U-turn on Ahern raises questions about editorial independence

Following a meeting between Tony O'Reilly and Bertie Ahern in 2007 the Sunday Independent changed its attitude to Ahern completely - and yet we're asked to believe that "editorial was independent". By Vincent Browne.

Anne Harris, the editor of the Sunday Independent, had a cheesy piece in that newspaper on Sunday extolling the scrupulousness of the O’Reillys in maintaining a strict demarcation between their corporate interests and the editorial independence of editors.

The article began with an account of a lavish party at the O’Reilly Kildare mansion: “The invitation list was that eclectic mix that made a social gathering sing – pop stars, legal eagles, chat show hosts, editors, DJs, foreign presidents, finance mandarins, taoisigh past and present”. There was “a Gatsby glimmer”, she gushed.

Did she not recall that one of Denis O’Brien’s early and telling critiques of the O’Reillys was about the funding of just such bashes at the expense of Independent News and Media (INM) – i.e. using the funds of the shareholders for vanity revelries?

And did she wonder at all whether the presence of all these important glitzy people had anything to do with the O’Reilly media power and how it was used?

Anne Harris’s main point was that among the guests that Saturday night was Bertie Ahern and how there could have been a temporary embarrassment, for copies of the following morning’s Sunday Independent were on view and the lead story was a demand that Ahern resign. Tony O’Reilly, then the chief executive at INM, was unfazed. “Editorial was independent,” she asserted.

Curious that.

The first three and a half months of 2007, the year of a general election in May, the Sunday Independent engaged in a characteristically choreographed agenda – targeting Ahern and the Fianna Fáil-led government.

On 7 January 2007, on page one, was an opinion piece by columnist Brendan O’Connor, speculating what the media reaction would be had Enda Kenny received a load of money from businessmen while he was minister for finance (as Ahern had done).

Inside was a story headed, “Bertie snubs Miriam in Who’s Who” – Miriam being Ahern’s estranged wife.

There was another piece on jobbery and State boards, and an editorial on how the taxpayers were conned for the third time by the Ahern-led government.

On 14 January 2007, the newspaper highlighted a poll revealing nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not believe Ahern when he protested he would not form a government dependent on Sinn Féin support.

On 11 February a story on the thousands of euro of public monies being spent to fund media monitoring for Ahern.

On 18 February a lead story on how Fianna Fáil feared Ahern had “blundered” over election. On 4 March a headline: “Bertie sinks as house market goes under”.

On 25 March the headline: “Fianna Fáil resorts to auction politics to woo voters”. On 1 April: “Bertie U-turn wrong-foots ministers”.

Inside a story on how a close associate of Ahern made a fortune in 24 hours. On 8 April: “Ahern missed boat on election” and inside another headline: “Will Bertie’s new Haughey gene cost FF the next election?” On 15 April: “Ahern denies air trip with a case of cash” (on a trip to Manchester in 1995).

But then, suddenly, there was a compete volte-face. And no explanation.

On 22 April 2007, there was an exclusive facilitatory interview with Ahern on stamp duty “reform”.

On 29 April the Sunday Independent had an exclusive on the date of the election, supplied by their new pal Ahern. And, for good measure, it had another exclusive interview with Ahern, by the paper’s then editor, the late Aengus Fanning.

In the course of this there was not a single difficult question. Not a word about his personal finances, instead facilitatory stuff about inflation, stamp duty reform, health, Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland. Just one question about the Mahon tribunal: “Do you think the tribunal is worth the money?” to which Ahern replied: “As I’m involved, I’d better say nothing.”

On 6 May 2007, a front page story under the headline: “Most voters want Bertie as Taoiseach despite money issues”. On 13 May there was another interview with Ahern in which he spoke about his personal finances under the headline: “It’s all related to my judicial separation”. There was no challenge to his claims.

On 20 May 2007, the Sunday before the election, the headline was: “Bertie boosted in poll – blow for Fine Gael.” Another headline on the front page: “Media tried to scupper Bertie, claims loyal Miriam” (a reference to Ahern’s former wife) and inside: “Ahern personal finances not an election issue”.

So how come this spectacular turnaround? This could all be a compete coincidence, of course, but during the week that the extraordinary U-turn was undertaken – this was the week beginning 16 April 2007 – a private undisclosed meeting took place between Tony O’Reilly and Ahern, accompanied by Brian Cowen.

At a Fianna Fáil press conference during that election campaign, Cowen was asked about that meeting. He confirmed the meeting had taken place and refused to state what was discussed.

But the extraordinary feature of that was that immediately following the meeting the Sunday Independent changed its tack 100% on Ahern - and we are asked to believe that “editorial was independent”. {jathumbnailoff}


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