damaged then we have libelled that person.
These days I write a column twice a month for INM regionals that’s 13 Irish regional newspapers and I also write a little column once a month for the Irish Times. I have a readership of close to a million. I work in the press office of Concern Worldwide.
The primary function or purpose of newspapers is to make money for their shareholders. That’s good business. They are serving their customers and if they don’t practise good business, people will not buy their product. There is always the danger that they be taken over by elites – the really mega rich. Government might be tempted to intervene. I don’t believe they have an anti church agenda. Maybe there are people who see them as opinion formers and leaders. But they are not. Their job is to tell the story. We could argue that point: The Guardian tells a different story than The Times or Telegraph. But have you ever noticed how journalists move from one newspaper to another and it’s a seamless change.
But it is also important to stress that we all see reality through our own eyes. Can there be such a thing as a completely objective ‘story telling. We all see reality through our own eyes. Have you ever watched Press TV?
I don’t believe there is a newspaper conspiracy against the church. Yes, owners of newspapers and journalists are angry with the church and of course they express their anger with the institutional church. There is one thing journalists hate and that is humbug and they perceive the leadership of the church to be past masters in the art of humbug.
During the war in Vietnam Richard Nixon once said, “it would be so much easier to run this war in a dictatorial way, kill the journalists and carryon the war”. Nixon hated the media with a passion. If people hate the media, it’s important to ask, why?
In June in The Irish Times Vincent Browne dedicated a column to explaining how the media is biased against working class people and shows a bias in favour of the rich and famous – the people who help sell newspapers. He compared the coverage the murder of Breda Waters in January 2011 received compared to the coverage that the murder of Michaela McAreavey received. He argues sales and ratings are what it’s all about. The Waters murder case is on at present in Ennis. Who knows about it? Whereas the McAreavy trial had journalists in Mauritius for weeks. There is a great parable there. I don’t believe the media is anti church and even if it is, it is not per se but rather by being so they believe they can sell more newspapers. So often one hears Catholics complain that such and such a story gets no coverage because it is a good news Catholic story and the media try to silence it. The only reason it does not get coverage is because the media does not think it will sell papers.
We are not at all as important as we think we are. And remember, whether we like it or not, good news is no news. And I know that first hand. I work in the press office in Concern where I spend my day trying to pitch stories to newspapers. Thousands of people might be dying in Sub Saharan Africa and we have a graphic account from an eyewitness. Yet the newspapers will most likely go with some ephemeral topic that is forgotten tomorrow. And don’t think that’s the sole prerogative of the tabloid press.
This year Concern is spending €160 million in the 25 countries where we are working and we are spending €500,000 on our communications this year in Ireland so that we can sell our story to the Irish public in as accurate and attractive a package as possible.
After the inquiry into the Prime Time Investigates libel on Fr Kevin Reynolds it was much bandied about that RTE suffered from the disease of Group-think. I have no doubt it does. But we all suffer that particular ailment and I think no one more so than right wing groups within the church. They genuinely believe that the media is out to get them. I believe they are wrong.
The newspaper industry is in serious crisis – maybe that is something it shares with the institutional church. Modern technology means that newspapers are in a daily battle to keep abreast of the latest developments in social media. In the last few months INM newspapers have introduced new technology that allows sub editors to lay out pages in any location in the company network. It means for example that The Kerryman can be laid out in Wexford, Sligo or Drogheda.
Last month in Australia three top editors at the Fairfax Media Group resigned, sending gasps through the newsrooms of the country’s two oldest broadsheets, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age. The London based Independent newspaper stopped printing and distributing its daily and Sunday titles in Ireland in July.
There are things going on in journalism which as Dominicans we need to understand. Print journalism is with very few exceptions losing money hand over fist. The internet has taken advertising and circulation. Staff is being cut, and quality is suffering. Worse than that there is cut throat competition between surviving print outlets. And that means that corners are being cut, and quality suffers even more.
Why send a skilled photographer and reporter to deal with a complex problem when you can get a vivid albeit one-sided view of it by recording the Joe Duffy show on radio and adding in some – probably fictional quotes.
If they can pick a good salacious story up off the web [far too often] they will do it. It costs money to do their own research. It costs money to send journalists to do stories, it costs money to send photographers to events. Most regional newspapers now have no staff photographers. Here let me stop to say something important.
Warning: if the person quoted is not identified, you are not getting the whole truth. Far too often the person quoted is only identified as a ‘source’. Some popular publications have discovered the way to retain readers is to scare the life out of them. So there is a barrage of the horrors that immigrants bring stories, of hopelessly exaggerated crime stories as the
Daily Beast tries to out sell the Daily Brute, in convincing readers that they will wake up dead in their beds if something is not done, lock up whoever the latest hate figure is or send them home. Then TV takes its cue from print, and constructs compelling narratives which reinforce the half truths. And up pops your politician in waiting – saying vote for me and I will rid you of these pestilences. And politics then joins the race to the bottom started by the print media.
That’s an apocalyptic and crude version of the damage to politics and public discourse caused by the problems of the print media.
No doubt many of you have followed the Leveson Inquiry. It could happen here. I’m not sure I feel as smug about the Irish Media as does John Horgan. Mr Horgan spoke at the Leveson Inquiry last week. Remember that the Irish Sun is published by News International which publishes the Sunday Times in Ireland. The Irish Daily Mail is owned by the UK Daily Mail, and 50 per cent of the Irish Star is owned by Richard Desmond who refuses to join the existing flawed UK regulation scheme.
You can be quite sure that phones have been hacked in Ireland, and each one of you should change the pin number on your mobile phone today if you have not already done so.
Talking about politicians – they have realised that newspaper staff is cut to the bone. So if they have a well-written short story they know it has a great chance of being published. That’s why politicians use journalists to write their stories for them. Just look at the number of former journalists Government ministers use in their press offices.
We should also know that and be doing similar tricks. We need people with media skills who can put across our values in a convincing way. Look at how former Mountjoy governor John Lonergan put a human face on the prison service. He answered questions, told the truth in plain language and people trusted him. Do we have a John Lonergan in the Dominican Order? Do we?
People have no idea the sweat and tears that goes into producing a newspaper. It is hectic frenetic, insane but above all the most satisfying job in the world. Every Tuesday in the Kerryman I began work at 09.30 and worked until midnight. Did you know that INM made a decision to stop using full points in all abbreviations in all its publications? Anyone guess why? To save ink and hence save money. It’s money, stupid Clinton.
Do you know what papers INM own in Ireland? They own 13 regional newspapers.Sligo, Dundalk/Drogheda, Wexford, Wicklow, Bray, Kerry and Cork. The Sunday Independent, The Irish Independent, The Evening Herald, The Sunday World, 49 per cent of The Irish Daily Star, Ireland’s Own, The Belfast Telegraph. Most regional newspapers are owned by INM, Crosby group, Johnston Press and the Alpha Newspaper Group owned by John Taylor – Lord Kilclooney
The NUJ will say it is not a good idea that regional newspapers are owned by four large conglomerates.
Last month the Offaly Independent closed and NUJ’s Seamus Dooley pointed out that what had happened in the newspaper trade has been a dark day for journalism. He pointed out that local newspapers were never a cash cow but during the years of the Celtic Tiger, big business moved in and bought up most of the regional media. The Clare Champion is still in family hands.
The Leinster Leader has halved its circulation in the last five years. Johnston Press bought it and if they were to recoup their money they would have to put a cover price of €10 on the paper.
The crass obeisance that Irish society gave to the church in Ireland for all my childhood and youth was unusual, to say the least. Certainly not healthy.
Go to your local library and look through old editions of your local newspapers and see how the newspapers were cap in hand with the church. And newspapers always capture the mood of the time. Just look at The Kerryman I have here from 1953. That was Ireland.
I think it is worth noting that the Vatican Council ran from 1962 to 1965 and during that time, RTE television was born. So this year we are celebrating 50 years of the Council and RTE Television. Maybe some of you have read Robert Kaiser’s definitive work on the Vatican Council. In that book Kaiser clearly and in the most descriptive way possible explains that when it comes to being media savvy in any sort of normal way the Vatican was lost. It seemed the Vatican had not got the tools to deal with the modern media. Redemptorist Francis X Murphy, who used the pseudonym Xavier Rynne revealed the inner workings of the Vatican Council to The New Yorker. He is credited with setting the tone for the popular view of the council, depicting it as conservative versus liberal.
But it is worth noting that the first two documents of Vatican II, from 1963, were the ones on liturgy and on social communication. Vivian Boland said to me that the church has always been very conscious and aware of methods of communication, uses them but also sees itself in rivalry with other ‘communicators’. But why the rivalry? The church’s mission is to disseminate the Word of God in the here and now – the world in which we live.
Pope JohnXXlll saw in his election the commission to love the world in a special way, to minister to it and serve it. The French Dominican Chenu said that the love of truth was more efficacious, more true in the intrepid witness of dialogue than in the protectionism of interdicts and defensive bulwarks. I saw in a recent edition of the Tablet Archbishop DiNoia says it’s okay to criticise Chenu, Congar and deLubac now. Karl Barth spoke about a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
So why is the church so scared of an open and free media? Last month they appointed Opus Dei man, Greg Burke to a newly created position of media adviser. Mr Burke has been working for Fox News for the last 10 years! Fox is owned by the Murdoch [News] Corp. And Rupert Murdoch is a Papal Knight. He received his knighthood in 1998, the year before he married his third wife, Wendi Deng. In June Rowan Williams commented how poor the Anglican Communion is in disseminating the good news stories it has.
The Vatican Council came and gave a great opportunity to people like Austin Flannery, Sean Mac Reamonn, John Horgan and Louis McRedmond. They were given the opportunity of reporting the workings of the Council, its reports and procedures. They were also able to convey the gossip and magic that surrounds the Vatican. It was a great opportunity for newspapers. But it also allowed some aspects of theological discussion to appear on Irish newspapers. And Austin Flannery used the opportunity to perfection. He was there at the right moment and he deserves great praise for what he did. Archbishop McQuaid set up his Radharc team and the Dominicans sent off Rom Dodd and TP McInerney to study radio and TV. When writing the obituary on TP for the Irish Times I contacted Claire Duignan MD of RTE Radio – her respect and praise for Tom really struck me.
But the Council document on Communications was actually very different from the ecumenical spirit and practice of Vatican ll. It deals primarily with one church rather than with Christianity at large; it relied on outdated Catholic misconceptions rather than upon creative achievements of the secular mass communication profession and practice.
It falls far short of the high standard established by other documents. One Catholic editor at the time said about it, “it is not only pre-aggiornamento but definitely pre-Pius Xll. Isn’t ironic that back then a commentator said that the Decree might one day be cited as a classic example of how Vatican ll failed to come to grips with the world around it.
Of course the Council had its limitations but its efforts meant that the church could never go back to the old ways. Or could it? But certainly it allowed the media to have a less exaggerated opinion or understanding of the church.
Anyone who has been following the current Vatileaks one has to be struck by the tone and the language that the Vatican uses. I for one find their tone alienating. Cardinal Bertone has spoken of a conspiracy against the church. I’m sure there’s not, but even if there is, to use the word ‘conspiracy’ is immediately setting a bad tone. Time never stands still and certainly the media carnival never stands still. It is constantly moving from one story to another. News needs to be new. It is voracious for news and sensation. And that too applies to the newspapers of record.
And what better sensational stories, than what has been going on in Mother Church year after year. The mix of the secrecy of the church, its stringent views on all matters dealing with sexuality, makes it so inviting for newspapers.
And may I say the church’s apparent incompetence when it comes to dealing with the media has left the media with no alternative but to behave as it does. The church considers itself above the ephemeral world of newspapers and that’s why we are where we are. Never forget that the newspaper of today is used tomorrow as fish and chip wrapper. Of course it is an ephemeral world, a moving vision but it is a medium that people have to use and the church has seldom if ever used it in any sort of professional way.
The church always and ever seems to give the impression that it knows best. Newspapers hate that and so will make it their business to take them down a peg or two.
I have to admit that I have been ‘damaged’ by journalism. If Helen Mary and I were walking down the road and we came on a road accident, I imagine Helen Mary’s first reaction would be what to do. Mine might well be to ask where are they from and is there a story in it.
I think what is happening with the Catholic press at present is not at all helpful to the long-term mission of the church. I sometimes get the impression that if it could go back to the old days it would jump at the opportunity. It’s the small things that catch them out.
Regularly, indeed far too often the Irish Catholic will publish photographs. Every cleric will have his name and title and not a name or title for the non clerics in the same photo. Every week I notice they do that. When I was with The Kerryman a picture could simply not appear without the name of every single person noted. I spotted a religious publication recently and every single picture was captionless. That is simply insulting to the reader and crass unprofessionalism.
Take the simplest mistake – how often do we use the word church as if the Catholic church is the only church in the world? Think for a moment of the insult and hurt to people of other Christian denominations. We don’t need to say Catholic church every time, but the first mention in any piece of writing or broadcasting must include it – good manners alone requires that.
I believe we priests have terribly inflated ideas about our own skills. And guess what newspaper editors notice that. Newspapers owe us nothing, nothing at all. The church really needs to come down off its high horse and realise that.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin’s Russia they are in the game of attempting to control media and get media to say nice things about them. We are the church telling the story of the marginalised. Of course none of us wants to read bad news about ourselves in the newspaper and anyone with a grain of sense would do all in her or his power to keep bad news out of the paper.
When I finish this talk some of you might well say that I have been too harsh. Personally, I think I am being mild mannered and avoiding all hyperbole. And yes I know my long-suffering superiors have me down as a fully-paid up member of the Awkward Squad.
There are some things I have learned over the years. When you send something to a newspaper it must be well written, concise. Write it in such a way that after one paragraph the sub editor wants to read on. Presume nothing. One of the great skills I learned as a sub editor was to be able after the first paragraph to know whether or not the person could write.
Be clear, Re read it many times, using the scalpel generously. As a school teacher, I have noticed the improvement students make when they re-read their essays, especially, weaker students. I gave grinds to a young boy who is dyslexic and re-reading work has transformed the boy. Don’t think that your words are the most important and greatest words ever written. Presume nothing. Don’t be pompous. Watch out for the little things that might indeed prove far more important than you think. For example, why upper case Priest, Bishop, Cardinal? Only upper case in titles, Doctor Murphy, Bishop Murphy, Cardinal Daly.
Have you ever made it your business to get a copy of a newspaper’s style guide? Have you ever checked out The Guardian’s Style Guide on the web? Use simple everyday words. Be truthful. And when you have sent your story by email make sure to follow it up with a telephone call. I also think it is important for an order or congregation to have a dedicated person who will deal with the media. And by that I mean someone who is a good networker and gets to know journalists.
In the past the networking might have been with editors as it was a power and authoritative relationship. But today it’s important that we get to know the journalists on the ground. I wonder when last did an Irish Dominican go for lunch or coffee with a journalist.
In my job in the press office in Concern I deal with the regional Irish media and I cannot stress the importance of networking. You cannot imagine how easy my job is as a result of knowing journalists in newspapers. I have never seen the Irish Media Contacts Directory in any of our priories. I find that strange for an order that says it is dedicated to preaching the Word.
I think when it comes to dealing with the media and getting across the message of the Gospel it is essential we are gentle and kind, easy with other people. Far too often we give the silly impression of being proud and arrogant, knowing it all. And that’s so strange because we all know so little about God. But I remain convinced that the Church has an amazing privilege and indeed obligation always to stay engaged with the world.
A Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, or at least the electronic versions.
Are we as Dominicans convinced of our message. What is our message? Surely it is one of Good News and hope in a country, in a world that so needs hope. Do we believe in the importance of our story? In my job in Concern I hear how people see that our work is worthy but maybe dull. How do we go that extra step to show that our work is yes worthy but also dynamic?
The Good News surely is worthy and dynamic.
What a privilege it is to tell the world.
Michael Commane O.P