Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets the press in Dublin earlier today. RollingNews.ie photo.
By Irish Echo Staff
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has stepped back from and says he “profoundly regrets” comments made during his recent visit to New York which appeared to cast doubt on his respect for the Irish media and freedom of the press in Ireland.
Among those reacting to the comments, made at a “private lunch” in Manhattan, was Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who, in a newspaper report today, described the taoiseach as being “prickly” with an “authoritarian streak.”
The press freedom uproar broke out after Mr. Varadkar had returned to Ireland following a visit to New York, the main purpose of which was to formally launch Ireland’s bid for a United Nations Security Council rotating seat for 2021-22.
According to an Irish Independent report, speaking in the Dáil, Mr. Varadkar tried to defuse a row over remarks he made at a lunch in New York.
These comments, stated the report - which was matched by accounts in other newspapers including the Irish Times and Irish Examiner - included an expression of sympathy with President Donald Trump in his, Trump’s, criticisms of the media and political journalists.
Mr. Varadkar, said the report, told invited guests to the lunch that the media was not interested in the facts - only in getting a story.
He added that political journalists focused on “tittle-tattle” and “rumor” rather than important issues which affected people’s lives.
Mr. Varadkar’s New York visit, in which he was accompanied by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, was covered by a contingent of traveling Irish journalists, one that was significantly bigger than that which covered the recent visit of President Michael D. Higgins.
Upon his return to Dublin, Mr. Varadkar, according to the Independent report, was challenged by opposition politicians on his reported lunch remarks.
The taoiseach, by way of response, insisted that he had always supported free speech and a free press in Ireland.
“In a democracy, the work of a free press is as important as the work of parliament and the judiciary,” Mr. Varadkar said.
He said he had read newspaper accounts of his comments at the lunch in New York.
“I profoundly regret that anyone believes that I don’t respect the free press,” he told the Dáil.
Mr. Varadkar said the comments arose at a private function given for young Irish people in the U.S. which ran over two hours and had a very wide range of conversation topics. He said there was no tape and no specific record taken.
He had answered questions from invitees who were described as "young Irish people who are doing interesting things in New York." It involved men and women, people from the acting world, advertising, and several from the tech industry.
The taoiseach said he had only made one comment about RTÉ and its Prime Time (investigative documentary program) which was to note that it was not always correct. He cited one specific documentary program which was shown to be wrong.
Reports, however, had Mr. Varadkar telling his lunch audience that he had “sympathy” for the Trump administration in its battles with the media.
He reportedly criticized Irish political correspondents who he said spent more time “gossiping” about unimportant issues than covering real stories.
He said that twenty years ago there were fewer journalists in Leinster House, and they had “acted with dedication,” but now they were trying to compete with each other for gossip.
“It was the way he said it that really shocked me,” the Independent reported a “source” reacting to Mr. Varadkar’s comments at the lunch.
Irish government ministers stepped up to run interference for their leader, one taking Mr. Varadkar’s place in a scheduled media event and stating that the media was essential for how the country conducted itself, another suggesting that Mr. Varadkar’s remarks had been taken out of context.
Opposition politicians were less sanguine.
Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea said the taoiseach’s comments pointed to a “sinister trend” which showed an “authoritarian approach to the media.”
“Donald Trump’s whole modus operandi is to undermine the media, so Leo Varadkar appears to agree with that,” Mr. O’Dea said.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: "The remarks as reported are very troubling and the taoiseach should clarify and explain what he said.
"The freedom of the press to write, broadcast and report freely in the public interest, and to do so without coercion, without pressure and without undue influence, is vitally important.
"Of course, this flows both ways and the media is not above criticism and must be able to stand over its reporting."
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said: "The taoiseach may believe that 'a free, fair and balanced press is the cornerstone of our democracy,’ but his deeds and moral leadership carry more weight.
"No-one doubts that Ireland's links to the United States of America are hugely important, and that such trips to New York are strategically valuable to Ireland's interests.
"But whatever about criticizing the media when at home on the campaign trail, for Ireland's head of government to attack the Irish media when on a diplomatic and strategic trade mission is wholly inappropriate."
Meantime, the Irish Examiner reported today that tensions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil “have soared to heatwave proportions” after Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had described his coalition partner, Mr. Varadkar, as a “prickly” man “with an authoritarian streak.”
Stated the Examiner report: “The Fianna Fáil leader made his comments when asked on a visit to Limerick for his reaction to alleged remarks by the Taoiseach at a private gathering in New York in which he suggested he sympathized with Donald Trump’s attacks on the media and that there were too many journalists in Leinster House concentrating on gossip rather than matters in the public interest.”
Added the report: "Mr. Martin said he agreed that “people can be critical of the media - but when Leo Varadkar said he sympathizes with Donald Trump's position on the media, I drew a deep breath on that.”
Mr. Martin added: “I said hang on a second, some of the attacks of Donald Trump on the media have been unacceptable, in my opinion."
"Leo Varadkar has fed off the Irish media. I would have thought most people would say he got very beneficial media treatment for the last twelve months.
“He has used the Irish media. He would have been notorious as a leaker, providing information to the journalists who he now accuses of being gossipers around Leinster House.
"I mean to say, he was on first name terms with them all, and he has turned on them at a private gathering in New York."