Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Freedom of the Press

The Father Kevin Reynolds libel case has opened Pandora’s Box for the Irish media. Things will never be the same again.

People who believe the Government’s request to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to investigate how Mission to Prey, the Prime Time Investigates program at the root of the problem, is a knee jerk response are completely mistaken.

The Government have no option but to initiate an inquiry, and it’s entirely possibly as a result of this that the Irish libel laws, which are restrictive in the first place, will become like an iron maiden for press freedom and for the public’s ability to correctly inform itself of what’s going on in the country and in the world.

This will be a disaster for the country, and if it comes to pass it will all be RTÉ’s fault.

Some weeks ago, the Phoenix magazine outlined the efforts made by Father Reynolds to clear his name before the program was broadcast. If even half the details outlined in that Phoenix story are true, this isn’t a case of an accidental libel, like printing a photo of a protest with a libelous placard that the picture desk didn’t spot in time. There were several stages at which RTÉ could have said: hold on, this doesn’t add up. Go back and make sure its true. They didn’t.

What RTÉ did, according the Phoenix, was the equivalent of climbing up on the roof of the house, standing on one leg, drinking a bottle of whiskey, dancing a jig and then being astonished when you fall off the roof and break your bloody neck.

Any step on its own was looking for trouble. To combine one after the other until disaster was categorically guaranteed suggests that RTÉ deserved all they got, and more.

The tragedy is that Ireland has never needed a free press more. One of the reasons that Irish politics is in such a wretched mess is because the journalism and reporting is so bad.

There is more than one reason for this, of course, and some of them are to do with the journalists themselves. Journalists are too easily swayed in Ireland because the country – and particularly the Bermuda triangle bound by Dáil Éireann, the Shelbourne Bar and Doheny and Nesbitt’s – is so very, very small. There is no self-regulation either because jobs are so few and so hard to come by. Nobody will bite a hand on which he or she may later rely for food.

But the other reason standards in Irish journalism are so low is because it’s so very difficult to raise legitimate issues of public interest without involuntarily libeling someone.

The press is permanently muzzled, and that stops them from doing their job, of holding the powerful accountable to the powerless. For instance; wouldn’t it be interesting to know just exactly how planning was granted for the different ghost estates in the country? Who voted yea, who voted nay, and why? But that question never gets asked, because councilors get their lawyers to write letters, and no provincial paper, in these times, could defend a hideously expensive libel case.

People don’t realise that they’re being kept in the dark because they do not trust the press to use their power wisely. You may think a particular politician a bum, a thief and a louse, but every five years you get a cut at him. You do not get a cut at the editor of a major national newspaper, or some wise guy who take a piece of you in print and make you a laughing stock in your community.

One of the editors of a major national newspaper – about to retire, if reports are to be believed – likes to complain loudly about the libel laws. His complaints would be easier to take if it were easier to believe that they arose out of a passion for freedom of speech, rather than freedom of his own speech. His frequent hectoring media performances suggest that he has a very particular view of who should be free to speak, and who should not.

And that won’t wash with people. The press, like Caesar’s wife, has to be above suspicion. People will not write a blank cheque for the Irish media until the Irish media proves itself responsible and worthy of the people’s trust.

The USA has the freest press in the world, and consequently the most responsible. For instance: The Chicago Sun-Times fired a TV critic for inaccurate reporting during the summer. Specifically, she wrote a review of a Glee concert that mentioned a song that was not performed at the concert. A Glee concert is about as trivial a thing as you can imagine, and they still canned her after seventeen years.

A famous writer and four editors of the Detroit Free Press were suspended without pay in 2005 because the writer wrote in a column that two former members of a College basketball team were at a game that they did not actually attend.

The players told the writer they were going but missed their flight or didn’t make it some other way, but really, it doesn’t matter to buggery whether the lads were there or not. The Detroit Free Press didn’t care. They issued the suspension on a matter of principle.

Hard to imagine anyone getting a hour on the naughty step for that sort of carry-on here – eh, readers?

RTÉ have pushed the cause of press freedom back to the Victorian Era, if not further, and the press are the people on whom we’re relying to investigate the Chinese walls between NAMA and the National Pension Reserve Fund, on whom we rely to tell us what our TDs do as we cannot possibly otherwise know, and on whom we rely to tell us what is going on Brussels and how will it shape our lives.

I hope RTÉ didn’t break that bottle of whiskey when they came off the roof that time. I think we could be glad of some anesthetic thinking about this.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Preventing the Future - Irish Politics Crippled by Lack of Vision

The spectacular trauma of the economic crash resulted in the current Government receiving the greatest popular mandate since the first Dáil itself. This should have Enda Kenny and his government a tremendous sense of power and purpose.

But the Government doesn’t seem empowered by the mandate, or even intimidated by it. It seems indifferent to it, the strangest reaction of all.

It’s like the coalition is unaware of the state of crisis in the country. Instead of realizing that they have been mandated to set the foundations of Ireland 3.0, the Government seem to think it’s business as usual.

It was Fianna Fáil’s turn, and now it’s our turn. So we’ll go through the same motions, but instead of their lads getting the gravy, it’ll be ours. Any notion of this being the sort of messing that sank the country in the first place seems beyond them.

The cynicism of the education cuts crystalizes the issue. For all their eagerness to use the IMF and the troika as an excuse, the Government is every bit as empowered to govern as any other government since the Treaty. Economic sovereignty has not been removed, contrary to popular belief.

The Government has to pay back the IMF just previous governments had to pay back loans gained in the money markets. The belt might be tighter, but the suit remains the same. It’s not like Michael Noonan is the first Irish Minister for Finance to look at an empty larder.

It’s a matter of supreme indifference to the IMF what the Government cut or don’t cut. All they care about is getting their money back. Because if they did care, the IMF would tell the Government that the proposed education cuts are not the way to go about planning for the future.

The particular cuts in question are the reduction in teacher numbers by two thousand and the ending of free post-graduate courses. Why cut two thousand teachers and post-grad grants? To save money. Are there other ways to save money? Yes, of course there are. So why choose this way? The reason for the cut is a legacy of the last government, but where and how deep is entirely up to the present one.

It could be An Spailpín’s cynical way of looking at the world, but the most obvious reason for making these cuts is because there’s no-one to complain. Two thousand teachers aren’t being laid off. Those teachers don’t exist yet, so nobody is fully sure if this is coming to their particular door.

The Teacher Unions represent current teachers, not projected ones. And while they should be looking to the future of their profession – well, it’s a fault in the Irish psyche that we value self-interest above all else.

It’s the same with post-grad grants. It’s a cut to the future, rather than the present. USI may huff and puff but once they’re marching down O’Connell Street, who’ll be able to tell them apart from Occupy Dame Street, The Irish Anti-War Movement or whatever other spurious organisations that have chosen that particular Saturday to waste the public’s time? Checkmate, sonny.

The Government was mandated to turn the system upside down, but it has no sense of that mandate. It has no sense of how the nation is at a crossroads in our history. It has no sense of that at all.

Tom Garvin published a book called Preventing the Future in 2006, about the myriad failures in Irish economic policy since the foundation of the state. But the subtext of the book is interesting – a tacit understanding that all those disasters are in the past, and that we have now started Ireland 2.0.

The same subtext is in David McWilliams’ Pope’s Children, for all he might try to reimagine it now – the idea that the Irish would never be so poor or so stupid again. The book is subtitled "Ireland's New Elite," after all.

There is no sense of how wrong that assumption proved to be being projected by the current Government. There is no sense of either a realization that the Irish are doomed to be poor or that the Irish are a nation who were on the cusp of something great, hit a bump in the road but is fully capable of rising again.

The current state of the nation is one or other of those alternatives. It cannot be both. And we need to know which it is if we are to progress.

Instead of answering that crucial question, the first six months of the administration have been spent on self-congratulation, optics, pope-bashing, losing a referendum and trying to pin the blame solely on Alan Shatter, now that Fianna Fáil aren’t around any more. It has not been spent in rolling up sleeves, taking stock or doing the vision thing.

The next six weeks will be about furiously shoving the round peg of no new taxes into the square hole of no new cuts. This is because finding jockeys for hobby-horses takes precedence over realizing that this Government has a mandate for change like no administration before.

It’s such a pity that they seem too dumb to realise what an incredible chance this is to change the country for ever. God help us all.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Diaspora v Deoraíocht - Correctly Describing the Irish Emigrant Experience

Emigration has been part of the Irish experience since the flight of the Earls at the start of the seventeenth century. But it’s only in the past sixteen years that we’ve described the vast Irish population that lives outside of the island itself as the diaspora.

In fact, we can pinpoint the exact date the Irish emigrant population became a diaspora – it was February 2nd, 1995.

A search of the entire Irish Times newspaper archive returns 2,287 hits for the word “diaspora.” The word appears 518 times between the paper’s first edition on March 29th, 1859 and February 2nd, 1995, an appearance rate that averages out at three times a year. “Diaspora” appears 1,769 times between February 3rd, 1995 and last Saturday, or once every three days. Quite the increase.

February 2nd, 1995, is the key date because that was when President Robinson delivered an address to the joint houses of the Oireachtas called “Cherishing the Irish Diaspora.” It’s clear from the simple but reasonable metric of the Irish Times diaspora hit-count that this address to Tithe an Oireachtais made the Irish emigrant experience synonymous with the word “diaspora.” The pity is that the world does not accurately describe the phenomenon.

There is an element of imposed foreign force to the leave-taking in other cultures that exhibit a diaspora. The Jews were forced from the Holy Land by anyone who showed up for the entirety of their history, and aren’t entirely welcome there now either. The African slaves were taken to America and the West Indies in ships where men had to lay in bunks that were sixteen inches wide and two per cent mortality was allowed for in the bookkeeping.

Emigration is not forced on the Irish. The Roman Empire isn’t billeted in Athlone. There are no slavers waiting in the harbour at Cobh. That does not mean the emigrants want to go – a visit to an airport and a count of red eyes and bitten lips will answer that question. But diaspora is the wrong word to use.

Ireland does not have a diaspora. It has a population in exile. And we have word that describes that condition of Irish exile exactly. The word is “deoraíocht.”

One of the more frequent criticisms of the Irish language is that it uses “makey-uppy” words, with “héileacaptar” and “teileascóp” being two of the more egregious examples. “Deoraíocht” dates back to Old Irish, the language heard by St Patrick during his slavery and his apostolate. There’s nothing makey-uppy about it.

“Deoraíocht” has a strong literary tradition. Pádraig Ó Conaire’s only novel is called “Deoraíocht,” the story of an Irish exile in London. One of the definitive accounts of the life of an Irish navvy in England after the Second World War is Donáll Mac Amhlaigh’s “Dialann Deoraí.”

The title has been translated in some places as diary of an emigrant but that’s not accurate; “Diary of an Exile” is the correct translation of “Dialann Deoraí,” as Valentin Iremonger, Mac Amhlaigh’s official translator, knew. There is a difference between being an emigrant and being an exile.

We can’t blame the waves of emigration from Ireland in the 1950s and 80s and now, or the steady trickle that’s always existed, on the British. Our condition of exile is our own fault. We were promised an Ireland that was Gaelic, united and free.

We’ve failed at every turn in creating a distinct, viable and independent state and people who can’t bear this failure feel they have no option other than exile. They don’t want to go but they want to stay even less.

Diaspora doesn’t describe that duality of not wanting to go and hating to stay. Exile does. The fact the Irish word has “deor,” meaning “tear,” as its route is especially poignant.

Michael D Higgins will be sworn in as the ninth President of Ireland on Friday. Higgins has already done his bit for the language in the founding of Teilifís na Gaeilge, now TG4, during his time as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

There’s a case to be made that the foundation of TG4 is the best thing to happen the language since the Gaelic League was founded by Douglas Hyde, the man who would go on to become the first President of Ireland. Now Hyde’s eighth successor has a chance to do something else for the language, and initiate the use of a particularly Irish word to describe a particularly Irish experience.

Mary Robinson spoke during her own inauguration in 1990 that Irish was an important part of our culture and that she herself planned to learn it: “Tá aistear eile le déanamh anois agam — aistear cultúrtha, leis an saibhreas iontach atá sa teanga Ghaeilge a bhaint amach díom féin.” (“I have another journey to make now – a cultural journey, to find the wonderful richness that is in the Irish language for myself.”)

It would be wonderful if our new President could restore the primacy of Irish to the Irish people and help us on our long journey to finding out just who exactly we are, whether we are at home or overseas. Go n-éirí leis.

Friday, November 04, 2011

George Hook

The great language of Yiddish has many beautiful words. “Zaftig” is the word for a beautiful woman who is, in Oscar Hammerstein II’s phrase, broad where a broad should be broad. Isn’t it fantastic? It’s a word that’s inherently delightful to say out loud, just for the joy of saying it.

“Chutzpah” is another one of those words. It means gall, or cheek, or nerve. It was exemplified by a man known to your correspondent in more dissolute days who was getting grief in the Dole Office at Augustine Street, Galway.

He claimed he was skint. The lady behind the hatch doubted the bone fides of his attempts to find work and, God bless her, she mightn’t have been far wrong. She demanded proof from my friend that he’d tried to find work in the next period or else his dole was getting cut.

My friend said he would certainly try to find work, but only if Rialtas na hÉireann, as represented by the Galway dole office, would provide him with stamps necessary to post letters of application in a pre-internet age. He could not buy stamps himself being, as we said at the start, skint.

Getting the dole office to buy your stamps is chutzpah. It’s a fantastic word, and a quality that is 98% galling but 2% a cause for admiration, for having the sheer neck to go for it.

Chutzpah does not even begin to describe two tweets from Mr George Hook last night. They are the first two in this screen shot:

Aren’t they astonishing? “Hook controversial by conviction; Dunphy by opportunism.” Indeed. Quite. Of course.

For those equally traumatised as your correspondent, help is at hand. The Phoenix Magazine printed a story on September 23rd about George and his adventures with Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V in a Rugby World Cup preview piece for the Indo. I’ve taken the liberty of scanning it – just click the image below and it should rise to legible and hilarious detail.

In the States, you get the road for doing that. But we’re currently redefining what we consider journalism here, aren’t we?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

David Norris and the Media

Failed Presidential candidate David Norris made a slightly petulant remark to Seán O’Rourke on Radio One late on Friday night, about his being “singled out for special treatment” in the media.

Senator Norris is quite correct in noting that he’d received special treatment but, in a coda apposite to his entire campaign, he still doesn’t realise that this special treatment was in his favour. The media did everything in their power to protect him from himself, until the task proved quite impossible in the end.

To give one concrete example: David Norris retired from the Presidential race at the start of August, and returned to it six weeks later, half-way through September. While David Norris was out of the race, he still remained an option in the opinion polls held during those six weeks. Why?

Once Gay Byrne stepped down from the race no pollsters bothered with him anymore, even though he had been a poll-topper, just as Norris had been. Nobody polled about Pat Cox once Foxy Coxy lost the Fine Gael selection convention to Gay Mitchell.

Opinion polls cost money. If Norris had second thoughts after his retirement from the race, it would have cost him serious wedge to commission a private poll to see what his standing was like in the country after the controversy broke. But he didn’t half to, because the pollsters were still including him fee gratis.

At any stage a poll commissioner could have told his or her pollsters to forget Norris; he’s history. But nobody did. The media left the door open for Norris’ return by providing him with tremendously useful polling data without his having to pay for it.

There is no such thing as unbiased news. It doesn’t exist. There is only a question of degree and direction of spin. For instance, if a media body condemns state-sponsored spin, it is good for the cautious citizen to wonder which spin it is they favour instead.

Media law in Ireland is such a mess that the media tends to self-police, which is not something Juvenal, of who guards the guardians fame, would approve. Self-policing manifests in different ways across different media; the Irish Times goes light on court cases involving travellers for instance, while the Sunday World can’t quite get enough of them.

But there are issues of which the media are of one mind, and do what is, in their opinion, their patriotic duty. This is the wearing of the infamous “green jersey.” The coverage of Queen’s Elizabeth’s visit is an example where everybody got with the program and nobody questioned the spin. Or at least, nobody important.

The problem with this “green jersey” stuff is that it’s not the media’s job to put the country first; it’s the media’s job to stress-test the institutions of state to ensure that the citizens know exactly what’s being done, or not done, in their name. A defense council in law has to examine every corner of the prosecution’s case and should always presume the client is innocent. The media should do the opposite, always presuming the Government is up to something and try desperately to find out what that something is.

That’s the theory. In practice, people have their own views and if they see a chance to do the country a favour by presenting their darling in as good a light as possible, that’s what they do.

The Irish media seems to have been of one mind on David Norris for years, before anybody thought of him as a Presidential candidate. John Waters outlined in the Irish Times last June the steps he himself took to save David Norris from himself when Waters was editor of Magill magazine in 2002 and Norris gave his infamous interview to Helen Lucy Burke.

Journalists hate giving interviewees sign-off on interviews. It doesn’t do much for objectivity. But both Waters and Helen Lucy Burke pleaded with Norris to amend what he said. Norris refused. The story went to print but it was never sensationalized, even though the views expressed were sensational, to say the very least.

Nobody else picked up on either because there was an understanding across all media that Norris was a National Treasure and wasn’t to be scrutinized as others are scrutinized. This tremendous regard for Norris lasted all though to September, to the extent of David Norris getting free poll data from a media that would not surrender its darling.

The Helen Lucy Burke interview with Norris wasn’t even a gaffe. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was a carefully thought out philosophy of life. But still its did their best to save the National Treasure.

Eventually they couldn’t, as Norris, whatever he may think, fell because he lives in a world that is utterly different to the rest of the country. Norris’ fall wasn’t to do with letters or disability claims. It was to do with his attitude to the difference between a child and an adult.

Not everybody gets the same benefit of the doubt as Norris enjoyed. The late Brian Lenihan famously dropped a clanger when he said “we all partied” during an interview on Prime Time in November of last year. Did RTÉ do a Waters/Burke and stop the camera to say: “hold on now Brian, that’ll sound awful. We know what you’re trying to say about the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years but that phrase will dump you in the smelly. Why don’t we have another crack at it?”

No, they did not. They just thought gotcha!, ran the piece and Lenihan was monstered over a slip of a tongue while there were much bigger issues in the content of what he had to say.

Senator Norris clearly feels battered by the campaign and he certainly suffered during it. Some of the stuff in The Star was particularly wretched and that is par of the course there of course, may God have mercy on them all. But reality is that the media protected David Norris for as long they possibly could, and he would be well advised to reflect deeply on that before he writes anything hasty in his memoirs.