Bewildering is about the only word I can think of to describe my reaction to John Waters’ expose of the current state of what was – until recent times – Ireland’s most important newspaper as he describes the events which brought to an end his 24-year career with the The Irish Times. We knew it was bad – but we did not know it was this bad.
Waters lays it all bare in a six page account of his last few months’ experience on the payroll of the paper in the current issue of Village magazine. To most of us it would be a nightmare. Waters takes it in his stride but as he recounts the tale of deceit, dysfunction and betrayal one wonders how much longer a media operation of this kind can be among us. After reading his article we have to ask, on picking up any edition of this morning paper, what trust could we have in anything that appears in it.
Waters writes not to moan or to even vindicate himself, but rather to alert us to a danger which is lurking under the veneer of prestige, status and respectability which Irish media agencies are wearing but are wearing very thinly.
The back-story surrounding this event is the story of the libelling of Waters and others on a TV programme. They were groundlessly called homophobes. They took legal action and won substantial damages. There followed a heavily orchestrated media uproar in protest at the payments made in which all objectivity was thrown out the window. Waters writes in the article in Village:
“Anyone with the slightest concern for the health of Irish democracy must regard the deluge of hatred more or less stoked by the ‘Irish broadcaster’ and the Irish Times, and agitated in the lawless world of social media into a tsunami of bullying, with the utmost dismay.
“By far the most worrying aspect, however, is that, unless urgent action is taken by those with the power to take it, there may soon be no audible voice left to raise itself against the corrupted clamour of the unrecognised, unaccountable fifth column now directing every twitch and nuance of our public life. What is at issue is not, as some propose, the validity of any particular argument, but the capacity of the collective conversation much longer to accommodate any kind of argument at all.”
The tragedy is one with both communal and personal implications. This is, in the first instance, a drama in which we are probably witnessing the death of a national institution in the life of a small country. If the demise of the Irish Times is staring us in the face we know that it is not simply because of the undoubted economic and other difficult operating circumstances which make all media organisation vulnerable today. It will be because the paper has effectively become internally corrupted and the people who have been supporting it have lost their faith in it.
The last straw for Waters came when he found that he was personally betrayed by someone within the paper in nothing less than an Iago-style saga of deceit – smiling and smiling while all the time playing the villain on Twitter, foul mouthing and backstabbing Waters while dissembling friendship. It is a deeply disturbing and sad story.
Waters has now resigned from the paper – and that is more bad news for the paper for there were many who bought it simply because he was writing for it. He has done so with deep regret but “certain of the importance of protesting at the present drift of the newspaper towards an ideological orthodoxy that threatens its role as an esteemed journal of record and a bulwark of Irish democracy.”
So it was. So it can be again. But will it?