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Tag Archives: RTE

It is interesting and revealing that journalists are complaining about how poor the debate was during the Presidential election campaign. With some exceptions, they speak as if journalism had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The televised debates illustrate the fissure between journalism and those citizens who rely on media to deliver meaningful public debate. The questions put to the candidates on TV were deliberate, the result of thoughtful, editorial selection. If the debate was trivial, failing to deliver for participative citizens, that was determined by the questions. It could have been otherwise but that would have involved different editorial judgement and decisions.

The questions chosen reflected the campaign, referring to the news stories that had dominated. This is in keeping with the most prominent view of what journalism is about. It is a part of being dispassionate, neutral: “We don’t make the news; we simply report it.”

Let’s consider the “question” or the questionable proposition that occupied most time: That the President is variously a millionaire, a money-grabbing man who chooses to stay in fabulous hotels and travel by government jet, that he is a landlord whose property had been upgraded at state expense, that thousands were spent by the state on having his dogs groomed, that he is utterly out of touch with reality and can’t see how his extravagance appears, that he is not to be believed in attempting to address these charges etc. etc.

Clearly this was not worth the time devoted to it. At best it was hyperbolised gossip and at worst a smear, spreading accusations of corruption against a person who in a fifty year career in public service had not heretofore attracted a hint of scandal. More importantly, yes, it was incredible but it was news. It was “true” because someone really had made the allegations. Seeing a very popular President struggle to fend off allegations might make for “good” television and if it damaged his reputation and “opened up the race”, that would be a show-biz bonus. Indeed, someone with a perverse grasp of the concept could see it as a bonus for democracy.

It might be argued from principle that everything including the accusations had to be allowed rather than censored. However, the final RTE TV debate did not operate to that principle; in an effete show of outrage, the presenter/moderator came down heavily on the explicit use of the word “liar”. In effect the situation was that anything goes as long as it’s done politely. As Joan Freeman might have phrased her frequently repeated lie, “With all due respect, a hUachtarán, you – like the three dragons – are a millionaire.” She could do this because like the others she was confident that the presenter would side with news over truth.

The dominance of news is an old problem for mass political communication and this is not the place to explore it. Suffice it to say, that not everyone wants to engage thoughtfully with politics and serving those who do will very likely reduce audience numbers.

However, it would be a waste to let this occasion of unusually widespread dissatisfaction slip by without discussion of what is actually required of political journalism and broadcast politics in particular. At the very least the editors who decided on the questions owe the citizens an explanation as to whom they thought they were serving and what service was being offered.

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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/

On June 5th there was a mysterious gun attack on Bray Boxing Club. The journalist covering it for RTE included in his report the views of local TD, John Brady. This inclusion prompts two questions.

Firstly, what is the purpose of broadcasting the views of a member of parliament in news reports of this kind? They seldom add significant information and they never offer a unique perspective. On some occasions similar comments are sought from a local priest. If local comment is a feature of journalism, any number of bystanders or neighbours is available. It would seem that the choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the news report or recognising local interest or effect and a great deal to do with pointing out who is recognised as important – even a leader – in a community.

When a priest is selected, atheists and non-catholics might find it anything from extremely odd, through partisan, and all the way to downright antagonistic. When a TD (MP in other countries) is selected, it might be argued that democracy is advanced, that a person elected by citizens and frequently referred to as a public representative, should be recognised as their spokesperson. It might also be argued that encouraging representation of this kind is intensely anti-democratic, that citizens in a republic do not vote to elect community leaders and certainly not to appoint those who will provide soothing – almost ceremonial – utterances for news reports of murder.

The second question is the selection of the particular politician for inclusion. Perhaps selection is not the best term. Perhaps some public representatives with an eye to publicity and re-election chase around in the knowledge that journalists consider a politician’s comment to be a standard component of their news product. This of course would constitute manipulation of journalism.

Whatever the reason, a Sinn Féin TD appeared in the RTE report of a savage gun crime. Five TDs are elected for Wicklow and eight councillors for the Bray area. Two are members of Sinn Féin. Now, there there may be editorial policy that selecting SF speakers somehow serves the peace process, that having them talk on all manner of occasions stitches them into constitutionalism. That just might be worth addressing but the immediate reaction on this occasion must be: This was a gun attack. There’s a citizen dead and two wounded. Bringing in a SF rep to comment is downright perverse. It mocks the nation.

The notion that media can serve the republic, its constitution and peace by having SF speak on all manner of issues is utterly wrong. It does precisely the opposite. It serves to normalise them and their values. It says that these are ordinary public representatives with views that are within the limits of democracy. That’s not the case. In our republic the normalisation – constitutionalisation, if you like – of ceremonies and celebrations of war crimes (bombing etc. of civilians) and those who hold those odious views has to be resisted.* Journalism generally evades responsibility by talking in terms of mere reportage, coverage, impartiality and news.** Perhaps the only resistance now will come from ordinary citizens – maybe just a handful – who are prepared to say to a member of SF, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself”. ***

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* This was manifest when SF’s relatively late opposition to the 8th Amendment (The constitutional ban on legislation to permit abortion) was hidden, while RTE presented their president as a leader of the move to repeal:

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/the-media-preference-for-mary-lou-mcdonald-during-the-referendum-campaign-showed-partiality-in-coverage-of-a-different-and-fraught-public-controversy/ 

** 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/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

During the weeks of the campaign on the proposal to remove the 8th admendment from the Irish constitution, journalists and programme producers – especially at RTE – time and again selected Mary Lou McDonald, President of Sinn Féin, to make the case for repeal. She did it very well and I agree with what she had to say. There was nothing exceptional in the content of her remarks and any number of people could have been chosen to make them. There are reasons why she seemed an obvious choice. It was fitting that a woman make the case and it added to the attraction that she’s well known, articulate, smart and the leader of the third largest party in the Oireachtas. A far more important consideration was, however, ignored when selecting her for such prominence.

The very deliberate level of favourable exposure radically unbalanced coverage of our most fraught public controversy. She and her party want it accepted, made normal, that the military campaign of the Provisional IRA be commemorated and celebrated like other violent parts of our history. While holding this view, she nevertheless wants to be accepted as a reasonable, decent person and a tolerable contributor to all manner of public debates. In this she and her party are routinely facilitated by docile editorial decisions, apparently unconcerned that in other countries something so vile would be supported only by pariahs.

Many countries – perhaps all countries – honour their freedom fighters and their war heroes. Given that terrible things happen in war – war crimes – they tend to be ashamed of such incidents and to accentuate heroism and bravery. If the Provo IRA’s campaign had been a war of liberation with rare or even occasional lapses into war crimes, Ireland could follow that pattern of commemoration.

That is not possible because that IRA campaign was largely composed of war crimes. All combatants choose targets. When they choose civilian targets, they commit an unambiguous war crime. When the IRA eschewed military targets and chose to beat and shoot civilians, and routinely bomb public places, they embarked on a deliberate campaign of war crimes.

That is all over now and everyone wants to put it behind them. Well, everyone except Sinn Fein. They want to make war crimes respectable, a normal part of our history, to be celebrated and commemorated rather than recognised as a depraved episode and a stain upon the nation.

The struggle to make war crimes a normal part of Irish history includes presenting its devotees as normal, decent people. This needs to be stood on its head. Regarding war criminals and a campaign of war crimes in this perverse way is incompatible with being a normal, decent person, someone to be admitted to civilised society and called upon to comment on our controversies.

This, however, is what Irish media routinely do and RTE, the national broadcaster, seems to display an enthusiasm for it. Moreover, the struggle to normalise is a matter of public controversy and RTE’s unnecessary recourse to SF speakers displays partiality in a controversy whose opposing sides are decency and barbarism.

It is neither sensible nor acceptable to facilitate one side in a controversy by pretending that other controversies are unconnected.

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* I’ve discussed similar before. These might be of interest:

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/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

Imagine if convicted war criminals escaped from prison and years later someone wanted to make a movie about the escape. Potential investors in the project would of course have to consider how the violence of the escape might be portrayed; as with any escape movie, they might not want to be associated with romanticising what happened. However, they would also have to consider the more fundamental question of whether or not the movie made plain that the protagonists were war criminals, combatants who had chosen to target civilians. Now, if the investors included public bodies like the Irish Film Board, RTE and Cork County Council, you’d imagine that they had considered this very carefully indeed.

There is talk again of re-naming the Artane Band*. Opponents say variously that the name is the band’s own business or that locals in Artane like their band. Until it admitted girls it was called the Artane Boys Band but there was never anything normal or even joyful about that band’s longer history. Its boys were picked from the children incarcerated in the Artane Industrial School which name scared most Irish children and was a byword for evil. When the band was paraded in public, everyone knew the truth behind the flags and uniforms, and everyone understood the message they carried. This is no local issue; that band has national significance. It was a contributory cause of the Irish silence in the face of child abuse.

In Ireland to this day child abusers seek to evade personal responsibility by appealing to a myth. The myth is that they operated at a time when Ireland was a cruel society in which child abuse was common if not almost universal. In other words, everyone was at it in a violent culture. The truth of course is that Ireland was never like that. Generally parents were kind and treated children well. The myth endures because its supporters manage it carefully and rely on one item of evidence: that there was silence as mass child abuse took place in primary and secondary schools and unspeakable cruelty was visited on incarcerated children.

The decent people of Ireland who would never dream of beating a child spoke among themselves of the abuse but very little was said in public because they felt that objection was pointless. Their caring decency was compelled to silence by a power that was demonstrable and the flaunting of the Artane Boys Band was emblematic. Artane was a crucial component in controlling and maintaining the mass abuse – and the Artane Boys Band signalled the power of the perpetrators.

This is how it went. The primary and secondary school abusers made light of their offences by reference to what they told their victims was done in Artane. They boasted that nothing could be done, that they were in control. Several times a year the The Artane Boys Band was paraded in front of thousands of people at the most important games in Croke Park and the Gaelic Athletic Association facilitated the display. These were great, Irish occasions, celebrations of what we were. The games were attended by church and state dignitaries together with thousands of ordinary Irish citizens, while the radio and TV audiences ran to hundreds of thousands; the occasions were then reported in the print media. Absolutely everyone knew the truth but spoke it only quietly among family and friends. Year after year the radio and TV sports commentator, Michael O’Hehir, covered the spectacle of this Irish band and its colour party leading the teams onto and around the field of play. In decades of commentary there wasn’t a word of sympathy. The worst moment of media support came late, when in 1976 RTE allowed Liam O’Murchú to present a special tribute on the programme, Trom Agus Eadrom, to the ghastly Brother Joseph O’Connor for his work on the band.

Some of the collaborators may say that they knew – even approved – of the routine abuse in the schools but that they were unaware of the horrors of Artane and its Band. They are not to be believed because it bears reiteration that the perpetrators in the schools boasted about Artane and citizens discussed it quietly. In short, every child feared ending up in Artane because they knew that it was a place very much worse than school.

The Artane Band needs to make a clean break with its hideous origins. It needs to realise too that it can never be a local or a mere band. However, it doesn’t need to abandon or ignore its roots in Artane. It needs now to change sides, to become the band whose every appearance is a rebuke to the perpetrators and an expression of solidarity with its former members and their classmates. The addition of one word would mean a lot: a national institution called The Artane Memorial Band.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/diarmaid-ferriter-artane-band-name-a-useful-reminder-1.2785741

 

 

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’).

Had today been April 1st I would have smiled and remarked, “Good one!” RTE news this morning had an item about controlling dog shit on beaches in Clare.* The council there has spent money to install a system which will talk to the owners of the offending animals. If you think that’s nuts, the truth is more bizarre. As the interview progressed it emerged that this had little to do with dog shit and more to do with reminding people to obey the byelaws. **

It works like this. When a dog and owner approach any one of a number of detectors on the promenade, an audio announcement is triggered.*** It was when the interviewer asked a crucial question that the true madness began to emerge. He asked how the detector could distinguish between a person with a dog and a person without a dog. It can’t. It is triggered by all. The next question was obvious. He asked if this meant that people without dogs would be subjected to a dog-shit announcement. The reply was beyond Orwell. In order not to annoy those without a dog the message is tailored as a general reminder of and encouragement to obey the bye-laws. It is to be “a positive message”.

What it amounts to is this. In order to gain public acceptance of intrusive bullshit-announcements imposed on citizens out for a stroll, the initiative has been smeared in the familiar preoccupation with dog shit.

This could be dismissed as a laughing matter but it is evidence of something quite serious. It is clearly misuse of public money and an intrusion into the lives of citizens. However, it is an example of something more serious. It brings public service into disrepute. It is very common now to hear people complain about having to pay for non-existent or poor services for which there is little or no demand. The complaint is that public service – or at least some parts of it – has become an elite imposition with its own particular values, aesthetic and perspective on citizenship and that it is willing and able to impose.

As a retired public servant and a socialist, I might be expected to defend public service and that’s precisely what I’m doing. Public service should preserve and expand the freedom of citizens. It certainly shouldn’t annoy them and bind them up in petty controls and intrusions. Socialist policy relies on public provision. Socialists cannot allow the concept to be undermined to the extent that all progressive policy is likely to be resisted as an encroachment by the nanny state. Socialists must do something which seems counter-intuitive: they must resist nanny – send her and her supporters packing. Very many ordinary people see public service and the state generally as an opponent to be fought. Socialists should realise that far too often it IS oppressive and usually on petty matters.
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* http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A20621087%3A48%3A23%2D07%2D2014%3A

** Here’s the Irish Examiner failing to identify the bullshit: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/siren-to-tackle-dog-fouling-on-beaches-276324.html

*** Promenades – even crowded ones – don’t have to be like this. The Irish seem to be particularly intolerant. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/thinking-about-the-promenade-at-monte-estoril-and-irish-lack-of-freedom/

Here’s a tiny example of a journalist supporting an orthodox position: “Of course, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …” – Laura Slattery, Media and Marketing in The Irish Times, April 3rd 2014 *
The notion that income paid out of public funds should be subject to greater questioning is today a belief of the majority. I would argue that one role of the journalist is to prise open majority beliefs. Instead Laura decided to reinforce twice by inserting “of course” and “rightfully”.

Among other options, she could have said:
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”
or
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are alone at present subjected to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/media-and-marketing/bottomless-pockets-can-lure-more-presenters-from-rt%C3%A9-1.1747361

Miriam O’Callaghan’s radio programme this morning (Sunday, 2nd March 2014) had three interviews*. One with Jimmy Guerin, the brother of murdered journalist, Veronica Guerin, whose acknowledged killer, John Gilligan, was injured last night when attackers attempted to murder him**. The second interview was with Jerry Hall, the model and actor. The third interview was with Tommy McKearney, convicted murderer, IRA member and hunger striker.

The Jerry Hall interview served as something of an insulator between two poles of editorial policy. The man suspected of the murder of Veronica Guerin, received no sympathy. There was absolutely no doubt that the editorial approach was condemnation; there was no desire to understand or to find redeeming features in John Gilligan or his actions. However, from the introduction when Tommy McKearney was described as “on active service” with the IRA, the third interview was not about murder but about exploring how this “gentle man” had come to murder/kill postman, Stanley Adams, his subsequent participation in a hunger strike and his thoughts on Northern Ireland.

At the close of the programme Miriam read out texts from listeners who thought that the Tommy McKearney interview lacked balance; they wondered why a family member of his victim or someone opposed to the IRA had not been interviewed. No text appeared asking why a family member of John Gilligan had not been interviewed. Here’s the thing: Balance is a fine convention in the coverage of a public controversy; it applies to two sides of a story, to contending political arguments. Paradoxically, however, when one decides that balance is applicable to an issue, one has taken sides in a most basic debate. That is the debate about what is a matter of public controversy and what is not, i.e. what is political and what is not. There is no way out of making an editorial decision so basic.

In the case of Miriam’s programme the editorial decision was that Veronica Guerin’s killing was not a matter of public controversy – was not political – but that the killing of Stanley Adams (Postman and a member of the UDR) was a matter of public controversy, was political. From the moment that balance is thought to apply there is no way back; the realm of politics has been entered – a realm of acceptable discussion – and in this instance the killing of a postman was brought within the consensus of what is acceptable as a matter for discussion.

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* http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10256460%3A15946%3A02%2D03%2D2014%3A
** http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/02/veronica-guerin-suspect-shot

I can’t put a date on it but I recall being in the canteen in RTE and asking one of my former colleagues in engineering to give me a quick rundown on this “internet thing”. Over diagrams and talk I became fascinated. I have to say that it was the abstract communication part of the technology that interested me more than the content possibilities. My recollection too is that I was using e-mail for a considerable time before I had anything resembling today’s net access. However, very soon after I had the net, I became aware of chat sites, i.e. very early social media.

Two things struck me. Firstly, I was working for RTE and the real time “chat” suggested citizen participation in TV current affairs. I wrote on that but failed to convince the Head of News and Current Affairs who reckoned that if it was to be used at all, it was more suited to entertainment. To spare his blushes I won’t name the Head but rest assured that I’ve reminded him over the years. (He’s a good bloke and takes the slagging well.)

Secondly, while I was arguing the potential, I was depressed by the content of these early chat sites. There was little or no, what might be termed, serious discussion. Some chat “rooms” were fine; ordinary people were having ordinary communication about mundane matters. The participants were civil, they exchanged information and well wishes across continents. I liked them and got to know some of them. However, many of the “rooms” and “sites” were devoted to intercontinental rudeness and abuse; people entered these rooms with just one thing in mind: to be nasty. In those days a “troll” referred to someone present in the room but not participating in the discussion. Trolling did not then refer to an increasing experience: ordinary discussants being subjected to abuse from people who simply wanted to ruin their chat. It seemed that this marvellous system would become a vehicle for intercontinental abuse.

Time has delivered a better outcome but that nasty strand has endured, indeed it’s flourished. In the early days the participants were mostly American and for a short time I considered the possibility that the vile speech, peppered as it was with “asshole” and “motherfucker”, was an American phenomenon. It wasn’t. This feature of the net that was established in the early days has attracted adherents across the globe and in large numbers. Anyone unfamiliar with this kind of vile, aggressive content can have a look at it by reading the comments under many of the music videos on You Tube. Discussion of the music can be informed or it can be pleasant, facile, fan-stuff but also it is routinely a shooting gallery for the ignorant and abusive.

Two related things can be said. Firstly, my experience of on-line participation has led me to the view that people behave on-line more or less as they do in the other parts of their lives. Decent people don’t become on-line monsters. They may avoid controversy or seek out flossy celebrity-centred talk, they may gossip with friends, they may keep up with family and friends, they may be active among people with a similar interest and crucially those who participate in serious discussions will do so on-line. It is therefore vital that few people follow John Waters of the Irish Times into a poorly informed technical determinism that sees attempts at on-line discussion as futile because the net is the preserve of idiots.* The truth is that just as the net is a good way of staying in touch with friends, it can also – with a bit of effort – be a good way of finding contending views and attracting useful criticism.

There is a tendency – particularly among those who don’t use it or who make little use of it – to see the net as particularly problematic. I’m reminded of a time when I was researching industrial/workplace vandalism and I came across a quote along the lines of, “Those people who break trees and park benches at night, where do you think they go during the day?” My point is that the web these days is where everyone – including the bad – goes. It is to be expected that forms of dreadful behaviour all too familiar in everyday life will appear on- line. It shouldn’t be more tolerated on line than anywhere else.

It is decades since I first heard someone say that they’d been abused on-line and that they were not going back. I argued that like resisting violence at football matches or reclaiming the streets, it is important that decent people do not vacate the space. The idea would be that the bad would be smothered by a mass of human decency and offenders would be reported and tackled. It can and has worked but there’s a problem in the way that many people use the net and the problem is facilitated by the way the net is developing.

Long before the net relative isolation was risky. In extreme cases abuse occurred in institutions, schools, prisons, camps, clubs, training – even families – areas into which good people could not or did not peer in numbers. Moreover, small, tight groups of friends attracted the person who would control by various forms of intimidation including manipulation of members’ need to belong.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

There is now considerable fear over net participation but it is misplaced. The fear should be – as always – over relatively closed groups and increasingly there are relatively closed groups on-line. Reports of parents shocked at what is going on are commonplace. Shock is not acceptable; it’s a lame excuse. There is a disgraceful acceptance of the line that young people are good at computers but older people just don’t know about it. It’s time to be intolerant of this nonsense and say that incompetence in this regard is as weird as locking oneself in the house and refusing to use broadcasting and text would have been two decades ago. Any parent – any citizen – who is not active on-line is failing. However, mere activity is not enough. It must go that bit further into understanding that the dangers present in life are present on-line. The basics haven’t changed.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

“Young people are good with computers.” Repeating it over and over again or making it a staple in mass media discussion doesn’t make it any less untrue. Saying now that young people are good with computers makes as much sense as saying forty years ago that young people are good with televisions. Young people today certainly use information technology a lot but their use tends to be quite limited. Moreover the whole thrust of development is towards a more limited use.

The great gift of the web is access to information but, we’re told, the information will be overwhelming unless it is managed. So begins the drift away from the open web as algorithms make recommendations based on past behaviour and like-minded FB friends determine taste, trends, acceptable behaviour and views.

I had a running gag a couple of years back when lecturing for Information Studies. On the way to lectures I would walk through a large open area in UCD which was equipped with very many on-line PCs providing easy access for students. I took to counting the number in use and the proportion of that number using FB. I then reported my findings to students at the start of the lecture. It was never the case that FB users were in a minority. Now, I use FB a lot and I like it but it was around then that I realised the extent to which FB had for perhaps the majority of users become the net. Since then all manner of apps have appeared whose express purpose is to make life easy by eliminating the need to search, to choose, to face something new, disturbing, distressing, confrontational or challenging.

Increasingly people do not surf the net as of yore. They rely on links, recommendations. This has two outcomes which I want to mention here. Firstly, in my own area of interest, political communication, it reduces the possibility of deliberative citizenship. ** Secondly, it is socially isolating, confines people to relatively tight groups wherein the nasty stuff familiar from media reports and scares can go unchecked.

I realise of course that there is considerable published material which argues that the net internationalises concerns that in the past locals could have swept under the carpet but this is not inconsistent with a view of net use which is relatively closed. An occasional report of injustice or protest or cruelty “going viral” does not mean that on-line pressure to conform from friends or information-management apps are not effective.

So, what’s the outcome of all this? Firstly, it should be emphasised that a portion of life has moved. It has gone on-line and it has brought with it ordinary concerns of life as well as familiar dangers. It is as important on-line as it is in the rest of life not to become isolated. In political communication the term used is “bubble”. Confinement in a bubble is like the older metaphor of an echo chamber. It’s about becoming closed off from discourse by over-reliance on a tight group of like-minded friends – no matter where they are in the world! “Cocoon” might be a better word as in most cases there are individuals fleeing to a security where they will be untroubled by questions, doubt, argument and counter-argument. “Cocoon”, however, doesn’t convey the menace which many parents have come to fear. “Gang” gets closer to the reality. Gangs are characterised by an us-against-world-mentality, rules, secrecy, discipline, leaders who are charismatic but border on insane, enforcers, penalties for breaking the rules and fear of the ultimate sanction: exclusion, banishment. “Gang” also suggests that this is a very old, familiar and serious problem.

The open web can seem scary with its cacophony, scams, intruders, liars, pornographers, schemers, predators, conspiracy theorists, religions, crackpots, healers and dealers but it is also rich in information, debate, cooperation and it has human decency aplenty. What evil is there lurks – as in the wider world – in the shadowy corners, cracks and alleyways. It’s both safe and stimulating on-line if a citizen has the confidence to wander the wide boulevards and engage openly with others. The same cannot be said for social media and restrictive apps which filter, create bubbles, cocoons and gangs. Mature citizens should be encouraged to use the confused expanses of open web to inform themselves and to participate. Yes, that old metaphor of the web as an agora is reappearing here. Younger and vulnerable citizens are safer and more likely to learn something new out on the open web.

In closing here’s a bit of advice for parents. Don’t overly limit a young person’s time on line. With limited time they’ll head straight for their little gang. Give them whatever it takes – time, skill, encouragement, money, example etc. – to see the possibilities to be free, inquisitive and participative on-line. A parent in an attack of self-pity might ask if they are failing as a parent if they can’t or don’t have a life on-line? Unfortunately, the answer is yes!
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/media/if-you-re-reading-this-online-stop-1.1525539
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/

Media coverage of Pat Kenny’s transfer from RTE to Newstalk was of two types: celebrity gossip and business news, neither of which pays the slightest attention to how public controversy should be presented by broadcast media. The move prompted not even a mention of content.*

Think about it: the biggest name in Irish broadcast politics moves to a rival organisation and editorial policy will be unaffected by his going or his coming. That should be pretty shocking; it should prompt people in the industry to question their understanding of “rival” – or indeed “competition” or “alternative”.

It is easily forgotten that Newstalk’s purpose was to have been an alternative to RTE. Purveyors of the public consensus or conventional viewpoints moving between stations is a measure of the failure of a basic policy: it is simplistic to believe that broadcasting stations under different ownership will deliver choice in any meaningful sense of the word. If we want challenging, alternative, discursive media – or media nailed to any other praiseworthy communication adjective – we will have to regulate to make it happen. At this stage in the history of media it is pretty silly to continue to believe that competition alone will deliver.

Of course no one ever seriously believed that competition would deliver the range or type of media that is thought desirable; that’s why there are regulations to ensure balance, Irish language content, news, limited advertising etc. etc. The notion that different owners would deliver different political perspectives, or alternative or challenging points of view was entirely unfounded but still formed the basis of a belief that competition would be good for Irish public controversy.

The problem of course is stations staffed by bien pensants, having a shared perspective on the world, will inevitably compete for audience by offering not different content but different formats and personalities. There is a great deal to be said for this detached professional approach but it does lead to sameness and at this stage of its development it is quasi-institutional.**

Public Service Broadcasters in Ireland, like the UK, are subject to regulations in relation to coverage of public controversy and other matters broadly political. If a citizen considers a regulation to have been breached, he/she is entitled to submit a complaint and receive an explanation. The complaint may go to the BAI for determination. Having to explain oneself and be criticised in public is considered sufficient to ensure compliance. A problem, however, is that staging a thorough debate is not an obligation and cannot be a matter of complaint. Bluntly, it’s not something that need overly concern the producers. Now, a dismissive response would be to say that “thorough debate” is too vague to constitute an obligation. Firstly, that’s not true; most citizens have a grasp of what is meant and a list of features could be produced. Secondly, the essential feature of complaint as a compliance mechanism is that it forces people to respond, to say what they were trying to achieve in the programme. In short, if we wanted a debate, we’d make it an obligation.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/media/pat-kenny-s-move-to-newstalk-is-revealing-about-our-culture-1.1484418?page=2
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/conservative-journalism-and-the-victims-of-austerity/

Paul Acton died in Tallaght hospital in 2005 as a result of pneumonia, sepsis and crucially organ failure brought on by dehydration. His widow is to receive 320k in compensation. The hospital admits negligence.*

My purpose in writing is twofold. Firstly, I was shocked at the level of cruelty deliberately visited upon this man. He was diagnosed as dehydrated and in need of fluids. He was ordered ”nil by mouth” because of his other illness. He therefore needed intravenous liquid urgently and yet he was left to suffer for hours unto death. His son in law said in a radio interview that he died waiting for a doctor to become available to insert a cannula to deliver the fluid. The man was begging for fluids for hours before he died. (Jesus wept, he was dying of thirst!) These days it is routine to praise “frontline staff” working in under-staffed and under-funded hospitals but there is something fundamentally wrong with medical staff who, aware of the situation, do not act. People of this calibre should not be in the public service.

Secondly, I happen to have some personal experience to bring to this. I was in hospital a couple of years ago while an infection was treated with an intravenous antibiotic. One evening my cannula became blocked and needed to be replaced. I was informed that only a doctor could perform this insertion. I waited and waited and waited. A nurse became concerned and said that if a doctor did not appear within the next twenty minutes, she would break the rules and do it. A young doctor appeared shortly after that. Incidentally, he was not at all good at the operaation and succeeded on the fifth painful attempt.

This is a simple operation whose performance is improved by lots of practice. There is no need for the demarcation which restricts the work to doctors. At least two of my nurses were certified to do the work but were not allowed to do it.

In my case I was merely very late receiving medication but in the case reported in Tallaght a patient was allowed to die in agony. Clearly this carry-on is far too dangerous to be allowed continue.

* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/woman-awarded-320-000-after-husband-dies-in-hospital-1.1451729

On this morning’s Marian Finucane radio programme * a discussion began about the culpability of former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, for Ireland’s economic mess. From former minister, Mary O’Rourke, came the familiar routine of “we all had a party, so no one is at fault” and then Eddie Hobbs offered the view that the ordinary person couldn’t be expected to understand an economic bubble and that those he calls “gatekeepers” failed to warn the general public.**

Eddie is wrong. Anyone with normal intelligence, a basic education and a little interest in their surroundings could see that – whatever about the wider world – Ireland was headed for a fall. Failing to see this required enormous stupidity or wilful blindness. It was a topic of discussion among ordinary people, many of whom could see that the property boom was a scam, bound to end. These ordinary people held on to their savings and/or didn’t borrow to buy property.

Eddie is right, however, to blame “gatekeepers” for failing. The term usually refers to media workers but Eddie included public service economists. Two points need to be made. Firstly, the distinction is correctly drawn here between people who are paid to think, write, speak up and manage and the rest who are merely expected to do these things. It is the difference between citizens and those whom society expects to do a particular job because they are paid for it. Who are these people? Clearly, elected politicians, advisers, civil servants, economics professionals, journalists, producers and researchers are included but so too are public commentators, lecturers, teachers and managers – particularly managers in banking and finance.

Secondly, nothing whatsoever has been done about this failure. Let’s be blunt: If an electrician or plumber failed to perform to the point of wrecking the house, they’d hardly be let continue. (Well, in view of the dangerous buildings now coming to light, that may be a topic in itself.) In the case of those paid to think, write and speak up … Nothing! They are all still there. They did not do what they were paid to do and they are all still there. They are known to be useless and they are all still there.

They didn’t fail to perform some difficult task. There are many failures trying to find cover in the fabrication that Ireland’s economic crash came as a surprise. It bears repeating that only a complete fool could have confused a building boom with a productive economy and only the wilfully blind could have failed to see the bricks and mortar evidence accumulating across the country. (That some did see the problem but remained silent is a different kind of failure. ***)

It is simply implausible to suggest that some kind of recovery could be achieved while so many of those paid to think and to manage are demonstrably unable or unwilling to do their jobs.
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* http://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10146436%3A70%3A12%2D05%2D2013%3A
** At about 11.00 mins. into the programme.
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/

All the indications are that the McAleese report on the Magdalen Laundries is a disgrace. Criminals are hiding behind the familiar device of highlighting the formal responsibility of the state. Moreover, discussion of this awful report is diverted into guff about whether or not the Taoiseach should apologise now or next week.

Look at and listen to the woman at 08.30 here: http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10108232/ She is owed wages and pension contributions by people who hid her from factory inspectors. She was kept away from school. She was beaten. She is not old. It is certain that at least some of the perpetrators of the crimes against her are still alive. The state has a responsibility alright: to investigate these crimes and to apprehend the perps. There is a role too for the Criminal Assets Bureau.

“The Frontline’s speakers often had knowledge of specific cutbacks that prompted blank expressions, never mind any justification, from ministerial faces. The audience, regularly comprising the many victims of austerity, would be hard-pressed to come away from the RTÉ studio feeling in any way satisfied with the empty promises and emergency damage-limitation words they heard back from officialdom.” – Laura Slattery ‘The Frontline’ is dead, long live a revamped ‘Prime Time’, Irish Times Thursday, January 31, 2013 (http://m.irishtimes.com/newspaper/finance/2013/0131/1224329469784.html)

Laura is getting close to the problem with the mass communication of political debate but she remains within the tent that is journalism.

Journalism has a political perspective. It is conservative, it poses no challenge but it manages to appear anti-establishment, pro-“people” and remain within the strictures of balance and fairness.

What it amounts to is this. There is, it is said, a “political class”. From this point on journalists are on safe ground. There’s now not the slightest chance of an accusation of bias or lack of balance because politics as a clash of parties, ideologies or major political perspectives – like liberalism or socialism – has been excluded.

There is of course a range of views which sees this as a managerial or a technocratic or a post-political approach. There’s quite a lot of sense here but it’s a whole lot worse because the participative citizen developed over centuries is about to be demoted to peasant!

Back to journalists. The “political class” controls the state, taxes and spending. People participate by putting pressure on the “political class” (Sometimes referred to as the “establishment” so as to secure an anti-establishment image for the commentator.) through pressure groups led by “activists” who share the journalists’ disdain for politics. An effective group wins a concession from the “political class” usually at the expense of a poorer and/or less well organised pressure group. Journalists function by siding with, reporting on and sorting out which pressure groups are most powerful, and then helping the “political class” decide which concessions must be made so as to maintain the system.

Yep, it’s really a great distance from citizens talking about great public controversies. It’s more like supplicants or peasants appealing to the ruler for preferential treatment and threatening unrest if that doesn’t work.
Laura Slattery came close when she observed the conservative futility of having “victims of austerity” state their cases for preferment. She then opted for the attractive diversion that is talk about broadcast programme formats. The problem is the abandonment of politics. The citizens need to talk about public priorities – setting a hierarchy of public spending – for in here lie real political differences over freedom and economic inequality.

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

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

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

Here’s Roisin Shortall on Marion Finucane’s radio programme. Listen as she tries to be polite, answering the questions that would reduce substantial political differences to gossip about personal relationships.

http://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A3404310%3A70%3A29%2D09%2D2012%3A

Here are a couple of quotations from Roisin’s interview. a) “I don’t believe he [Minister Reilly] subscribes to the Programme for Government”. b) There were fundamental differences in relation to the policy area and the way the health service was to develop.”

Media coverage since the resignation has tended to depoliticise the controversy. From the outset it was clear that there was a very basic political difference over the importance of deprivation as a criterion for deciding the allocation of state resources. However, media workers decided that they would ignore the obvious and frame the resignation in a quite different way. The “story” was made to conform to media orthodoxy: that politics is about personal relations and venal ambitions, and the “good guys” are those who oppose the “political class” and make them occasionally “U turn”. Not only does this work to position the worst journalists as among the “good guys” but it is essentially conservative, in the literal sense that it opposes change.

It now emerges that the resignation is a defence of the Labour elements in the Programme for Government and about the choice of whether left or right wing political policies will shape a new health service.

It is very damaging to public political discourse when journalists positively strive to descend to gossip with the likes of, “Yes, yes, but what did he say to you at the meeting?” or “Did you ever talk over a drink?” or “Do you feel let down?” Citizens eager to engage with controversies affecting the shape of the republic deserve better – much better.

One of the best courses I took at UCD years ago was John Baker’s course in Political Argument. I opted to do an essay on Fairness. It turned out to be complex and interesting. Don’t worry, I won’t give details. However, I’ve lately been commenting on how “fairness” has come to be such a weasel word, used to signal virtue without saying anything very much.

This morning I heard Micheál Martin interviewed on RTE Radio and he was stressing the importance of “fairness”. Needless to say, the interviewer didn’t ask what was meant by the term. If it retains any meaning in political discourse, it now means doing nothing that would change the existing structures of economic inequality. It means that if there are to be charges or cuts, then everyone will pay and perhaps the rich will pay a little more but their income must remain so many multiples of the minimum wage.

What it boils down to is this: “I’m paid ten times the minimum wage because I’m worth it and the market says so. We live in tough times and I’m prepared to do my bit but it wouldn’t be fair to reduce me to five times or even eight times the wage of a café worker.”

Jesus wept! The interviewer didn’t even ask!!!

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.