Eoghan Harris

Thursday 24 July 2014

Eoghan Harris: Making dog's dinner of tale handed to RTE on plate

Eoghan Harris

Published 13/01/2013|05:00

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Last Thursday the online magazine Journal.ie broke the story that the troika was not happy with the gap between public and private sector pay. RTE News did not follow up until Friday. And made a dog's dinner of it. Thereby hangs a tale.

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Last week saw many mainstream attacks on social media. Some rightly attacked anonymous abusers. But others seemed to sneer not just at social media, but at the idea of the internet itself.

This is a form of Luddism. Fighting new forms of communications is a forlorn cause. Furthermore, much mainstream antipathy seems to be based on the false assumption that new media will displace old media.

The historical record refutes any such pessimistic reading. Radio will soon reach its century. Cinema did not destroy theatre. Television did not wipe out cinema. Books and newspapers will not go away.

Like the train and the motor car, the internet and print media will eventually arrive at a modus vivendi. Meantime, we must not let the trolls sour us against the wonder of the web.

Instead of inveighing against the internet, we should take two simple steps to stop the trolls. First, the BAI should ban broadcasters from using anonymous texts and make them create computer checking systems, just as newspapers check out letter writers.

Second, we should take the advice of libel lawyer Paul Tweed and give those who defame a serious reality check. A few punitive cases would put manners on the miserable trolls. But the State needs to finance selected victims in taking out test cases.

But poor mainstream media standards pose a bigger problem than the pathetic trolls. Take Gallaghergate. Can we honestly say the problem was caused by the tweet?

No. The problem was caused by how Pat Kenny's team handled the tweet. Gallagher was also not happy about being advised to "move on".

Take another example. Journal.ie reported the troika without any confusion. Not so RTE's Six-One News. The Friday bulletin buried the troika's public sector pay call behind a hill of reportage on the health aspects.

Sharon Ni Bheolain surmised to David Murphy, presumably on the basis of an editorial briefing, that the troika had been "restrained" on public sector pay cuts.

But Murphy dourly pointed out that the troika were taking it seriously.

* * * * *

So far I have been silent on the flags issue. First, I lacked hard information about what lies behind the loyalist riots. Second, I wanted to see who and what Willie Frazer would flush out in the southern media.

Now I know a bit more. Let me start with the northern riots. Which I categorically condemn – although that won't protect me from anonymous abuse by republican trolls.

Stephen Goss, another commentator from a Catholic background, points out that "Loyalist communities have been left behind in the peace process". And adds perceptively: "The problem is not about the Union Flag flying at the City Hall, but about it being taken down."

Jeff Dudgeon, a human rights activist, is scathing about the symbiotic relationship between Alliance and social media. "Alliance hangers-on are dominating the upper end of the social media and the minds of most journalists, but only display an unconscionable snobbery about under-educated loyalists. Chav-chasing is a new Olympic sport – and this from those who are normally shroud-waving about working class deprivation."

Let's now look at the reactions in the Republic. The good news is that pluralism is alive and well among the general public. The Red C poll revealed that 47 per cent of the general public felt the flags decision was wrong.

The bad news was that the mainstream media lagged behind the public. As it has historically done on every pluralist issue from Articles 2&3 to proposals for the Queen's visit. Hence the grumpy green tone of many media commentators.

Victoria White, in the Irish Examiner, noticed the media reluctance to accept that the Union flag was the national flag of Northern Ireland. "I do wonder at the difficulty which many friends and media commentators south of the border have in accepting it."

This brings me to the sarky way most of the southern media dealt with Willie Frazer. As few filled in his background, here is a brief resume. Willie was a boy of 15 when the IRA shot his father dead while he was helping on a friend's farm. A few months later the IRA killed his uncle. Five years after that they killed another uncle. After that they killed two cousins.

Given his mental anguish, the media might have cut Frazer some slack. After all he had only made an ironic call to take down our tricolour. But the greenies don't do irony. They just want Willie to "move on".

* * * * *

Sean Gallagher's rightly refuses to move on. Having waited a year for an apology or amends, I am also refusing to move on about John Bowman's extensive references to my role in the Mary Robinson presidential campaign in his RTE book Window and Mirror.

Specifically I want Bowman and RTE to withdraw a page of snide commentary which challenges my contribution to her campaign, and which does me more damage than any anonymous online abuser has done to date.

The problem page consists of two sneering cartoons, which mock my contribution to the Robinson campaign, followed by Bowman's comment on an article by John Waters' article in the Irish Times, the weekend after Robinson's election, which credited me with a central role in the campaign.

Bowman writes: "At no stage in a lengthy article did it state that Robinson and her team had used Harris's advice, or had given him any official position." Taken in conjunction with the cartoons Bowman's book implies I claimed and was given credit I did not deserve.

Robinson's recent biography has refuted Bowman's reading root and branch. She generously gives me the chief credit , both for her campaign strategy and helping her write her famous victory speech – which included the line "the women of Ireland, Mna na h-Eireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system. . ."

Even before Robinson's biography, Bowman had no case. Commentators like Stephen Collins and Bruce Arnold had credited my central contribution at the time. But now that Robinson's herself has set the record straight, isn't it high time that Bowman and his RTE backers did the same?

Like Sean Gallagher, I don't want my problem put on the long finger in the hope I will forget about it. I won't forget about it. And I won't be moving on.

Sunday Independent

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