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The RTE Primetime programme of February 9th 2017* performed a solid public service by exploding the story of the HSE’s and Tusla’s involvement in smearing the reputation of Sergeant Gerry McCabe. The programme of February 14th ** had the makings of something similar but the framing decided upon led it down a different path right through the obsessive question about a change of party leader and to the ridiculous suggestion by Paul Murphy T.D. near the end of the programme that the crucial issue is the credibility of the Taoiseach. No, no, no, the crucial issue is the operation of a system of silence operated by politicians and journalists which allows those who whisper falsehoods to remain anonymous. “Sources”, it would appear, must remain anonymous; they must remain so even years later when it is recognised that they were lying.

There would seem to be just one exception: John McGuinness, the former chairman of PAC, provided a name. He told the Dáil that he was approached before Sergeant McCabe’s PAC appearance by then Commissioner Martin Callinan who allegedly tried to discredit Sergeant McCabe.

Contrast this with Mick Wallace T.D. at c. 4 mins into the 14th Feb. programme who names people under privilege except that he withholds one name: that of a journalist spreading the smear.

Then watch Pat Rabbitte at about 21 mins. tell of being approached by a retired Garda who smeared Sergeant McCabe. Even at this stage – years later – Pat did not name the retired Garda and David McCullagh didn’t ask him.

Now go to 25 mins. and listen to John Deasy tell of being approached by a “very senior Guard” who smeared Sergeant McCabe. John did not name the senior officer and Katie Hannon didn’t ask him.

Journalists generally talk of culture and a quite comprehensive system of smearing but it would seem that just two have come out and said that there is no public benefit in keeping confidential the names of liars.***

Primetime has a team of respected journalists. It is inconceivable that they have not discussed the practice of protecting the anonymity of lying sources, the chancers who exploit for nefarious ends and undermine the accepted protection of sources.

Primetime could perform a public service by turning their attention to journalism and confidentiality generally. Right now there is a newsworthy vehicle available: the role of confidentiality in creating the current scandal whereby decent police officers were smeared.

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* http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/prime-time-30003251/10685085/

** http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/prime-time-30003251/10687165/

*** Justine McCarthy: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/name-and-shame-the-rumour-mongers-who-slurred-maurice-mccabe-sl29g5f7c

and

Colum Kenny: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/whistleblower-row-malicious-sources-have-no-right-to-protection-1.2971029

In contrast, here’s a case in which a journalist, having reported lies from Garda sources, invoked the guidelines of the National Union of Journalists in declining to reveal the identity of his sources. https://www.gardaombudsman.ie/docs/publications/Report_October2008.pdf (See in particular paras. 10 and 13.)

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 “A specially commissioned Irish Times poll in 2014 revealed most people had no idea the bulk of government spending went on social welfare payments, including pensions, and public service pay. Most people believed politicians’ pay accounted for more spending than either of these items.” – http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/stephen-collins-ireland-not-immune-to-virus-that-spawned-donald-trump-s-success-1.2747037

The media, according to the author of the article, Stephen Collins, must take some responsibility for this ignorance. He’s wrong. For once the media cannot be responsible. Ignorance – no, let’s be blunt, monumental stupidity – on this scale wasn’t caused by media. The survey result suggests a spectacular and basic failure in the Irish education system.

Regularly a citizen hears it said or reported in the media something along the lines of, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …” Average intelligence and slight education should prompt reaction, “Hang on, that can’t be true!”

Right, let’s admit intelligence for all. That means turning attention to education. It is unacceptable that the majority of respondents in a properly conducted survey are incapable of participation in a basic public controversy. That such mass incompetence has been found should prompt a rush to research in order to find the root of the failure.

Ok, let’s not over-react. It was one survey and its purpose was not to measure educational attainment, but it does accord with my experience as a lecturer, a consumer of media and a citizen who engages in casual conversation at bus stops.

Apart altogether from the concern that a significant number of citizens cannot participate in a public controversy, there should also be concern among those who view education as training for work. That is to say, there is little point in fussing over the proportion of students taking higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate or the general maths needs of industry, when it would seem that perhaps the majority have no grasp of numbers and quantity.

Returning to the degree of blame for public ignorance which journalists should bear, it may be that they are as much victims of a failure to educate as the citizens whose views they report. Consider the possibility that many journalists think it makes sense when someone says, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …”

One way of preventing discussion of the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising and of the actions of the IRA is to spread confusion about the meaning of “terrorist”. The authors of the confusion are mass murderers and their supporters, and they are successful because journalists and media managers facilitate them.

While in popular discussion “terrorist” has been almost drained of meaning, becoming a synonym for “bad”, in academic discussion its meaning has been stabilised and is now largely accepted. This was not always the case.

During the 20th century academics were looking at a distinct phenomenon that they wanted to study and talk about. It was clear that non-state groups were kidnapping, shooting and bombing civilians. These groups were commonly referred to as terrorists. Academics set out to study them but there was a problem which could only be addressed by working on definition.

Definition was necessary because the term was already loaded with negative connotations and study of any action or group attracted, “Who are you calling a terrorist? Why don’t you study atrocities committed by states?” The tactic was to prevent examination of what was clearly a separate and relatively new form of political violence. The choice facing academia was to find a new word for something which ordinary citizens referred to as terrorism or to define the term so that the violent phenomenon could be studied without the constant disruption of the “whatabouters”. A new label would have been daft, so definition it was.

Definition was of course fraught and contentious; university libraries tend to have a groaning shelf or two to attest to that. There was a battle because the last thing that non-state killers wanted was to be isolated from horrors committed by states. They could offer no moral justification for their actions so they relied on pointing to those who had done similar or worse. Some states – particularly the USA – aided them in this by referring to states they didn’t like as “terrorist states”.

Like the academics, citizens seeking clear public discourse have an interest in defining terrorism and insisting that self-serving games not be played with terminology. Let it be clear that terrorism for those neither involved in nor supporting barbarity signifies violence perpetrated by non-state actors on civilians for the purpose of sending a message to a wider audience (rhetorical violence). In other words, state armies are not involved either as perpetrators or victims and the dead or injured are reduced to mere messages, fodder for media.

In Ireland there is a tussle for ownership of the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising. It is not a matter of whether the state’s founding myth is bloody; that’s a different issue. The tussle is about whether the actions of the Provisional IRA – supported by Sinn Féin – are like the actions of the 1916 insurrectionists. It is vitally important for SF that the actions of the IRA receive the respectability that has been granted to the insurrectionists because in Ireland that would elevate the IRA to heroes.

If a sensible public debate is to take place, it needs to be emphasised that the actions in 1916 fall a long way outside the definition of terrorism, while the actions of the IRA accurately match the terms of the definition. What the 1916 insurrectionists have in common with the IRA is that both are non-state actors. Apart from that they differ. The insurrectionists for the most part attacked armed soldiers. The IRA for the most part attacked civilians. The insurrectionists in a time before electronic mass media did not and could not reduce victims to media messages. The IRA, however, developed this form of conflict and killed for media effect.

Every journalist who is unaware of the struggle over the definition of terrorism and who permits the term to be bandied about as a mere synonym for bad, sides with those who would try to bury public discourse in a swamp of name-calling.

When I taught Political Communication at UCD, one of the topics that students found most interesting was, “Terrorism: Violence as Communication”. It was based on a well-established approach within the study of terrorism which emphasised communication as a key defining feature. A popular way of putting this was that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead.*

The recent murders by beheading of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines remind many people of the similar murder in 2002 of Daniel Pearl. There are different ways to approach these murders.** Firstly, they could be discussed as evidence of a change in the status of journalists who until relatively recently were not targeted by terrorists. Secondly, the murders could be located within a history of beheading particularly within Islamist tradition. Thirdly, they could be viewed as part of the “genre” of statement or confession before violent death. A fourth approach, however, would be to see the murders as old-style terrorism, i.e. violence as communication, and much like the modus operandi of the likes of the IRA (killings to suit the news cycle and supported by professional media relations), the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bombers (killing to get media coverage of a message), and indeed the perpetrators of 9/11, the most spectacular and expressive murder-for-media.

It’s worth noting that the difference between the 2002 and 2014 murders by beheading is due primarily to changes in technology. When Daniel Pearl was murdered, the web was young and the murderers were reliant on older technology to distribute their horror video, and on journalists and editors (gatekeepers) to publicise it. Technical advance has made coverage of the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines different, and not just in terms of superior sound and vision. The net has liberated his murderers from traditional mass media gatekeepers; now the audience can access the horror message directly and it can be stored, copied and multiplied with ease.***

There remains, however, a fundamental similarity between the killings and it is this that categorises them along with the older 20th century terrorism or rhetorical violence. The grisly, scripted, stage-managed murder – from introduction through slaughter to aftermath – guarantees attention. The complex message or messages can then reach the desired huge audience and the smaller support or potential recruit audiences. Job done but in the welter of communication something radical is being said of the victim.

The victim is central to the production but has a peculiar unchanging value. Living, dying and dead the victim is never a person but rather a component part of the medium, as necessary and disposable as USB memory sticks, magnetic tape or paper. This is worse than slaughter; it is beyond the reduction of a living creature to meat. At no stage is the victim other than material used to make a point. The point remains after the body parts are cleared, after the media equipment moves on, and as the managers of the killers consider their next production.

Beheading is particularly gruesome, medieval and exotic. The killers and their media managers know this; that’s why it was used. It would be a mistake however to consider them more depraved than those who bomb. The victims’ deaths serve no strategic purpose; neither can they be described as an unfortunate consequence of hitting a target that might be considered important. Whether by blade or bomb the calculated reduction of people to the level of disposable newsprint is depravity beyond war criminality.

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* To make study possible a great deal of effort goes into defining terrorism. This is because it is a contested term. It has been reduced first to a term of abuse (“If you call me a terrorist, I’ll call you a terrorist.”) and then to a synonym for bad (“We need to say who are the real terrorists.”).

** http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/08/20/from-daniel-pearl-to-james-foley-the-modern-tactic-of-islamist-beheadings/

*** There’s been some thoughtful work done on the theatrical killing of Daniel Pearl, which could now be reviewed in the light of the murder of James Foley. Davin Allen Grindstaff & Kevin Michael DeLuca, The corpus of Daniel Pearl, Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 21, Issue 4, 2004, pages 305-324. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0739318042000245345

I’ve been lazy and far too slow to write about the way in which automated systems are being designed to exclude citizen participation. As some of you may know, I was banned from FB for a period because of a particular comment I posted and I still cannot see how the comment could have caused any problem whatsoever.* I’ve failed to get an explanation from FB by way of their on-line reply forms. I discovered that they have a phone number in Dublin. I called and was met with the familiar, “Press 1 or 2 or 3 …” runaround. Selecting 1 produced a recording telling me that I was dealing with an on-line company and that I should use the on-line forms which I’d already found were ignored. OK, so many large organisations – including the HSE ** – take the view that dealing with citizens is done by way of mass media only. However, while the HSE press office will respond to a citizen, FB make it absolutely clear that they will talk only to accredited and “legitimate” journalists. If this interests you, from Ireland call 01 5530550 and select 3 to hear what for me is an extraordinary message.
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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/on-being-silenced-on-facebook-and-unable-to-discover-why/
** HSE is Ireland’s Health Services Executive.

I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2013/0209/1224329821083.html

** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

**** The two are discussed here:https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/

It was reported in The Irish Times of Jan. 4th that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, was concerned about where Irish journalists’ denigration of politics will take us. He is essentially correct. However, his approach is far too simplistic.

He seems to think that better reporting would be a remedy. He neglects to consider that there is a consensus among journalists that amounts to a political theory. The informed, deliberative citizen of a republic does not feature. Rather the customer is supplied with revelations of wrongdoing and “unfairness”. Not convinced? Think about what even the best journalists say they want to do: investigative reporting! Politics is seen as antagonism between the “political class” which has control over endless resources which they are too mean (“not in touch with reality on the ground”) or too stupid (“It’s not rocket science.”) to spend, and pressure groups who force the “political class” to spend on whatever mobilises effective “activists” at the expense of groups less powerful.

It is both a complex and a deeply conservative political viewpoint and Pat poses no challenge to it other than to raise again the decades-old worry about the derision of representative democracy. A challenge, I’m convinced, will come only from siding with a republican/participative model of citizenship (as opposed to a liberal/consumerist model) and thinking about what – very approximately – the citizen requires of media. Then consideration of regulation can follow. After working out citizen service Pat could start with a broadcasting bill whose core is citizenship and not existing structures, practices and conventions.

Here’s a motion which twice failed to get the support of ordinary members of the Labour Party and so didn’t make it onto the agenda for Conference 2012.

As a first move in establishing a priority list for current public spending, Labour marks the maintenance of public sector incomes above 100k p.a. and public sector pensions above 50k p.a. as the lowest priority. That is to say, in the event of any further reductions in public spending, Labour identifies the first cut:  a 100k p.a. income ceiling for public sector workers and a 50k p.a. ceiling on public sector pensions.

Here’s the argument:

Let’s be clear

This proposal has nothing to do with taxation. If taxes were raised or if a new rate of tax were introduced and if the money so raised meant that there would be no need of further cuts in public spending, then this proposal would be redundant. The point here is this: if there are to be cuts, what area of public spending is least important, what should be cut first? This proposal answers: if there are to be cuts in public services and/or the incomes of relatively poor people who depend on the state, then those cuts should be considered only after the incomes of the rich who are on the public payroll have been capped at an affordable and sensible but generous level.

 

The immediate background

Leaving aside revolutionary and populist posing, the bulk of expressed opposition to cuts in state spending has involved particular pleading.  Then our media – in making no demand that something constructive be said – have compounded the problem. Journalists and presenters fail time and again to ask the most obvious question: “If there must be cuts and you feel that ‘X’ has to be maintained, which areas of spending do you think are less important than ‘X’ and should be cut first?” The lack of stated priorities has ensured that cuts are spread and this has tended to copper-fasten existing deprivation and inequalities.

I have been arguing on FaceBook and elsewhere that the rich among our public servants are the least of our concerns and that income (to include pay, bonus, overtime, allowances etc.) and pension ceilings should be introduced before any other cut. While there has been negative reaction, there has also been support and some of the support has been to the effect that the proposition should be put to a Labour Conference.

 

A fundamental question for Labour at this time

Because revolution and populist posing must not feature in Labour thinking, a major and significant question looms, and it demands an answer now: What remains of Labour values when state spending must be cut? Two very old and basic Labour tenets begin to harmonise and form at least part of the answer. Firstly, while equality is central to Labour’s ambitions, the Party has been slow to emphasise the most crucial and controversial aspect of equality: equality of income or – at least – reduced inequality of income. The time is ripe to put that right. Secondly, Labour has always sought to defend the meagre incomes of the poor. Never was this more urgent.

A pay ceiling on public service incomes and pensions would

  • accept that money is tight and that we cannot have everything but that some spending is vastly more important than others, and lay down a marker that a start has been made to setting priorities for Irish public spending;
  • make savings in public spending such that vital services and the pay of poor and middle income public servants could remain untouched;
  • reduce the bizarre and shameful spectacle of rich people beside poor people on the public payroll;
  • place inequality of income on the public agenda;
  • make it clear that Labour in bad times and in good times is serious about reducing inequality.

 

Arguments against

There are of course arguments against. Actually there are basically just three arguments against:

i)             The fairness argument

ii)            The brain drain argument

iii)           The Croke Park argument

 

i) The fairness argument says that public servants should not be singled out and that nothing should be done unless all rich people are tackled. In a sense this is a “what about?” A “what about?” is very much a conservative position which hides opposition to a change by diverting attention to other – often larger – issues. In this case, limiting the income of rich public servants is opposed by diverting attention to the income of other rich people. In another sense it is a crazy distortion of the notion of equality because what it says is that it would be unfair to reduce the incomes of one set of rich people unless all rich people were similarly treated. That is to say, it is a demand that all RICH people be treated equally!

It needs to be emphasised that it is public money that is in short supply, that cuts are happening now and that clearly public sector pay can be cut. In other words, there is neither time nor compelling need to be concerned about other rich people.

ii) The brain drain argument takes two linked forms. It is said that a reduction in top pay among public servants would result in a flight of talent abroad or into the private sector. It is certain that some may flee. However, the idea of a mass flight is fanciful. There may – just may – have been a time when a dissatisfied public worker could walk and pick up a job in the private sector. That certainly is not the case today. Moreover, this is a familiar threat raised by the rich from time to time. Remember when bank bonuses had to be paid or there would be a flight of talent? It didn’t happen.

 

Another form of the argument suggests that a ceiling would prevent the recruitment of exceptional talent. This rests on an abuse of the word “exceptional”. A pay ceiling would not rule out exceptional pay for an exceptional talent in exceptional circumstances. It would control the income of numbers of ordinary, unexceptional, rich workers.

iii) It is pointed out that the Croke Park Agreement rules out a pay ceiling. This is true. However, it does not rule out talking about a pay ceiling. Moreover, the extent to which the CPA guarantees that a group of rich people stays rich needs to be discussed and addressed.

 

Summing up

  • Let’s face it: 100k or a pension of 50k would appear a king’s ransom to the ordinary people who are made to pay these rich people or whose services are cut to maintain them. No one could seriously argue that these ceilings are not generous.
  • A public servant or potential public servant so in thrall to money that they will not serve unless paid more than 100k is clearly “the wrong stuff”. Get someone who understands the meaning of public service!
  • We live today in the kind of times so strange and fraught that a proposal once thought unimaginably daring becomes ordinary and feasible.
  • While in government in a time of crisis and austerity, Labour desperately needs to rediscover its radical voice and fundamental tenets.
  • It is possible without upsetting the troika too much to use what sovereignty we have left to make a start on a less unequal society.

In an interesting coincidence two articles in Opinion and Analysis in the Irish Times of March 10th share a common failing. They fail to recognise that journalists have a responsibility to facilitate a citizen who is trying or even willing to reflect on a public controversy.

The articles by Stephen Collins* (“What this next referendum is really all about”) and John Gibbons** (Shadow of a doubt: how they fooled us about a killer habit”) correctly blame tricksters for debasing public controversy but they neglect to extend the blame to those who publish the lies, flak, scare stories, doubts – call them what you will. The bizarre claims of opponents of EU integration and the bogus science presented to fool people into doubting the dangers of first smoking and then global warming, depended on compliant journalism. Naomi Oreskes, whom John Gibbons mentions, describes how well-organised bodies use the existing conventions and rules of journalism to undermine public understanding. She is spot on and unless Irish journalists choose to elevate truth above balance, the upcoming treaty debate will become a familiar circus.

* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107126.html

** http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107142.html

 

There are some socialists and other progressives arguing for a rejection of the 30th amendment * but their opposition is based on one and/or two rickety foundations.

Firstly, there has always been an affinity between socialism and the better parts of liberalism, especially those parts which defend and seek to expand personal freedom. However, an overly rigorous defence of negative liberty (freedom from intrusion, compulsion etc.) can be at odds with the public good. This is one of those situations. No one seriously believes that ordinary citizens will be hauled before a committee of the Oireachtas and unjustly treated. However, some opponents of the amendment argue that because they fear that it MIGHT be possible, the amendment should be voted down.

Secondly, there is among socialists and some other progressives a strong and healthy anti-establishment culture. It is so strong, however, as to be quite easily manipulated by the establishment. On this issue it is happening. The constant derision of parliamentary democracy and elected politicians – the aim of which is to paint pseudo-radicals, who are often journalists, in a good light and to convince the general public that there is no hope of real change – has been effective. In this instance some socialists have been duped into thinking that because the proposal comes from government it should be opposed or that giving more power to politicians (the “establishment”) is anti-progressive. There is an old socialist test: Which side are you on? In this instance one way to BEGIN to clarify a true anti-establishment stance is to look at who favours and who opposes. However,   while doing so remember the attractions of being seen as “anti-establishment” or the depth of true anti-establishment culture on the left which makes it likely that some socialists will mistakenly take the establishment side and favour a rejection.

* 30th Amendment to the Constitution – Oireachtas inquiries

Existing text of section 15.10:

1. Each House shall make its own rules and standing orders, and shall have power to attach penalties for their infringement, and shall have power to ensure freedom of debate, to protect its official documents and the private papers of its members, and to protect itself and its members against any person or persons interfering with, molesting or attempting to corrupt its members in the exercise of their duties.

It is proposed to renumber this as 15.10.1 and insert:

2. Each House shall have the power to conduct an inquiry, or an inquiry with another House, in a manner provided by law, into any matter or matters stated by the House or Houses concerned to be of general public importance.

3. In the course of any such inquiry the conduct of any person (whether or not a member of either House) may be investigated, and the House or Houses concerned may make findings in respect of the conduct of that person concerning the matter to which the inquiry relates.

4. It shall be for the House or Houses concerned to determine, with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry into any matter to which subsection 2 applies.