The leader of the Irish Government has said he “profoundly regrets” if anyone in the country believes he does not support a free press after reports that he expressed sympathy for Donald Trump’s criticism of the media.
The Irish Times reported that at a private lunch in New York on Monday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said one of the few things he could sympathise with the US president about were his views on the press.
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Trump has repeatedly criticised the media and described established news outlets as “fake news”, often when they write or broadcast critical stories about him and his policies.
Varadkar was also reported as saying the media was not interested in the truth, only the story, and that political journalists, who he complained outnumbered politicians at the Irish Government’s lower house, the Dail Eireann, were more interested in gossip than the workings of government.
The Irish Times said some investigative journalism in Ireland was incorrect and criticised the work of Irish national broadcaster RTE in particular.
When it was pointed out to him that the Cambridge Analytica scandal was brought to light by the press, Varadkar was said to have claimed that the print media focused on stories about technology and social media companies because they are taking away their business.
The Irish premier was called on in the Dail yesterday to clarify his views on the press by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, who accused him of attacking investigative journalism.
Varadkar (pictured) said: “I strongly believe that the free press is essential for democracy to function.
“It’s important work, it’s essential work, and in a free society, and in a democracy, the work of a free press is as important as a parliamentary system or the court system.
“And that is why I personally, and the Government, support the work of the news media and I always try to be as accessible and as open with the media as I can be. And yes sometimes there are tensions between government and media, but that is as it should be.
“I read the story in the paper today and I profoundly regret if anyone in the country thinks that in any way that I don’t support a free press or don’t respect the work of journalists.
“A free and fair and balanced media is a cornerstone of democracy and our freedoms and that’s why it is so important, but at the same time it should not consider itself to be beyond reproach or above criticism.
“We have had, on many occasions, times in Irish society where groups of people or institutions felt themselves to be beyond reproach or above criticism and we know what the results and consequences of that were.”
Varadkar said he had made the comments at a private lunch event organised so he could meet young Irish people in New York and hear their views on issues affecting the US and Ireland, including fake news and social media.
His response came after Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, called for him to clarify his comments as a matter of urgency.
Dooley said: “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.
“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 Leo Varadkar should in any way align himself with the views of the American president on this issue”
Dooley added: “Irish journalists and media organisations are well able to give and take criticism.
“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.”
Irish Journal editor Susan Daly described Varadkar’s comments as “both naïve and wrongheaded”, while the Irish Examiner said: “We have a grown-up press in this country; we need a grown-up Taoiseach, too.”
Picture: Reuters/Eric Vidal