By Harry Browne
By honoured tradition, we journalists still half-jokingly call public-relations (PR) professionals “the enemy”. But we know they have a job to do, we know they often help us do their job – and we know that if we’re really at war with them, we’re losing.
The basic reason is pretty simple: they’ve got more and more resources (money, time, people) to push the corporate or government line, and we’ve got fewer and fewer with which to filter out the truth from the propaganda.
And when PR people are good and do their job really well, they get the ears of our bosses and make our jobs even harder.
That’s what happened to Betty Purcell, a TV producer who recently took early retirement from RTE after many years in charge of programmes including Questions & Answers and The View. In 2009 she tried to make a short human-interest documentary in RTE’s quasi-religious slot Would You Believe? about Willie and Mary Corduff, residents of Rossport, Co Mayo, who stopped Shell from running a gas pipeline through their land.
“One day the director Geraldine Creed and the reporter Mick Peelo got a call saying that Shell PR man John Egan was in the RTE canteen and would they go down and talk to him,” Purcell recalled. Egan, himself a former RTE and BBC journalist, apparently had free access to the Montrose premises, and used it to try to persuade Purcell’s team to drop or change the programme.
The programme got made only after its dedicated makers jumped through a unique and time-consuming series of management hoops – and RTE broke up the team soon after.
Purcell (whose memoir Inside RTE will be published next month) was telling this story on Saturday 18th near Rossport, in Ceathrú Thaidhg, Co Mayo, at ‘Airing Corrib: The Media and Shell Corrib’, organised by Action from Ireland (AfrI). I joined her on the platform, as did Liamy MacNally, formerly a much-admired journalist with Mayo-based Midwest Radio.
Last month MacNally won a case for unfair dismissal against the station. Although the employment tribunal did not accept that he had been targeted for his coverage of the Corrib gas project, MacNally was able to describe to the Mayo audience the years of flak that rained down on his journalism whenever he broadcast or wrote about the community’s resistance to Shell.
For most journalists with a busy job to do, this sort of thing becomes a good reason to ignore a story, or at least avoid its more ‘controversial’ elements. Whereas people like Egan and another ex-journalist who works for Shell in Mayo, Christy Loftus, have all the time in the world to advance the company’s perspective, which more often than not slides unopposed into the news agenda.
There is nothing particularly sinister about this. After the initial period of heroic coverage of the ‘Rossport Five’ (including Willie Corduff) in 2005, Shell has simply outgunned its opponents in PR terms, creating the image of a reasonable, flexible company trying to provide employment in Mayo but besieged by hysterical and perhaps-dodgy ‘protesters’.
Richie O’Donnell’s beautiful feature-length documentary The Pipe, which provides an alternate perspective, has won awards here and abroad and been sold to dozens of broadcasters across the world, but, incredibly, it has never been shown on RTE.
The event on Saturday 18th in Mayo wasn’t just a chance for journalists such as Purcell and MacNally to say how their work on the Corrib story had been resisted by PR pressure and by their employers. It also gave plenty of time for others, including locals, to offer testimony about the ignorance, avoidance and distortion they have experienced at the hands of the media over the last decade.
Some of the stories were comic. Actor and playwright Donal O’Kelly told how RTE Radio 1’s arts programme, Arena, asked him on-air to talk about his Edinburgh Fringe First award for his one-man show about the Corrib project, Fionnuala – but the producer insisted that he not discuss what the play is about.
But when another of the Rossport Five, Vincent McGrath, ran through a long detailed list of year-upon-year of media errors and sins on the story, it was clear this community’s grievance is no joke. Along with many State bodies, including the Garda, the media have, by and large, allowed their message to be coordinated by the effective PR operation of one of the most powerful companies in the world, one that sits right on top of the Fortune 500.
And while we can understand how that has happened, it’s not what journalism is supposed to be all about.
Harry Browne is a lecturer in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Twitter: @harrybrowne. Harry was also one of the speakers at Airing Erris on January 18th.
You can also watch a live stream of “Airing Erris” here: http://new.livestream.com/accounts/6219093/events/2700520