Leo Varadkar’s criticism of the media: is it legitimate?

The Taoiseach recently criticised the free press and sympathised with Donald Trump’s views of the media. Is the criticism legitimate or are the statements made without ground? Claudia Nussbaumer investigates.

At the beginning of July, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar came under pressure to clarify his comments about sympathising with Donald Trump’s views on the press. According to the Irish Times, at a private lunch gathering in New York, Varadkar claimed that the media was not interested in the truth, but rather in the story and that political journalists were more interested in the Dáil gossip than the actual Government workings. In particular, RTÉ was criticised for “incorrect” investigative journalism.

This comes as a hard hit for journalists, especially as Varadkar’s criticism came to light so shortly after the fatal shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, where five members of staff were killed.

US President Donald Trump has called the media “the enemy of the people”, “dishonest” and has said media professionals are“among the worst human beings [he] has ever met” before, thus making Varadkar’s statements brutal. Trump’s attacks on the media have since escalated to the notorious “fake news” exclamation, and he uses this to undermine legitimate investigations into his relationships, ethics and conduct, and therefore denying accountability.

The Taoiseach’s remarks contrast immensely with the reputation he had so far, nationally and internationally, as the face of a progressive nation. On one side, he is marching proudly with Canada’s prime minister Trudeau, who issued support and condolences for the victims of the Annapolis shooting. Varadkar also supported repealing the Eighth Amendment and he is an openly gay politician.

On the other hand, the Taoiseach is sympathising with the opinion of somebody who contrasts so much with the views we thought he had. In the US, reproductive health care has become increasingly restrictive, the Supreme Court ruled that a baker can deny a gay couple a wedding cake, and immigration policies are becoming harsher. This is a stark contrast to Ireland’s political climate.

Since the incident, there has been backlash from multiple people. Minister of Housing Eoghan Murphy said that the Taoiseach’s remarks were taken out of context and that he will need to clarify them. According to the Irish Times, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin remarked that Varadkar’s criticism of the press would have been “very interesting” to former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who considered Varadkar “notorious in feeding the rumour mill in Leinster House on an ongoing basis with journalists.” To this he added that the most concerning aspect of Leo Varadkar’s comments was that he sympathised with the views of somebody who regularly “demonises” the media.

When clarifying his statements, Varadkar made it clear that the free press was as important as the parliamentary or courts system in a democracy, and that he was in favour of a “free, fair and balanced media”. He did not address his expression of sympathy towards Mr Trump’s views of the media when talking to the Dáil that day, but his spokesman did later in saying that the Taoiseach did not say he agreed with Mr Trump in the comments he made in New York. Mr Varadkar tried to milden his criticisms by further saying that “there’s lots of people well capable” in the media, but that whilst journalism is important, it can not be above criticism.

It is agreed that there has to be a healthy amount of criticism on both sides – towards the media and the government – but the way in which the criticisms have been made by Mr Varadkar was not justified or constructive. Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald said if the Taoiseach was genuinely concerned about the media, he might have raised the issue of media ownership, in particular, the power of Dennis O’Brien. But rather, Mr Varadkar cited programmes who generally expose scandals and try to protect those affected, in order to “have a go”.

Critique is an important aspect of challenging and hopefully changing bad habits and practices in both politics and journalism, but this has to happen in a constructive way. Too often, such criticism towards journalists are combined with hurtful, exaggerated and over-generalised statements, mostly not even directly addressed to the news outlet itself, but to this unshapely body called ‘the media’.

On the other hand, many members of this body will not be creators of factual, investigative and objective journalism, and they will respond in the same sort of exaggerated and unhelpful way as their critics. This has created the sort of conflict we find ourselves in. We can only hope that such practices can be challenged and that the Irish state, and every state, can return to a respectful and patient exchange.