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Monthly Archives: September 2018

For too long now I’ve been arguing for the need radically to change the regulations covering broadcast politics. I really should get on with writing about it. I do, at least, have a starting point: re-cast the rules to serve the audience, the receiving citizen, rather than staff and contributors. This would of course impact upon the current complaints procedures. With that in mind and for now, I want to talk about a recent encounter I had with RTE’s complaints/compliance dept.

Now, no one could say that I’m other than an advocate for public service broadcasting or that I’m unsympathetic to RTE. I have argued that RTE is compliant and operates to the requirements of the law and the guidelines derived from it. It follows from this that I regard moaning about RTE’s performance as missing the point; RTE is acting in accordance with regulation, i.e. is compliant. Change, reform or improvement, requires regulatory change.

Nevertheless, I’ve been struck by the number of people on-line who think that there’s no point in complaining to the national broadcaster and particularly by those among them that I know to be thoughtful and reasonable.

Some time ago I was exercised by a programme which uncritically featured an alternative remedy. I reckoned that this was a matter of public controversy and that the broadcaster was obliged to treat it as such. I wrote and asked for their thoughts on this. Then began a series of what I interpreted as high-handed, antagonistic e-mails. A choice was put to me: I could submit a comment which would be placed in a complaints log distributed to senior editorial staff or I could submit a formal complaint citing the guideline which I was alleging had been breached. There apparently was no chance that I could have an ordinary, considered response to my point.

Now, I would be at pains to defend both the complaints log and the formal complaints procedure but clearly they are far too limiting and indeed forbidding to be of much use to the engaged citizen, i.e. the kind of citizen who might want to question, discuss and contribute to improving broadcast debate. Engagement of this kind is not the same as that of an aggrieved person – particularly a contributor or someone who thinks that they should be a contributor.

Some time later I was struck by a news bulletin which near its start covered developments in the Birmingham bombing inquest and later carried an interview with a SF spokesperson on a different matter. The interviewer made no reference to Birmingham. The usual defence offered by journalists is that in news about SF they cannot keep looking back to “The Troubles”.* However, in this instance Birmingham featured in the same news bulletin. Moreover, the interviewer did indeed look to something unrelated that was in the news not the same day but a few days previously, the selection of a SF candidate to contest the presidency. This looked to me like an editorial decision to avoid the particular, newsworthy controversy that was the bombing of Birmingham pubs and SF’s support for the Provisional IRA.

I decided to take up the matter and explored what might be the appropriate guideline-breach on which to base a complaint. This kind of research requires time and a little expertise. So, I took up an offer made during the previous correspondence: the Head of Compliance saw helping a citizen with the formulation of complaints to be part of the department’s function. I detailed what had happened and my concerns, and asked him under what rule I might submit a complaint. It took three e-mails and the best part of a month to get a response. Now, a new Head of Compliance had just been appointed but again when the response came, it struck me as defensive and antagonistic. He wasn’t trying to look after me, the citizen, but was resolutely defending his colleagues on the assumption – which I find bizarre – that I was attacking them. I should add that I had more than once explicitly made my commitment to PSB and my support for RTE clear.

The lessons I’ve taken from this? There is still the need for legislative reform which would focus the very purpose of broadcast politics on the specific needs of the participative citizen but now it’s also clear that every effort must be made to make new rules, let’s say, more user friendly. Moreover, the Compliance Department’s fundamental loyalty must migrate to this citizen; an element of this will have to be awareness that citizens cannot be expected to have expert knowledge of the rules and will need help to make their cases effectively. The experience around the second incident – the treatment of SF – has brought a new realisation: that editorial policy is a political and therefore a public matter. Its formulation and justification must be openly discussed and decisions must be open to question.

Well, I’ve made a start …

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* I discussed it here: 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/

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Progressives – even socialists – too often face condemnation for associating with “terrorists”* with whom they may find a degree of common cause, e.g. in being anti-imperialist. The condemnation is usually met with wounded innocence and emphasis on their opposition to violence. They argue that ending violence involves talking to killers, while their critics see them as simply dishonest. Of course some may indeed be dishonest but taking what they say at face value, it is more plausible that they are naive, friendly and courteous, making a very silly, basic and public error.

The UK Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, offers a good start to a short discussion. He was quoted in the New Statesman (7th Sept. 2018)**, “It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…”

John McDonnell could have said otherwise, “It was the targeting of civilians and the sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…” and that would be equally true.


He might even have said, “It was the war crimes/crimes against humanity and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…” and that too would be true.

You see, the problem is not that Labour Leaders or anyone would talk to those who choose civilian targets. Talking may be necessary to stop the killing and of course democrats will condemn violence. The problem arises i) when democrats are pictured not in talks with but socialising and befriending perpetrators, their leaders and supporters; or ii) are quoted using euphemisms (e.g. struggle or campaign) for intentional targeting of civilians. When democrats act in this way, they play their part in normalising the barbarity they routinely condemn. They also alienate decent people who would never socialise with a perpetrator, supporter or apologist for crimes against humanity. Thus progressive or socialist positions can be mired with the blood and tissue of civilians.

In brief, it’s like this for John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and indeed for everyone else: whether you are talking to war criminals, trying to understand them or discussing their place in history, you must stand resolutely opposed. You must always be unambiguously on the side of rudimentary civilisation against ALL those who would ever consider that targeting civilians is other than the most shameful barbarism.

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* The definition of terrorism is contested. Here’s a short look at it in relation to the Irish 1916 – 2016 commemorations: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/1916-2016-time-to-talk-and-end-the-confusion-over-terrorism/

** https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2018/09/who-real-john-mcdonnell

Last week a big media story was the crippling cost of childcare in Ireland and there were well-publicised calls for the state to fund it. No mention was made, however, of increased taxation or of less important spending that might be cut in order to fund it. This is the polite, accepted approach but very, very occasionally there’s an inkling of a different, troublesome way.

 

When some years ago a hundred million was spent on building a free-flow structure on the N7 at Newlands Cross, Peter McVerry had a letter published in The Irish Times. He asked what was presumably a rhetorical question but of a type that is normally excluded from public controversy. He asked if the hundred million spent on Newlands Cross might have been better spent on accommodation for homeless people. He said he’d have been happy to wait a few minutes in his car.*


It was unusual in Ireland because discussion of state spending is rigorously confined to “calling on”. That is to say, media promote a procession of advocates calling on the government to start or increase spending on childcare, drug rehabilitation, school overheads, a particular health provision etc. etc. The list is potentially endless. No journalist seems to feel motivated or be allowed to ask the advocate what taxation or cut to existing services they are proposing.

 

It goes on and on and creates a bizarre consensus in which everyone is in favour of everything but nothing much changes. Advocates are presented as heroic because they speak for the people and government is decried for failing to do as the people want.

 

The difference with Peter McVerry’s letter, however, was the suggestion not only that priority existed but that there were consequences to choice. Now, that debate did not progress and he didn’t insist. You see, talking priorities would ruin a perfectly serviceable system, a system which prevents dissent and meaningful controversy.**

Avoiding the issue of priority not only makes public discourse infantile but reinforces the dominant model of Irish politics, and that model is deeply conservative. What passes for public discourse involves rival claims on the public purse. It seems to be unthinkable that anyone calling for more spending in one area would be asked at whose expense it should be funded. Being an advocate – perhaps an activist – in Ireland is a doddle.

There’s a political model in operation here and it goes unquestioned. In brief the majority of journalists support the belief that we have a “political class” with access to unlimited funds which because of stupidity or meanness, they will not spend on worthy and needy causes – unless they are forced by “pressure” from civil society organisations, activists and media.*** It’s quite like a peasant society in which the ruler concedes a bit here or there in order to keep the structure as it is. It’s also like the child’s misunderstanding of family finance – the little kid who thinks that parents should stop being mean and just get more money.

The model, and the organisations, activists, journalists, elected politicians and citizens who operate it, guarantee that there can be no real change because when a person is “calling on”, it is out of the question to ask about their priorities. The established view is that all spending is equally important and everyone must be treated fairly. Indeed “fairness” has become the watchword of Irish conservatism.†

The left is hideously implicated, many having a romantic view that opposition to tax, cutbacks, government and politics generally is progressive. The notion of discussing priorities in state spending would be dismissed as helping the government rather than resisting it. They seem not to give much credence to Nye Bevan’s dictum that the language of priorities is the religion of socialism.†† The idea of using priority to effect change – even to assault inequality – can’t get a hearing. Progress has been swallowed by a conservative populism which essentially argues that – now the recession has ended – fairness requires the old incomes and inequalities be restored and maintained. Moreover, there can be lots and lots of “calling on”. The only change required is that the rich pay more tax – well, not all of the rich! Conveniently for the majority of rich people, they too can pose on the left and perform their share of “calling on” because the emphasis is invariably on the top 1% and never on the top 20%. In fairness!

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/speedy-aid-for-the-homeless-1.1446630

** It would be easy to confine this discussion to the degree to which motoring is favoured. It was decided to create a traffic corps while ignoring constant complaints about the lack of Gardaí on the beat. While far more Irish people die by suicide than are killed on our roads, the Road Safety Authority is favoured for funding.

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† “We have woven it into the warp and woof of our national life, and we have made the claims of the children come first. What is national planning but the insistence that human beings shall make ethical choices on a national scale?…The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism. We have accepted over the last four years that the first claims upon the national product shall be decided nationally and they have been those of the women, the children and the old people.”