Comment & Analysis

Why let truth and facts get in the way of a good story?
"You’d want to be a fool not to be aware of the powerful forces that are at work”, writes Michael Kelly

Hardly a week goes by without more venom and innuendo against Catholics and their faith in the mainstream media. Now, here’s where certain commentators try to accuse Catholics of media-bashing. But, that’s often little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to deflect criticism and silence people pointing to media hostility. As a journalist, I can say, hand-on-heart, media do not do self-reflection very well.

Archbishop Eamon Martin reflected some of this when he spoke at a conference this week. “When we attempt as Church to speak in the public sphere about the right to life of the unborn, some are quick to point to the scandals and to shameful stories of the past.

“Decades of service by countless religious sisters and priests to the education and healthcare of the people of Ireland and all over the world is almost obliterated by a revised and narrow narrative that religious ethos cannot be good for democracy and stands against the progress and flourishing of society and the rights of citizens,” the archbishop said.

While the faults of the past are well-documented and must never be denied, there remains an insatiable appetite for manufactured controversies about Catholicism and the motto seems to be ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. Take for example, the controversy about the proposed ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) by the Religious Sisters of Charity.

This information was known (and reported in the media) as far back as November. Yet, controversy only arose late last month after an article in a national newspaper erroneously claimed that the sisters had not discharged their financial responsibilities in relation to redress for people who alleged abuse while in State-funded institutions run by the sisters. This error was corrected by the Department of Education, but, as the saying goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. 

False claim

The false claim has been repeatedly reported, and, where newspapers have published the correct information, it has been well-down the story.

Is this media bias? Well, you’d want to be a fool not to be aware of the powerful forces that are at work. It was interesting to note, for example, that the march ostensibly organised to support public ownership of the proposed hospital was largely notable for posters calling for the introduction of abortion. It’s always wise to look at the wider agenda in any story.

This past weekend saw a similar outrage when it was reported that a non-religious person reported British controversialist Stephen Fry to gardaí for alleged blasphemy following a rather juvenile outburst on RTÉ some years ago. Media commentators and politicians professed themselves to be various shades of ashamed, embarrassed and angry about the probe. 

Within 48 hours, gardaí announced that the probe was over and no further action would be taken. This was not before some media commentators hysterically claimed that Ireland was harping back to the 1950s.

Again, opinion-formers were tripping over one another to point to the archaic and anachronistic blasphemy law as a sign of undue Catholic influence. No-one bothered to point out that the Church, in fact, took no interest when the government of the day in 2009 decided to introduce the crime of blasphemy with a penalty of up to €25,000 upon conviction.

Little or no attention has been paid to the fact that the law came after a prolonged period of controversy when many Muslim-majority countries banned imports from countries in Europe where newspapers had published cartoons considered by many Muslims to be offensive. 

I don’t know if there is a link, but given Ireland’s strong trading relationship with many Arab and other Muslim-majority countries, it’s certainly worthy of consideration. But, on the other hand, that would spoil a narrative that sees the Catholic Church as the root cause of virtually every problem in Ireland.

It’s time for a more well-rounded analysis from media commentators – Catholics have a right to expect better. The history of Catholicism on this island hasn’t always been covered in glory, but it hasn’t been all bad either.