Skip navigation

My political thoughts recently have been despondent. If you’ve a philosophical bent, this deeply critical essay on John Rawls might interest you: It paints Rawls as white, privileged and a creature of the 1960s, quite unsuited to our age in which discourse has been displaced by an insistence on taking sides. Of course, the taking of sides in a conflict has always been essential but something has changed. Philosophy is no longer widely accepted as where dispute takes place; its place is now disputed.

Clearly, there’s nothing new in this; anti-intellectualism is a long-term force. What seems to be new is the numbers. This is the age that motivated Bannon and Cummings to mobilise voters for Trump and Brexit. This is the age in which opposition to thought and theorising has inched towards majority support. Moreover, information technology has made such mobilisation effective.

In other words, John Rawls may well be the tiresome anachronism that Dominic Sandbrook suggests. However, that’s not because he represents a bourgeois, elite, liberal viewpoint but because he asked his interlocutors to engage in a thought experiment. My recent despondency arises from facing up to the question, whither democracy when opposition to the very idea of thought experiments, theorising, discourse, politics moves from a minority to a majority perspective.

When SF relate the actions of the Provisional IRA to earlier nationalist conflict, they uncover a problem with the application of the term, war crime/crime against humanity. The problem is that the term is modern and cannot be applied to atrocities committed prior to 1946.

In modern times when combatants choose to target civilians, it is not merely an outrage to be discussed but is to be considered formally as an international criminal offence. There are international tribunals at which defendants can be arraigned on charges of crimes against humanity/war crimes.

However, that was not the case prior to the end of WW2. Nuremberg marked something new: the concept of a crime against humanity, a war crime, an offence so hideous that no state can protect, forgive, or grant amnesty to a perpetrator. Now, there are some who oppose what happened at Nuremberg. They argue that international tribunals try only the defeated or that terrible things happen in all wars. They would prefer that no one is charged unless everyone who has behaved similarly is charged or feel that in war any behaviour is legal. They would prefer if those few who faced justice after WW2 had not been put in the dock in the name of humanity. However, whatever one’s position on Nuremberg, it remains true that it marks the birth of a legal concept: crime against humanity.

This creates a perhaps small but particular problem in Ireland. While it has now become commonplace to refer to the targeting of civilians – mostly by way of public bombs – by the Provisional IRA as war crimes, SF agitates to liken the Provo campaign to the1916 insurrection or the subsequent War of Independence. Whether or not one accepts any similarity is beside the point here for a very simple reason. It is true that atrocities committed during the War of Independence could be labelled crimes against humanity were they to be committed now, but the crime did not exist before Nuremberg. To emphasise, just as the charge could not be levelled at perpetrators of WW1 atrocities, crimes against humanity cannot relate to the Irish War of Independence.

Thus when the Irish make the distinction between on the one hand conflict/war* and even greater evil, accuracy demands that events prior to 1946 be labelled atrocities while those more recent can be labelled crimes against humanity. It might seem an insignificant difference but should explicit commemorative plaques be erected at the sites, the milder labelling of similar infamy could be seized upon and used to imply some sort of excuse. The reality would be that, say, tying prisoners to a bomb and detonating it would be an atrocity because it was early 20th century, whereas holding a family hostage, chaining a father to a car bomb and making him drive to a target would be a crime against humanity because it was late 20th century. The expectation, however, is that citizens would understand that the difference addresses a technical-legal requirement.


* It is common to object to the Provo. IRA’s actions being described as a war. However, if one accepts that they were waging a war of liberation, then the term war crime can apply to any atrocity committed; if one does not, then crime against humanity can apply.

Decades ago when first I began formally to study politics, my teachers certainly did not present clientelism as a virtue. On the contrary, it was presented as a stain on politics, a nasty problem that discouraged citizen participation in the great debates and facilitated election to the Dáil (parliament) of people uninterested in or unable, unsuited to making a meaningful contribution to our republic.

Two things were explained: i) the nature of clientelism and ii) why it occurred.

i) As the term suggests, a relationship changes. A citizen of the republic becomes a consumer of a service offered by a candidate or prospective candidate seeking election.

ii) A major root of the problem, the teacher explained, was the voting system, with its multi-seat constituencies (PRSTV). The notion was that when two candidates from the same party compete, they clearly can’t do so on political differences and therefore have to compete by offering personal services. This makes clear the purpose of the service; it is to avoid a clash of political ideas and to facilitate citizens in making voting decisions on the basis of non-political constituency activity.

Now, of course there’s more to it than that and the problem goes deeper than multi-seat constituencies. However, the reality is that in Ireland it is very unlikely that electoral success can be achieved without offering a personal service. This means that it is possible – even likely – that candidates with no thoughtful political standpoint will be successful.

On the other hand, many serious, thinking candidates tend to make a virtue of the requirement and argue that they are not offering a service but are staying in touch with constituents by way of advice clinics and attendance at all manner of local meetings. The reality is that the clients don’t see the difference and the population is largely composed of clients.

The Irish political system is one of pressure and delivery.* An effective public representative is one who helps to put pressure on “the establishment” (aka “the government” or “the political class”) in order to deliver resources to a constituency. An example: Although her party, Fine Gael, are in Government, my local FG TD (member of parliament) ends a leafleted communication with “keep the pressure on”, a reference to her role in campaigning for and delivering a swimming pool, and the need to apply pressure until the pool is built.

Here’s the thing: she’s not wrong; anyone seeking election has to play the system. Undoubtedly there are republican citizens who decry this parody of democracy but there’s no knowing their number. Moreover, because it is certain that they are spread among supporters and members of all parties and ideologies, it would be next to impossible to mobilise them in support of a republican, anti-system candidate.

Bluntly, there is an impasse: a stable, functioning, political system without real opposition. Rock solid conservatism.


The recent trawl through SF’s embarrassing material revealed some strange though non-violent stuff but rather than making fun of their support for the likes of 5G conspiracy, anti-flouridation etc. it might be better to look at the constituency whose support they are trying to attract.

The range spanning those who believe in one or more “alternatives” (e.g. reflexology, reiki, aromatherapy, homeopathy etc.), through anti-vax to the wilder extremes of conspiracies, contains an enormous number of potential voters. However, it has to be emphasised that a willingness to believe without the need for ordinary or conventional evidence may be as far as homogeneity goes. Nevertheless these are votes that are there to be won. As with any party or candidate with an informed eye to the main chance, SF can see this.

It is not, anyhow, merely a matter of numbers. There are two considerations: firstly, the credulity of the voters, and secondly the “anti-establishment” component which SF would expect to inveigle.

The Brexit campaign demonstrated all too well that an effective way of mobilising the support of gullible people is to identify what they say is important and tell them that a vote for a party or a cause will resolve their concerns. It is systematic and effective lying. It is also old and frankly routine in Ireland because of the Irish pressure/delivery political system in which every candidate is expected to identify concerns with a view to telling voters that they represent the voters’ best chance of ensuring delivery. It is hardly surprising then that an Irish party or candidate would work to get the votes of the huge number of people who are prepared to believe without evidence.

Leaving aside those who are credulous towards a mere one or two alternative practices but who otherwise resort to reason, there is an easy slide along the spectrum populated by anti-vaxers, covid deniers, chem-trail aficionados, 5-G’ers and even more extreme conspiracy fantasists. They like to present themselves as “anti-establishment”, not in the older, progressive sense of the term but in the recent, newly defined sense, rejecting science, education and the educated elite, established systems of government etc.

Their support and votes are there to be won by anyone marching under the banner of “anti-establishment”. It is vanishingly rare for an activist with roots in anti-establishment to talk openly about how their cherished term has been expropriated by their opponents, making “anti-establishment” the banner of Bannon and Trump, Boris, Brexit and Cummings, and the whole raft of free market ideologues whose stated objective is the destruction of the progressive structural gains of the past century, the very gains on which further left progress depends.

The appearance of RTE presenters and managers in flagrant defiance of Covid-19 obligations and all notions of common sense has prompted a familiar round of RTE bashing. At its core that’s a round in a struggle to privatise broadcasting or at least a major part of its funding.

The pity of it is that an opportunity is being wasted. Covid 19 together with Trump’s attempted coup have forced basic questions to the surface, questions about RTE’s coverage of public controversy. Rather than apologies, ducking and diving, and attempts to humiliate, there is a need to confront flaws in time-honoured practices and regulation.

However, something very blunt needs to be said at the outset. In present circumstances anyone in any walk of life who would attend a retirement party would have to be marked out as foolish or grossly out of touch with current events. That senior broadcasters and managers should be so marked raises not only doubts about them but also a fervent hope that competence and common sense across staff generally are not open to question.

1. The first Covid related challenge to old ways came when RTE was forced to break with impartial reporting in order to state openly that the 5-G scares were un (A more complete account appears here: ) Up to this point RTE did not editorialise on public controversy but dutifully reported all. The next departure came when RTE joined many media outlets in saying explicitly that Donald Trump’s election claims were without evidence.

There are two possible courses now. The most likely is that the present contentious period will be allowed slide by and the national broadcaster will return to strict impartiality as per its legal obligations. The other course is to face up to a challenge: that extraordinary events have demonstrated a need to decide for truth and to consider changes to the Broadcasting Acts.

The role of mainstream media generally and of RTE in spreading unfounded nonsense from anti-vax through alternative therapies and miracle cures to homeopathy cannot be forgotten. Being blunt once more, Andrew Wakefield was well served by media reporting and to too great an extent he still is. In short, now is the time to oblige public service media to decide for truth or at the very least to highlight the fact that many claims have no evidential basis. Many indeed are scams that while entertaining should not be facilitated.

2. The second Covid related challenge to old ways came with the daft RTE retirement party. Critics of the RTE staff who flouted social distancing practice make the point that the presenters must now recuse themselves from media discussion of matters relating to covid 19.

It’s a fair point but if it were generalised, it has the potential utterly to change broadcast coverage of political controversy, e.g. a broadcaster on an extraordinary salary would be required to recuse themselves from media discussion of matters relating to income.

Think of the officious distancing from membership of a political party. It would be most unusual that a card-carrying member of a political party would present a public controversy and on the odd occasion it has happened their membership was highlighted, yet a presenter with an extraordinary salary can present a controversy which relates to incomes and attention is not drawn to their interest.

This is not the time to pillory the foolish or campaign for privatisation. It is time for fundamental thought – time to take a red pen to the law controlling broadcast coverage of public controversy.

As Joe Biden inched towards 270, the institution that was journalism seemed at last to shift preceptively. Long used to news stories covered impartially, they now called a spade a spade or a lie a lie. Heretofore, they didn’t take sides; they simply reported.

It wasn’t as sudden as it might seem. Trump made it widespread and inevitable; his lies made impartial journalism look silly, extreme and irresponsible to the thinking people on whom journalism depends for its commercial survival. It remains to be seen if journalism will treat this explicit marking of lies as a once-off, stand-alone, Trump story and resume the impartial reporting of lies generally; or if it marks a change in journalism and its public service. Moreover, it must be added that impartiality is not something that can be abandoned lightly. It has honourable and sensible roots in history but the world changed and for decades now liars have known how to exploit impartial reporting by way of its rules and guidelines.

It may be that the earliest abandonment of impartial reporting was in Ireland when RTE decided explicitly to label the 5G myth a nonsense. The details are here:

It would be of enormous help in today’s world if journalism made an effort to save and redefine itself. Instead of trying to salvage an honoured place for news stories in this age, leaders in journalism should acknowledge its role in creating the problem. They provided years of respectful coverage of “alternative” nonsense, anti-vax, anti-science; in general they peddled a perverse grasp of anti-establishment. A great deal more is required now. If journalism is to change, it will be hard and the “news” conservatives will wallow and resist.

When I began to study politics formally, populism was rarely mentioned in Ireland. Clientelism – the reduction of citizens to mere clients of politicians – was a frequent concern of those who cherished democracy in its participative, republican sense. In particular it was conventional to argue that our voting system, PRSTV, encouraged clientelism. The reasoning was clear. Multi-seat meant that our larger parties tended to have more than one candidate per constituency. On what basis could these candidates, party colleagues, compete? Clearly they could not compete on policy or ideology, so they competed by offering constituency “services” – activity “on the ground”: clinics, advice, support etc. In other words they substituted the safety of activity on the ground for meaningful politics.

Today – apart from ideological surges in party support to, say, the Greens – clientelism is the norm. Being “active on the ground” is accepted as necessary to election. Now, no one at all is saying that clientelism is utterly incompatible with real discursive, republican politics. However, it is generally accepted that election is next to impossible without groundwork.

An aspiring election candidate would have to recognise that the route to success is by way of putting themselves around and convincing citizens to recognise them as one of the people who campaigns and delivers locally, and offers advice. A potential candidate would try to identify – even generate – local issues that were specifically theirs and they’d probably get upset when inevitably a rival would “steal” their initiative or issue.

The idea is to offer service, create obligations and accumulate loyal clients. There is not the slightest hint of criticism here; it’s merely recognition of perhaps the overwhelming majority’s understanding of the operation of the Irish political system. The point is that clientelism isn’t just a way for party colleagues to compete; it’s the way almost everyone competes.

There are of course hold-outs who want discursive, republican politics – who would never make a voting decision purely on the basis of groundwork – and importantly there are candidates who while striving to work within or make the best of a clientelist system, also want a republic. There’s no antagonism between these two.

The antagonism arises from conservatives, those so in favour of the clientelist system that they want to prevent it being criticised. They tend to respond to thoughtful comment with a range of dismissive abuse, e.g. “elitist”, “academic”, “out of touch”, “unelected”, “shut up and go knocking on doors” etc.

The old Irish clientelist approach comes right up to date when it is realised that Brexit was won by telling people that whatever their issue, it will be solved by a vote for us. This is the point at which old fashioned democrats become very worried about the future but if they say so, they will greatly annoy active clientelists and those who would reduce politics to an electoral game.


** Local Area Representative (LAR) is party recognition that an individual will be an election candidate.

There is a startling lacuna at the core of reactions to the abuse of a young staff member at UCD. Emphasis is on the system, while there is emptiness where ordinary people would expect to find personal integrity.

All the talk is of systems, organisations, policies and procedures, culture, training etc. Unfortunately it’s a familiar type of talk in Ireland where any curse-of-God excuse or fig leaf will do to avoid holding anyone – any real, live, breathing person – responsible.

Personal integrity is an ordinary matter

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone gets through life without occasionally having their integrity tested. The price to be paid, however, varies with circumstances. When faced with colleagues or superiors who accept wrongdoing, the consequences of standing up for what is right, decent and honest can range from appalling to trivial. There are vanishingly rare situations where showing integrity might risk death, imprisonment or exile and in such a situation fear unto dishonesty is understandable and forgivable; but that’s it, that’s the extent of excuses, because in most situations the risk is small. In truth the most common motivation for failing to act or speak with integrity is ambition for career advancement.

It is true too that in our times a calculating, professional, strategic way of thinking tends to be lauded and this provides a ready cover for acting without reference to good or bad, but integrity remains an everyday thing.

There are ordinary people who behave properly when their integrity is tested. They are rarely dealing with matters very serious but they speak up and/or act according to what is right – either morally or for the good of the organisation that employs them. In the short term they accept that they will anger the boss and their career may stall. In the long-term they may never recover that impetus for promotion but on the other hand they may come to be seen as having integrity, precisely what is required in a more senior position. Moreover, while it is unfortunately true that chancers lacking in integrity often make career progress, it is imperative that when they are found out, i.e. found to be “the wrong stuff”, they be required to go.

Now, let’s be quite clear. A person who abandons their integrity for the hope of career advancement reveals a paradox: They progress by being precisely the kind of person who is unsuited to a position of trust or of any importance.

Let’s now be brutally clear. We are not talking about just any organisation or institution; we are talking about a university, an institution in which citizens expect to find the highest standards. A person lacking in integrity should not be working there. Well OK, there are probably some mundane posts where integrity might not be of overriding importance but there can be no question about this: management posts cannot be held by other than people of the highest integrity.

Managerial responsibility

In the current controversy, with the exception of the offender, personal responsibility has not been mentioned. Indeed the status and collegiality of university has been exploited to ensure that individual blame does not feature in discussions. It is bizarrely implied that normal structural obligations just don’t exist, that despite management pay rates, line management doesn’t exist, that a misbehaving staff member is just a colleague answerable to no one, i.e. has no line manager and so on up the hierarchy. Clearly this is nonsense.

The scandal at UCD involved an experienced lecturer – an older man – repeatedly intruding into the life of a young woman colleague (a former student of his) with his romantic or sexual fantasy. Something blunt needs to be said: in any organisation a manager with a shred of decency and personal integrity would – and usually does – act decisively on finding out that one of their staff is an offender of this sort. There would be no prevarication, no talk of procedures, lack of training in dealing with such matters or any other deflection. A responsible person would act and sort out the details later. No other course is remotely acceptable.

Now it may be that the immediate manager was explicitly instructed by a more senior manager to take no action. That would attenuate and spreadthe personal responsibility.

The point is that in all the talk prompted by this matter, attention is confined to process, policy, procedure, structure – even culture, while a set of well-paid and high status managers is ignored. That’s just not on – either in terms of justice or in terms of management into the future. If it is the case that those in command played about within a system rather than acting immediately to take care of a young member of staff, they are not the people to manage a university. This needs to be addressed as surely as any redevelopment of procedures.

A closing point
If those involved in reform at UCD are adamant that the integrity of managers will not be questioned, then at the very least they must ensure that integrity will feature explicitly in their reformed system. They should demand that recruitment and promotion seek to attract candidates with integrity. If a person cannot speak up in the face of an overbearing superior or a mistaken consensus, then they are either too timid or too lacking in integrity to be appointed. How about: “All candidates for a management position must detail and be prepared to discuss instances in their career when their integrity was tested.” The existence of interview boards obliged to explore a candidate’s integrity would go some way to weeding out assenters, and to promoting management values that are in keeping with the questioning culture expected at a university.

It is an abuse of an entire age category and of ordinary language to describe the scenes at the Berlin “pub” in Dublin’s Dame Street as young people partying. Moreover, the entire debacle was essentially caused by official corruption of the licensing laws.

What the pictures showed was hooligans and hooliganism. It has become routine to refer to ordinary loutish behaviour as “partying”; “party” has become a verb for that purpose. Everyone is aware of this behaviour. It’s the sort of messing that holiday makers try to avoid and it attracts police attention in continental resorts. There is no reason why young people or party goers should identify with this or fear being mired in it.

Let’s be absolutely clear: the video footage showed what louts like to do on a night out.

It could be argued that louts are entitled to do their thing in private and that Berlin facilitated them. That would have been a persuasive civil-liberties argument in pre-covid times. Now doing their thing even in private presents a danger to public health and they are required in solidarity to stop.

There is also the strange matter of Berlin’s drinks licence. The strangeness lies in the decisions of public servants and official corruption of a regulatory system. As the LVA have been at pains to point out, Berlin is not a licensed pub. It is licensed as a restaurant and theatre. Clearly it is neither of those things. Sure, it serves food but under a sign advertising vodka and red bull as soup of the day. Sure, it has a raised dais in the basement on which someone may have performed but that’s it. The point is that citizens grasp ordinary concepts like restaurant and theatre. It is wrong that public servants be allowed to make a nonsense of that ordinary meaning and undermine law by pretending the existence of a theatre. Yes, you’ve guessed it: Berlin can have late night bar extensions.

If alcoholic drink licencing has become risible, let it be abolished and let anyone who wants to sell drink do so. However, if licensing is to be retained let it be made meaningful again. That would be an opportune time to clear out the public servants who turned it into a joke or who lacked integrity and merely cooperated with the joke.

Until there is a vaccine or the number of new cases has fallen to near zero, everyone has to evaluate risk. Risk, however, cannot be divorced from consequences. That is to say, a high risk of some trivial outcome (Say, cutting one’s finger) is clearly not as important as a low risk of some life-threatening consequence (Say, catching plague).

I’ve been quite the student of Covid since early 2020 but especially so since the lock-down. It’s been apparent for months that because it’s new, little is known about this disease. As expected, when new or different knowledge became available, discussion changed and so too did the sensible advice.*

The most consistent piece of information is that it’s relatively difficult to become infected in open well-aerated space, i.e. out of doors while keeping one’s distance. So then, here’s a list of things that I commonly did and enjoyed in my pre-Covid life and which I will not be doing for the foreseeable future.

Attending the gym

Travelling by bus, train or aircraft


Eating in restaurants and coffee bars

Going to the pub

Going to Richmond Park to support my team

Walking crowded streets

Having visitors to my home

Here’s hoping it ends soon so that I can relax into my old habits.


* There are many who cannot cope with this uncertainty and they’ve been doing their nuts especially on social media. Theirs is a political position; they want certainty, strong leaders and as little information as possible. They want their lives to flow without being confronted by pro and con arguments. Covid denies them the very possibility of such living but there’s no shortage of soothing, lying potential leaders.

I want to make just two points in relation to the Irish TV series “Normal People” and today’s normality.

Firstly, I was struck by the nastiness among friends and acquaintances throughout but particularly by the portrayal of the school in the early episodes. Yes, there might be an attempt to say that school cruelty was ever present but this is of a different order. I couldn’t shake from my mind the newspaper reports of the school in Leixlip which was at the centre of the Ana Kriegel murder. It is disturbing to think that the school in the TV series might be the norm, that the young people are broken into shifting, mutually antagonistic in and out groups who seem to hate one another and who are on the look out for a person they might destroy, not because of anything in particular but because … well, that’s the way things are. Five years in such a place would be a hellish experience. No parent with the remotest clue about the nature of the place would send their child there to endure that, to be schooled in perverse ways and to emerge most assuredly damaged.

Secondly, the young adults – and not merely the main characters – emerge with a showy sophistication but very limited options. In this dramatisation upward mobility – getting out and getting on – is still a possibility but it has become a narrow, insecure and finely determined course. The option of settling and having children while young is not available now. Maturity and meaningful adult independence must indefinitely be deferred. It can seem like independence, like they want to live a little and see the world first. In reality they are trapped by the economics and insecurity of our times, and by a pressure to conform to a pattern of living which includes living abroad – even when they don’t want it.

Here’s a tweet posted by Gemma O’Doherty in April 2020:


Psychopath, Bill Gates, whose vaccines have destroyed the lives of millions of children, is embedded in the Irish Deep State. If you consent to #LockdownIreland much longer, you won’t be allowed to leave your home without receiving a syringe of toxins. #COVID2019

Reading slowly, it becomes apparent that it is a very dense message. It’s carefully crafted to push a lot of buttons. There are two important groups who unfortunately will not give it the attention it deserves. Firstly, thinking people are likely to dismiss it out of hand as raving lunacy. Secondly, leftists wedded to the idea that fascism is the ever present threat which it is their mission to oppose will shoehorn it into that simplistic world view. It is of course raving lunacy and fascism continues to lurk in filthy corners but that should not prevent taking such messages seriously.

There is a constituency waiting for that message. They believe its parts, and the whole is familiar and credible to them. They will be encouraged that smart people oppose them and that socialists might think them nazis. Bluntly, the people at whom this message was aimed regard socialism, other thoughtful approaches, education, expertise, science etc. as establishment and they are profoundly anti-establishment.

The temptation is to view them sympathetically as the left-behind, the people whose hopes and ambitions vanished while a management, professional, university-educated elite settled into good jobs. The new elite offered to those left behind little more than a haughty explanation of a changed world to which they must submit – even though they have no future in that world. There’s a twofold problem with this approach. Not all of the left-behind are credulous anti-establishment. Moreover, many who are certainly not left behind are also credulous and anti-establishment (CAE).

If CAE is not explained by social class, there are two other approaches. One comes from psychology; it’s popular and has explanatory force. The idea is to look at what kind of personal satisfaction is gained from being CAE. A number of answers emerge but a popular one is that being CAE makes a person feel special, part of an insider group. There is little point in presenting here an overview of what psychologists have discovered about the satisfactions of being CAE as personal satisfactions reveal nothing about the social or political significance of what has become a political constituency.

A better approach might be to liberate CAE from its current manifestation, its views on present concerns, and look at it instead as a movement which has developed over years. It is difficult to decide on a starting point. There is a temptation to go back to the early days of mass democracy because democrats then were worried about franchise enlargement to include those unable or unwilling to reason and likely to fall victim to manipulators, demagogues.


A second temptation arrives back at the same period but relates to a quite different story. This is the temptation to find the roots of CAE in esoteric or spiritual movements which, though they claim descent from ancient times and practices, seem to blossom in the hey day of theosophy, the likes of Madam Blavatsky and, let’s call it, a romantic mysticism.

It’s possible, however, to locate a more recent starting point. Just a few decades ago the Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) movement developed. This saw significant numbers of people turning to beliefs, theories, cures, therapies for which there was no conventional explanation or evidence. Indeed the lack of evidence seems to be the main attraction and basic line of defence. As with today’s 5-G conspiracists, their obdurate stronghold is the rejection of all conventional evidence.

Sections of bookshops were set up to present this arrant nonsense and to serve the market for it. Conventional media reported it as if it were true. Health insurers paid for bogus therapies which their medical directors knew provided no medical benefit. (They still do.) State schools opened their doors to evening courses which their management knew or should have known had no educational benefit. Educational awards bodies sacrificed their credibility to recognise bogus disciplines.

What appeared in the 90s was a body of people large enough to support a thriving market. What these people had in common was a willingness to believe in powers, systems and cures for which there is absolutely no evidence or it might have to be said in order to humour them, for which there is no conventional evidence. The list is staggeringly long but includes reflexology, reiki, homeopathy, numerology, angel therapy, magnet therapy and on it goes … A comprehensive list is not essential to the argument here.


The point can be summarised thus. A believer in homeopathy should have no difficulty accepting that 5-G caused the Coronavirus for two reasons. Firstly, the evidential basis for both is equally absent. Secondly, adherents of both are actively promoting lies during this pandemic.

It has to be said that not all believers subscribe to the full range of beliefs. Many a believer in, say, Reiki or the power of orgonite might reject the notion of the deep state, the Illuminati and the Lizard People along with 5-G myths but that doesn’t change the fact that they believe something for which there is no evidence or, oops, no conventional evidence. These limited believers (LB) therefore actively contribute to the acceptance or normalisation of beliefs which have no foundation.

It’s important not to exaggerate the influence of light-hearted, entertaining interests in MBS but it has to be said that it just isn’t like an interest in science fiction or dragons, which participants know perfectly well doesn’t make truth claims. Belief in forces beyond discussion, however, does nothing to promote the ordinary conversations which are basic to society. This then is the LBs’ small contribution; they’ve helped normalise a refusal to engage in ordinary debate. Bluntly, they’ve helped make it acceptable to treat seriously views for which there is no justification.

There is now worldwide, accepted in local schools, bookshops, libraries, crossing socio-economic divides from poor to rich, from little education to highly educated, from menial employment to prosperous professionals, a huge constituency waiting to be addressed. They are the CAE. To gain the support of a fraction of them would make all the difference to a political candidate, movement or party.

The existence of this constituency is not a secret. They are real people; they have votes. They are there to be addressed but not in any conventional sense, for they are not amenable to argument. Apart from the possibility of a leader who shares their beliefs, they are there to hear lies. In truth it’s not unlike a lot of political campaigning in which a charlatan identifies people’s issues and concerns, tells them they share their concerns and asks for their vote or offers to lead them. It’s simple political marketing.

The tweet at the top of this piece is an all-out play for their support by pushing a lot of buttons at once but also in Ireland there has been a softer approach, a mere signalling to them that they are not being dismissed, that at least some politicians have what the CAE call an “open mind”, that they might be prepared to do their “own research”, i.e. believe something beyond what the scientific “establishment” treats as evidence. This softly, softly approach is in evidence when SF representatives and uncharacteristically one of the leaders of the Social Democrats show themselves open to the possibility that there really is a 5-G conspiracy.

Journalism and the political establishment have belatedly woken up to the dangers of lies, conspiracy theories and mass delusions. It was recognised as a problem to be tackled firstly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrated that the GAE could be mobilised and secondly, when coping with the Covid-19 pandemic was being undermined by widespread beliefs. It wasn’t simply that communication masts were vandalised and workers threatened by activists opposed to radio waves but people groomed on anti-vax, anti-government plots were prepared to believe that there is no virus, that it is all a grand plot by the “establishment” to control the “people”.

What is to be done? Assuming it is not too late, democrats must resist but democrats have not been forthright against un-reason. Journalism is at last seeing the danger, talking about fact-checking and discussing their role in support of the public sphere but they are not being entirely frank and there is no sign of change. They do not acknowledge the part they’ve played in popularising, normalising crazy beliefs and practices. Suffice it to mention Andrew Wakefield and the platform later given to those opposed to HPV vaccination. Mention too should be made of impartial reporting of nonsense or even conferring normality by way of presenting it as balance to conventional science. The covid epidemic has led RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, to say explicitly that the 5-G myth is untrue. However, there is no intention to say that of anything else – no matter how bizarre.

If journalism is not prepared to stand against unreason, that leaves just ordinary participant citizens; there’s no one else. They are thus required to question not merely in social media but in everyday life, to be prepared to ask a family member to stop pushing nonsense. Moreover, they are to be asked to speak up in this way not only when their relative, friend, neighbour or acquaintance is coming on strong with fantastic and dangerous conspiracy theories but when they talk of a recreational interest in the likes of reiki, chakras, energy channels etc. because that’s where the LB support lies. That’s a lot of – perhaps far too much – activism and courage to ask of ordinary citizens but then the context is that pompous guff despises their ordinary discussions and needs to be chased away.

Well, it’s happened before so it’s hardly surprising that we’re returning to consideration of “hard choices” and “austerity”. All the signs are that the established left will again play a part in ensuring that debate and courses of action will be limited, and will help to guarantee “austerity” while striking an “anti-austerity” pose.

What they most assuredly will not do is ask, “Are there other hard choices that we might consider, choices that might be unthinkable outside of a crisis?” or agree, “Of course public spending will have to be cut in order to preserve a functioning state.” and then ask, “How can public spending be cut in such a way that it primarily affects the rich?”

The rich? Deciding who is rich will always be controversial but something blunt can be said.

The majority of the rich work a neat trick. They exclude themselves by defining the rich as belonging to the 1%. Then for the majority of the rich the obvious way to preserve their privileged position is to say, take from the 1%. That’s fine but their corollary, that nothing must change until the 1% are tackled, is not fine. It’s evasive nonsense of course but oddly enough it is generally supported by the left.

Ordinary people – those on low incomes or the average industrial wage or the median income or even a fair bit above that—would not come to an easy agreement on what constitutes rich but it’s safe to suggest that all would regard as rich someone having an income of 150k p.a. The majority would regard an income of 100k as qualifying. Many would go lower. The point is that ordinary people think that rich reaches far lower than that 1%.

The established left disagrees. They will not interrogate the terms “hard choices” and “austerity”. Why? Because exploring, then listing, an expanded range of hard choices would draw anti-austerity activists into a real assault on a structure of inequality which is within reach of change. It’s much more agreeable to target the 1%, the banks, corporations, tax exiles etc. Indeed any curse of God thing can be targeted as long as the structure of relative advantage is maintained.

It’s likely that there are many hard choices beyond the conservative ritual but how about this for just ONE extra hard choice: let’s choose to place a ceiling on public service pay such as would achieve a required saving in public expenditure. Howls! Why the howls? Because it wouldn’t be … wait for it … fair. Ah, “fairness”, a notion most suited to operating within an established set of rules. It’s the word used to maintain relative advantage. It’s a refuge for conservatism.

There is too a variation on fairness and it is expressed in a self-absorbed take on equality. It defends inequality in public sector pay by saying that change cannot be applied to public sector workers in isolation, that nothing should happen until incomes in the private sector can be similarly treated. As a form of argument this is often encountered in a very different realm; it is used against putting war criminals on trial. In this regard it goes like this: no war criminal should face charges unless all face charges because to do otherwise would be …yes, unfair. Whether it is used against reforming income inequality or protecting monsters, it is a bizarre, conservative argument, deployed to prevent progress.

Then there’s what might be termed, decile defence. It has become routine to segment the range of income into deciles. The implication is that a top income ten times the bottom is normal, established. Moreover, not everyone in that top segment is a mere ten times; it includes much greater multiples. Uncritical discussion is how normalisation works. When a leftist deals with – discusses in any way – a ten tier ordering of income and does so without a word of criticism, they aid its normalisation; they take up a conservative position.

There is no question of saying that the establishment of decent or sane multiples is a panacea. What is odd is the degree to which anti-austerity by opposing all cuts has become conservative; it defends the incomes of people who are among the top earners in the country.

The Covid-19 public health emergency has pushed Irish broadcasters into a significant, perhaps fundamental, change in reporting. The system which underpins coverage of political controversy is dictated by the Broadcasting Acts. In essence the requirement is be fair to what might be termed stakeholders and to provide balance. In other words, editorialising is not permitted. That was the stable, well-understood practice for decades.

No matter how unproven, unscientific or wacky a view, if it was held by someone notable or could be used as counterbalance to create controversy, it would be presented without comment.

The idea that a view could be marked out as suspect, wrong or even dangerous nonsense was foreign to the practice of reporting. The 5-G conspiracy theory in a time of crisis for public health changed that.

Now, for years 5-G has been a staple among believers in alternative therapies/medicine, a state or world government or “big pharma” trying to dominate, poison or exploit “the people”, through vaccines, fluoridated water, chemicals sprayed from aircraft (chem trails) and a whole range of other strange fantasies.

5-G refers to a fifth generation of mobile communication operating at a higher frequency than earlier systems. The higher frequency reduces range and therefore to achieve coverage many more sites with aerials are required.

Electro-magnetic radiation (i.e. radio signals) or non-ionising radiation has long been confused with ionising or “atomic” radiation and this confusion has caused unnecessary fears.* Because some who have stoked these fears are qualified in science, it is implausible that they do not understand; it is more likely that their purpose is exploitation. In other words, 5-G is the latest in a long line of scare stories but it took a truly bizarre turn when its adherents linked it to the coronavirus outbreak. They tried to have people believe that the appearance of the virus in Wuhan coincided with and was caused by the switch-on of a 5-G system. The story spread among the credulous and scared them to the extent that they began to attack communication towers and the technical staff who attended to them. In the middle of a pandemic this was getting out of hand and something had to be done. In communication terms the public had to be informed that this was pure bunkum.

The national broadcaster, RTE, acted. The 5-G conspiracy theory was explicitly labelled as untrue. Three points need to be made at this stage. Firstly, RTE acted correctly. Secondly, a complainant might be successful in saying that RTE was wrong to editorialise and in breach of a statutory obligation. In the circumstances it is unlikely that anyone will complain. Thirdly and crucially, the decision to say that the 5-G conspiracy was untrue could not have been based on new data. To be blunt about this, if the 5-G conspiracy was untrue in April 2020, it was no less untrue in, say, April 2019.

This amounts to a troubling realisation: that a health emergency forced a national broadcaster to tell the truth. It is of course entirely possible that the causal link was not so direct: that until the emergency the broadcaster did not know the truth. In other words, that controversy during the emergency prompted or forced the broadcaster to check the veracity of the years-old 5-G myth. There is no need to pursue truth any further down this philosophical rabbit hole because a much wider problem for political communication has been opened to examination.

The conventional view among journalists and broadcasters now is that social media are the font of all nonsense and that public discourse requires dependable, professional journalists who will seek out, interrogate and tell the truth. Given that it took an emergency on the scale of a pandemic for news from just one source in Ireland to break with convention, find and tell the truth, it is clearly not the case that social media have a monopoly on spreading nonsense.

If the 5-G lie were were an isolated issue, nothing further need be said but that’s not the case. Journalism and broadcasting has a long history of neutral reporting of lies. Anti-vax is a case in point. In the late 90s Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a bogus study linking MMR vaccine and autism. Eventually he was forced to retract and he was struck off but not before mass media reported it extensively. It would have been reasonable to expect that his disgrace would signal the end of such nonsense but it merely signalled the beginning of a movement which has been damaging public health vaccination programmes for years. Serious illnesses like measles, once thought eradicated, have begun to reappear and cause deaths. In Ireland the proposal to vaccinate young people against HPV was resisted. This anti-vax movement gained ground when mass media reported utterly unproven claims of vaccine damage as if they were true. It left a suspicion that journalists and broadcasters were unable to distinguish between causation and correlation. The public health vaccination programme was saved when a dying young woman whom the vaccine would likely have protected, spoke out. Nevertheless, anti-vax remains and thrives. Even the disgraced Andrew Wakefield has been re-cycled as a media spokesperson.

Here’s the point. Support for wicked harmful nonsense did not originate in social media or even with the internet. Much of it predates social media. The public sphere was poisoned by professional reporting.

Broadcasters may choose to hide behind the legal obligations to avoid editorialising but they could – if competent in the most basic science – have questioned, investigated, found the truth and at least avoided reporting harmful nonsense.

The decision finally to label the 5-G scare as untrue merely highlights the extent of the problem. The truth claims of homeopathy are at least as daft and its practitioners have been claiming to cure or help to cure covid-19. There is no indication that RTE or anyone else will label homeopathy untrue and that observation can be extended to a whole range “miracle” cancer cures and much else.

Yes, the Irish Broadcasting Acts may need amendment but what is at issue is more fundamental. It goes to the core of what citizens might expect of their broadcasters and particularly their national broadcaster. It is entirely reasonable that Broadcasters be required to have both the interest and the technical ability to identify arrant nonsense. It is out of the question that myths, fantasies and general raiméis be passively reported as if they were true.


* Radiation is said to be ionising when it has sufficient power to crate ions, i.e. to shift electrons out of an atom. That power is related to the type of radiation and there is no evidence that electromagnetic radiation (radio signals) has this effect. The suspicion that it might is related to a paper published by The International Agency for Research Into Cancer, a part of the World Health Organisation. The paper refers to a particular cancer, to extensive use of a mobile phone held to the ear, and is clear that it is not making a finding of fact. (The paper can be accessed here: Moreover, it was published in 2011 when all mobile phones were held to the ear. It might be worth adding that ionising radiation is not bad; modern medicine in the form of X-rays etc. relies on it.

Archivists are concerned that the effective lifetime of a considerable amount of on-line record may be as brief as 90 days. Their response to this may be at the limits of what can be done or it may be conditioned by their own dated approach or both. The response in Ireland is an attempt to grab and store the content of web sites. These websites are the traditional sources of information (state agencies and the like) who now update regularly, in many cases making their earlier record impossible to retrieve. Clearly this is work worth doing but it may be missing some of the most influential comment which will be denied to tomorrow’s historians and give a wholly misleading impression of what happened.

A considerable amount – perhaps the bulk – of organised comment and influence has been occurring on Facebook and other social media. That is to say, it does not appear on any website. In April 2020 in Ireland racist, nationalist and anti-government sentiment was mobilised behind shared scare stories – lies – about possibly covid-carrying passengers being waved through the ports or forming close contact bus queues. Now, it would be impossible to have an understanding of this period in Ireland without consideration of this activity and yet it is not being archived. Indeed, it may not practicable or even possible to do so.

In Ireland there is a problem at the very core of the legislation and guidelines that govern broadcast coverage of public controversy. Despite their public service objectives, the Irish regulations are not overtly concerned with what citizens require. For that reason reform will have to involve a basic change, overturning the familiar practices of decades.

The difficulty with regulation as it stands now is that it serves those who appear on radio and TV and helps keep producers and journalists out of conflict with these contributors. In brief it could be put like this: if a broadcaster is fair to public figures and institutions, and is balanced in offering a rival perspective, everyone will be content. That “everyone”, however, does not refer to the audience, to citizens.

Now, broadcasters are highly competitive and commercial, and with on-line media ever increasing in importance, they will become more so. Whether state funded or not, they seek to maximise audience numbers. Their tendency merely to be commercial is constrained by a set of legal public service obligations. One of those obligations ensures that public controversy receives coverage, i.e. that news and current affairs feature strongly in their output. In other words, it is long accepted that coverage of public controversy is a public good which broadcasters must supply.

That coverage in turn has to be commercial, and in two senses. Firstly, public controversy is not the most obvious crowd pleaser. Secondly, there is nothing democratic about a small audience and there is a drive – while staying within the regulations – to attract as large an audience as possible.

The question that arises is who are the audience for public controversy. The easy answer is the Demos, all the citizens of the state. The difficulty of course is that many citizens are not interested while others are very interested and demanding. This reflects a traditional dilemma for public service broadcasters. Going back almost a century there is the requirement to achieve a viable content mix of entertainment, information and education. Much later came the realisation that there was a demand for two very different types of news service: one comprehensive for participative or republican citizens and another mainly entertaining but ringing an alarm bell if anything really serious was happening – for passive or liberal citizens who didn’t want to be bothered by politics.

It might be interesting to speculate how it came about that with everyone so aware that there was a dilemma concerning different audiences, the obligations for the treatment of public controversy came to focus so much on the establishment: the public figures and institutions, and the broadcasting/journalism profession. That, however, will have to be work for another day.

There is no feeble, uncontroversial way to put this: It is certainly undemocratic, if not completely ludicrous, to base public service obligations in relation to public discourse on the requirements of spokespersons and broadcasters. However, reform to make those obligations serve citizen requirements will mean deciding – at least within a part of overall output – to serve one audience rather than another.

Lest there be any confusion something needs emphasis at this point. There is not the slightest intention here to replace familiar, entertaining political coverage in news and interview form with a more serious minded approach. No matter how serious and demanding a citizen might be, without exception they like the entertaining approach and want it to continue.

Nothing is radical or odd in having a typical audience member in mind when broadcasting. It is commonplace to talk of addressing younger, older and all manner of different audiences; existing legislation requires service to minorities. Indeed, it would likely be daft even to consider the possibility that a broadcaster or journalist ever creates output with no one in mind. Occasionally it can go further with management providing a detailed profile of a typical member of a targeted audience.

However, when it comes to politics and public controversy, something strange happens: it is very often assumed that there is an undifferentiated audience, a Demos waiting to be addressed. The character, interests, outlook and political-communication requirements of that audience is assumed to be known.

Certainly an audience is being addressed and well-served but it is not the entire people. It is a part, the part that shares the general political outlook of the broadcasters, an outlook more basic than left-right division. Equally certainly the rest of the people have little choice but to make the best of what’s delivered, and because journalism generally can be poor and partisan, broadcast journalism tends to be recognised as relatively good.

Reform of legislation, therefore, will involve two radical breaks with tradition. Firstly, it will move to address the needs of the audience rather than programme participants. Indeed participants in a broadcast programme will be chosen on the basis of how best to serve an audience rather than the present practice of being fair to potential participants. Secondly – and it must be emphasised that this refers not to the entire service but to the delivery of broadcast politics – it will move to serve the needs of a particular type of audience rather than the entire national audience many of whom might express little or no interest in complex politics. The audience to be served in this case will very likely be a minority: those who are participative or republican citizens, those who want to be part of the public sphere, discussing all matters of political controversy and seeking broadcast coverage that will facilitate them, seeking the full range of perspectives, opinions, arguments and data to enable the republican citizen to explore, discuss, contribute and come to meaningful judgement on all matters affecting the republic.

There is nothing strange or new in seeking to serve the thinking, participative citizen; that’s always been the basic idea. What is new is the explicit recognition that all citizens do not share this participative level of interest and that serving any citizens by looking after the concerns of public figures and media staff is, well, frankly daft.

While republican reforms will replace decades-old rules designed to please – perhaps, appease – politicians, activists and journalists, it will not be necessary to have new complaints procedures to aid compliance; existing staff and processes will be fine as long as everyone involved understands the enormity of the change.

There are essentially just two entwined changes. Firstly, legislation needs to recognise the existence of republican citizens and to oblige the broadcaster to serve their specific political communication needs. Secondly, since the republican citizen is an active and conscious participant in the public sphere and wants to come to judgement on political controversies, legislation will oblige the broadcaster to deliver the necessary range and quality of data and – crucially – arguments.

1. Recognition that two distinct types of political journalism will need management

There are opposing pitfalls which have to be recognised. While no one wants an end to entertaining news and speculation about political celebrities and events, this admits a risk of trivialisation. A sensible approach would be to acknowledge the difficulty and place a formal onus on the broadcaster to deal with it. The stark reality is that there is a difference between the journalism which deals with political news, speculation, personalities and gossip and that which deals with political values, ideologies, theory and outcomes for citizens. The broadcaster can be made explicitly responsible for maintaining and managing the distinction in the interests of citizens.

2. The broadcaster will be obliged to deliver a service to the engaged/participative/republican citizen. This will mean a) an obligation to deliver arguments and to be responsible for their quality; and b) an obligation to have the selection of programme contributors determined by how best to deliver those arguments.

It is important to be clear on the enormity of the change required. The overwhelming majority of journalists see their role as merely reporting and assume little responsibility for the informative quality of what is reported. To burden the broadcaster (and by implication the staff employed) with responsibility for public discourse is a radical departure. This can be said despite the existing obligation to public discourse and journalists’ claims to public service because up to now it has been accepted that news delivery is sufficient.

Explicit Guidelines

* Coverage must address all political controversies and there can be no question of editorial picking and choosing other than that motivated by a commitment to the citizen seeking the fullest engagement. For fear a controversy might be overlooked, citizen initiative/suggestion will be sought and in the event of disputes, the matter can be considered as a Broadcasting Complaint.

* Appearances on politics programmes will be determined by contribution to a debate rather than any affiliation.

* Developed viewpoints which challenge a prevailing orthodoxy will be treated as especially useful.

* Complexity beyond the traditional notion of balance will be assumed and the fullest range of viewpoints will be sought and presented.

* Verifiable truth will be an overriding consideration.

* Interests will be explored, uncovered and made clear. That is to say, it will be assumed that different proposals will have better outcomes for some rather than others and it will be accepted that such information is vital for the citizen. In other words, when a policy or policy suggestion becomes a matter for discussion, the likely winners and losers will have to be made plain.

When discussion involves incomes or incomes policy, a contributor’s income if known will be stated; if not known, that will be stated.

* It would never be satisfactory in a democracy that those charged with nourishing the public sphere would dismiss an enquiry by recourse to simple “editorial judgement”. Excluding the vexatious or frivolous, all requests to explain an editorial decision or policy will be answered fully. Any dispute arising may be referred to the complaints procedure.

* Suggestions (accompanied by data) that a pattern of editorial decisions amount to an effective editorial policy will be similarly treated.

* A very short list of morally repugnant viewpoints will be developed, the purpose being to state that they will never be normalised. On all occasions where a programme contributor holds such a view or is a member of a group/party holding such a view, Broadcasters will be required to make that clear. For example, without a broadcaster’s clarifying comment, a racist will not be permitted to present themselves as normal by contributing to a discussion on, say, health.

* Broadcasters will not allow reliance on authority (e.g. religion) but will demand argument.

* Broadcasters will not permit contributors merely to “call-on” government to take action. In money matters this will demand clarity on priorities and funding either by a corresponding level of cuts to named spending or of new revenues.

* Broadcasters will ensure that mathematical, scientific, economic and other claims are competent.

* Broadcasters will ensure that alternative/complementary therapies are rigorously questioned and that they are not granted equivalence with science or medicine.

* With such a long tradition of politics being regarded predominantly as news and speculation about the activities of politicians, the change to more demanding – perhaps, theoretical – politics will have to be effected without undermining the traditional and frankly entertaining approach. There should, therefore, be two distinct editors: a politics editor charged with taking care of the republican citizen and a political affairs editor looking after news about politicians (leadership challenges, speculation about elections and the like) for a more general audience. (An early draft of this piece referred to the latter post as a “political gossip editor”!) It hardly needs to be said that the broadcaster will be required to indicate which service a programme or programme segment is offering and mixing the two, while inevitable in practice, will not be encouraged.

Something blunt needs to be said before closing.

This change is likely to be shocking for journalists/presenters who have built a career on a kind of anti-establishment. Everyone approves the interviewer who is seen to ask difficult questions but too often this has been a service to those who want to be outraged, who are antagonistic to politics itself, who are poorly informed, who prefer gossip, catch phrases, familiar story frames and an absence of complexity, maths or science. In future an anti-establishment service will have to mean insistence on higher standards of contribution.

Long before the covid-19 crisis there was comment on the gradual development of a societal problem, a relatively large number of people who can be characterised thus:

# They do not use mass media, and tend to refer to print, radio and TV as “old people’s media”.

# They have a very restricted group of contacts both in the real world and on social media. Their attitude to polls is revealing; they don’t believe polls because they’ve never been polled and because the results never conform to the views of people they know – on or off-line.

# They confine participation in discourse to a select number of issues shared by on-line friends, groups, and chosen “influencers”.

# They regard all opinions as free and equal, and do not particularly value education or expertise.

# They are actively antithetical to anything they consider “establishment” and they utterly disparage politics.

This is the large cohort identified by Steve Bannon and later Dominic Cummings as ripe for mobilisation behind Trump, Brexit and Johnson. Conventional media and the political system were powerless against political and social media sophisticates who knew this cohort, its vulnerabilities and triggers.

It might now be educative to speculate on the likely attitude and actions of this cohort to the covid-19 crisis and in particular to controls on movement.

Many of this cohort would not be aware of the crisis in any detail, neither would they have been in discussions with any informed person. Insofar as they might be aware of the science, they would regard it as an opinion, having the same status as their own opinion or that of their chosen influencers. They would regard controls as an assault on their freedom and what they would expect of the derided establishment; they would resist, mock and very likely express this by doing the opposite.

Citizens outside of this cohort who participate generally speaking in a world of discursive politics, daily news and meaningful conversation look at behaviour in breach of advice and controls re Covid-19 and tend to see it as stupidity or mindlessness. They are wrong. They should look at it rather as the behaviour of people with whom they share very little, perhaps almost nothing. It is an exaggeration but it might be useful to view the cohort as a long neglected tribe allowed to grow in numbers, easily manipulated, sharing little culturally with the educated, informed majority but now posing a health risk.

This problem didn’t start with Covid-19; it has been developing for decades.




We are quite used to the idea that newspaper editors bear responsibility for public discourse. With the rise and reach of social media a similar responsibility has fallen to ordinary people who never expected it – people with no background in journalism or political communication. These are people who started or took over on-line sites that they never imagined would be hot spots for political struggle. They now find they are moderators, trying to square freedom of expression with organised attempts to dominate their sites. Typically these sites are local to an area or an interest and the interest is frequently nostalgia; memory sites, old pictures etc. are sitting ducks for reasonably organised intrusion.

The pattern seems to be fairly consistent. It usually begins with what might be termed a “Michael Collins appreciation society”. These activists extol Michael Collins and use this to deride today’s political leaders often as “traitors” to “the people”. The SF and/or IRA activists arrive a short time later, at which point the Michael Collins activists go quiet. Finally, the 5-G activists arrive and they tend to encompass anti-vax and other “alternative” views. Racists are prominent too, blaming change on foreigners, refugees, etc. but they don’t appear to be acting in an organised way.

Sometimes the intrusive activists take over, rendering the admins powerless. Other times an admin sees the problem in time and takes decisive action but at the cost of considerable pressure and abuse in the form of bogus defence of freedom of expression. Occasionally, ordinary people give up and leave the site to the activists. It can then rumble on picking up small numbers of adherents from the wider web, people who would know nothing of the previous process.

It is a great deal to ask of a site admin/moderator that they resist organised activists but their position is made worse by the failure of ordinary people to support them. Yes, it’s hard to speak up and much easier to leave them to it, but this is a struggle and remaining quiet is taking sides. The intrusive activists rely on most people lacking the nerve to tackle them.

The maths guy from Maynooth University was on the Radio a short while ago. He heads up a large team which does the Covid-19 predictive modelling for government. He had a small degree of relatively good news and he was very careful to lay out its limitations and conditions. Time and again the interviewer pushed him for certainty. Of course everyone would like certainty in these dreadful times but the memory of a long-established pattern intruded. It had a long time ago become the norm for broadcasters to ask for guarantees and “promises”. They simply do not accept an uncertain answer. A line of questioning which would explore the degree of risk would appear to be out of the question.

It may be that at least some broadcasters themselves do not have the ability to discuss risk. It may be that they see themselves serving that portion of the audience which doesn’t understand risk, rather than a better informed audience.

In either case the problem points to a failure in mass education at a very basic level. Risk and probability are the very stuff of political discourse. A detailed knowledge of the maths is not at all required but quite simply it should not be possible to leave school with an intractable desire for certainty and an inability to cope with a debate involving risk.

Right now discussions about policy for Covid-19 have illustrated a communication problem within democracy.







There are so many of my friends expressing frustration that people are not practising rigorous social distancing. Thinking them fools, irresponsible or malicious may be correct but let’s consider something very different.

That those congregating in public genuinely don’t know the danger or at least the real extent of it.

Long before this crisis, academics in all disciplines impinging on communication were talking about communication bubbles and information deprivation, and it featured frequently in mass media – the very media that no longer reach the people who may be causing the hazard.

It was years ago that I heard daily broadcast news described as something for old people. Among those aware of the shift to social media, the most common suggested remedy is to aim social media specifically at the young. There are two failings in this.

Firstly, it is not a problem confined to young people and secondly, putting material on social media is not sufficient to gain the attention of those behaving dangerously; they won’t necessarily see it.

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Surveys are rubbish. I’ve never been surveyed and it’s the same for my friends.” More seriously, there is considerable evidence to show that people with extreme views – racists etc. – consider themselves normal because their views are normal within their circles. Their circle is all they know.

Facebook’s fundamental position is liberal – private – as opposed to republican – participative. They encourage members to cut off those who annoy them or simply differ. Opinions are to be respected as an entitlement and certainly not as an invitation to argue. There are enormous political consequences but this is not the place to discuss them.

The point here is that large numbers of people have placed themselves beyond the reach of public discourse. It is entirely possible that those who are standing closely together, let their children mix etc. know little of what is going on.

Two groups among those concerned about breaches of social distancing need to think. Firstly, republican or participative citizens cannot fail to be aware that even in normal times many people have no desire to engage with society. Secondly, there are people who have placed themselves inside a participative bubble and that’s paradoxical. What it means is that discursive well-informed people in their own bubble are utterly cut off from and find incomprehensible those who appear to be out of touch with the seriousness of our crisis. They get angry and frustrated, and assume that people congregating are stupid or perverse.

What they need to consider is that in our time technology has facilitated a situation in which people living in different worlds or at least bubbles are sharing streets and parks.


There have been suggestions that influencers be targeted and asked to address their followers. This has attractions but the world of influencers is not unitary and operates by splitting numbers into devotees disconnected from a wider world.

Those people dangerously wandering about are a product of our technology. Until recently they were a problem for those concerned about democracy. Now they are a hazard to public health.