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Tuesday 17 October 2017

MacIntyre's well-trodden path

PrINT AND BE DAMNED, TV3, tonight

THANKS to the advance publicity for tonight's first episode of Print and Be Damned, Donal MacIntyre's TV3 series about Irish newspapers, we all knew in advance what the money shot would be: the moment when Peter Murphy, son of Annie Murphy and Bishop Eamon Casey, shares his thoughts on Gay Byrne's notorious interview with his mother.

"I was the only child to a single mother," says Murphy, who looks a lot like his biological father. "The first thing I wanted to do was fly across and deck him [Byrne]. The only thing you want to do is drop him."

It's not hard to understand the man's feelings. Even viewed for the umpteenth time, the squirm-inducing moment when Byrne, at his most dismissive and nauseatingly patronising, tells Annie Murphy that if her son is "half the man his father is, he'll be doing well" still makes the blood boil after all these years.

Murphy talks about meeting Casey in the offices of a US legal firm and trying "to engage with him". Casey cold-shouldered the boy, which sent him running to the elevator in "a blithering mess". Beyond this, there's not a lot more in the interview to justify the blizzard of pre-broadcast hype.

Print and Be Damned is being billed as "the hidden history of Irish newspapers"; it's hardly that. Anyone who's worked in the Irish print media over the past few decades is acutely aware of its failure to unearth the political corruption and clerical abuse happening right under its nose.

skims

While the first episode is good at encapsulating the historical reasons why Irish national newspapers, straitjacketed by their ties with individual political parties and cowed by the Catholic Church, for so long resisted probing deeply into institutionalised rottenness, it spends far too much time covering well-trodden ground.

Thus we get a breathless tour through the Casey affair, the Kerry Babies and Ben Dunne's cocaine-fuelled blowout on a Florida hotel balcony, which ultimately led to the exposure of Charles Haughey's corruption. At times it plays like a bumper episode of Reeling in the Years – without the songs.

The cheerleading role the newspapers, driven by massive advertising revenue, played in over-inflating the property bubble – a legitimate subject for close scrutiny – is touched on but not explored at any great length.

Maybe it's a little too soon to get a perspective on that one.

The biggest Irish newspaper scoop in many a year, the Anglo-Irish Bank tapes, a story broken by Paul Williams in the Irish Independent, also gets the lightest of skims. Williams appears on screen but isn't interviewed; he will presumably turn up in a later episode.

Print and Be Damned is at its best when talking to journalists – not the usual rent-a-gob hacks and hackettes you usually find in TV3 documentaries, but those who were close to the white-hot centre of the biggest stories.

Conor Brady, former editor of The Irish Times, recalls how, as the Casey scandal erupted, he often wished Peter Murphy's stepfather, Arthur Pennell, had given the story to a different newspaper.

And Pennell might well have. The Irish Times just happened to be the first Irish paper he landed on when flicking through the phonebook.

Vincent Browne, whose Magill magazine – once the purveyor of the best investigative journalism this country has ever seen – had been chasing the goods on how Haughey financed his lordly lifestyle long before the full truth emerged, quietly regrets not highlighting the bigger picture: the vast gap in wealth between those at the top and those on the ground.

Eamon Dunphy perceptively puts his finger on the key to good newspaper journalism; it's not the columnists who are paid to spout opinions (and yes, I'm fully aware of the irony here!) but the reporters, the ones saddled with the hardest job in the business. "Facts are what frighten the powerful," he says.

There are three more episodes of Print and Be Damned to come and with a lot less padding and a lot more insight, it might yet be the series that you long for it to be.

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