From Irish Political Review: October 2007

Bertiegate: media-inspired
"death by a thousand cuts"!

As a media-generated controversy aimed at inflicting political damage on Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, ultimately forcing him from office, ‘Bertiegate’ is dead in the water.

Ahern is not a corrupt politician. During a marital separation in the early nineties he needed some financial payments from friends to keep his political career on the rails. He couldn’t afford to process the payments through a bank account for fear that his separated spouse might lay claim to them. When the controversy hit the headlines beginning in September 2006, explaining these payments posed a problem for him, primarily because he didn’t wish to re-open old wounds in the now friendly relationship with his estranged wife, or embarrass other members of his family.

As the then Minister for Finance, being in receipt of financial payments from businessmen friends was also clearly a source of embarrassment; but no corruption was involved, the sums involved were relatively minor and the arrangements arose solely out of the circumstances of the marital separation. In short, from beginning to end the campaign against the Taoiseach has been much ado about nothing.

The penny is beginning to drop among some journalists that they are not now going to take out their quarry. So what are they to do? Some have invested so much in the story they cannot countenance giving up. Others have a firmer grip on reality and perhaps a shred of decency.

Stephen Collins, the Political Editor of the Irish Times, has distinguished himself throughout the controversy as a commentator with a political axe to grind. He is the author of a sympathetic history of the Progressive Democrats. Following the General Election he wrote an article seeking to dissuade any potential partners of Fianna Fail from dealing with Bertie on the grounds of supposedly unanswered questions regarding his finances. Notwithstanding the mandate the party had received to form the next Government, Collins was still hell bent on keeping Fianna Fail from office.

A more recent article shows him up to his old tricks. In an opinion piece published in the Irish Times on Friday September 21st he exhorts the Opposition parties to inflict "death by a thousand cuts" on Ahern. The column opens with the usual disparaging comments about the Taoiseach’s credibility, then it knocks up against reality:

"So far, though, there has been no knockout punch to undermine Ahern’s version of events and likelihood of one landing is remote."

Because of this everything now depends on the Opposition.

"The public will remain mired in confusion unless the Opposition parties are prepared to draw their own conclusions from the evidence already out there and provide the public with a clear alternative version of what happened.

"If they do that Ahern could face political death by 1,000 cuts, as he attempts to face down his political opponents on the one hand and deal with the unremitting pressure of the tribunal on the other."

Collins concludes the article with an unashamed rallying of the troops to keep up the pressure against the target.

"He (Ahern) will have to come back at a later date to account for the ‘dig out’ money, his savings of £50,000, his purchase of the house and the issue of Quarryvale itself and his involvement in that tale.

"It means that he will be in and out of the tribunal on a regular basis over the year ahead and that is where the real damage is likely to arise as he is mired in one controversy after another."

If the Opposition are foolish enough to take instructions from Stephen Collins they will fully deserve another drubbing from Fianna Fail at the polls. Recognising that the story is in danger of dying Collins contrives to keep it going by any other means available. Is this ‘journalism creating the news’ or what?

By way of contrast the line been taken by Irish Times columnist, Noel Whelan, shows definite concessions to the real world. Whelan was every bit as bad as his colleagues in dishing the dirt against the Taoiseach until the General Election results were declared. From that point on he seems to have recognised that the will of the electorate is something that should be respected.

One of his recent columns entitled, ‘Ahern’s flawed testimony will not bring about downfall’, published on Saturday September 22nd is interesting mainly because it is addressed to his colleagues as much as the reading public. Here are some extracts:

"Unlike the Moriarty tribunal, which inquired into payments to Charles Haughey and is still inquiring into payments to Michael Lowry, the Mahon tribunal is not an inquiry into payments to politicians per se. Neither is it a tribunal of inquiry into payments to Bertie Ahern or into his personal finances.

"It is worth reiterating that point at this stage because now that the Taoiseach’s evidence at the tribunal has failed to live up to the dramatic billing which some gave it, many commentators have moved on to suggesting that the defining moment will come when the tribunal publishes its report, which they confidently predict will be damaging for him…

"…However, in its report, the tribunal will not and indeed cannot decisively rule on whether or not the Taoiseach’s explanation of these lodgements is accurate. Its function will not be to rule on whether Ahern’s story about the payments is credible but rather whether there is any basis to Gilmartin’s allegation. The latter question arises from the tribunal’s term of reference; the former does not.

"Those hoping for adverse findings against Ahern on this point are likely to be disappointed. To date the only ‘evidence’ to support Gilmartin’s allegation of a bribe is that of Gilmartin himself and he has proved an unreliable witness in public and private testimony to the tribunal….

"…Others were hoping that the tribunal report will rule that Ahern has impeded or obstructed it or failed to comply with its orders. The pace and extent of Ahern’s co-operation with the tribunal has been far from ideal, but it has not been so deficient as to meet the relatively high bar required for a ruling that it was obstructive. The tribunal’s chairman has already indicated a charge of non-compliance is not being made.

"This payments controversy did not fatally wound Ahern politically last autumn or during the election campaign and it is not fatally wounding him now. The publication of the tribunal report itself will not fatally wound him either. There is still every reason to believe he will get to go at a time of his own choosing."

That dollop of reality places the story in a very different perspective to that provided by Stephen Collins. In his own way Whelan is saying that ‘Bertiegate’ is dead in the water. It will be interesting to see whether the Irish Times and other sections of the media follow the Whelan or the Collins line in future coverage. I expect that the Irish media will continue to milk the non-story for everything it is worth in the coming months and years.

Noel Whelan deserves credit for attempting to bring his colleagues down to earth but it is too late to retrieve the good name of the Irish journalistic profession. Bertiegate is dead in the water and the time for investigating the real scandal behind the story—how the Irish Times, through its leading role in the media, threatens the health of Irish democracy—is at hand.

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