Tell the truth and damn the torpedoes

The mere fear that they will not get other work keeps many Irish journalists in line and silences dissent, whether in print or on air. By Philip O'Connor.

"I'm a freelancer, I can't afford to get involved in this discussion" - journalist Sinéad Ryan on Tonight with Vincent Browne.

Monday's Tonight... show dealt with, among other things, the subject of media ownership in Ireland and how it affects the public discourse. The elephant in Ireland's (news) room in this regard is of course Denis O'Brien, and once his name was mentioned, it got very quiet. Sinéad Ryan headed straight for the emergency exit of the debate, saying "I'm a freelancer, I can't afford to get involved in this discussion," prompting me to tweet that "this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is wrong with Irish media."

The first thing that stuck out with Ryan's unguarded comment was her unwillingness to call it as she sees it. Essentially she is saying that she's not prepared to put her head above the parapet to protect her columns and other income streams. In other fields that might be OK, but as a working journalist who makes their living commenting on Irish society via Irish media (as she was doing on the show), I find it extremely worrying.

The second thing that sticks out is that her fears obviously come from somewhere - was she worried that, if she criticised O'Brien, she would be disbarring herself from other paid media work? If so, that points to a staggeringly serious problem at the heart of Irish society and democracy.

The problem is that editors and owners apparently don't even have to crack the editorial whip over journalists like Ryan - the mere fear that they will not get other work keeps them in line and stops them from dissenting in print or on air. In effect, influence is exerted as much with the cheque book as it is with the editorial brief.

Which brings us to the third problem - the lack of diversity in Irish media, either in terms of ownership or tone of voice. Should a journalist like Ryan fall foul of a media mogul, her options are severely limited.

If, against all odds, she, Sam Smyth or Tom McGurk did turn out to be some sort of raving left-wing lunatics, they'd have a hard time finding an outlet willing to pay them regularly for their opinions - even if they did, Irish media don't pay very well (if at all), and they'd scarcely be able to fill their diaries in the way they do today. Though I find Ryan's timid attitude to her journalism to be unappealing, her fears are far from unfounded.

For my own part, I am in a somewhat less vulnerable position, in that I work for Irish, Swedish and international media - I enjoy a diversity that few of my colleagues in Ireland have. That said, I don't hesitate to criticise politicians, organisations or individuals when it's called for, in whatever medium - if I didn't, I wouldn't be doing my job properly.

Ryan can take heart from her host during the debate on Monday night's show. By now Vincent has fallen foul of just about every media outlet in the country, yet he remains a respected and sought-after voice in our media - something we need more rather than less of.

Our Man in Stockholm