Taoiseach claims comments on Irish media were taken out of context

The National Union of Journalists has called on the Taoiseach to clarify his comments

Taoiseach claims comments on Irish media were taken out of context

File photo of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, 08-06-2018. Image: Laura Hutton/PA Wire/PA Images

Updated 17.40

The Taoiseach has insisted he strongly believes that a free press is a corner stone of democracy and freedom.

It comes after he reportedly said that he sympathises with US President Donald Trump’s attacks on what the media.

Speaking during a private lunch in New York yesterday Leo Varadkar reportedly accused journalists of trivializing politics saying they are more interested in Leinster House gossip than the important issues

He was quoted as saying that journalists “were never held to account when they make mistakes.”

His comments have been roundly criticised by opposition politicians – with the National Union of Journalists warning that the comments are damaging to Ireland’s reputation as a modern democracy.

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, the Taoiseach said: “I profoundly regret if anyone in the country thinks in any way that I don’t support a free press or don’t respect the work of journalists.”

“I strongly believe that the free press is essential for democracy to function,” he said.

“It is important work; it is essential work and in a free society or a democracy the work of a free press is as important as the work of the Parliamentary system of the court system.

“That is why I personally – and the Government – support the work of the news media.”

Government handout of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the New York Stock Exchange, 04-07-2018

Criticism

Mr Varadkar made the comments at a private lunch for young Irish people working in New York during his trip to support Ireland's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

The Irish Times reports that during the meal, he said President Trump’s continued attacks on the press were one of the few things he could sympathise with him on.

He also complained about the large number of journalists covering the Dáil.

After the value of investigative journalism was pointed out to him, he said some investigative journalism is incorrect, citing Prime Time as an example.

He also claimed journalists focus their attention on technology and social media companies because they are taking away their business.

“Spectacular own goal”

This morning, NUJ Irish General Secretary Seamus Dooley said that given President Trump’s well known views on press freedom, the comments are damaging to Ireland’s reputation as a modern democracy.

He noted that respect for freedom of expression is a core value of United Nations.

"If the object of the visit to New York was to project Ireland as a modern democracy, then expressing sympathy with Donald Trump’s views on the media was a spectacular own goal by An Taoiseach," he said.

"Freedom of expression is a core principle of the United Nations.

"Donald Trump has shown nothing but contempt for the media and it is disturbing that Mr Varadkar should in any way align himself with the views of the American president on this issue."

"Irish journalists and media organisations are well able to give and take criticism," he said.

"What is disturbing about this incident is the nature of the event, the decision of An Taoiseach to target named programmes and groups, and the cowardly decision to do so off the record.

"Having done so it is hardly credible that he or his officials should complain that he has been quoted out of context.”

This afternoon, the Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald described the Taoiseach's reported comments as "odd."

“It seems that when the Taoiseach goes to America, he seems to lose the run of himself,” she said.

Fianna Fáil communications spokesperson Timmy Dooley said he can't see what the Taoiseach is complaining about.

“The coverage that he has enjoyed would point to probably a very long extended honeymoon period,” he said.

“So I am somewhat baffled as to how he can be a victim in all of this.

“From the reports that I have read he has not identified any particular event within the media generally so I think we are left at a loss as to what specifically he is talking about.”

Mr Varadkar has also been criticised for the comments by Labour leader Brendan Howlin who said he is more concerned about controlling stories than supporting the free press.

He said his experience from working with him in government, was that he was interested in his own spin.

“Leo has a very interesting relationship with the media,” he said.

“He works very hard on his own image – but he is very sensitive to any criticism of him or what he stands for.”

'The media gets into a hysteria'

However, Independent Senator David Norris defended the Taoiseach's criticism of the media.

Speaking in the Seanad, David Norris said the Taoiseach was 'perhaps a little ill-advised' to align himself with the views of Donald Trump.

However, he added: "The media gets into a hysteria at the slightest criticism of them. Well I can tell you from my experience they lie and lie and lie again.

"When [the Taoiseach] said that the media was not interested in the truth but in the story, he was 100% right. I have to say I laughed when I heard them all twittering and screaming this morning about it."

Additional reporting by Sean Defoe and Stephen McNeice