Bertie's media-conspiracy theory: self-protection, paranoia, or does he have a point?

Claims about grand conspiracies encompassing the entirety of the media are normally the domain of those decidedly on the margins of political life. For example, Morgan Stack, who ran on an “Irish 9/11 truth” ticket in the recent election, receiving 116 votes, frequently complains of media censorship by shadowy forces.

Thus, it's a little bit surprising when the Taoiseach chooses the moment of his electoral triumph to denounce a media conspiracy against him, where journalists who played down Fianna Fáil's electoral prospects had been “told what [they] have to say and write”.  Curiously, he expressed some sympathy with the ethics of the journalists who had acted as the minions, saying he “wouldn't expect any right-thinking journalist with a very good salary and expenses to throw that away”.

Although Ahern's diatribe against the media concentrated on a small selection of headlines which had inaccurately suggested that a Fianna Fáil “meltdown” in the election was likely, his feelings of media victimisation undoubtedly stretch back to the “Bertiegate” scandal which first reared its head in September 2006, then reappeared at the start of the election campaign. To put it simply, the huge publicity given to a series of highly unusual payments which he had received in the 1990s and his none-too-convincing explanations for those payments was obviously none-too-pleasing to the Taoiseach. But was there anything to his claims?

On the one hand, claims of media plots are a standard means of defence for politicians who are caught with their hands in the greasy till. In the aftermath of the 1989 general election, when stories of irregular payments to figures within Charles Haughey's Fianna Fáil government first emerged, Ray Burke publicly attacked the anti-Fianna Fáil bias of the public service broadcaster and famously set out to “screw RTÉ” in his role as minister for communications.

Of course we now know that, at the time, both Haughey and Burke were engaged in wanton corruption. Nevertheless, the inherent complexity of financial dealings and the extraordinary difficulty in establishing whether any particular payment was in return for specific favours meant that the counter-attacks against media bias were sufficient to cloud the matter so that it took more than a decade for enough information to emerge to damn Haughey and Burke in the public eye.

On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that there is a notable disdain for Fianna Fáil within much of the Irish media. RTÉ published a quantative analysis of press coverage of the recent election campaign up until 21 May, which revealed that Fine Gael, Labour and the PDs received a disproportionate amount of press coverage relative to their size compared to Fianna Fáil, while Pat Rabbitte and Enda Kenny both attracted more coverage than Bertie Ahern. While the figures may have given Fianna Fáil some grounds for complaint, the bias against Sinn Féin was much more marked. They received a fraction of the coverage of both the Greens and the PDs, despite being significantly more popular than either.

So, how can we explain this imbalance in coverage? Did Bertie have a point when he claimed that journalists were being ordered to denigrate Fianna Fáil? The answer is almost certainly in the negative, for the mild hostility from sections of the media can easily be explained on a political level. The journalists who staff the more respectable media organs such as the Irish Times, the Independent and RTÉ, are generally drawn from the educated, professional, metropolitan middle classes and they often have an innate suspicion of the grubby populism of Fianna Fáil. The Irish Times in particular published several editorials in relation to Bertiegate which have expressed a barely-concealed disdain for the population.

Funnily enough, the perception of media snobbery has been a valuable ally to Fianna Fáil in pulling off the amazing feat of presenting itself as an anti-establishment party – despite the fact that it has been in power for the majority of the history of the state. And it certainly hasn't been without its media allies. In particular the Sunday Independent, the state's largest-selling newspaper, and other titles from Independent Newspapers serve as Fianna Fáil's media mirror image, backing Bertie to the hilt and ludicrously presenting themselves as somehow in opposition to “the media”. Thus, for example, Eoghan Harris, Brendan O'Connor and Kevin Myers all presented the election campaign as a victory for themselves over the media. And indeed the silliest of all such articles actually appeared in the Irish Times, where John Waters called for “the media, with the exception of Eoghan Harris and myself, to stand down en masse” – a truly terrifying prospect.