Whelan, Houghton, RTÉ, The Irish Sun and why it matters

Over the last few days I’ve been extensively covering the controversy surrounding what was the proposed appearance of former Liverpool stars Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton on an Irish TV programme sponsored by The Irish Sun.

The story is pretty well encapsulated here, and now appears to have reached its conclusion following the decision that neither of the two men will appear on ‘Premier Soccer Sunday Live’ on 1 May.

How it unfolded 

The issue of Houghton and Whelan’s appearance was raised by Irish Liverpool fans earlier this season when it was originally announced.

I’ve been told that there were a “small number” of complaints made to RTÉ about the issue and that these were “dealt with” but it became a very live issue in recent days as Liverpool fans brought it to the media’s attention.

The story was newsworthy on the basis that two former Irish internationals and Liverpool stars were seen to be associated with a boycotted newspaper, angering fans who had hoped that all connected to Liverpool FC would honour such a boycott as the club itself does in asking current players not to deal with the tabloid.

It also raised questions about the conduct of Ireland’s state broadcaster and as to whether or not they knew about the sensitive nature of the Liverpool/Sun relationship.

On Sunday, the Irish Sunday Independent newspaper ran the story on the front page of their sports section and both Houghton and Whelan indicated they were not aware of the sponsorship deal and said they would have to talk to RTÉ about it.

I attempted to contact both men on Sunday. I only spoke to Whelan who said he was wasn’t going to comment but I asked him did he know? Was he aware of the sponsorship deal? He responded: “not fully”. Make of that what you will.

By Monday, the story was in a number of newspapers and continued to be the subject of much debate among Liverpool fans and in a poll that TheJournal.ie ran.

The matter was actively under discussion between the relevant parties. I understand that Houghton had raised the issue when he made his regular appearance on ‘Premier Soccer Saturday’ over the weekend.

Then just before 7pm on Monday evening I received a statement from RTÉ which read:

RTÉ Sport can confirm, as of today, that the panel for the Premier Soccer Sunday live programme will consist of John Giles, Kenny Cunningham and one additional panellist (to be confirmed). Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton are no longer appearing on the panel on May 1st.

In my eagerness to break the story before anyone else I reported that Whelan and Houghton had withdrawn from the programme, when in fact the statement did not say that (The story was later amended).

I contacted both Whelan and Houghton just before 8pm for comment. Neither seemed pleased to hear from me.

Whelan was still not prepared to comment and said he would deal with it when he was back in Dublin (He had been away in Dubai).

With Houghton, the phone line was not great but he referred me to RTÉ: “It’s down to them I’m not going to say anymore,” he added.

I asked him was he going to honour the boycott of The Sun as I am sure many Liverpool fans were keen to know. He responded that he was “not prepared to answer a question like that.”

And there the conversation ended.

The devil is in the detail. The RTÉ statement never said anything about the pair withdrawing, only that they would no longer appear on the programme.

If Houghton and Whelan wanted to go about rebuilding what is now a damaged relationship with many Liverpool fans, they could have said they were withdrawing upon being made aware of the sponsorship deal. But they didn’t.

Either they had no interest in speaking to me personally, not being affiliated to a major news organisation, or there is something else going on…

Questions

Questions remain as to whether or not Houghton and Whelan were in any way aware about the sponsorship deal, and also whether RTÉ notified them of the complaints, however small in number, that came in about the deal both earlier in the season and in recent days.

If RTÉ did not make the players aware, then why didn’t they? Surely the makers of ‘Premier Soccer Saturday’ knew of the sensitivity surrounding Liverpool and The Sun?

Why are Houghton and Whelan not willing to comment on whether or not they are as committed to the boycott as fans and even Liverpool FC are?

These are questions that linger and neither Houghton, Whelan, nor RTÉ seem prepared to comment any further on the matter now it has been dealt with.

That will not please Liverpool fans.

Why it matters

Many will ask why this even matters and what is to be got from boycotting The Sun and its Irish version, 22 years on from Hillsborough.

It matters to Liverpool fans and indeed the people of Merseyside because when four days after the disaster, The Sun – under a headline reading ‘The Truth’ – alleged that Liverpool fans had pickpocketed dead supporters, urinated on police, and beat up an officer who was trying to save a victim, it did untold damage to their reputation and their efforts to achieve justice.

No one has ever been prosecuted for what happened at Hillsborough and what happened was a systematic and disastrous failure of police management, in a dilapidated stadium, where preconceived notions among many police officers about how football supporters should be handled led to a catastrophe and the death of 96 men, women, and children.

The importance of Hillsborough and laying bare the full facts of what happened through the Hillsborough Independent Panel – set up in the aftermath of the 20th anniversary of the disaster – is of paramount importance to families of those who died and survivors.

It matters so much that a former government minister said only last week: “that no other single issue is more important to me.”

And that’s why Liverpool fans get angry when two of their own – who witnessed what happened that day – are seen to be in someway associated with a newspaper that proclaimed to tell the truth, yet told a dreadful and destructive tale of lies.

O’Connell on the radio

Freelancing between two countries has its perks.

The feeling of great self-importance as you operate two phones is one especially when one of them is an iPhone.

I also enjoy spending as much time as I seem to do these days on public transport and in airports. The transience of it all is really appealing to me and I refuse to moan like most other frequent travellers do.

I am writing this blog in Manchester airport as I return to Dublin for the next month. I thought I’d share with you my contribution to local Irish radio – WLR FM –  not so long ago, merely as it has been hanging around on my desktop for a while waiting to be uploaded.

I am speaking on Ireland’s general election day on 25 February as the polls showed high turnouts across the country. Hat tip to my sometime TheJournal.ie colleague Gavan Reilly for recording it for the purposes of making my mammy proud and sticking it on here, I guess.

 

 

No updates but for a good reason

Apologies to those who regularly check in for the total lack of updates in recent days.

I’ve been busy slogging it away with TheJournal.ie, a fantastic and relatively new Irish news website that has excelled itself, even if I do so say myself, with coverage of the tragic events at Cork airport today. Do please check it out and tell your friends.

I’ll try and do a News Picks over the weekend.

New Year, fresh blog and good intentions

Like many of us, I hold good intentions for the year ahead.

One of these is to blog more which is why starting today/tonight and happening (hopefully) regularly I intend to bring you the best of the web or at least what I consider to be the best from the web.

Those who follow me on Twitter will know that I post a lot of links to various articles that I have read online. They range from quirky stories from Ireland to sometimes obscure political matters in the US, with a bit of UK, world and Liverpool FC related news in between.

The intention of the ‘News Picks’, as I have decided to call them, will be to bring all these links together under one blogging roof. It will consist of stories you may have missed or that you may not have heard about. It may be an alternative view on a story you’re familiar with or it may be totally useless.

In any case I hope it is a fun, quick read that enlightens your day.

Wikileaks diplomatic files not as shocking as we’re being told

We may have been shocked by the revelations of the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs and the brutality of war that was laid before us in a way we’ve never seen before.

But the initial revelations of Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables are not as shocking as many in the media are having us believe. Embarrassing for sure but not shocking.

Channeled through those doyens of investigative journalism The Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times the leaks reveal a lot of honest and forthright views of mainly US diplomats about their foreign counterparts.

But looking at the BBC’s useful breakdown of the main “revelations” there’s nothing truly groundbreaking. Instead much of the releases so far confirm what any of us who have an interest in international affairs probably already expected was going on.

The US has many concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear activity and the level to which they may be exposed to nuclear terrorism. Whilst on the other side Pakistan is reluctant to allow the US to establish any more interest in their domestic affairs than it already holds for fear of a backlash from their own people. This has been widely reported for many years.

The Chinese government engages in computer hacking…as if we haven’t heard that before.

The US looks to tap the sensitive biometric details of those within the UN. Not specifically something reported before but allies spying on allies and involving the Americans is nothing new.

There are also a selection of strong and honest views about various world leaders.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described as “Hitler” by one diplomat. Given Ahmadinejad’s views on Judaism it is hardly an extraordinary leap to associate the two.

Italian president Silvio Berlusconi described as a “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader”. As if we didn’t know that already given the string of embarrassing revelations in recent years.

Russian president Dmirty Medvedev a “Robin” to Vladimir Putin’s “Batman”. Many analysts said as much when Medvedev was “elected” in 2008.

And Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe,  a “crazy old man”. It would be funny if it wasn’t for the plight of the Zimbabwean people.

So there is little that shocks as much as Wikileaks most explosive leak to date – Collateral Murder

But needless to say it’s embarrassing for the US and all the other countries implicated. And the news coverage over the next few days will remind us of that as well as discussing the wrongs and rights of Wikileaks releasing such material. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian puts that argument to bed in my view.

Perhaps the real story here is not the sheer quantity and seriousness of some of the information released but the extraordinary story of a 22-year-old US army private from Oklahoma, Bradley Manning, who has changed forever the way in which wars and diplomatic relations are conducted.

Anything is news at this time of year

In the ‘industry’ as journalists and those of us aspiring to be journalists the summer months and particularly August are generally considered a rotten time when it comes to news stories.

Parliament is in recess, everyone’s on their holidays and very little new is happening. So news organisations generally tend to fill newspapers, radio programmes, TV news bulletins and websites with just about anything they can eek out and dress up as ‘news’ when they’re running a few columns or a few minutes short.

In some cases they’ll send their presenter on a pointless exercise in a Spitfire. In others they’ll report the most trivial things as breaking news. Look, for example, at Sky News’ ever bright yellow ticking breaking news bar which yesterday reported: “AP news agency: The US recall of eggs amid a massive salmonella outbreak is expanded to half a billion eggs”.

Obviously, a salmonella outbreak isn’t good times, but egg-scuse me if I’m not really too bothered about how many eggs have been recalled, I certainly don’t need it interrupting my news bulletin.

And yet in their thirst for constant breaking news left, right and centre, Sky News know no boundaries when it comes to defining what exactly breaking news is. It used to be major events like 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq now it can be the England football squad getting on a bus. But that is for another blog…

In some cases, news outlets will just rehash old news like the proposed demolition of Ringo Starr’s old house on Madryn Street, Liverpool. This has been due for demolition for years now under the controversial Pathfinder initiative. But no harm in reminding us and finding someone whose outraged about it to fill some space.

I also find the coverage of the dreadful floods in Pakistan interesting. For example (and only because this is the news bulletin I catch most evenings) Channel 4 news have been reporting on an almost nightly basis on what’s been happening in the region and fair play to them for doing so. No doubt it is helping the appeal for aid, but the cynic in me wonders if we’d be hearing as much from the region were it another time of the year. We all forgot about Haiti pretty quickly didn’t we?

Of course this could all just be the major cynic in me but I have been part of putting together a programme at the BBC this week and that has been a struggle given the dearth of news and the dearth of people around to talk about any stories that are happening.

Unlike those who wish this relatively warm, if not sunny, weather would remain, journalists are wishing time away so as that parliament can return, politicians can say and do stupid things and elsewhere there’s news aplenty.

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Follow me on Twitter: @oconnellhugh

Wikileaks’ Afghan War Logs are a boost for print media

Plenty will be written about the content of Wikileaks’ Afghan War logs and the ramifications for the war itself. But the main findings from the documents reveal little that we didn’t already know or suspect was happening in Afghanistan.

There is an increasing use of IEDs with deadly effects, an increasing number of civilian casualties as a result, there’s a growing use of drones by US forces, a tacit involvement of elements of the Pakistani intelligence services, and a total inability of Afghan central government and security forces to get a handle on any of it, beset by corruption and incompetency in equal measure.

Of course with the amount of content made available today some interesting individual stories have emerged.The story of Combat Outpost Keating uncovered by the New York Times’ own investigation of the documents caught my eye as a tragic example of the difficulties faced by allied forces in the region.

But what’s interesting from a journalism point of view about the war logs is the fact that Wikileaks, an increasingly prominent whistle blowing website, chose to collaborate with The Guardian, The New York Times and German weekly Der Spiegel, forgoing their usual practice of putting whatever leaked material has come into their possession straight up on their own web servers.

Wikileaks founder and editor Julian Assange, recognised that they needed the help and investigative expertise of these three renowned publications to extract the real stories from the 90,000 or so documents, leaked by US army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning and probably others.

Assange described the three publications as “the best newspapers in the world for investigative research.” It shows that print media is still highly valued in the modern media environment despite the seemingly endless stream of negative stories about the decline of newspapers, mainly with cutbacks and job losses at a regional level.

On top of this the emergence of websites such as Wikileaks were seen as another nail in the coffin of print journalism. No longer would a whistleblower with sensitive information contact an investigative newspaper journalist but he would instead make contact with websites such as Assange’s who would then publish the information in its entirety online.

While local newspapers are perhaps hitting a terminal decline, today’s revelations show that at a national level the best investigative journalists, perhaps the bests journalists still ply their trade for newspapers and magazines. For an insight into how it all came about Nick Davies gives an excellent account of the story behind the story as part of The Guardian‘s coverage today.

Clearly whilst all three of the publications have made use of their online presence to present the war logs in an interesting and engaging way, their print editions will be most memorable.

Proof of that can be seen in Assange holding aloft a copy of today’s Guardian at his press conference this afternoon to show the world the results of the biggest leak in intelligence history.

On this evidence, the newspaper remains the first draft of history.

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Follow me on Twitter: @oconnellhugh