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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.

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.

 

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https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/

Dominic Cummings isn’t running Britain and those who trot that out are missing a very real threat. Dominic Cummings is an advisor to the UK Prime Minister. His advice is taken because it is based on a plausible, compelling argument that crucially is located in the really existing present and in that respect it doesn’t face a rival.

What little opposition it faces is of three equally irrelevant types. Firstly, some are based in the vanished industrial world of the mid 20th century. Secondly, there is the tragi-comical pseudo-opposition, sharing the same “people power” sloganeering that energises the Cummings argument. Thirdly, there are the ad hominem attempts to portray Cummings as mad.

The first and second – sad to say – are leftist and their proponents would be upset by any suggestion that they support Cummings but that’s not the suggestion. It’s different and it’s more than a suggestion; the reality is that they inadvertently strengthen the Cummings argument. Firstly, the left is too often strangely unaware that thinking people find it easy to spot an argument made nonsense by reliance on conditions long gone – in this case the conditions of mid 20th century industrial capitalism – and whatever problems thinking people might have with Cummings, it’s clear that at least he’s talking about the world as it is today.

Secondly, Cummings advice to the UK Prime Minister is to try for a general election in which the P.M. would campaign for the people against the politicians. Familiar? Of course it is. Sections of the left have been positing the people against variously the government, the state, the political class, the establishment for years with no regard to whether “the people” were calling for left or right movement. They were simply “the people” and anti-establishment; they were to be followed until they could be led. Cummings, however, knows the difference between left and right and where the people are headed. He can thank those on the left who refuse to think for helping to mobilise his people.

Thirdly, ad hominem attacks are easy but pointless. Reading Cummings blogs etc. will reveal a man who reveres strong leaders, authority, manliness and Bismarck.* That’s certainly eccentric, some might view it as crazy and he’s been described as a sociopath. That’s all irrelevant because it leaves his argument and analysis of society untouched. Should those who despise the man achieve his downfall, nothing more will change. The views, analysis, argument will remain unchallenged by anything both plausible and relevant to today – and “the people” will remain mobilised against the establishment.

Cummings is astute but it would be silly to assume that he is unique. There are certainly others as aware. He knows a lot but three things are uppermost in his mind and make anti-democratic voting possible.

i) The flaw at the heart of mass democracy

A very old fear among democrats is that as the franchise extended and extended, greater numbers of passive, easily swayed voters became available to demagogues. This cannot threaten democracy as long as their numbers are relatively small or they are beyond the communicative reach of the demagogue.

ii) The antagonised passive citizen

With universal franchise many passive citizens declined all participation while some others voted for a variety of reasons other than deliberation and judgement but few were hostile to the system itself – the establishment. That has changed. Cummings is one who has watched the polls for years. He knows populism and the nature of it. He understands the current meaning of “anti-establishment” and the numbers involved.

iii) The demagogue’s medium

It is no longer possible for democrats to ignore the passive, inactive, disaffected citizen because now they are many and because now they can be reached and mobilised. Cummings proved this with his Brexit referendum campaign. Relying on data mined from social media he then used social media to deliver approaching-bespoke messages to citizens who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to politics or who seldom voted or who were otherwise disaffected. He knew the kind of message that would get their attention and he knew how to reel them in.

Essentially Cummings knows that he is dealing with a world changed and that he is threatening democracy which he despises. He concentrates on the passive, disaffected citizen. Communication is not directed at those who are concerned with truth and argument; they are the establishment and irrelevant. There is no need to confuse matters by addressing them. They are no longer essential to winning a majority; they are not needed.

The problem is that few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, care to acknowledge that what Cummings describes is indeed the new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a plausible counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

There is a degree of urgency in all this because while opponents of the Cummings perspective ignore the thoughtful citizen on whom democracy relies, his passive citizens may be inching towards a majority.

* https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dominic-cummings-boris-johnson-otto-von-bismarck-brexit-a9045941.html?fbclid=IwAR3fTSMLgx-gquc7QWyT4OGSf_NTcZ2wVNQD-kYOCXNbJRttInzX5qKYlmE

The editorial staff at RTE Radio’s “Today with Seán O’Rourke” on Friday 14th June 2019 chose a panel to discuss events of the week. They selected Fergus O’Dowd T.D. (FG) Mark Carthy M.E.P. (SF) Niamh Lyons (Journalist)  Sarah Carey (Communications consultant). Assuming the selection was done with deliberation, one would wonder why these people were chosen.

From a political communications perspective the best possible reason would be that this panel of people would bring diverse perspectives so as to serve citizen listeners. As it turned out, nothing unique was said by any of the panel. They could, therefore, have been replaced by any number of people with similar views.

Any SF member of a panel, however, offers the singular and utterly repugnant point of view, that war crimes (shooting and bombing civilians) committed by the IRA should be commemorated/celebrated. This, however, was not among the topics discussed and from a citizen’s perspective there was therefore no compelling reason to have a SF speaker. In other words, the decision to choose a SF speaker was not determined by a desire to present a comprehensive discussion; he could have been replaced by any number of speakers without hindering the discussion.

His inclusion, however, served to present him as ordinary, commenting on routine public discourse. This is precisely how normalisation works.*

Short of a desire to favour SF, there are other possible reasons for his inclusion. It might be that the programme editors or RTE generally do not consider support for war-crime commemoration a repugnant viewpoint. In that case normalisation is not an issue; they consider it normal. It might, however, be that despite his views, they want to be fair to him and give him airtime. The latter possibility reflects a deep-seated problem with the regulation of public service broadcasting in that it prioritises the concerns of those seeking a platform (politicians, advocates, prominent journalists) above the needs of the participative citizen. Now, this suggests the need for a quite fundamental change and addressing it is work for another day.

The question that remains is, if the SF speaker was not necessary, why was he on the panel?

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*https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2019/05/22/morally-repugnant-views-and-morally-repugnant-people-calls-to-silence-racism-etc-misunderstand-the-process-of-normalisation/

 

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The TV drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, gave an entertaining, accurate and worrying glimpse of the future of political communication and of democracy itself. It would be comforting to think it particularly British but it could happen anywhere. The conditions are certainly present in Ireland and the methods will be applied where and whenever possible.

A first glance can lead off into the mistaken view that this is all utterly new and a product of the net society. The reality is that today’s technology is being used to exploit something that has been ever present in democracy and feared by democrats.

The Brexit e-campaign
Before going on to talk about that old and feared weakness in democracy, lets look at what the Brexit campaigners did and which is available to any campaigner, party or candidate with the will and the money to emulate.

1. They studied the issues, fears, prejudices etc. which preyed on the minds of their target voters.
2. They distilled these feelings into a small number of slogans which connected the feelings of their targets to the political objective of their clients.
3. Knowing what their target voters wanted to hear, they told them: that delivery – or indeed their voters’ deliverance – was not only possible but crucially it was without any risk of negative consequences.
4. They achieved messaging that was close to bespoke. Using extensive data, amenable on-line voters were identified and sent simple, tailor-made messages – telling them what they wanted to hear.

In brief, this amounts to nothing more than routing quite particular, near-personal messages to voters, messages telling them that voting the client’s way will sort out their issues or whatever concerns them. Familiar? Of course it is. That’s because it’s not new. However, the delivery system and the scale of information on the targeted voters are new, i.e. there is now the web and the ability to mine it for masses of personal data.

There is, moreover, one other new feature – and it’s crucial. Opponents of democracy with deep pockets have become aware of something radical. They know that undesirable election results can be achieved by using today’s technology to exploit democracy’s oldest and most intractable flaw: the manipulation of passive citizens, their target audience. Mass manipulation has become both possible and affordable.*

The risk of tyranny inherent in democracy
Generations of democrats have worried about the dangers of passive – as opposed to participative or deliberative – voting. The march towards universal suffrage consisted of reforms allowing wider and wider participation in voting. Each enlargement was supported by democrats who saw all as equal – at least in terms of voting – and opposed by conservatives who feared what the uneducated mob or easily swayed herd might vote to implement.

As any democrat would be quick to point out, the conservative arguments were not only elitist but served to defend wealth and other privileges. However, the arguments were not dismissed as nonsense. Democrats could see the danger of huge numbers of votes cast without deliberation. John Stuart Mill for example feared the masses, feared that they might impose majority doctrines and limit liberal freedoms, might be easily swayed by and elect demagogues. Mill considered weighted voting – giving more than one vote to the educated – but eventually he placed his faith in people. He argued that the responsibility of voting would change voters, that – aware of the power of their voting decisions – they would engage, examine arguments, deliberate, come to judgement and only then vote. In other words, voting would improve them: make participative, engaged, republican citizens of them.

Fairly similar arguments appeared in recent decades when the democratic potential of the net became apparent. Net optimists felt that those deprived of the information necessary to full citizen participation would find it on-line; citizens would free themselves of the influence of demagogues, conventional wisdom and anyone who would stifle information.

Today’s demagogues and other anti-democratic chancers who want to win an election without winning an argument know full well that Mill’s faith and the hopes of net optimists have not been realised. Not only are there masses of voters – perhaps constituting a majority – ripe for manipulation but the technology exists to find and message them.

There is of course a question of law here. The e-Brexiteers certainly violated electoral laws – laws on funding – and they violated emerging norms, soon perhaps to become law, in relation to gathering and effectively selling personal data. This raises the question of whether electoral law is capable of protecting democracy from an inherent flaw which has been routinely exploited largely without criticism by virtually all parties and candidates.

The little anti-democratic attacks that became the norm
What the e-Brexiteers did differed only in scale and efficiency from conventional campaigns. Indeed, it’s likely that for a very long time now electoral success has been impossible without patronising passive voters who have no wish to be addressed with political arguments or talk of risks, priorities, alternatives, unpleasant consequences, clashes of interest etc. On the contrary, they want to be soothed, told that their problems will be solved or that sought-after resources will be delivered. Candidates know this and crave effective methods for delivering a simple, preferably local, targeted message. In Ireland cynics reduce this to the cliche, “All politics is local.”

Political campaigners use many different media. Taking a look at one of the oldest reveals it to be a small, inexpensive version of what the e-Brexiteers did so spectacularly on a huge scale. The similarity is so great that the difference is almost pathetic.

Now, very few people will admit to paying a blind bit of attention to political leaflets/pamphlets delivered into their domestic letterbox. Most regard these as junk mail and bin them on sight. This is well known and it can be hard to explain why campaigners resort to them. Explanations are offered: they’re relatively cheap; they give some level of public visibility; delivery can give loyalists and activists something to do; and crucially in a world of mass media, leaflets can be localised.

The most cursory look at leaflets reveals that they tend to have little or no political content in any meaningful sense of the term. They deliver useful public information on the likes of welfare entitlements or changes to the tax regime. They tie the candidate to the locality in two ways: pictures in the locale or with local notables at an event; and expressions of support for local campaigns for, say, a swimming pool, a library, playing field or school.

There is no intention here to open up a discussion of local political leafleting. The practice is raised merely to illustrate that patronising local, passive citizens is a mundane, accepted feature of political campaigning. That it is so accepted is telling: democracy has been reduced to numbers and the thoughtful, deliberative, participating, republican citizen has been largely forgotten. Securing a vote has become a tactical affair of showing concern for or involvement in resolving issues. Argument is not uppermost and contradicting a voter would be almost out of the question. Indeed pointing to the existence of thoughtful, republican voters risks being dismissed as elitist or “out of touch”.

Long promised comes to pass
It is hardly surprising then that when the technology and data became available to exploit the passive citizen, it would be used enthusiastically by those smart enough to realise its potential. What is surprising is that so many who ought to know about or who pretend to know about democracy express shock at a large well-executed attack on democracy while they have been unconcerned at the thousands and thousands of small but similar attacks that have been allowed to form an accepted part of the political process. What the e-Brexiteers did was waiting to happen and the ground was prepared by activists, many of whom now appear shocked and silly.

– – – – – – –
* There’s a seeming paradox here which will be left for now: the mass is accumulated by near-bespoke messaging.

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/

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?

 

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* 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/

Far too many in the Labour Party are behaving like football supporters whose team has fallen on hard times. They want to revitalise, fund raise, put new structures in place, re-establish rapport with the traditional fan base, put the club firmly under the control of ordinary members etc. The purpose being to return their team to at least a mid-table position in the Big League.

For a smaller group of members this won’t do. They didn’t join the Party to play the game; they wanted to change the game. They still see this as the Party’s very purpose.

 

The game and left conservatism

The Irish structure of wealth, inequality of income and privilege is secured by a vibrant, healthy, system of support. Perhaps uniquely the Irish system has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism which paradoxically allows anyone who so desires to pose as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment on behalf of “ordinary people”. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having governed for the greater part of the state’s history, can pose as anti-establishment.

The conservative mechanism operates firstly by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and secondly – more importantly, here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.

The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.

Political parties within this system tend not to offer a universal argument but vie to represent sectional interests, i.e. to be their voice against the establishment. Much of the left is more than implicated; it is comfortably part of the system. Class, if mentioned at all, is no longer concerned with values, revolution or even reform. The working class no longer has universal significance or a historic role. Having deserted a Marxist perspective in favour of accepting class as a polling category, leftists have reduced working class to a mere pressure group. The working-class as pressure group has interests which can be represented and left parties tussle to be their champion, to lead them in the competition to secure favours from variously the government, establishment or political class. Gino Kenny, a leftist T.D. (member of parliament) for Dublin Mid-West, went so far as to say that his role is that of a union shop steward representing his working class constituents in their dealings with the establishment.

 

The conservative path or the left path

Labour – especially in opposition – can join this and all the indications are that this is the intent; most members seem relieved and pleased to return to campaigning “on the ground”, representing “our natural” support base. Thus Labour can slot comfortably in among all of the other parties and seek to lead/represent groups seeking preferment.

In stark terms, Labour is thoughtlessly sauntering onto the inviting path to left conservatism, joining those who help maintain the structure of economic inequality by representing parts of it in pursuit of concessions.

There is a different path: become the one party of opposition in Ireland – opposition to the generally accepted structure of economic inequality and privilege. This will mean a break with Labour traditions because it will mean a stated intention to lower the height of the economic pyramid rather than defending the relative advantages of all but the distantly safe one percent.

On this path Labour would leave the club of parties who talk in terms of fairness. In contrast Labour would talk in terms of income, of reducing the shameful – no, ludicrous – gap between the minimum (or if preferred, the living or industrial) wage and the top 10%. All policy and reactions to current controversies would be formed with reference to the Party’s objective. Labour’s party spokespersons operating within their remit would know that the party had an overall objective and that their policy development and public comments were to serve it.

Moreover, any liberal or conservative party seeking Labour support in government or participation in coalition would know in advance that the price was measurable structural change.

Taking this path would mean unpopularity and withering attacks from the well off but it would also mean that all actions and statements had to be coherent and plausible – and this would change Irish politics for this reason: It’s essentially about leaving the passive approach to representation and addressing those citizens who demand to be truly republican, i.e. who are amenable to and wish to participate in argument.

Why then would anyone want to go in such a difficult direction? The answer is that there are people within the Party and in society generally who want not revolution but meaningful, measurable, visible change and who see no point in Labour at a crossroads deciding to march with everyone else.

The 2016 general election in Ireland saw the two largest political parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) share a combined vote of less than 50% and the Labour Party reduced to a small wounded cadre of seven parliamentarians. The conventional interpretation of this outcome is that there has been a leftward shift in overall Irish political sentiment which has made the Labour Party at best a mild left irrelevance and at worst a party of poseurs when compared to the emergent “real left”.

There is a possibility that the Labour Party in its weakened state will accept this established account and move simplistically to compete within rather than challenge the orthodox view. From a socialist perspective the problem with the orthodoxy is that increasingly the left in Ireland is implicated in a stable, conservative system of competing interest groups. It is important, therefore, that the Labour Party take time to think about the nature and complexity of this system with a view to confronting it rather than cutting a dash within it.

Despite their relatively small size a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left” or “socialist left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. When parliamentarians elected under the AAA/PBP* banner are asked if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern, the interviewer is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system. Now, while there is no possibility that Labour will join their tradition or at this stage find that theory plausible, there is a real risk that a demoralised and tiny Labour Party will thoughtlessly emulate their activism.

The quagmire into which Labour could very easily disappear is made of “grass roots”, “traditional support base”, “founding principles”, “the people we represent”. “listening to our members” etc. To survive Labour must look hard at the tempting system which has so developed to protect privilege that it easily accommodates dissent, anti-establishment and traditional revolutionaries. To survive and more importantly to keep alive the socialist minority in Ireland Labour must decide to turn away from the community service which most members crave and instead address the Demos – the masses – though the rest of the left opt for competing pressure groups.

***

Perhaps uniquely Ireland has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism paradoxically seen as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having been in government for 61 of the past 84 years, can pose as anti-establishment. The mechanism operates by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and – more importantly here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.

The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.

***

Now, the left would reject this characterisation of establishment and anti-establishment. They would see themselves as real anti-establishment but they would make this point while they move further and further, and more prominently into the stabilising or conservative, anti-establishment mechanism. There are three linked features of this move which – though they have a familiar radical veneer – illustrate the extent of left conservatism.

i) Class reduced to mere interest group

Unfortunately it’s becoming rare to hear socialists mention class. This has lead to the term functioning merely as an affiliation signal. Credibility among some leftists depends on stating explicitly that society is class based but there is little requirement beyond using the word. The kind of Marxist analysis which sought to define working class by attributes and then to calculate possible numbers has been replaced by acceptance of the class categories used by pollsters. This has led to the neglect of working class values, abandonment of the universal significance of the working class and acceptance of the working class as no more than a relatively deprived social bracket, i.e. a large pressure group demanding concessions from the government, political class or establishment.

ii) Representing and defending communities

The increasing emphasis on marking out territory is a further drift away from a meaningful view of class. The notion of deprived housing estates in revolt, besieged by the establishment and in need of defence is attractive to activists and has recent roots in the experience of Northern Ireland where territories were marked out for defence by one side or the other. There is now competition to establish exclusive political leadership within geographic areas identified as “working class estates”. It is common for activists from other areas to move to “defend” these estates.

It is nonsense of course. These housing estates are long established, comprised of family homes and are an integral part of society. The notion that – because they are relatively deprived and troubled – they are attacked by the state and its workers, and are no-go areas for unapproved political canvassers and politicians is a gross imposition. Moreover, it is an authoritarian affront to residents to suggest that they need leadership, particularly from outsiders with a more privileged background.**

iii) Favouring the street over parliament

In theory and in sentiment the sight of workers marching and organising in defiance of capitalist rule and the oppressive state apparatus is vital to the revolutionary left. In theory they should be marching for something which cannot be conceded and thus hastening the final crisis of capitalism. In this view the determinants of change are people in the streets and not representatives in parliament whose role is the secondary one of agitating within the foremost institution of liberal democracy.

Because it is now so clearly implausible, understanding the sentimental attachment to this tradition is easier than understanding the endurance of its place in left theory. Senior police officers routinely say that the force not only accepts protest but will facilitate it and it is odd that this seldom prompts doubt among those committed to street protest. However, some leftists do see the problem and distinguish between protest and effective protest. The former has been institutionalised to the extent that it is now quasi constitutional. Its primary function is that of a lightning rod which runs dissent safely to earth. An older safety metaphor might be preferred: it let’s off steam. Its other function is to display numbers. That’s why after a protest march there is inevitably dispute over attendance; the larger the attendance, the greater the pressure for a concession. (RTE, the national broadcaster, now reports estimated attendances as rival claims and leaves citizens to judge numbers from the TV pictures.)

The latter – effective protest – in reality isn’t protest as conventionally understood. It is political action aimed at some immediate end, usually preventing something happening, e.g. installation of water meters or the holding of a meeting. In seeking publicity it clearly has a genuine communication component extending beyond the ritual chanting of “peaceful protest”. However, it is also clear that while thousands are prepared to attend a “respectable” march, only a small number involve themselves in “effective protest”. In short, the masses accept the quasi-constitutional protest but reject direct action.

From a socialist perspective these trends have little or no reformative – never mind transformative – value and are fatally unconvincing to potential supporters. The working class is properly characterised by – among other things – admirable and universal values, not support for concessions from rulers. Its reduction to an interest group to be served, patronised, organised or led is an affront to the citizens concerned and to socialism. Moreover, the citizen who is likely to support either a socialist alternative or a somewhat more equal society can see the yawning chasm between sectarian chanting and a plausible argument.

***

The Labour Party is in more than enough trouble now. It is vital for two reasons that it is not sucked deeper into the conservative system of issues, competing demands and policies determined by focus-group research into interests. Firstly, while they come from very different traditions, every other party is serving and supportive of that system and there’s not much point in Labour joining that competition. Secondly and more importantly, there is a role for Labour in opposing the conservative system of cargo politics and competing interest groups.

There is no way of knowing the electoral consequences of Labour making a break with tradition and directly disputing the views of the majority. Indeed, there are no data on what binds the relatively stable minority of people who vote Labour. This essay assumes a significant minority of citizens who are really – as opposed to apparently – opposed to the observable, established system and are well disposed to hearing a political argument rather than mere contending pleas for preferment – pleas addressed to rulers carelessly referred to as the government, the establishment or the political class.

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* The most prominent components of this alliance are the Socialist Workers Party marketed as People Before Profit and the old Militant Tendency relaunched as The Socialist Party after expulsion from The Labour Party. Its more complex alliances can be found here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_Before_Profit_Alliance

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Austerity_Alliance%E2%80%93People_Before_Profit

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/the-anti-austerity-alliance-and-people-before-profit-1.2520628

** Counter establishment

Ruling a working class estate reflects a history in Ireland that has had some success. The idea is to make the state illegitimate or powerless and to usurp its functions in serving the people. This is what Sinn Féin did during the War of Independence; while making areas ungovernable or taking control, they established a parliament and a law enforcement system. The approach reappeared in the Provisional SF/IRA campaign in Northern Ireland when the UK state ceased to function in quite a few areas (Security forces could enter only by force of arms.) and in the Republic when the role of An Garda was usurped in tackling drug dealers. It was in evidence again in the details of enquiries and kangaroo courts addressing sex abusers in the ranks of SF/IRA and in the alternative celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

 

 

Ireland is a small component part of western liberal democracy. For that reason it shares current concerns about the direction or the very future of democracy. However, its dominant political model uncannily prefigures the emergent model in other countries.

A number of theorists are convinced that the kind of liberal democracy that has existed for the last century or so has arrived at an existential crisis. It is argued that democracy is in the throes of change in order to accommodate a near universal disdain for politics with citizens and politicians sharing what Peter Mair has called an ‘anti-political sentiment’.* The term refers to the abandonment of any kind of universal objective and the decline of traditional forms of parties which represented such objectives. This is nothing less than the replacement of the demos with shifting civil society groups and alliances, together with “rational” or “practical” approaches to policy – doing whatever works without recourse to divisive debate about values or long-term objectives.

Ireland, it will be recalled, during the lberal-democratic century was never typical. Ireland preferred a system which heaped disdain on politics, universal values and ideas – and this was long before other countries arrived at this juncture. Such considerations were seen as “intellectual” (frequently a term of abuse in Ireland) and unnecessarily divisive when compared to “pragmatic” policies. Ireland, for so long seen as unlike other countries in which left and right clashed over political values, now finds itself in the post-political mainstream: an example of a system without need of discursive politics in any meaningful sense of the term. It might indeed be possible to say without laughing that western liberal democracy is tending towards the traditional Irish model!

That model sees a ruling “political class” faced by pressure groups with attendant activists who demand concessions. It is a stable, conservative system in which the best supported civil society or interest groups are favoured over their rivals. There is no question of debating social priorities, never mind political values or contending visions of a good society.

The media play two roles. The most prominent one is publicising the various claimants and helping to decide which will receive favour and to what extent. Their second role is less obvious. It involves presenting the political model as common sense, as “realism” or the way the world works. Their presentation places the model beyond criticism, and certainly outside of the accepted realm of political controversy. In short, media relentlessly promote this singular view without the slightest thought that it could be challenged, never mind that it ought to be “balanced” by a different perspective. **

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* Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy by Peter Mair, Verso, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 84467 324 7

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/conservative-journalism-and-the-victims-of-austerity/

 

 

A citizen has just one vote. The voter expresses preferences by using the ballot paper to instruct the returning officer as to what to do with that one vote. The number 1 says, “That’s my preferred candidate”. The number 2 says, “If my no. 1 cannot be elected or doesn’t need my vote, then give it to number 2.” And so it goes.

At every election some fool will argue that later preferences are to be opposed for fear of electing candidates a voter might oppose. That’s simply not true.

If a voter has expressed preferences for a small list of desired candidates and then has absolutely no preference as to which of the remaining are elected, then it makes sense to stop. However, the application of a little thought might reveal some preference as between the remaining candidates, e.g. a voter might prefer a woman over a man from the same party or a candidate who has expressed a mildly different view from the others remaining.

Moreover, if the voter really has no preference whatsoever between the remaining candidates and stops at, say, number 3, that voter has no further effect on the outcome either to oppose or to elect someone from the remaining candidates. They simply say to the returning officer, “I don’t care beyond my number 3. At that stage count me out.”

Say there are eighteen candidates. Sensible advice to the voter would be as follows. Give your 1st preference to the candidate you most want elected. Give the candidate you least want elected your number 18. Now list the remainder from 2 to 17. It might be hard to decide between some of your lower preferences but at least you can say that you prefer them more than number 18!

 

 

The strike action at Dublin Bus is more significant and more serious than most commentators seem to imagine. This is because it calls into question the quasi-constitutional understanding of industrial relations and the central role of trade unions within that.

Leaving aside the layers of rules and institutions developed over decades so that industrial relations can be orderly and manageable, there is a base and it is this: a trade union involved in strike action cannot be sued by the company for the recovery of strike-related losses. It’s old (It was formative in the birth of the Labour Party.) it’s been effective and it’s generally supported. There are two groups who dislike it. Firstly, there are free marketeers who argue that it is restrictive. Secondly, there are leftists who see that it institutionalises unions within a capitalist economy. They are both right.

In short, the state has privileged most strike actions so that strikes can be resolved while causing relatively little disruption to the wider social system. The privileged or legitimate strike action is one directed by workers and unions against their employers. If the action extends beyond that, the union no longer enjoys state protection. If there is a strike in support of something over which the employer has no control, the Union is no longer protected by statute and could be held liable for losses.

This is where the bus strike gets very serious. It is clearly a political strike and it has been made so by government policy in giving the Transport Authority control over bus routes. The bus workers want to maintain their conditions and pay, and have struck against their employer to prevent the privatisation of routes. Their employer of course is subject to the Transport Authority and certainly cannot control the pay of workers in private bus companies.

It’s not at all clear what the privatisation is meant to achieve. The Minister says that the tendering plan is aimed at creating “competitive tension in the market” and that this will in some unexplained way deliver “greater value” and “more choice for passengers”. Clearly this is a fine example of complete bollocks, no more than the mumbled prayer of a dogmatic advocate of markets. Journalism however shares the dogma; media interviews, in failing to make any challenge, are cementing a baseless belief into the wall of common sense.

What we have is the potential to place at risk a developed and trusted system of industrial relations so that there will be “competitive tension” in public transport. The risk is real because according to reports the bus company is seriously considering suing the unions for losses. Now, those who want no connection between the state and unions would rejoice in awarding damages to the company but the rest of us who rely on good industrial relations practice do not want to lose a century of progress.

This confrontation must be avoided. This means refusing to listen to clichés about returning to negotiations. The workers and management within the company cannot negotiate a solution. The solution lies elsewhere in a public discussion of “competitive tension” and in the event that the term is not only meaningful but demonstrably and greatly advantageous, then the state must move to institute pay rates and conditions (a registered employment agreement) across the public transport industry. Again, a confrontation which jeopardises the very basis of industrial relations must be avoided.

I recall Brendan Halligan saying at the time that the one good thing about Charles Haughey’s ascent to Taoiseach was that it would help polarise Irish politics. It didn’t.  I recall too that Frank Cluskey regarded him as a test instrument; if there was any doubt about a policy but Charles Haughey disliked it, very likely it was the correct thing to do. I was relatively young then and, finding Charles Haughey ridiculous, I struggled to understand his appeal. Later it occurred to me that he was mad. (If you doubt this, find a picture of him before his mansion with his horse.) Of course the realisation that he was mad was of little value in trying to understand his appeal. That understanding took years and another similar Taoiseach in Bertie Ahern.

The key to understanding the phenomenon of a Taoiseach who is without political values and claims to be neither left nor right is the preoccupation with aristocracy and leadership of the nation*. The main virtue of the RTE TV drama series, “Charlie”, is that it makes this plain. The importance of the drama right now is that the Irish attitude to national leadership has not changed. Ireland’s history, and the view of politics accepted by the majority and reinforced by journalists has led to this point.

The leader is required to deliver a modicum of self-respect to a nation held down by outsiders and their cronies within. These cronies – “the establishment” – characteristically exhibit foreign traits and “betray” the “people”. The leader is required to be kindly and to have a common touch, delivering to some people and some communities, while offering hope of a delivery to each one. When Charlie wants Ireland to “dine at the top table”, he epitomises national abasement.

Charles sought to be the chieftain of the Irish nation. Today the model remains one of ruler and ruled with “ordinary people” or sometimes “ordinary working people” seeking relief, reassuring promises, favours, and gifts from their chieftain or aristocracy. Lately the would-be chieftains strike their version of the traditional anti-establishment pose by deriding “the political class”. The term offers a distant whiff of Marxism while ensuring that the concept of class is never explored. Then they get on with precisely what FF and Charlie inherited from their SF origins: they insinuate themselves into communities, take up causes and make representations. They have it appear that nothing can be “delivered” without pressure and that they are best at pressurising.  It is a depressingly long way from citizens discussing and deciding on the direction of their republic. The whinging cry now, as in the 70s and 80s, is for leadership.

The state’s founding myth continues to figure in selecting leaders.  In 1916 Ireland had The Easter Rising (Irish: Éirí** Amach na Cásca).  The cultural base to that was a harking back to mythical Irish chieftains. The cruelly executed signatories to the Easter Proclamation*** became lost leaders, revered for representing the nation.  The drama, Charlie, showed that by the early 80s an invitation – in familiar “rebel song” format – to Arise and Follow Charlie (It featured the line, “Hail the leader, hail the man”. Jesus wept!) was still compelling.**** Today we have calls for new leaders and new parties to come and save the people who have been “betrayed” by leaders who ignore the “principles”, dreams and aspirations of 1916. (There is even a nationalist group styling itself “Éirigí”.) The tradition of rebellion in Ireland is essentially nationalist, a desire to be ruled by “our own”. Though Irish nationalists – in common with British opponents of monarchy – like to call themselves “republican”, their use of the term drains it of its participative meaning.

In the first episode of the TV drama, as Charlie called the race together under his emerging leadership, he stood before an enormous picture of Pádraig Pearse.  With the 2016 centenary approaching the trick is being reworked time and again.

Many found the TV drama difficult to follow or disliked the reliance on actors who featured in the crime series, Love Hate. More importantly, the drama was criticised for its stereotypes and gormless script. However, the real subjects of the drama (Charles Haughey and co.) performed for the most part as stereotypes who spoke rubbish which voters found agreeable. Moreover, the drama speaks to Ireland’s present predicament as citizens seek new saviours.

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* Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote that Mr Haughey “was an aristocrat in the proper sense of the word: not a nobleman or even a gentleman, but one who believed in the right of the best people to rule, and that he himself was the best of the best people”. – quoted in Dermot Ferriter’s The Transformation of Ireland 1900 – 2000 pg.561

**  https://glosbe.com/ga/en/%C3%A9ir%C3%AD

*** The text of the 1916 proclamation: http://www.iol.ie/~dluby/proclaim.htm

**** Donie Cassidy teamed with Dublin folk singer Pete St. John to co-write ‘Charlie’s Song’ (better known as ‘Arise and Follow Charlie’).

There is a courtroom scene in the movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It shows an IRA court operating during the war of independence. It’s probably accurate. That’s how they did things. The sentences ranged from rough to death.

The IRA justice system operates by excluding existing state personnel from an area or a “community” as it’s more usually called these days and making the citizens who reside there dependent for their security on SF/IRA volunteers/staff.

This is what Gerry Adams was talking about when commenting on the scandalous IRA treatment of rape victim, Mairia Cahill. He said that during the “troubles” the IRA was the police force in many nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. He is referring to their success in excluding the police (RUC) and setting up a rival to the state’s system of justice.

Leaving the question of legitimacy aside, there are problems of course with this kind of justice. Obviously, without the state law, institutions, personnel and expertise which are built up over centuries, the penalties imposed are bound to be quick, cheap and often brutal. However, victims and others seeking justice would also fall foul of the shambolic system. Both problems are well illustrated in recent SF statements.

Firstly, Gerry Adams is revealing in attempting to find virtue in brutality. “In an article published on his blog, Mr Adams outlined how republicans dealt with allegations of child abuse, saying that the IRA on occasion shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them.” – http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1020/653455-mairia-cahill/

Now, it’s remotely possible that Gerry Adams is being clever in cynically using this scandal to cement the support of right wing voters who would favour corporal and capital punishment. It is almost certain, however, that he is being genuine. That is to say, he really does think that shooting offenders is evidence of a serious concern over sex abuse.

Secondly, SF explicitly uses the incompetence of the IRA investigators/judges to explain the dreadful treatment of sex abuse victims. Dessie Ellis, the Sinn Fein TD, says that while the IRA carried out criminal investigations, “To be honest they were not qualified to deal with something like sexual abuse.” – http://www.herald.ie/news/sinn-fein-td-ira-held-internal-probes-into-serious-crimes-30673144.html

Apart from the similarity here to the Catholic Church’s response to sex abuse, and the sordid implication that they feel they were competent when sentencing citizens to beating, maiming or execution, they seem to be at least aware that their justice system had its limitations.

It is also likely or at least plausible that their system never had as its objective the delivery of justice but that like terrorism its purpose was to convey a message to the state that its writ did not run in certain areas and to the people that there was a new authority.

Incidentally, some anti-water meter activists have learned from the IRA’s alternative-state approach. They want to alienate citizens from their police force (An Garda), portray the “community” as in conflict with the state, and insinuate “activists” as the voice of and leaders of the community. – https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/citizens-need-to-talk-about-a-contentious-suggestion-which-is-reported-regularly-by-an-uncritical-media/

The activists who organise resistance to the installation of water meters regularly put forward a contentious proposition in the media but journalists/presenters seldom – perhaps never – challenge them.

They contend that work within, passage through or policing of a housing estate requires the consent of the community. It’s a familiar concept in Northern Ireland but is new to this part of Ireland. Moreover, “community consent” is determined by activists not all of whom live in the particular community.

The model put forward is of communities under siege from something akin to an occupying force and dependent on cadres which know what’s best and will protect them. It is a model which has simply no relevance to Ireland today.

The protesters mount a token blockade to prevent water meter installers’ trucks gaining access and then they obstruct the installation of meters. They offer little resistance, however, and allow the Gardaí to push them aside. Given the small numbers of protesters and Gardaí, it might seem odd to treat this seriously. It may, however, be a growing phenomenon, beginning to border on dangerous. There are already activists who regard a residential area as their territory and will attempt to drive off rivals and those who belong to the political parties who generally support the state.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as the actions of fantasists in thrall to anti-state struggles which occurred and still occur in Northern Ireland but there is a component to this which reflects badly and damages the credibility of the left. It too attracts the fantasist but of a slightly different kind. Unfortunately it has roots in Marxism and makes Marx appear ridiculous at a time when his work should be relevant.

There is a tendency particularly among Marxists with middle class origins to both misunderstand working class and romanticise anything that seems popular. When, therefore, a significant number of people take up a position, there is an assumption that they are progressive as long as they can be labelled “ordinary working people”, that they need to be led and if they are opposing the state, so much the better. At its most benign this draws some leftists into the routine form of Irish populism. However, the romance of involvement in something that looks a bit like revolt draws them close to and into competition with the fantasists mentioned earlier, those who want to do battle with the state.

All in all, the notion that the Irish people are at war with their own state needs to be questioned and discussed publicly in Irish media. It is an abandonment of public service merely to report on or give coverage to a proposition so contentious. It is an abandonment too of citizens who do not think they are opponents of the Irish state.

My long-time friend, Eamon Tuffy, socialist and former county cllr, reminded me recently that it’s no longer clear if South Dublin County Council has a county manager. That post now seems to be Chief Executive.* It might be argued that this makes no difference. However, it is certain that the change was discussed and decided upon. In other words, there are reasons.

The change was, moreover, not done in isolation. There are now “Directors of …” and the council is adamant that it will redefine citizens as customers.

What we are witnessing is our local county council taking part in much wider phenomenon: corporatisation. **

Too many local politicians want to be community workers and to avoid bringing politics into … well, politics – and they’ll try to convince themselves that words don’t matter.*** Words do matter and these changes will appear over and over in media in order to drive home their acceptability and the acceptability of the political changes they reflect.
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* http://www.sdcc.ie/the-council/about-us/management-team
** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporatization
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/if-the-county-council-is-not-a-little-parliament-what-is-it/

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

The labour Party – my party – is in turmoil. Questions are being asked about leadership, management, a revised programme for government and more. However, now more than ever the most useful question that the Labour Party can ask of itself is what is its purpose? Many see its purpose as defending welfare payments, sometimes jokingly referred to as being the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul. In recent years it has become conventional to say that its purpose – like every other party in the state – is to create a fairer society. Since entering government its purpose has become the restoration the economy.

Defending welfare payments and restoring the economy are worthy objectives. “Fairness”, however, has become a weasel word. It has been emptied of meaning. Anyone at all can be comfortably in favour of fairness but essentially it is a conservative position because all significant change – particularly in wealth or income – can be described as unfair. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

It might have been expected that socialism would feature. It certainly is mentioned regularly and is a focus of rows usually of a very technical nature. Open, iconoclastic discussion is rare because of the dominance – across decades – of conflict over socialism versus social democracy. While many seem to enjoy this jousting, it hardly qualifies as a debate. Indeed the Labour Party’s on-line forum, a model of openness and freedom, had to impose a rule that forbade questioning a person’s socialism. The reason was simple and born out of long experience: it was realised that as soon as a person is subjected to the “you’re-not-a-real-socialist” routine he/she would become defensive and discussion would rush down the old, boggy cul de sac of socialism/social democracy.

Many on the left would say that socialism/social democracy is the only debate, that it is fundamental, and that it must be addressed before any progress can be made. Ok then, perhaps it is worth risking a short discussion but it is a risk; it risks losing the attention of many leftists and it risks attracting comments about betrayal, principles, heroes rolling in their graves and the other traditional trappings of socialism reduced to a “faith”.

Socialists who favour a revolution generally treat with disdain those who accept parliamentary democracy and would want to describe them all as Social Democrats. However, the majority of socialists are opposed to revolution and regard the term “social democrat” as an insult. In truth insult is often intended.

One tradition sees a parliamentary route to a socialist society. The idea is that reform would be piled upon reform until capitalism is effectively replaced. This is now seldom discussed among socialists. Indeed, the question of transition to socialism is avoided. Non-revolutionary socialists anxious to avoid being labelled “social democrat” are often unwilling to let go of the term “revolution”. In seeking to redefine revolution to suit their peaceful intent, the term is drained of its meaning. This becomes downright silly when talk turns to a “spiritual revolution”.

There are socialists who are serious about a parliamentary road to socialism. They argue the need for a party or union of parties to win a left majority. This party/alliance then would not need to compromise with a right wing party and could legislate capitalism out of existence. A less ambitious objective is more common: a list of broadly leftist reforms. Again this would be delivered by a left majority. The problem of course is that the left programme itself would be a compromise and that there would be no plan B in the case of failing to achieve a majority. Indeed a plan B could never be developed because avoiding coalition with conservatives and/or liberals is their raison d’être.

So, leaving aside revolution there seems to be two leftist options: a majority left government or a coalition with liberals or conservatives.

It is accepted by many on the left in Ireland that it is coalition with right wing parties that prevents the emergence of a left majority vote. It is said that if the Labour Party eschewed coalition or if the Labour Party disappeared altogether, sufficient numbers of Irish people would in a relatively short period change their political views and elect a socialist government. The problem with this approach is that there is no evidence to support it. It is a hope in spite of the evidence that a large majority of Irish voters prefer the right.

Another problem is that the left majority project is usually linked to left unity, i.e. bringing all or most of the left parties together on an agreed programme. That is to say, there is acceptance that it will be necessary to maximise support. Now, apart from the fact that these parties tend to despise one another, there is the question of excluding Labour, Labour’s members and crucially the sizeable Labour vote. Until recently it was assumed that Labour’s reliable 10% or so vote would transfer unproblematically to a new force on the left. More recently this vote has been dismissed as right wing and irrelevant to the project of building a left majority. The truth is that this large (by Irish left standards) and curiously reliable vote is unresearched, and no one knows much about it. However, it is reasonable to suggest that dumping or antagonising what is possibly the largest concentration of left votes is not a sensible way to start building towards a left majority.

Consider this scenario: The Labour Party has been destroyed and no longer exists. A left programme for government has been agreed by a group of left parties. All of these parties honour agreements not to oppose one another in an election. Labour’s traditional 10% support base moves to support the left grouping. Huge numbers of traditionally right wing voters are convinced to vote left. With all of these unlikely events coinciding, what could possibly go wrong? The obvious answer is that the outcome could still fall short – probably considerably short – of a majority.

If no one right wing party had achieved a majority, then the vexed question of coalition arises. Unless this is quickly dismissed the left grouping will very likely disintegrate. However, should it remain united or should a significant portion of it remain united, the whole or part will be confronted by coalition. Because it made no serious plans for this predictable eventuality, it will be in the situation that Labour frequently inhabits: confronted by coalition and with no clear notion what to do. In other words, a left grouping is likely to have worked to eliminate the Labour Party only to find that it has replaced the Labour Party.

It’s long past time the thoughtful elements within the Irish left stopped messing about and started making life difficult for political opponents and for those who do well out of the Irish structure of economic inequality. In other words, if it is not possible to achieve some structural change by way of coalition, it is time to abandon the parliamentary route. That means socialists becoming activists who would join pressure groups in that burgeoning area which accepts rule by a “political class” and progress as achieving favour at the expense of a rival group. Truth be told, many socialists and progressives have already gone there.

That’s a depressing prospect: socialists reduced to a role in managing the system while retaining the trappings of protest and anti-establishment. It’s time to stare coalition with a right wing party straight in the face. State the basic price of coalition as well as the areas of compromise and negotiation. The basic price would have to be modest in socialist terms but exorbitant in right wing terms.

It is highly unlikely that large numbers of anti-coalition socialists will look afresh at coalition. The anti-stance has been held for too long and has been concreted into a principle. That leaves the battered Labour Party. It is not averse to coalition but is very unsure of its purpose. The Labour Party needs to open up a clear space between it and the conservatives who believe that fairness and social justice are meaningful. It needs to state that the Party’s objective is a measurable reduction of inequality of income over each year of the lifetime of a government. For that gain the Labour Party should coalesce with the devil but should not coalesce with a saint for anything less.