Letter from Simon Kelner... The Irish press is different – in a very positive way


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The Independent Online

To paraphrase the great polemical columnist Christopher Hitchens: Q: Why are journalists not liked by the general public? A: Because they get such a bad press.

This has certainly been true in recent weeks and months as the phone-hacking scandal has had a corrosive effect on the reputation of the whole industry. So it was a great pleasure for me last week to take part in a celebration of journalism rather than another counsel of despair.

The Irish Newspaper Awards were a jolly, and jolly interesting, affair. While the British equivalent is a dinner that generally goes on to the early hours of the morning, the Irish take the precaution of having a lunch that goes on to the early hours of the morning. The Irish industry is beset with many of the same problems as ours, but on the evidence of last week, their journalism is as robust as ever.

The red-top papers are full of brio – I particularly liked the front page which read "Killer otter ate my mini-van", and a banner headline whose forthright language could only appear in an Irish tabloid. Above a serious story about a political failure, the heading in big block capitals read: "Useless Gobshites". If a newspaper at its best speaks the language of its readers, then surely this was one of the best examples.

And at the other end of the market was Geraldine Kennedy, the recently retired editor of the Irish Times and that esteemed paper's first woman editor. (When she took the job, she made the point by replacing "Dear Sir" on the paper's letters page with "Madam". Cue much spluttering in traditional circles.)

Anyway, I was honoured to present Ms Kennedy with a lifetime achievement award, and was intrigued to learn that she herself was embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal. But they do things differently in Ireland. She had her phone hacked by the government. Yes, that's right.

She successfully sued the government of Charles Haughey for listening in on her calls and, later in her career, was the scourge of Bertie Ahern's administration when she was ordered to reveal her source for a story about alleged payments to Mr Ahern.

She destroyed the documents that would have identified her source, and the case went all the way to Ireland's Supreme Court, where she was vindicated.

I went from the awards ceremony to meet another great Irish journalist, my old friend Eamon Dunphy. He is one of Ireland's most renowned controversialists, and he makes it his job to have an opinion on every subject. He told me he's working on a memoir. Its proposed title? "Wrong About Everything".

The trip to Ireland, however, reaffirmed my faith that we get some things right.