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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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I was never in favour of abolishing the Seanad. My reasons were to do with mass political communication which many would dismiss with one of censorship’s favourite labels: “academic”. Now, however, there is a more pressing reason to vote No.

I won’t go on too much about the communication aspect but some explanation is required. My interest is political communication and the information – i.e. data and argument – that a citizen requires to participate in public controversies. One of the requirements is access to a range of viewpoints. The Seanad wasn’t designed with this in mind but in its design there was a suggestion of comprehensive debate, something rare and something that could be altered to do the job.

Election to the Seanad is by way of some universities and by way of industrial panels – agriculture, labour and the like. Commentators have pointed to the quality of Seanad speakers delivered by the universities but also to the exclusion of any particular industrial component to the panel elections which came to be dominated by routine inter party competition. There have also been nominations by Taoisigh which sought to recruit particular perspectives. In summary, the Seanad is designed for the most part to institutionalise and deliver sectional perspectives but this simply hasn’t happened.

Had it happened, it would not have been a great success for political communication – or rather for the kind of political communication which the republican or participative citizen needs. It is corporatist thinking. The assumption is that all political debate is based on self-interest and competition for resources. It is the traditional Fianna Fáil way and has become the standard media perspective in Ireland. It has indeed an appealing democratic veneer. Its notion of representation is that voices must be heard from regions, classes, industries, NGOs, lobbies etc. The problem of course is that they may all be saying the same thing: “Me! No, me! No, no, me, me!” This is an intensely conservative position which can often give the appearance of radicalism as when a bit of extra resources for a “deserving” group is championed.

It could be different. Think about this as a specification to be handed to the designers of a new Seanad: It is required that the Seanad reflect not the interests of select groups but that it publicly and fully thrash out all issues on which it deliberates. In summary my long standing position on the Seanad is that it has a promising design which needs to be changed.

Enough of that. We are facing a referendum to abolish the Seanad. The reason we are facing this now has nothing whatsoever to do with arguments put forward over the years that the Seanad is elitist, undemocratic or unnecessary. No, this is happening because the Taoiseach and his advisors can see clearly that there is a growing, right wing, anti-state, anti-politics constituency and he has decided to feed it by sacrificing the Seanad. The cusp of competition for political support now is this large group (There’s no knowing its size yet.) of angry people. It is certainly odd that FG which prides itself on defending democracy should now be prompted in this direction. With the exception of revolutionaries seeking a crisis which might be exploited, the desire among leftists to attach to – even to lead – such people borders on incomprehensible. It seems to be based on a belief that anyone or group opposing austerity and willing to take part in protest is progressive – even socialist. In other words, the very people that might be expected to stand in the way of a populist move to the right are competing to lead it.

Two things remain to be addressed. Firstly, a no vote might be equally attractive to a member of the anti-state/anti politics (ASAP) grouping; “no” would be a rejection of a government proposal. However, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the No side canvassing support on this basis.

Secondly, ASAP may be nothing of consequence. My concern with it grew slowly. I watched Occupy and spoke to some of its adherents. I attended anti-property tax meetings. I live an ordinary social life and take part in conversations. On this anecdotal level ASAP gives cause for concern in terms of what they say, the aggressive stance taken and their numbers. There’s more, however. Published polling data shows firm support for right wing parties, that parties seek ASAP support suggests the existence of data that make that course worthwhile and the utter dominance of the ASAP perspective in the media all combine to support a case for treating ASAP very seriously.

The Taoiseach has reduced this referendum to a question of for or against cutting the number of politicians. That proposal is close to the hearts of the ASAP people. In these particular circumstances people who have been in favour of abolishing the Seanad for other reasons should consider voting No. A Yes gives encouragement to an extremely individualist brand of politics and many of those that I’ve heard advocating abolition of the Seanad over the years certainly don’t belong on that side.

In a republic the citizens are engaged in public controversies. They rely on their mass media for the information and arguments necessary to deliberation and discussion. If the media fall short, the republic is ill served.  

 
Glib references to “the politicians” is, as Michael D. Higgins argues in the Irish Times of 22nd August 2009, evasive but it is also poor journalism which does nothing to provoke or nourish public debate in the republic.  
 
It is long past time that some prominent journalist, editor or media manager in the state-owned or private sector media initiated an editorial guideline which would serve to limit the use of the term “the politicians” to the odd occasion on which it might have relevance. On all other occasions the citizen would be better served by language which seeks to categorise and divide politics and politicians.