Going for the ‘big story’ when there is no story is just pure badness

This will probably surprise a lot of people, but, I actually don’t remember the first piece of work keyboarded by yours truly to be published. It was for an in-house magazine in primary school. The subject matter being Zig and Zag going into space to watch a football match. There’d be a better chance of seeing one up there at the minute as the world remains in a state of paralysis, whether necessary or not. But that’s a horse of a different colour…

It was undoubtedly an obsession with sport – initially solely G. A. A. – coupled with an inability to write legibly by hand which nurtured a gra and, if I may say so myself, talent for typing out a report on any game I was at. Which in itself was the precursor to me going for and, eventually, becoming P. R. O. of St Peter’s G. A. A. Club.

Gut feeling is to believe that even without the latter development, sports journalism was always going to be the chosen career path. Simply as (a) partaking in sport wasn’t going to be an option and (b) neither was my absolute dream job of being a farmer in my own right. Of course, it was years later for all too short a period before being cruelly scythed out of my life without so much as explanation or apology. Eaten bread and all that…

Anyway, having ended up in third level education via the circuitous route, as part of my work experience therein, visits were undertaken to well known tourist attractions around Dublin to assess them for disability access. Results of my findings were thereafter published in Rehab’s Insight magazine.

In which they obviously caught the attention of the great people in Lynn Group Media who immediately commisioned me to write several pieces for their excellent hoganstand. com website and Royal County Meath G. A. A. Yearbook. As luck would have it, if this corner gets any luck, in a few months time they will be requsted to do a couple of fairly big jobs also. That’s a tale for another day.

Every writer worth their salt strives for and is buoyed by getting their work published on the highest profile platform available. Anybody that tells you otherwise must still be a customer of the Tooth Fairy! The other Mecca for someone in this trade is the ‘big’ story. Preferrably an exclusive, but, at the very least, a major topic on which comment can be passed.

However, everybody has to have standards. Not only in terms of work produced, but, perhaps even more importantly, how you go about construction of the end product. As Steve Staunton once infamously indicated, there’s a line you don’t cross.

Or at least you shouldn’t. Going after the ‘big story’ when there is in fact no story is just pure badness. Granted, it’s a completely different media world now. Even from the time I started out in earnest two decades ago. Which in itself promulgated the great contradiction in this business.

The ease and speed with which information is now available – to anybody and everybody – is both a blessing and a curse to the profession. Never reveal your source was one of the first sacrosanct dictums imparted when one was beginning pursuit of a hDip in journalism. However, the adendum to that directive was even more seminal – always check the credibility of the information and, more importantly, the person delivering it.

Of course, the problem is everybody and everything is a source. In a race to get one’s two cents out there first, thoughtfulness and decency often go out the window. And there’s been a grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented level of it lately.

Now, as proud as I was about the column keyboarded as my rebuttal to the scurrilous savagery directed at Sean Boylan and the wonderful men with whom he weaved such magic a couple of weeks ago, that a journalist, never mind one employed by a supposedly reputable publication would go to such lengths to sensationalise something which never should’ve been the subject matter in the first place couldn’t be let go unanswered.

Mind you, sadly, the episode in question was far from an isolated incident and, in fact, what prompted the words you are currently reading was not related to a sporting matter at all. But one where the basic tenets of respect and decency were abandonned and a line was crossed.

By now, political leanings in this seat are surely well known. However, catastrophic decisions which were made in the past cannot be shied away from and, Lord knows, all and sundry paid a horrendous price for those calls. As a result of which Fianna Fail took an absolute trouncing in the 2011 General Election.

After the Party’s standing was absolutely decimated therein, whoever took on the job of cleaning up the mess was going to be encumbered with the remains of a bomb site. At this point, it will be openly admitted that I had hoped the late Brian Lenihan would’ve been the person to lead the organisation back from the brink of oblivion.

That is not to say, mind you, that anything was or is held against Micheal Martin in a personal capacity. Having met the son of the gifted pugilist Paddy ‘Champ’ Martin on a few occasions, I know him to be an affable, decent person who would be more empathetic than a lot of high profile politicians or individuals having suffered enormous grief and sadness in his own life.

A family meeting with current Taoiseach Micheal Martin in Dunboyne Castle Hotel in May 2012

In this case, though, I cannot let my heart rule my head. Gut feeling has always been that Mr Martin has, at best, been too much of a nice guy to be in the toughest position of them all or at worst an unashamed yes man to masters with whom he or the Party shouldn’t have had any truck at all.

Going into to farcical ‘Confidence And Supply’ setup after the 2016 election was sheer lunacy. It was, after all, in everything but name, coalition with Fine Gael. Something for which he and his colleagues paid a heavy price at the election six months ago.

All because Micheal must have had splinters in his backside from sitting on the fence. Numerous opportunities presented themselves to bring down the last Government but were passed up. At a time when it would have been most advantageous for Fianna Fail to do so.

By not doing so, they were, rightly or wrongly, dubbed part of the last administration. On the back of which they actually ended up losing seats last February instead of gaining them. Having said that, they were still in the best position of any of the parties to form a government. Owing to public ire with the outgoing operation and the seemingly unanimous reluctance to go into an arrangement with Sinn Fein.

Which is where Martin erred. Had he had the courage to go in with Mary Lou McDonald’s party, he would not only have curried more favour with the public but also avoid the public perception that what has ended up being the Government wasn’t what was wanted. In fact representing a continuation of what had gone before.

Except from a Fianna Fail viewpoint it’s infinitely worse. Their leader has gone from sitting on the fence to being the man behind the wire with Leo Varadkar directing the firing squad behind his back. Exposing the yes man theory to unfortunately be on the money.

If he throws any more of his team under the bus the vehicle will be so far off the ground it will never need a jack. For it is now clear that the man, whose desire to be Taoiseach considerably outweighed common sense, obviously defenestrated Barry Cowen at political gunpoint from the overlords in blue.

Barry Cowen T.D.

Which – eventually I hear you say – conveys us to the nub of why what you are reading exists. Personally, I think the Taoiseach acted ridiculously hastily in defrocking the Clara man. Either in an attempt to show himself off or appease the wolf in sheep’s clothing seated at his left hand shoulder. Whatever his intentions were, they’ve backfired spectacularly. A cynic might say it was an attempt to weed out potential suitors to his position as Uachtarain of the Party but that’s a different story altogether.

Honestly, my major gripe with the political landscape at the moment is actually with the media. There’s a difference between the cases involving Cowen and erstwhile Deputy Leader Dara Calleary. The latter can have no complaints having lost the Agriculture portfolio.

Look, the restrictions are a pain in the ass. However, the Government can hardly feign shock at people’s frustration with the dictums when those charged with, legislatively speaking, putting them in place can’t even abide by the rules themselves. However, the real nub of what irks me about recent goings on is how details of these matters made it into the media in the first place.

With the Cowen case, my initial reaction was that it can only have been a mole within Fianna Fail after self betterment or somebody within a certain profession who had absolutely no business divulging such information. Mind you, if sources in touch with yours truly this evening are anyway near the mark it represents an even more grave overstepping of boundaries and status of the untouchable than was even thought possible.

The difference with the most recent furore is that the information obviously came from either someone at the function which shouldn’t have taken place or a source from the venue which staged it.

Where my misgivings with my fellow members of the media corp arrive is at the following. Firstly, I know it would be hypocritical of me in the extreme to knock them for at least following up on a tip they received, no more matter how unpalatable the source thereof was. In the case of the Barry Cowen case, though, coverage thereof should have ceased once the matter had been dealt with and he had been removed from office.

Continued pontification about the matter is unnecessary but even that would only be the tip of a very large iceberg compared to the utterly despicable spectacle of sections of the national media turning up in Clara on the morning of the funeral of Mrs May Cowen – wife of the late Ber and mother to Brian and Barry. That was wrong on so many levels.

Mrs Cowen, though a lady of the utmost standing in her community, was a private citizen. There would be absolutely no problem in the press attending if it were solely in tribute to the deceased. In reality, of course, it wouldn’t take somebody with the IQ of the late, great Stephen Hawking to figure out why they swarmed to the midlands town like bees to a flowerbed.

Enjoying time in the company of a good friend, former Taoiseach Brian Cowen in Fairyhouse before his illness

Simply to see could they stir any more dung given what has been transpiring in the recent past. Even at that, it would be bad enough prying into a time of indescribable upset for Barry and his family, but, photographing an obviously ill Brian Cowen in a wheelchair and sensationalising their intrusive coverage as follows ‘Cowen leaves hospital bed to attend mother’s funeral’.

Just in case anybody thinks I have the violins out for Fianna Fail, that similar stunts were pulled at the funerals of Mrs Eithne Kenny – mother of ex Taoiseach Enda – and Mrs Florence Noonan, the late wife or former Fine Gael politician Michael, was equally as distasteful and wrong.

Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Notwithstanding the damage the two sorry sagas have done to the status of the Fianna Fail party – which in fairness to Micheal Martin he did work steadfastly to restore from the debris of the 2011 election – the big losers from all the chaos, whether self inflicted or not, are Ireland’s farmers and the agriculture and agri-business sectors.

At a time when both need the strongest representation possible. To that end, the silence emanating from I. F. A. President Tim Cullinan and others within the Association has been deafening. Changing the chief in Agriculture House twice in such a short timespan would be chaotic enough at any time, but, when several crises continue to engulf the farming and agri-business sectors is pure lunacy. And in at least one of the cases, unnecessary. With cattle prices on the floor and the cost of weanlings and store stock unrealistic and unsustainable, it’s the imperfect storm.

That’s without even mentioning the herd of elephants in the room that goes by the name of BREXIT. If negotiations pertinent to the most pressing political issue of our time are not handled in a proper and efficient manner Irish agriculture and associated businesses could be absolutely decimated beyond salvation.

If an acceptable and workable solution is not arrived it, certain sectors of Irish agriculture may well go under. Chief among them suckler beef production. Which, apart from putting unsustainable pressure on the beef finishing industry, could also be fatal to the operations of farmers working with marginal land on fragmented farms. Thus, the future of Irish agriculture has never looked as perilous as is currently the case.

Take our own case as a starting point, small though it may be in scale. Strip away the whole debacle that is Covid-19 and the fact that both dad and Paul have been struck by illness and injury respectively at various stages during the year. More fundamentally, the fact simply was that the prices weanling and forward store heifers were commanding in marts around the country were eons above where we could afford to go.

Whilst at the same time finishers are being robbed hand over fist. Again there is personal experience to relate to in this corner. Despite swearing not to for the umpteenth time, we ended up with five heifers left behind – three Charolais and two Limousins.

By our estimation, two of the three CHX should’ve graded in the better R’s or possibly even been U-Grade. So, you can imagine the sickening shock it was to be informed two of the girls was stranded in the lowest of the R’s and the last one ostracised in the O Grades.

Our operation may pale in terms of scale compared to some finishers and feedlots, and be unique because of, cough, how we do things, but, my theory has always been that it shouldn’t matter if a producer is finishing six head a year or 600, the workload is as onerous.

In the eyes of the factories, though, there is a clear distinction. There is absolutely no way a farmer or feedlot finishing huge numbers would have the amount of deductions imposed on their stock as an ordinary farmer.

Anyway, the upshot of our factory disaster was that.. when it came to offloading my own last pair of Limousin heifers in the first week of March, it was an easy decision to point them towards Carnaross Mart. Consider that Kepak is only a reasonable wheelchair spin from our yard, but gut feeling still was that – even allowing for paying a local haulier to bring them down and mart commission, a trip to north Meath would deliver best bang for our buck.

In a bittersweet sort of way, that is exactly what transpired. There was vindication as well as satisfaction in seeing the two heifers sell very well on the day. However, cognisance of the prices they did achieve all too readily encapsulated exactly what is currently wrong with the beef industry.

My last two LMX heifers – for now…

The raw material is too dear. With weanling and store heifers out of our league, the only other way it would have been feasible for us to stay in beef production at this time would’ve been to go back to a calf-to-beef system which, though exactly what the heart desired, isn’t workable at this point in time either. Which is why, as many of you will hopefully have seen by now, we have branched into vegetable farming in recent months.

Doubtless,many will be wondering how an operation of such small scale could be justifiably defined as farming. In all honesty, the thought process in this seat was very similar in that, as per what the neighbour with whom closest bonds are held told me it was only something over five acres that constituted a farm.

There may have be to be a deviation from said mantra, though, after encountering an article in the Irish Country Living magazine which accompanies the Irish Farmers Journal. Therein resided the tale of a couple – domiciled in one of the cities as far as can be recalled – producing a fairly large volume and variety of crops from their rooftop vegetable farm. So I think I’ve every right to be proud of the box/bucket/growbag/pot/tub vegetable farm Susie and I set out about establishing somr months ago. Especially given that (potentially major) expansion plans may be afoot. More of that anon.

What began as a form of therapy for both of us after being apart for the first eight weeks of the lockdown and a painkiller for me with the cattle being gone has morphed into a potential business opportunity. My heart will forever be with livestock and machinery and, indeed, tentative early thoughts are already turning to a means and method of getting that going again.

The first vegetable harvest…

At the moment, mind you, there is absolutely zero incentive to go bovine shopping. Not only because markets are currently a disaster zone. Worse still, with the MERCOSUR issue still unresolved there remains a clear and present danger to an already exacerbated beef industry as it opens the door to the possibility of the market being flooded with South American beef which wouldn’t be expected to conform to the same rigorous production standards as is the case within the EU.

Thus, as if the bigger picture for agriculture and the agri-food sectors weren’t catastrophic enough, that the country is facing into the most ominous period to fall upon our most important industry since the Foot And Mouth outbreak of 2001 while the country is under the siege of political incompetence and disastrous embarrassment.

Former EU Commissioner for Ireland – Phil Hogan

Never was proper representation for this country within the bloc more important, though never has our standing in Brussels been so ludicrous. That should be the big story, nothing else.

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