Opinion

Irish Times Fails to Live up to Its Principles

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

I am a supporter of the Irish Times. I want to see it succeed. I think the Irish media landscape would be far poorer without it — there are some great journalists working there.

So I thought the paper’s decisions to publish Nicholas Pell’s op-ed on terms used by neo-nazis, and then William Reville’s column on the need to defend the purity of Europe against dilution by immigrants must have been mistakes.

How could such a good paper publish such garbage? Surely something had gone wrong, wires had got crossed, a desire to be a little provocative or resist “political correctness” had slipped into carelessness and irresponsibility a couple of times.

But why didn’t the multiple editors at the Irish Times who must have read each of these two pieces stop them from being published? And if they were going to publish them, did they not first check that the assumptions were defensible, the logic sound, the facts correct?

An email shared on social media by UCD law lecturer TJ McIntyre, which he says he received earlier in the year after he requested the retraction of another, unrelated article, provided one possible answer.

A screenshot shows an email to McIntyre dated 2 June from “Eoin McVey”. (There is an Eoin McVey who was once managing editor of the Irish Times, and who now seems to have a part-time role there.)

The email reads: “Journalists and sub-editors fact check that which is produced by Irish Times staff. When opinion columns are offered by outside contributors with an interest in the subject matter on which they write, there is an assumption that the assertions therein are correct.”

So, “to stimulate and advance arguments about matters of public interest”, as opinion editor John McManus put it, the Irish Times decided to publish the neo-nazi glossary. And it was presumably for a similar reason that it decided to publish Reville’s column.

And then, based on the policy explained by McVey, they didn’t think through the assumptions that Pell and Reville were making, or query their logic or facts or assertions. Because “there is the assumption that the assertions therein are correct”.

It seemed plausible, but I thought I would check directly with the Irish Times, to learn more about their policy on editing opinion pieces in general, and also their decision to publish Reville’s column. I sent a series of questions to Irish Times Editor Kevin O’Sullivan.

In response, I received an email from Patrick Smyth, whose email signature said “Duty Editor, Irish Times”. He wrote: “The Editor has forwarded your questions to me for response …”

“Sloppily Mischaracterised”

In my email, I had referred to “Nicholas Pell’s op-ed on terms used by neo-nazis, and William Reville’s more recent piece on the need to defend the racial purity of Europe against dilution by immigrants”. Smyth said I had “sloppily mischaracterised” both of these.

Well, Pell’s op-ed was titled “The alt-right: everything you need to know”, and the so-called “alt-right” are neo-nazis. In it, after a short introduction, Pell writes, “here’s a simple glossary” and then proceeds to define a string of terms used by the neo-nazis. So I think I’m good there.

As for Reville’s column, Smyth said I’d got it all wrong about that piece too, “which nowhere touches on racial purity but talks of defending a common culture”. (Which apparently is a reasonable thing to write a column about — defending Europe’s “common culture”, whatever that is, against dilution by immigrants like me. Because, you know, we’re ruining it.)

Well, I told Smyth I’d think about whether I’d mischaracterised Reville’s column, and I have. It was published in the science section, and at the bottom it says the author is “an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC”. It begins, “To paraphrase The Communist Manifesto, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of demographic extinction.’”

It goes on to talk about differing birth rates among Europe’s “indigenous cultures” versus those of Africa, and then moves on to the dangers of immigration: “Unless indigenous fertility rates increase sharply, immigration-induced restructuring of many European nation states can be expected to first dilute and eventually replace indigenous cultures and social structures.”

The article is talking about the need to defend the purity of European (something) from dilution and eventual destruction by immigration, apparently from Africa. I see what Smyth is saying: Reville talks about “indigenous culture”, never mentioning the word “race”. But I stand by my reading of the column — I argue Reville just used “culture” as a euphemism for “race”.

(And I wonder what it must be like to be an “indigenous” Irish woman and have this man telling you, essentially, that you’d better start birthing faster for the good of the nation, and implying that you’d better not fall in love with and have a child with someone who’s not an “indigenous” European, as that’d be “culture” treason. And what it must be like to be an immigrant woman, and have him implying that you are probably flooding Europe with the issue of your presumably overly fertile loins.)

Now let’s get back to the editing process. Since Pell and Reville are apparently experts on terms used by neo-nazis and the need to defend Europe’s virtue from African immigrants, respectively, did the Irish Times’ editors simply assume their assertions were correct and publish them?

The Editing Process

In the email I’d sent to O’Sullivan, I had written, “I understand that the policy for op-eds is not to edit their content, assuming the author is more expert in the field than the Irish Times editor. Is that correct?” Smyth’s reply was a simple “No”.

I followed up on that, forwarding him the email apparently from McVey that I’ve quoted above, and asking how I should square these two apparently contradictory responses from the Irish Times. He had not replied by the time we published this column.

So if the Irish Times does edit opinion pieces in some fashion, are the editors “expected to check facts? To query arguments? To challenge assumptions? Do you believe the Irish Times has a responsibility to endeavour to publish only what is true and correct? What do editors do to ensure this, when they are dealing with op-eds?” I asked.

Smyth forwarded me the “Principles of the Irish Times”, and wrote, “The principles governing editing articles are set out in the above and shared with standard journalistic best practice.”

The only part of these principles that seems to relate to my questions is: “comment and opinion shall be informed and responsible, and shall be identifiable from fact; and special consideration shall be given to the reasonable representation of minority interests and divergent views.”

Was Pell’s op-ed “informed and responsible”? Was Reville’s? A matter of opinion, to be sure, but I would say that neither publishing propaganda for neo-nazis, nor spreading the fear that immigrants will defile Europe is responsible.

Were this op-ed and this column “identifiable from fact”? Well, no and yes: online, Reville’s is inside the “News” section, and within that, in the “Science” section — not in the “Opinion” section; Pell’s was correctly placed in the “Opinion” section.

By publishing these two articles, has the Irish Times given space to minority interests and divergent views? I can’t argue there — yes, Pell’s and Reville’s views are, thankfully, those of minorities.

But there are many different minorities in Ireland. How do the editors of the Irish Times decide which of them have views that should be featured in their paper?

Are they relativists who believe all opinions are equally valid and deserving of an airing in the Irish Times? Or have they decided that Pell’s and Reville’s views in particular are more valid than others?

When I asked after O’Sullivan’s views on relativism, and on the ideas expressed in Pell’s and Reville’s columns, Smyth replied that, “The personal views of the editor … are entirely a matter for him and have no bearing on the editing of the paper.”

Principles

Principle 8 of the Press Council’s Code of Conduct says: “The press shall not publish material intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.”

I would argue that Reville’s column could easily help to stir up hatred against immigrants who are not of “European” nationality, colour, race or ethnic origin (or “culture” if you want to use that euphemism). It caused grave offence to me — an immigrant.

Beyond the Press Council’s Code of Conduct, I wonder how the publication of Pell’s op-ed and Reville’s column fit with those admirable Irish Times principles Smyth sent me, which pledge “the discouragement of discrimination of all kinds”, and “The promotion of peace and tolerance and opposition to all forms of violence and hatred”.

We are just a tiny startup less than two years old, with staff small enough to fit around one small table at the pub of an evening, and finances far more precarious than the Irish Times. There’s no reason they should listen to me, but I like to think of myself as part of the loyal opposition.

So if they’re inclined to listen to well-meaning advice, I’d say this: you’ve made a couple of mistakes recently. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Admit it, at least to yourselves.

Then re-read the company’s principles, re-dedicate yourself to them, and give the rest of us something to look up to — these are tough times for journalism, and we need colleagues at the national paper of record who inspire us keep on going, and to keep trying to be better.

 

Comments

  1. Log in to leave a comment.

  2. Davey
    25 January at 11:10

    Great work, you couldn’t have been more fair. You’ve also tipped me over the edge to finally subscribing to your paper.

  3. Lois Kapila
    25 January at 12:05

    @Davey: Thanks so much for subscribing, Davey!

  4. Natalie
    25 January at 13:00

    This was a great, if depressing, read!

  5. Colette Carroll
    25 January at 13:47

    Very good article.

    Firstly, let me confirm that I am a subscriber to The Dublin Inquirer and received it by post each month since issue one went to print.

    Secondly, I also confirm that since the age of 17 (and I’ve just turned 45) I have purchased The Irish Times each day it prints – that’s a lot of paper and a lot of money – that is, until the day after the Pell online article. (I didn’t read about the Reville article – and its fallout – until the day after it appered).

    I learned a long time ago that if you want to “get at” someone, you hit them where it hurts – the wallet. So, I no longer purchase The Irish Times – sadly, I cannot justify it to myself. Yes, it is only one copy a day but their circulation, and the circulation of all print media, is in decline. I do hope that, financially, they think it was worth it.

    And I’ve also wondered how the NUJ felt about the article and its fallout. Did The Irish Times have no member of staff who could research and write the article for them?

  6. Dave Barry
    25 January at 14:16

    Super piece Sam!

    Thanks to all in the Dublin Inquirer for all the great articles!!

    Hope you are around for a very long time into the future!

  7. Basil Miller
    5 July at 16:55

    Good piece, Sam, and absolutely right to call out the IT’s poor editorial judgment.

    You may find it interesting that Patrick Smyth, the Duty Editor, used to be some sort of Trotskyist, a member of the ‘Militant Tendency’. However, that was a very long time ago and Paddy, as he is more generally known, has followed the path of many an ‘Irish Times lefty’ into the depths of hypocrisy.

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