Kinzen, and the consequences of Ireland’s chummy media

Here’s a statement of fact, based on personal experience: Aine Kerr is a lovely woman. Your columnist could not be said to know her well, but in several years working in politics and PR, yours truly had many interactions with the co-founder of Kinzen, who hails, as it happens, from just a few miles away from my own place of birth. We are of the same stock, Ms Kerr, and me. Our families know each other, vaguely.

Why does that matter? It matters because knowing somebody, even slightly, and having a high level of personal regard for them makes you, consciously or subconsciously, much less inclined to criticise them.

Kerr, and her Kinzen co-founder, Mark Little, are well known amongst journalists in Ireland, and, so far as we know, very well regarded. In RTE and the Irish Independent, respectively, they have many ex-colleagues. In other newspapers and broadcasters, political journalism is filled with people who worked with one or the other of them, interview them regularly, and move in similar social circles.

What’s more, the work they do is universally – if questionably – regarded as “valuable”. After all, their mission, at Kinzen, is to challenge the perceived twin evils of “misinformation on the internet” and “the rise of the far right”. Whatever it is they are doing, on a day-to-day basis, they are indisputably – in the eyes of most journalists – doing it for the greater good of the team.

That all said, let’s recap what we know about Aine Kerr, Mark Little, Kinzen, and the Department of Health, all of it thanks to the reporting of my colleague, Gary Kavanagh.

Over the past 18 months, Kinzen has been awarded at least three contracts by the Department of Health. We can confirm, at Gript, that at least one of these contracts was “awarded outside the normal tendering process” – that is to say, it did not go through the normal competitive process in which various companies compete against each other for a contract.

This is particularly significant because Aine Kerr, one of the founders of Kinzen, is married to Aodhán O’Riordáin, a Labour TD, and a former junior Minister at the… Department of Health. This is not to suggest any corruption, but to point out that in the normal course of events, one might expect the Department of Health and Government in general to be scrupulously careful about even the perception that contracts are awarded on a “who you know” basis. That does not appear to have happened here, nor is there any explanation for the apparent urgency in awarding these contracts to Kinzen.

We know that one of these contracts netted Kinzen at least €108,000 in consultancy fees. That specific contract was for social media monitoring and providing weekly “digests” to the Department. You can see all the work Kinzen produced for that money here, and judge for yourself whether it was worth it.

There is also a question, of course, about the appropriateness of the work. Over the course of their time working for the Department, Kinzen produced multiple reports of “misinformation” which they provided to the Department of Health who in turn, we understand, sent that “misinformation” on to social media companies, asking them to consider removing it. The problem, of course, is that much of what was flagged was not misinformation at all. You can read that story here.

Shortly after Gript broke that story, the Department’s contract with Kinzen was suddenly terminated. We do not know the reason why. Was it because of the Gript story, or because of underperformance, or because the contract was simply due to end and the Department saw no need to extend it? Nobody knows.

Gary Kavanagh asked the Department for all materials relating to the negotiation, and termination, of the contracts with Kinzen. The Department’s extraordinary answer is that all such records were “lost” as a result of the HSE hack. Which is at odds with logic, since that hack happened months before the Kinzen contract was actually terminated. Nevertheless, that is their position, and the Department is sticking to it.

It is an extraordinary story. And yet, one that has not appeared anywhere outside these pages. Not in the Irish Times. Or on RTE. Or in the Independent. It was flagged, the other day, in the Dáil by Deputy Carol Nolan, but this, once more, did not make any other media outlet:

Why? The facts, after all, are in the public domain, and not in dispute.

There are three possible explanations: The first: Nobody else thinks it is a story. That one does not really tally with the interest we have received, here at Gript, in the story.

The second: A reluctance to credit Gript, given the whiff of cordite that people go to great lengths to fan around this platform’s reputation. That’s possible, but in the end, who would care if some outlet simply ran the story and didn’t credit Gript at all?

Third: A reluctance to run a negative story about fellow journalists, and highly regarded journalists who are working to advance progressivism and combat the hated “far right”, at that. Though nobody can be certain, this is the explanation that would drag me down to Paddy Power to make a bet on it being correct.

This is a small country, and it is a statement of fact that most people across the various estates – Government, media, NGO sector, big business, lobby groups, and so on – know each other. If they do not know each other, then they move in the same social circles. What’s more, employment opportunities arise almost entirely within that same bubble: journalists move to work for politicians, politicians move to work for NGOs, NGO staff get jobs with Facebook and Twitter, Facebook and Twitter people move to work for the big interest groups. It’s an enormous circle of influence, and being “on side” matters, far more than any of these people would ever admit in public.

Stepping “out of line” in that circle is a career and reputational risk. Attacking people who you might need to ask for a job some day does not make any sense. It is much better, in the round, to focus criticism on those who are, and will forever remain, definitively outside the circle: Anti-vaxxers, lockdown sceptics, people who don’t approve of carbon taxes, pro-lifers, and so on. You can do any amount of investigative reporting of such groups and expect to win a journalism award for it.

There will be no journalism awards for investigating people like Kinzen.

That’s the consequence of a country in which Journalism and those journalists cover have become a cosy, chummy, incestuous club. It means that things like this, which are beyond shady, are allowed to pass by unremarked upon, and everybody agrees to look the other way.

It is, in large part, why the country is in the state it is. Aine Kerr is a nice woman. Mark Little is presumably a nice man. But in this instance, they, and the officials who hired them, have serious questions to answer. It’s just that nobody in Ireland’s mainstream media wants to be the awkward sod who asks them.

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