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Martin’s ill-advised attack on The Ditch

One of the great difficulties in getting humans to mars and other planets is finding materials that can maintain structural integrity under extreme conditions. In that spirit, one hopes that after a long and happy life, the leader of Fianna Fáil might consider donating his neck to medical science:

Mr Martin alleged the Ditch is “a political organisation, attacking Government and wanting to undermine confidence in Government”.

“That’s what’s going on here…As far as I’m concerned. I’m fully cognisant of what’s going on here and I see this through a totally different prism how all of this has been organised, set up, by people who are very clear in their campaign against me, against my party.”

Before we talk about the Ditch, and whether Mr. Martin’s allegation is just, we should probably make the following observation: In almost every major issue of public controversy over the past few years, the Irish Government has had the full throated support of the majority of the Irish media. On Covid 19, for example, the media seemed to believe it their patriotic duty to broadcast the Government’s view without critique, and to actively suppress those voices that offered any criticism. On major social questions like abortion or immigration, the Government reliably receives the support of every major media organ. Brexit policy was one where, if anything, the Irish Government was almost criticised for not taking an even harder line than they did. In relation to matters of competence, like health or education or big projects running over budget, criticism is almost always about the process rather than the competence of the decision makers.

If Mr. Martin wants to know what a hostile media is like, he could try swapping places with Rishi Sunak or Joe Biden, both of whom have whole swathes of their country’s media devoted to opposing their agendas. For him to complain about a story from a “hostile media outlet” requires a level of hypocrisy rarely seen, even in Dáil Eireann.

As for the substance of his accusation, it is observably true that the Ditch website has an editorial stance which opposes his Government and appears to seek the replacement of his Government with one led by Sinn Fein. It is also true that the Ditch appears to have close links with the businessman Paddy Cosgrave, whose overt support for Sinn Fein is not a secret, and whose erratic and at times demented conduct online is something that the public can judge for themselves.

And yet. The fact is that the Ditch’s story – while not, in my view, conclusively proving any wrongdoing – is clearly a matter of public interest, based on solid research and publicly available documents. They have not made the allegations about Niall Collins up. They have simply reported a series of facts, which have led others to ask natural questions. In that sense, the attack on the Ditch is clearly unfair. Their story might be politically motivated and it may well have been souped up by people on social media, but it’s not illegitimate.

What’s more, the attack is bad politics: For one thing, the Ditch couldn’t have asked for better advertising, as a media outlet that overtly pitches itself as an arm of the opposition, than to have the Tánaiste denounce it on the floor of the Dáil chamber. Had he denounced Gript in such a fashion, a small part of me would have been pleased: Media outlets do not exist, or at least should not exist, to win the favour of the Government. Unless, of course, like most of them, they’re reliant on that Government for funding, which is the case with neither the Ditch, nor Gript (I can’t speak to how the Ditch is funded, but our funding comes from people who pay to read our stories.)

What’s more, it just sounds weak: “These bad people are attacking Niall Collins” is not an answer, nor close to an answer, to the question of whether Niall Collins did something wrong. If it looks like deflection and sounds like deflection, then it almost certainly is deflection. And that poses the question: Deflection from what?

To modify an old saying: Just because they’re out to get you doesn’t mean you didn’t do anything wrong. The Ditch, very clearly, are “out to get” Niall Collins in the traditional meaning of that term. For media outlets, political scalps are prizes. “Our reporting led to a resignation” is the kind of thing that wins awards – it’s why the two reporters who stumbled upon the golfgate “scandal” during lockdown ended up being awarded “Journalist of the Year” titles by the clapping crowds at the annual media backslapping dinner.

On Tuesday, I annoyed some readers by writing that I think the case against Collins is pretty weak. I stand over that view, and nothing that has yet emerged this week has changed it. But weak as the case against him might be, it’s a lot stronger than the Taoiseach’s’ defence being that the media are being too mean to him. Pitiful stuff.

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