Independent media is an essential part of any free society, and is vital for keeping the political establishment in check. But how can journalists hold government politicians to account, when they’re all in bed together – sometimes literally?

In a recent video here at Gript, we exposed the fact that RTÉ, who are supposed to be impartial, have formally associated themselves with a group of highly partisan leftwing climate activists, calling their neutrality into question in a major way.

And towards the end of that video we mentioned that there were questions that needed to be asked about the links between the government and the mainstream media in this country.

In Ireland, we often throw around phrases like “golden circle” and “gravy train”, of course referring to the revolving door of careers, where people go from the media, to one of the big political parties, to big business, or some NGO or semi-state body or regulator, and then of course, the ultimate dream, if you’re really lucky, landing yourself in Brussels on a few hundred grand a year. It’s like an unofficial cursus dishonorem for Irish elites.

And most people in all of these sectors know each other. They’re part of the same cliques and social circles, and they hang out together in their spare time. Just look at RTÉ’s Séan O’Rourke, for example, being caught at the now infamous Golf Gate Dinner with all the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians.

But while we’re all aware that this happens, and it’s basically just an accepted part of our politics, few people know just how deep this rabbit hole stretches.

For example, media is supposed to hold the political establishment to account – it’s what we at Gript try to do every day. But just one glance at the government’s handsomely-paid retinue of political advisors, and you will see a hoard of former-journalists, media correspondents, radio presenters and the like.

For example, take Páraic Gallagher, who up until a few years ago was a Political Correspondent with Newstalk. Today, he is a special advisor to Fianna Fáil Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. Before him, that job was filled by Colette Sexton, who was a correspondent for the Sunday Business Post and the Times before landing her advisory role in the Department of Health.

Also working for Donnelly is Susan Mitchell, who was the deputy editor of the Business Post.

Another one is Chris Donoghue, who used to work as a Newstalk presenter, and is now a special advisor to the Táinaiste and Simon Coveney.

Or even Fiach Kelly, who was the deputy political editor of the Irish Times, until he was offered a job as a special adviser to Fine Gael Justice Minister Helen McEntee, which he took.

Take Margaret Ward, who was former foreign editor of RTÉ, and is now one of 8 highly paid advisors to Eamon Ryan.

Paul Melia was formerly the Environment Editor for the Irish Independent, until he went and became a policy advisor to Fine Gael Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy in 2019. Since then he’s become an advisor to the Fine Gael Minister for Transport, Hildegarde Naughton.

Sarah Barden of the Irish Times now works for Simon Harris, and Niall O’Connor of the Independent now works for Fine Gael’s Heather Humphreys. The list goes on and on, we could be here all day.

In fact, this is apparently a known phenomenon among members of the press – as the Irish Examiner reported, “It has become a recent tradition that each new government poaches from Ireland’s media pool.”

And bear in mind, some of these advisor positions go for as much as 180 grand a year – this is an extremely lucrative career path if you can get it.

Now let me be absolutely clear – I’m not casting any aspersions or allegations against these people as individuals. I don’t know them, I’ve never met them, and maybe some of them were terrific journalists and totally impartial. I’m not here to argue about their personal merits one way or the other, because this is a big picture issue. I’m just asking one question, and it’s a simple question: if journalists in this country know that there is potentially a juicy 6 figure salary waiting for them in the Department of the Taoiseach or the Department of Health if they play their cards right, do you think that will make them more or less likely to criticise the government in their reporting? Are you likely to bite the hand that may one day be feeding you?

Well, what do you think? Once this is established as a common career path for journalists, that could come with a salary of almost 200 grand a year, don’t you think it’s possible that journalists might start working towards that?

And so, when it comes to, on one hand, telling the public the truth about something that may piss off the ruling political class, or, on the other hand, preserving their future career prospects in a government department somewhere, I think it’s fair to ask whether there is a question mark over the entirety of Irish legacy media. Can you trust any mainstream journalist to cover the government and its policies fairly?

Especially when many of these publications are going cap in hand to the government asking to be bailed out, or happily accepting money from the EU on projects aiming to “to add legitimacy to European Parliament campaigns”. It seems hard to imagine that you would be eager to publicly criticise politicians that you want money off.

This applies to referenda and various trendy social issues too. For example, Irish Times journalist Una Mullally was one of the most vociferous voices in favour of same sex marriage during the 2015 referendum, and consequently she landed herself in a role overseeing the government’s official strategy for young LGBT people in Ireland at the Department of Youth Affairs.

So what’s the lesson here? If you say the right things and support the right causes as a journalist, there are jobs in it for you. And there is a non-zero chance that this fact could influence a journalist’s profession.

Advisers aside, just the relationships and familial links between some of these media figureheads and government politicians is astounding. And look, let’s be totally fair – of course you don’t choose who your family are. Your relatives’ choice in career is not within your control, and I fully accept that. I’m just saying the sheer volume of examples is a bit weird.

For example, we all know that RTÉ presenter Miriam O’Callaghan is the sister of Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan. We know that RTÉ’s strategic director, Rory Coveney, is the brother of Simon Coveney. And he was negotiating with the government on RTÉ’s behalf for more funding as recently as 2019:

“Senior RTÉ representatives met politicians or top Government officials on 14 occasions in the final four months of 2019, a period in which the deficit-stricken broadcaster campaigned for higher public funding. Director general Dee Forbes, or chairwoman of the broadcaster’s board Moya Doherty, were present at most of the meetings while, for others, Ms Forbes was represented by RTÉ director of strategy Rory Coveney.”

Bear in mind that during this time when Rory Coveney was lobbying the government for more money, his brother was the Táinaiste. Literally the deputy Prime Minister of the country. Again, I’m not making any comment about that one way or the other. I’m just saying it’s worth pointing out.

RTÉ’s Ryan Tubridy is a first cousin of Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews, and both of them are first cousins of Chris Andrews, a Sinn Féin TD.

Dr. Ronan Glynn, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, is married to Carla O’Brien, who is an RTÉ news presenter.

Hugh O’Connell of the Independent is married to Theresa Newman, who was a journalist herself until she became a parliamentary assistant to her sister, ex-Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell. She is also a sister of Fine Gael candidate Mary Newman. I could go on and on, there are reams of examples.

Again, the point here is not to single anyone out or cast aspersions on people or their motives. I don’t know any of these people personally and I don’t claim to know what type of people they are. Maybe some of them are lovely pillars of integrity for all I know. But these are all public figures, and as I’ve said already, it’s a little bit strange. Why is it that there appears to be an interconnected family tree of all the most elite people in our society? And what does that say about the independence of Irish media as a sector?

Before the election last year, Leo and Micheál were fighting over who was going to bail out the press faster.

And then of course, there is the classic Micheál quote: “Of course, the licence fee should not be cut. My position on that has been consistent for many many years, and the party position on that whole area around broadcasting has been very straight and upfront.”

So the politicians don’t hide how they feel about the media. The government, after setting up the Future Of Media Commission, now want to establish a taxpayer funded bailout of failing newspapers and journalists. And, if various media outlets asking the government for urgent financial help is any indication, these publications are all too happy to take the money.

There’s a very unusual link between the State and the Press in this country, and someone needs to start asking the important questions about how balanced a person can be while fraternising with government officials.