Sean O’Conaill © Reality Jan 2012
At this time in the history of the island, word spread of a new power in the land. Its representatives had fascinating information to impart. These personalities had new ways of looking at the world, a capacity to set people talking and to widen everyone’s horizons. They channeled information from far overseas, greatly expanding the data that people had access to. People found them reliable, and came to trust this new power. Those who had previously most influenced the thinking of the people gradually lost that influence. The new institution came to change how everyone behaved, and to determine what they talked about.
As time passed the prestige of this new power grew enormously on the island, until its name was known by everyone, and millions listened. It came to determine who was to be honoured and who to be shamed, and even to influence the government of the island.
Then, unexpectedly, people learned that this new institution had abused its extraordinary power, and had acted with complete injustice. Suddenly the spotlight that the institution had focused on others was now focused on itself. The people sensed an important turning point, and were angry that the trust they had placed in this institution had been betrayed.
If you have guessed by now that the institution described above is RTE, and the modern Irish media generally, you are quite correct. But notice something else. This plotline accurately fits the history of another very different institution – the Irish Catholic Church.
Of course the history of the latter is to be measured in centuries rather than decades, but otherwise there are striking similarities in the history of the Irish media, and the history of the Catholic church in Ireland.
The most striking similarity is the power that both acquired to utterly change the way of life of an entire people. Both brought new information from the outside world, and new personalities, and both addressed fundamental questions that we all ask: just how valuable and important am I in the scheme of things, and how should I live to be worthy of respect? They therefore both sidelined the previous mentors of the Irish people and acquired an unparalleled power to influence Irish behaviour.
This gave them both in the end the same power to honour some people and to shame others – to make saints or celebrities or winners of some and villains or sinners or losers of others. There is no greater power than the power to broker honour and shame – and this power is supremely dangerous. We now know for certain that sooner or later those who exercise too much of this power will overreach and act unjustly. We have now seen that happen both to Irish Catholic clergy and to Irish media executives – in the same short time span. This gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn, and to draw conclusions.
Those who draw the conclusion ‘the Catholic Church is evil and should be destroyed’ are as mistaken as those who shout ‘the media are all evil and bigoted’. A more correct conclusion is that power is deeply problematic for us humans, and must never be absolute. An even more important conclusion is that every one of us has a part to play in limiting the power that is given to any institution.
The saving grace of the media is that it embraces a wide range of different outlets, and includes journalists of real integrity and courage. Had it not been for good journalists in the Irish secular media we would know little of serious abuses of power by, for example, negligent bishops and too many of those who ran Catholic institutions for the poorest children in Ireland in the last century.
The main saving grace of the Catholic Church is that it provides us with a founding figure who saw it as his primary mission to assure the sinners and losers of this world that they were, in reality, lovable and loved. When the power brokers of honour and shame of his own time turned on him he identified precisely the core problem of human society:
“You look to one another for approval!”
Looking to one another for approval, rather than to something far more reliable, we humans are extremely vulnerable to being influenced by others, and to vanity, the tendency to seek public admiration. We do this because we are supremely unsure of our own value – unless we do what all the great mystics have done. This is to seek and then to rely upon, an unfailing source of self-esteem that has nothing to do with what other humans think of us. Following Jesus of Nazareth, many of the greatest Christian mystics were also members of the Catholic Church.
The abuse of power on the other hand has almost always something to do with seeking, or trying to hold on to, the approval of others. Catholic bishops would not have concealed clerical abuse if they had not been concerned about the clerical church losing the approval of those who finance the institution. Media executives would not allow false accusations to be made by their reporters if they were not concerned about winning the approval of their paying customers, especially those with an appetite for scandal.
What feeds the worst of the media is this human appetite for scandal – bad news about other people, and especially about those who have enjoyed more esteem. To reduce the power of the gutter media, those who patronise it really need to think hard about why they do so. If they really need to hear bad news about others, what does that say about their own self-esteem?
We also need to notice the full significance of the mistake made by RTE in relation to Fr Kevin Reynolds – falsely accused by Prime Time Investigates of fathering a child through rape of a young African girl. For the first time in two decades the full glare of the Irish media spotlight turned now on the media itself, and this time the scandal has to do with the media’s abuse of power. No one should miss the significance of that. This horrible error marks a critical turning point in the history of Irish scandal.
For the most powerful brokers of honour and shame in Irish society are no longer now the leaders of the Catholic Church, but the most powerful executives in the Irish media. They have an almost absolute power to make, and destroy, the reputation of anyone they focus on. If there is a better media concerned above all about justice, shouldn’t it now turn its attention to this imbalance of power, and deal with abusive reporting as fiercely as it has dealt with clerics and religious who have abused power? Shouldn’t our best newspapers now have media correspondents as well as religious affairs correspondents?
Knowing as I do some of the best Irish journalists I know that they would fully agree with this point, and were as disturbed by the RTE mistake as any Catholic. We may yet see an Irish media that is as self-critical as it is critical of other institutions.
As for those journalists who can’t take this point, and who want to go on seeing the Irish Catholic Church as the root of all evil in Ireland, their bias will now stand out in stark relief. No sensible person can now argue that the media too don’t illustrate the truth that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Catholics can take pride that it was a Catholic historian, Lord Acton, who first formulated that conclusion in 1887, and that their church has produced outstanding servants of justice. Assured by our founder that God’s love for all of us is unfailing, we don’t need the uniform approval of the media, and we don’t need to get angry when the media are unfair. That unfairness will not go unnoticed by all concerned about the truth – and sooner or later a balance will be restored.
Nor should Catholics resent their church’s loss of power in Ireland. We are now far less vulnerable to scandal – and the light of those many Catholics who have always served the Irish people well will now shine far more brightly.