The History paper

There was a time, believe it or not, when I was a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of guy, putting together more of the Irish Times' education supplements than I care to think about counting.


Up until just about ten years ago, this meant I had the privilege of working with the late Christina Murphy, the paper's pioneering parental guru. She died, having worked throughout a long illness, in September 1996, and I can recall in the midst of those last points races and exam desks that she worried about the journalistic value and effect on teenagers of the growing hype. Indeed she spoke of her desire to team up with her Irish Independent equivalent, John Walshe, to agree a mutual non-aggression pact of sorts, with the aim of eventually scaling down the two papers' coverage of exam papers and college-entry strategies.

You don't need to be an exam student or parent to recognise that history took a rather different turn, with other media outlets happy to follow into the mire of commercialisation, exploitation and irrelevance. Another ridiculous landmark in that sad story came last week when papers gave over their front pages and broadcasters spent hours of precious time on a yarn about three boys kept out of a largely trivial exam (for that is what the Junior Cert has become, almost as meaningless for most of the people sitting it as it is for the national polity) because of their haircuts.



Barbers and barbarity

Sure, it was a good little yarn in a slow week for domestic news, with what looked like obvious injustice inflicted on the boys and a school principal cut out for the unseasonal role of pantomime villain. Media outlets and their audiences were not put under undue strain to locate where their sympathies might lie. But at the third interview on the subject in a single Morning Ireland programme, even concerned mammies and blade-one-wielding barbers would have been wondering whether there was perhaps any genuinely important news in the world.

As it happens, when this story "broke" I had just spent a couple of days in London, where a rather more serious assault on the civil liberties of two young men evoked nothing like similar sympathy from the local media. (There was a barber angle here too, with a neighbour telling the London Independent that they believed Mohammed Abdul Kahar and Abul Koyair endured a visit from 250 cops, a bullet and a week in prison because they were "Muslims with beards".)

Much of the British print media was nothing short of disgusting. Even, the Guardian was already casting grave doubts on the rationale for the raid, the Daily Mail was depicting Kahar's denials of any terrorist involvement as a case of sinister defiance. The page-one headline, "You won't find a thing", and the accompanying story suggested that the men's evil plot was so far advanced that they had moved their weapons elsewhere.



Remember to forget

This all went beyond the usual press credulousness toward lying police leaks. There was also a deliberate stoking of panic and of course a casual racism that readily assumes the worst about Muslims, and also assumes that most readers will feel the same. (Remember St Patrick's Cathedral?) Meanwhile, as predicted in Meejit 11 months ago, the London media was discovering with shock what it already knew for a few hours on 7/7 but chose quickly to forget: that the rescue services for the London bombs were not the super-competent, ultra-prepared crack units of subsequent reportorial pretence.

Sometimes, it seems as though journalism couldn't possibly function without massive bouts of amnesia. How many stories, for example, did you hear or read after Zarqawi's death that suggested that perhaps his peculiar barbarism had been able to take root in the previously unfertile soil of Iraq because, you know, that country had been invaded and was still being occupied by a massively powerful and murderous foreign military machine? Still counting? I didn't think so.

Richard Downes cheerfully reported his death on Morning Ireland and reached into his propaganda lexicon to describe Zarqawi as an "enemy of peace". The description is not entirely inapt, but clearly and dubiously associates the Jordanian's real-life enemies with "peace". We, and Iraq, should be so lucky.