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Tag Archives: regulation

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

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

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

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I use FB quite a lot. I behave there much like I do in the wider world. I use it to stay in touch with family, friends and acquaintances. I’m kept informed of events. I see and share interesting pictures. I really enjoy the spoofing and slagging of some very bright people. Significantly, I also participate in debates there. Now, if “debate” has any meaning, at least some of my FB fiends must have views quite different to mine.

Here’s an interesting proposition: As social media increasingly replace the open web for many people, those among them who value debate, who recognise their need to be confronted by contrary, challenging viewpoints, will have to choose at least some of their on-line friends very deliberately. Because a constant, unrelieved, cosy consensus is not what they want, they may have to seek out antagonistic friends. Perhaps I mean agonistic friends but let’s not quibble.

I’ve been a student of Political Communication for a long time now – since I was introduced to it by Brian Farrell (David’s dad) the best part of thirty years ago. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me to realise that I was studying Citizenship.

The conventional view is that there are two very basic approaches to being a citizen: the liberal approach and the republican approach. The liberal wants to choose privacy, to be left alone to enjoy life untroubled by debates, public controversy, politics generally, and wants to be informed only if decisions are to be made which might affect that private way of living. The republican by contrast wants to be involved in all matters affecting the direction of the republic. The two approaches of course are no more than models – extreme ends of a spectrum of participation. However, a citizen cannot avoid taking a decision on roughly what is to be their degree of participation and by implication what ought to be the practice of others.

By inclination I find myself well over towards the republican end. I try to be tolerant of those who want to avoid involvement or to keep it to a minimum and I try to encourage citizens – especially younger citizens – to be discursive, argumentative, involved. This tends to annoy those who would prefer a quieter life and it draws them into what they most want to avoid: a controversy and a basic one at that. They argue that no one wants to hear contrary information and argument, and that those who hold contrary views should keep them to themselves.

Now, in the period dominated by mass media – i.e. before the arrival of ICTs – this dispute centred on the concept of public service. One view was that the market should determine content. If consumers created a demand for news, controversy, opinions, challenges, then a supplier would meet that demand. If not, then there was simply no demand and to insist on supplying such material was authoritarian waste. The opposing view was that this content constituted a public good and in the event of a market failing to deliver, supply should be secured by regulation or by a state provider, e.g. a national public broadcaster.

Things have changed considerably as the web – especially social media and apps – has grown in significance.  Nowadays the web can be essentially liberal in that content is increasingly tailored to suit the individual. What the individual requires is determined by looking at real preferences expressed in purchases and on-line activity. With the help of algorithms a person on-line need never be troubled by the new, the contrary, the challenging. Indeed on FB a click will remove from Friends anyone likely to disagree, question or challenge in any way.[1]

While social media provide a communication environment which is the liberal citizen’s dream, they make life difficult for the republican citizen. Their design protects the user from the new, the challenging, and the serendipitous. It could be argued that while people increasingly leave older media and come to rely on social media, their attention will be drawn to a rich array of exciting material recommended by friends. However, that would happen only if at least some friends were not of a like mind. No, a citizen who chooses to rely on social media and who wants to participate in public controversy – i.e. who really does want to be a republican – will have to make an effort.

The republican citizen on FB will have to examine his/her list of friends, likes etc. specifically with a view to being challenged. He/she will be aware that while talking to like-minded people about agreeable or personal matters is important and pleasurable, it is not enough. The republican citizen needs Facebook friends and contacts with whom to have strong disagreements. There is just one way to address that need: seek out those with whom one disagrees or those who are likely to say or do something new and challenging and send them a friend request.

However, the republican on FB will run into a problem. The problem is that not all – perhaps very few – putative antagonistic friends will want debate. The republican will learn that liberal citizenship is probably the majority position. It may come as a surprise that dislike of challenge is not confined to conservatives. Many who take up seemingly progressive positions don’t like it either. The republican will have to cope with disappointments. The friend who puts forward interesting ideas but “unfriends” (or should it be “defriends”?) anyone who posts a counter argument regarded as threatening to his/her dogma or assumed status will have to be written off and replaced.

Decades after Herbert Marcuse spoke of the role of media in closing down the universe of discourse an almost perfect medium for tedious liberal communication has developed. Of course it doesn’t signal the end of discourse, politics, participation but it does mean that a republican will have to assume greater responsibility for creating his or her own debating chamber.


[1] I’ve restricted this discussion to social media but the use of apps takes the user a further step away from the riches of the open web.

I’m back a few days from a short holiday in Monte Estoril, Portugal. That’s a lovely little town between Estoril and Cascais. At the bottom of the hill there’s the railway station and the sea but between the two there’s something really interesting, something that would be regulated beyond use in Ireland. I’m talking about a wide promenade that stretches some miles from Cascais to Azarujinha Cove.

Yes we have promenades and walks in Ireland and we have parks aplenty but increasingly they are dominated by the rules of joyless NANNY! In Ireland a public walkway or park would typically be signed thus:

No horses

All dogs must be kept on leads

No football

No cycling

No skateboards

No smiling

Ok, I made up the last one but there are often other bans and restrictions on normal enjoyment of open space.

Contrast this with the promenade in Portugal. There were dogs, cyclists, skateboarders, runners, walkers, kids having kickarounds, people in bars and restaurants, lying out in the sun, swimmers, frisbee players etc. etc. Were we mired in dog shit and in fear of being mangled by crazed cyclists? Well, there was some dog dirt until it was cleaned up and I did see a segway clip a wall – its rider took a tumble but was helped by those nearby.  However, it needs to be emphasised that people, animals and activities shared the relatively confined space without difficulty. People were tolerant and courteous; they were unafraid of each other or pets. Sure, there were rules but they were designed to increase the uses to which the promenade could be put.

Incidentally, cyclists brought their bikes on to the train and cycled off down the platform when they alighted.

It seems to me that Ireland is increasingly an intolerant and unfree place to live. Ordinary pleasures are restricted by petty rules driven by a daft, authoritarian desire to eliminate all risks. Anything that could possibly lead to a problem or an accident is likely to be banned.

It is not liberals but socialists who should do most to stop and then reduce our over-government. I say this because socialists rely on state power to tackle inequality and a range of social ills and it is socialist reform which will be most damaged by a loss of public confidence or even a rise in public antagonism to regulation. Silly, petty rules discredit the constructive use of state power. It is time to review all of our rules. Any rule, for which a truly compelling reason cannot be advanced, should be deleted. A start could be made by removing from our public areas those oppressive signs which outlaw simple pleasures.

Incidentally, an acquaintance of mine had an Official walk about a mile of deserted Sligo beach in order to tell him that his dog wasn’t allowed swim but must be kept on a lead. And another, in a park close to where I live I watched as an official drove his pick-up truck across a field in order to prevent a seven year old girl from riding her bike. This is madness. Stop it. We need to be closer to Portugal than Portrane.

Here is an article by Eileen O’Brien in The Irish Times of May 22nd 2012. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2012/0522/1224316501691.html

She is a teacher troubled by her past, “To every child I struck when I was teacher … sorry.” She invites victims to contact her so that she might offer individual apologies and “to open some sort of dialogue on the subject.” The intention here is not to make little of her public contrition. What she has done is brave and sadly unprecedented. There is, however, a problem with what she says.

The article could be naively accepted as a decent woman apologising for her participation in brutal behaviour which was permitted by the state. She is claiming not only that she regrets what she did but that what she did was permitted. The truth is that in this article she admits violating the rules governing her performance as a teacher and she should face sanction.

Firstly, she refers to her activities in the 70s and 80s. It needs to be established just how far into the 80s she went because corporal punishment has been prohibited in schools since 1982. Interestingly, teachers’ immunity from criminal prosecution was not removed until the passing  of the Offences Against the Person (Non-Fatal) Act in 1997, article 24 of which states: “The rule of law under which teachers are immune from criminal liability in respect of physical chastisement of pupils is hereby abolished.”

Secondly and on this there is certainty, she explicitly admits to breaching Department of Education rules. She describes keeping her stick available as a threat and for use on children. This despite a clear Department rule: “No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.” (The other rules re corporal punishment can be found here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/rewarding-guilty-teachers/)

It is usual for teachers who beat children to offer in their defence that it was common and approved at the time. It was certainly common but equally certainly it was highly regulated and those regulations were violated. It would be preposterous to accept by way of explanation that teachers weren’t aware of the rules; anyone in any job has an obligation to be aware of the regulations governing their post.

It is unacceptable that any public servant who flouted state rules should remain in employment or remain in receipt of any pension attaching to their job.

 

It may be that we need an inquiry into the conduct of Irish banking and its regulation. However, the complexity of banking operations should not obscure the obvious. It was clear to any person with average intelligence and a passing interest in current affairs that the property bubble would end in tears. It most certainly is not true that everyone was deceived or mistaken.

Let’s be blunt: Anyone who failed to recognise the problem is not a person to be taken seriously in future. Anyone who did recognize the problem but remained silent has questions to answer. Sensible people in the banking and finance industry must have felt intimidated by the tide of nonsense in support of the clearly unsustainable; they must have had to weigh good conduct against career prospects.

Here we have an industry in need of changes in personnel. The one fortunate outcome is that people have been tested. Some have proved themselves but it is clear that those who did not speak out clearly and strongly lack the ability, integrity or courage required to manage at any level.