(Editor’s note: This article was written, deliberately, before the May Day protests in Dublin – as an analysis of the media’s attitudes to the protests. In the end, there were some scenes of violence in Dublin – with around 25 protesters arrested)
A young man turns up on your doorstep. He is looking for your political and moral support. He is concerned at the increasing isolation and militarisation of your country, pointing out that in the last ten years at least 3,000 people have died while attempting to get in. That's ten times as many as died trying to cross the Berlin Wall in its thirty years history. He is concerned at the exploitation of immigrant workers. He is concerned that your government is aiding and abetting the US in its prosecution of the Iraq war despite its claims of neutrality. He is concerned that essential public services are being eroded and are soon to be handed over to private corporations with no obligation to the public good. Before long your access to health and education will depend solely on your income: no more state-provided safety net if you should lose your job. The gap between rich and poor is widening. He is concerned that large corporations, answerable only to their shareholders, have the government's ear, while voters are increasingly ignored in the shaping of policy. He wants to see a more equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation, with power devolved to the people most directly affected by its exercise.
Do you join him? Do you ask him for further information? Do you argue that market liberalisation is not as bad as he makes it out to be? Or do you slam the door and call the police to tell them there is a terrorist on your doorstep?
The reaction of the media – in particular the tabloid press – in Ireland in the run-up to May Day 2004 has been the latter, with one significant difference: it does not follow a discussion of the issues mentioned above – it precedes and to a great extent precludes any such discussion. The past month has seen a sustained and recklessly irresponsible smear campaign aimed at people protesting against European Union policy on the May weekend, a weekend which sees the accession of ten new countries to the EU, to be celebrated by a get together of all 25 heads of state in Farmleigh House, Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Among the activities planned for the weekend are street theatre, an immigrant solidarity picnic, a street party, and a mass cycle-ride through Dublin, but these are not what the papers are writing about.
The content of the scare stories in the press hardly needs detailed analysis. Stories about arms dumps and anarchist armies appeared in Ireland on Sunday and the News of the World. The Evening Herald and the Daily Star talked of sinister groups plotting to bring destruction and mayhem to Dublin. The broadsheets were more subtle, concentrating more on the security precautions being taken by the Garda Síochána (the Irish police force), precautions described by Aisling Reidy of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties as &ldquoheavy handed” and likely to &ldquoup the ante” rather than calm things down. (Organisers delivering leaflets have been stopped and questioned by gardaí.) Journalists will argue that the deployment of 5,000 gardaí and 2,500 soldiers is in itself newsworthy. It's a fair point, but it does make you wonder if putting nearly half the country's policemen on duty for a protest the gardaí now concede is likely to have no more than 250 or 300 troublemakers (Irish Times, April 29th) is not going too far.
The Dublin Grassroots Network, the broad-based network including anarchists, environmentalists, anti-war activists and Reclaim the Streets that organised many of the protests and actions over the weekend, did not take this lying down. Tens of thousands of leaflets were delivered from door to door and handed out at train stations. Their spokespeople turned up on radio shows and phone-ins and tackled misperceptions among politicians, for example Royston Brady, the mayor of Dublin, who had wrongly accused them of being against EU enlargement. This did not stop Dick Roche, minister of state for European affairs from twice repeating the charge on a radio show, even though he was corrected the first time he said it. William Hederman penned an article that was highly critical of the sensationalist press coverage in the Irish Times on April 14th and a week later Harry Brown decried &ldquosome of the most atrocious journalism in living memory” in the Evening Herald of all places. For a while it seemed the tide was going the protestors' way, with spokesperson Aileen O'Carroll appearing on the Late Late Show (one of Ireland's most widely watched television shows) on the 23rd and dismissing Darren Boyle of the Star as the &ldquoWalter Mitty of journalism.” Darren Boyle is the man who went to a publicly advertised meeting and wrote that he had infiltrated a secret meeting of violent anarchists. O'Carroll even got a chance to briefly discuss the target of the protests.