AS BREAKUPS go, it was as sudden as it was savage. After months of slavishly supporting Bertie Ahern, the Sunday Independent – Ireland’s biggest selling and most self-regarding newspaper – decided, in a mindboggling U-turn, to go into full-blooded attack.
Headlined ‘Majority now want Ahern to go sooner’ under the banner that read, ‘Betrayed by Bertie’, last week’s lead story, written off the back of a telephone poll carried out earlier in the week, was as unequivocal as it was unscientific.It was an extraordinary volte face by the paper recently nicknamed – with more than a little justification – Bertie’s Pravda.
For months – most crucially in the run-up to the election – the paper had tied itself in knots in its increasingly desperate attempts to support Ahern’s convoluted explanations of his personal finances.
No spin was too implausible to prop up the great leader.When the paper’s own poll revealed in September that 56pc of those surveyed thought that Ahern was corrupt, the newspaper ran the story under the headlines, ‘Cowen backs Bertie, says end tribunals’ and, ‘Ahern: It only happened because I was separated.’ Other recent page one headlines have included ‘Ahern defies critics to stay number one’, ‘All-out war: Ahern takes on tribunal’, and, ‘Enda Kenny wrong; there was a Manchester dig-out’. Meanwhile the paper’s attack-dog-in-chief, Eoghan Harris – appointed to the Seanad after famously ranting on the pre-election Late Late Show that people should get off Mr Ahern’s case and vote for him – lambasted Bertie’s critics in his weekly column.
At times, such was the symbiosis between paper and Taoiseach that each seemed to be taking on the other’s characteristics – not least an apparently paranoid belief that everyone was out to get them. Who could forget the Sindo’s straight-faced reporting of Bertie’s fears that ‘a Lulu’ might jump out of the bushes and attack him?
This autumn, when Bertie again played the Miriam breakup card – after earlier complaining of intrusion into his private affairs – the Sindo even had a writer ready and willing to inflict his musings on his own marital split on a bewildered public.
Most intriguing of all, the Sindo took to attacking Brian Cowen, the man Bertie – mischievously or otherwise – publicly anointed his chosen successor. ‘Cowen plays politics with the economy’, ran one front-page headline. The paper even slipped in sly references to the Tánaiste’s notorious thirst.
So the significance of last week’s schism cannot be underestimated, not least since it leaves an embattled Taoiseach devoid of any Irish media cheerleader except for Rupert Murdoch’s politically inconsequential red tops.
So – why did the poodle transform into a raging Rottweiler? As so often in journalism, it is the story behind the story that is truly fascinating.
The Sunday Independent’s increasingly eccentric editor of nearly 23 years, Aengus Fanning, carefully cultivates an image as a cricket-loving and clarinet-playing editor who rarely turns up for work before midday.
But, as editor of what has long been the country’s biggest-circulation newspaper, now with two senators on the payroll (Harris and business editor Shane Ross), Fanning has much to confirm his powerful sense of his own importance.
And he takes very seriously the slightest perceived lese-majesty. It would have been with a great sense of assuredness, therefore, that the flaxen-haired Kerryman picked up the phone to Ahern’s press secretary, Eoghan O’Neachtain, on November 3, a Saturday.
Fanning had wanted to run a story the following day saying Ahern was going to either relinquish or postpone his controversial €38,000 pay-rise. There was only one problem: Mr Ahern had no intention of doing any such thing. Fanning confirmed last night: ‘I rang Eoghan O’Neachtain and said to him, would it not be a good idea to put to the Taoiseach that he might postpone or delay or cancel his pay rise? Eoghan went away and came back, perhaps an hour later, and said the Taoiseach would regard that as tokenism.‘I didn’t speak to Bertie directly, that is the truth. I have no number for Bertie Ahern, mobile or landline, I wouldn’t know where to get him.‘We just ran what we ran and I haven’t had any contact with Eoghan since.’ A story duly appeared the next day, detailing Ahern’s decision not to take a ‘token pay cut’.
Intriguingly, however, it was written, not by executive editor and senior political reporter Jody Corcoran – who had penned most of the pro-Ahern pieces of the past six months – but by Daniel McConnell, a comparatively junior reporter.
On the following Tuesday, Fanning held his usual editorial meeting. McConnell was chosen, for the second week in a row, to pen last Sunday’s anti-Ahern ‘splash’ (the front-page lead story) – which many perceive as Fanning’s payback for the previous week’s ‘snub’.
Such is the febrile and incestuous world of the Sunday Independent – beset by petty rivalries and jealousies – that McConnell’s splash byline two weeks in a row will be seen by his peers as something more significant than just a chequered flag being waved at the end of the paper’s love-in with Ahern.
But why did Fanning himself – whose own salary would be in the region of €200,000 plus share options – get so agitated about Ahern’s pay rise?
Notoriously short-fused in the past, he has mellowed a lot since the day in 2001 when he nearly faced the sack after repeatedly punching a colleague during a row about a reduction in the size of the paper.
The unseemly fracas happened after Campbell Spray told the fop-haired editor to ‘f*** off’ during a phone call on the matter.
A widower who, despite his advanced years, swims almost daily, Fanning recently became engaged to his 60-year-old deputy and long-term partner, Anne Harris.
Anne is perceived by many as Fanning’s intellectual superior and the real brains behind the phenomenal success that is the Sunday Independent. She also happened, until comparatively recently, to be the wife (albeit the separated one) of Eoghan Harris.
The paper is in many ways something of a large family. Fanning’s sons, Evan and Dion, and Harris’s daughters, Constance and Nancy, are among the in-house journalists.
Fanning’s brother, Conal, Anne Harris’s sister, Mary O’Sullivan also write for the paper. Then there’s husband-and-wife team Brendan O’Connor (columnist and editor of the Sindo’s glossy Life magazine) and Sarah Caden.
But the member of the Sunday Independent ‘family’ who has most influence on the paper’s political policies is, of course, Anne’s ex, Eoghan.
Rewarded a senatorship after the Sunday Independent’s slavish support of Fianna Fáil during the general election – and his own astonishing performance on The Late Late Show which he likes to think swung the election – Harris is no stranger to Damascene conversions.
A former adviser to the Moscow-leaning Official IRA’s chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, in the early 1970s, Harris aligned himself to the hard-left as the decade evolved, while becoming an avowed antinationalist. During the 1980s, he effectively ran a Workers’ Party faction within RTÉ while he was employed as a producer.
Towards the late 1980s, he became vehemently opposed to SDLP leader John Hume’s attempts at dialogue with IRA leader Gerry Adams.
It would be a stance the self-declared enemy of the peace process would take throughout much of the following decade.
By the end of the 1980s, he started pawning himself off as an ‘adviser’ – or, as one observer put it, a ‘political mercenary’ – to anyone interested in using his services.
In 1990, he served as an adviser in the Labour Party-backed presidential campaign by Mary Robinson, although his boisterous behaviour led to him being kept at arm’s length.
Fine Gael also ended up distancing itself from him after he – while working as an informal media adviser to TDs for the party’s ard fheis – orchestrated an ill-judged and widely condemned sketch starring Twink.
Other landmarks on Harris’s meandering ideological journey include becoming Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s first Catholic adviser in the late 1990s.
In 1997, Harris led a vehement opposition to Mary McAleese’s bid to become president. Despite labelling her a ‘tribal time bomb’, he would years later sing her praises as if he had always supported her election.
That said, for all his inconsistencies, Harris has stuck to his deep-rooted belief that the medium really is the message and that style and ‘big-picture’ argument – as opposed to detail – should always be allowed triumph over substance.
And, however much he was prepared to leap to Ahern’s defence during the election and in its immediate aftermath, what is clear is that even he has become increasingly uneasy in recent weeks about the Taoiseach’s ‘let them eat cake’ image.
He is also infinitely more exercised by politics than Fanning. Harris was recently heard opining in the corridors of Leinster House that the Cabinet pay-rise was a ‘massive mistake’. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many believe it was Harris who put Fanning up to challenging Ahern over the rise.
What is somewhat more surprising is that either of them would think Ahern would even consider handing back his pay rise – and the chance for a substantially bigger pension package on his retirement.
But, then again, say insiders, this shows not just how much they have misjudged the Taoiseach, but how utterly out of touch the Sunday Independent has nowadays become.
Indeed, the paper often seems to operate in something of a parallel universe to the world the rest of us inhabit.
While the rest of the country grew increasingly uneasy about Mr Ahern over the past six months, the Sunday The paper’s senior executives insist that although the nature of the paper’s coverage changed dramatically after Brian Cowen’s now notorious meeting with its proprietor, Sir Anthony O’Reilly, at his Fitzwilliam Square townhouse in May, this is just a coincidence.
Cowen later insisted that the cosy tete-à-tete was little more than a simple case of Fianna Fáil putting its position across ‘to proprietors of newspapers to try and see what way we can make sure that we get our message across’.
Not surprisingly, Cowen – who insisted that Sir Anthony’s corporate interests were not discussed – was unable to supply the names of any other proprietors he had sought out.
What is indisputable is that the meeting coincided with a sea-change in Sunday Independent opinion and commentary.
Indeed, with the laudable exceptions of parliamentary correspondent John Drennan and columnists Alan Ruddock and Gene Kerrigan, the entire paper appeared to have joined the Ahern campaign team.
However, and this is sometimes forgotten, this particular U-turn also coincided with another of Fanning’s spectacular strops.
Last April 22 – his birthday – Fanning turned just as suddenly and dramatically on another politician whom he had previously courted. He published a bizarre first-person account of his chance meeting the previous day with Enda Kenny in a Ballsbridge café. In the article, he included remarks that the Fine Gael leader had made ‘off the record’ (in other words, not for attribution).
It was, in the eyes of many of Fanning’s peers, an extraordinary betrayal of a journalistic source.
Kenny’s crime, it subsequently transpired, had been to NOT give the editor any on-the-record quotes to back a story he had run the previous week about claims by Garda Martin Fallon that Bertie Ahern took a suitcase stuffed with cash on a trip to Manchester in 1994.
Meanwhile, Fanning and the two Harrises genuinely seem to think that their positions afford them the same rights as the elected representatives they either court, fawn over or savage.
During the election campaign, they incessantly bleated on about the urgent need for stamp-duty reform – ignoring the various other important issues exercising the minds of their readers, like healthcare and public transport.
The fact that a number of employees of the paper – including Anne and Eoghan Harris and Jody Corcoran – were having problems selling their own homes at the time may not, of course, have been entirely coincidental.
But this was by no means the first time that the Sunday Independent has showed a disconcerting tendency to pursue its own obsessions at the expense of the real issues, and stories, of the day.
Relaunched by Fanning and Harris in the ’80s – a time when Ireland was desperately short on glamour – the paper managed to reinvent itself off the back of a fantasy socialite world created by Anne Harris and her social diarist, Terry Keane.
Coupled with robust and sometimes downright vulgar commentary from an eclectic and original coterie of columnists headed by Eamon Dunphy – another new departure in the previously staid world of Irish journalism – it was a surefire formula for success.
Dunphy, however, is long gone. And now that we have real money and real glamour, the fake glamour of the world that Harris and Keane concocted looks increasingly brittle and artificial.
And whereas Terry Keane did genuinely have access to the rich and powerful, nowadays the gossip column she once penned – like much else in the Sindo – is a mere shadow of its former self.
Katy French, for example, had been adopted as something of a muse not just by gossip columnist Barry Egan but by Brendan O’Connor. Predictably enough, it was from O’Connor that Ahern had some few morsels of comfort in his reading of the paper last weekend.
In among the many negative headlines was Beefy’s sycophancy in the shape of an article headlined, ‘Battling Bertie is exactly what Fianna Fail needs right now’.
The piece said the party needed a leader as ‘fearless’ as Ahern whose popularity ‘has dropped a bit’.
Fanning, meanwhile, seems genuinely perplexed at the notion that his paper has done the newspaper equivalent of a handbrake turn in its attitude to Ahern.
He said: ‘It would be far too dramatic to say there was any sort of U-turn or volte face. It is week-by-week getting a Sunday paper out.
‘I couldn’t tell you what line I would be taking on Bertie Ahern next Sunday but it will be whatever seems to me the most interesting way of handling the story.
‘The situation can change on any given week.’ Of last week’s splash, he said: ‘We had an opinion poll which showed that lots of people didn’t like Bertie taking such a big pay rise at this difficult time. That was reflecting the mood of the public.
‘But to give what we ran the status of a sea-change would be far too dramatic.
‘It’s also taking too short-term a view. Bertie has been Taoiseach for ten or 11 years and has been in mainstream politics for 30 years.
‘Life goes on, life changes, people change. Over that period, we’ve taken lots of different views of him, some positive, others not. I am a newspaper editor, for God’s sake, and I was just looking for a story.’
As well as just looking for a story, Fanning was also basically doing what he does best – helping sell his paper. There is no point backing a lame duck like Ahern if it’s going to alienate your readers.As he has said in the past: ‘We live and die by the market.’
Respected Deputy editor Willie Kealy loyally backed Fanning, saying that to use the word ‘slavish’ in relation to the Sunday Independent’s attitude to Ahern ‘would suggest some sort of whip was on and people had to write in a particular way’. Perish the thought…