Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Irish Times and online reader commentary

In May 2022 the Irish Times unveiled a new website and app with a significant redesign of its digital platforms.

Arc XP, a unit of the Washington Post, provided the content management system which produces Irish Times articles, videos, podcasts, photography and graphics across all of its platforms.

The Washington Post introduced the slogan "Democracy Dies in Darkness" in 2017 and the Irish Times adopted the slogan "Trusted journalism since 1859" as part of the recent revamp.

A version of the Washington Post slogan, "Democracies die behind closed doors" was used by Damon Keith, an African American appeal court judge, in a case brought after 9/11 (2001) by the Detroit Free Press, against the US government. Bob Woodward, the celebrated Watergate journalist, began using the expression "Democracy Dies in Darkness" but he thought it had been coined in the early 1970s before Watergate. Woodward also believed that the original was “Democracy dies in the dark.”

The New York Times introduced its famous slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print" in 1897. It was a time when yellow journalism was in the ascendant with sensationalism trumping facts. Newspaper owners William Randolph and Joseph Pulitzer led the fight for circulation. Yellow journalism is called tabloid journalism today.

The Irish Times slogan, "Trusted journalism since 1859," is weird given the history. The newspaper says today that "The Irish Times has delivered top quality news, opinion and analysis since it was first published in 1859."

Lawrence Edward Knox who had served in the British Army in the Crimea, at 22 years old founded the Irish Times newspaper in 1859. Knox said a year later that the newspaper was "the Protestant and Conservative daily paper."

The mainly middle-class Protestant population in Dublin was the newspaper's market. The Irish Times circulation was about 17,000 copies in 1862.

In the British Census of 1861 Roman Catholics (Gaelic Irish) accounted for 78% of the 5.8mn population on the island of Ireland. The ratio in County Dublin was 76%/24%.

The editors James Scott (1877-1899) and John E Healy (1907-1934) were in office during land agitation in Ireland and efforts by William Ewart Gladstone, the British prime minister, to provide Home Rule in Ireland. These editors were strong supporters of the British empire and crown. The third Home Rule Bill for Ireland proposed by a Liberal Party prime minister was in 1912.

Healy was both the editor of the Irish Times and the Dublin correspondent of the Times of London.

The first issue of the weekly edition of the Irish Times following the Easter Rising covered the weeks of April 29, May 6, and May 13, 1916. It had a first subheading that read 'The Darkest Week in the History of Dublin.' It was the most serious challenge to Norman/English/British rule since a Danish fort on high ground was developed into Dublin Castle from 1204 AD.

The Irish Times on May 10, 1916 called for General Sir John Maxwell, the British military governor in Ireland, to remain in control of the country: "Ireland needs a thorough clearance of all her elements of disaffection. It would be a national calamity if the politicians now beginning to be publicly irked by their enforced holiday, were to return prematurely to the control of Irish affairs. The country must be strengthened and re-established beyond their powers of injury."

The Irish Independent was more balanced in its denunciation of the "insane and criminal rising" in a May 4, 1916  editorial headlined 'Criminal Madness' "Sir Edward Carson’s movement in Ulster, with its threat of civil war, not only encouraged Germany to launch hostilities, but it practically set the example which other disaffected elements in the country took as an invitation to arm and drill for their own objects. If there had been no Ulster Volunteers, encouraged and protected by Sir Edward Carson and many others occupying high positions, there would have been no armed Sinn Feiners or Irish Volunteers." 

The Arnott business family bought the newspaper in 1873 after the death of the founder of the Irish Times, and the family had a majority stake in the business into the 1960s.

From 1859 to 1986 the editorship of the Irish Times was reserved for the Anglo-Irish Protestant minority.

Readers' feedback

Paul O'Neill, the current editor, commented in May that "functionality allowing readers to comment on selected articles has been under review and will return in the near future for subscribers."

This was two months ago and it appears that there is resistance to restoring this facility.

A reviewer of the book 'The Irish Times: 150 Years of Influence' by Terence Brown noted that there was no evidence of influence but "The first mention of the letters column as the focus of sustained debate on a particular topic occurs when the author discusses the liberal ethic controversy which so dominated the letters pages in the early months of 1950, that it was subsequently published in pamphlet form."

Another reviewer of Prof Brown's book noted "There are few instances of quotation from readers’ letters as a measure of its influence or lack of it. Measuring and proving an influence remains elusive which raises questions about the wisdom of including such as contentious term so prominently in the book’s title."

Online commentary poses a challenge for publishers but the likes of Facebook and Twitter should not have near-monopolies.

This is the positive attitude of the Financial Times.

"Readers’ comments are an integral part of They help to put our coverage in context and provide different perspectives on our journalism. Sometimes we get story ideas from these discussions, comments proving to be a starting point for another FT piece.

We are proud that the FT comments are, at their best, insightful, humorous, intellectually challenging and inclusive of diverse perspectives. In order for the comment space to function most effectively, we ask our readers to adhere to the set of guidelines below.

We are grateful to those who take the time to contribute to the FT and look forward to reading your comments."

"Comment is free," wrote Manchester Guardian editor CP Scott in 1921 on its first centenary "but facts are sacred." He added, "Fundamentally it implies honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community."

The Guardian name dates from 1959.

Paul O'Neill has written in his mission statement "Fact is sacred, and comment is free. We clearly separate one from the other. Our readers want access to the facts themselves and then they like to accept, or reject, our analysis of what they mean."

That is akin to a religious aspiration and philosophers may argue that "factual" is also an assertion of subjective values.

Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher, was famous for his Falsification Principle, which divided science from non-science. It suggests that for a theory to be scientific it must be able to be tested and proven false if that is possible. His example is that "all swans are white," can only be falsified by finding a black swan: "No number of sightings of white swans can prove the theory that all swans are white."

John Corvino, an American philosopher, proposes that we abandon the ambiguous fact/opinion distinction, and especially the dismissive retort “That’s just your opinion.”

The line between reporting and opinion is increasingly becoming blurred in newspapers.

Irish Times opinion pieces often include facts and in the past, it has typically been the online readers that have alerted the staff to false facts.

Newspaper firms have cut back on resources in modern times while debunking the conventional wisdom can take time and money.

A return to online readers' commentary for paid subscribers should come with guidelines similar to the FT - e.g no personal abuse of individual journalists.

Readers should also be warned about the restrictive Irish defamation laws e.g. here