Amnesty, the law and media bias

By David Mullins

Last Friday Amnesty International Ireland confirmed that the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) had found it to be in open breach of these laws with respect to how it had used a grant of €137,000 for Irish abortion reform from billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Amnesty is defying SIPO by refusing to hand back the money.

SIPO is the statutory body established to oversee and monitor compliance with, among other things, the provisions of the 2007 Electoral Act. Except for occasional instances, it usually performs its work well out of the public spotlight. Part of its compliance remit relates to ensuring that any funding received by “Third Party” (civil society) interests political purposes fall within strict funding limits. This includes foreign funding.

By and large this is an excellent principle. It operates as a kind of guarantee, seeking to ensure that the democratic process is free from excessive and well financed outside interests.

Amnesty’s statement in reaction to the SIPO finding was staggering, blindsiding even those who may have once cheered it on. In a fit of institutional pique and hubris, it declared that the law was draconian and a threat to the very foundations of civil society.

Amnesty, it said, was being “targeted” by Ireland for its human rights work. Just let the absurdity of that claim sink in. If anything, in terms of public discourse Amnesty has enjoyed uncritical and privileged status here for at least a decade.

It went on to also say that Ireland was now effectively akin to an anti “human rights” State whose regulatory body, SIPO, was becoming a cat’s paw for groups seeking to “weaponise” our electoral law against Amnesty.

Hyperbole aside, this is a breathtaking, not to mention, ill-judged reaction. The message from Amnesty was clear: the end justifies the means. If reforming abortion law means breaking electoral law, so be it.

At a more fundamental level however, the almost total ‘radio silence’ from the mainstream media regarding this issue has been extraordinary and is of more lasting concern.

While the calls for scrutiny and accountability have raged online, traditional media has either completely ignored the scandal or downplayed it’s significance in a feeble display of journalistic soft focus coverage.

One need only imagine the frenzy of media scrutiny that would occur if say, the Iona Institute, the Pro-Life Campaign or the Life Institute was found to have illegally used €137,000 for the purpose of retaining the Eighth Amendment.

What this sorry episode has unambiguously revealed is that bias is systemic in the Irish media.

Over 100 years ago, the scourge of journalists everywhere, Karl Krauss, wrote rather despairingly of living in “an epoch where twice each day things of no importance are repeated twenty times, impressions of impressions.”

We may well ask ourselves has anything changed?

As the Amnesty controversy cries out for exposure, media have given more print space to ‘I’m a celebrity, Get me out of Here.’

What that means for our democracy is anyone’s guess.