Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: May 2018

During the weeks of the campaign on the proposal to remove the 8th admendment from the Irish constitution, journalists and programme producers – especially at RTE – time and again selected Mary Lou McDonald, President of Sinn Féin, to make the case for repeal. She did it very well and I agree with what she had to say. There was nothing exceptional in the content of her remarks and any number of people could have been chosen to make them. There are reasons why she seemed an obvious choice. It was fitting that a woman make the case and it added to the attraction that she’s well known, articulate, smart and the leader of the third largest party in the Oireachtas. A far more important consideration was, however, ignored when selecting her for such prominence.

The very deliberate level of favourable exposure radically unbalanced coverage of our most fraught public controversy. She and her party want it accepted, made normal, that the military campaign of the Provisional IRA be commemorated and celebrated like other violent parts of our history. While holding this view, she nevertheless wants to be accepted as a reasonable, decent person and a tolerable contributor to all manner of public debates. In this she and her party are routinely facilitated by docile editorial decisions, apparently unconcerned that in other countries something so vile would be supported only by pariahs.

Many countries – perhaps all countries – honour their freedom fighters and their war heroes. Given that terrible things happen in war – war crimes – they tend to be ashamed of such incidents and to accentuate heroism and bravery. If the Provo IRA’s campaign had been a war of liberation with rare or even occasional lapses into war crimes, Ireland could follow that pattern of commemoration.

That is not possible because that IRA campaign was largely composed of war crimes. All combatants choose targets. When they choose civilian targets, they commit an unambiguous war crime. When the IRA eschewed military targets and chose to beat and shoot civilians, and routinely bomb public places, they embarked on a deliberate campaign of war crimes.

That is all over now and everyone wants to put it behind them. Well, everyone except Sinn Fein. They want to make war crimes respectable, a normal part of our history, to be celebrated and commemorated rather than recognised as a depraved episode and a stain upon the nation.

The struggle to make war crimes a normal part of Irish history includes presenting its devotees as normal, decent people. This needs to be stood on its head. Regarding war criminals and a campaign of war crimes in this perverse way is incompatible with being a normal, decent person, someone to be admitted to civilised society and called upon to comment on our controversies.

This, however, is what Irish media routinely do and RTE, the national broadcaster, seems to display an enthusiasm for it. Moreover, the struggle to normalise is a matter of public controversy and RTE’s unnecessary recourse to SF speakers displays partiality in a controversy whose opposing sides are decency and barbarism.

It is neither sensible nor acceptable to facilitate one side in a controversy by pretending that other controversies are unconnected.

_________________________

* I’ve discussed similar before. These might be of interest:

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/journalism-and-the-struggle-to-decide-what-is-normal-the-case-of-sfs-desire-to-celebrate-the-prov-ira/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

Advertisements

There is a troubling misunderstanding at the core of the current health controversy. The screening tests do not give a diagnosis of cancer or an “all clear”; they deal in probability and risk.

A couple of days ago the then Head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, explicitly said so before a Dáil committee. His interlocutor failed to explore it and went off on a rant, treating what had been said with dismissive contempt, as an excuse or possibly a lie. T.O’B. accused him of trying to spread a public panic.

T.O’B. resigned yesterday when the contents of a memo he received in 2016 were revealed. The memo is complex but has that same core: the tests do not deliver diagnoses. Moreover, it pointed out that if patients went to the media and journalists chose to run headlines and stories to the effect that “screening did not diagnose my cancer”, there would be public panic.

Now the worst kind of politician and journalist would be prepared knowingly to propagate and exploit a panic. The more likely problem is, however, far more serious in the long term. Presumption of innocence towards elected representatives and journalists suggests that they too are subject to the panic because they fail to understand or grasp the significance of what T.O’B. said at the Committee. They don’t get the test-marker/diagnosis distinction. Indeed they don’t get risk, probability and live in a binary world of certainty; in this instance that’s simply cancerous or all-clear and anything else is a failure of government to mind us.

This level of misunderstanding among citizens is a dreadful comment on Irish education but it is utterly unacceptable in a member of parliament or a journalist. It not only makes public discourse next to impossible but almost certainly makes health screening initiatives for the future at best something for the wary and at worst unlikely to be implemented.

A while ago I reluctantly gave up communicating with a Facebook friend. He’s a socialist and has interesting things to say but he has a dismal view of human nature which prompts him to think that whatever a person says, it’s not an honest expression of their view. He is one of a number among my FB friends who resort to this form of ad hominem attack. No, on second thoughts, they don’t resort to it; that suggests a chosen tactic. Rather, they really do believe that everyone is dishonest in argument, that everyone makes their points not because they’ve thought about them but because they serve some hidden purpose or some organisation with which a speaker is associated.

Over the years I’ve grown weary of this nonsense. I’ve concluded that there’s really no point in talking to people who dismiss me as dishonest, accuse me of saying things not because I’ve thought about them but because I am a member of the Labour Party, or had worked for RTE, or had lectured in UCD, or I’m a man, or am nearing seventy etc. etc.

However, it’s not simply a matter of walking away from a small number of grouchy cynics. Their view is widespread. It is considered normal and is not challenged.

When Simon Coveney, Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland) recently changed his position from one of outright opposition to abortion to a position favouring a change in the Irish constitution to allow the Dáil (parliament) to legislate on abortion, he presented his reasons, his line of thinking. He was plausible. The response from those opposing change was not to address what he said but to discredit him as insincere, dishonestly making points to cover up a volte-face so as to serve the Government.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? No, they wouldn’t – not if they were decent people who had no evidence to support that view. More seriously, they were allowed to say it without challenge. The reaction of radio journalism was placid, as if something entirely uncontroversial had happened. A person had just been called a liar on national radio and … well, and nothing, just accordance with a dominant way of thinking.

It might be said that calling out ad hominem argument is best avoided during a contentious amendment campaign, that balance is best achieved by letting everyone say as they wish while according equal time to both sides. This would be both a perverse misunderstanding of balance and a suggestion that journalists at other times challenge shoddy debate. They don’t; they tend to report it faithfully.

Here’s the problem: It’s no wonder that cynics think they are normal when mass media permit – even, encourage – people to make up stories about a parson’s motivations. Media – journalists – should be more concerned about their stewardship of public discourse. They should give the cynics a choice: talk about the topic or get off the programme. That might demonstrate that many people have higher standards. It might also encourage citizens in ordinary conversation to say something explicit to their cynical friends: “You reveal a lot about your own motivations when you make assumptions like that.” Thinking citizens might be even more blunt: “Just because you think like that, don’t assume that the rest of us do. You’re not normal.”*

Getting back to journalists, they have to decide on their audience: are they serving gossiping cynics or citizens who want to hear from those who talk about the point?

 

_____________________________________

* Increasingly I’m of the view that the defence of public discourse is down to the citizen: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/day-to-day-conversation-and-the-struggle-for-decency/