Eoghan Harris

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Politicians love privacy, but not the private sector

Eoghan Harris

Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00

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The Spirit of 2012 departs with a blunted scythe. The Spirit of 2013 arrives with a brighter blade and a gung-ho greeting: how's she cutting? But who suffers most from the cuts? That comes down to what the philosopher Bernard Williams calls "moral luck".

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Most of those who lack moral luck work in the private sector. On average they earn 50 per cent less than their public sector counterparts. Few have pensions and none have security of employment.

As a group they fit Marx's picture of a proletariat. So the Labour Party should look after them. But New Labour only looks after a privileged minority of public employees – including the political class.

Fine Gael and Labour have ruthlessly protected a minority at the expense of a majority right through this recession. It counts as their major political crime. The Croke Park Agreement marks the spot.

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This brings me to the sudden political concern about cyber-bullying. Laudable at first sight. Alas it is less about looking after suicidal teenagers than protecting politicians' privacy.

The political class has protected its pay and pensions all through this recession. It has lectured rather than led. So its bluster about being a "war cabinet" is pure hypocrisy.

One of the functions of a free press is to flush out politicians free-loading on the public purse. And it is not always possible to draw hard boundaries between public and private. As when politicians employ their relatives. Public and private lives are not separated by a steel door.

The Quinn family's financial dealings show the complex crossover. The boardroom sometimes keeps its cash in the bedroom.

That is why we should be wary when public figures whine about privacy. RTE presenters may simply not want to be gawked at while dining with girlfriends. But when politicians talk about privacy, the public should go on guard.

The first thing I found out in the Seanad was that most politicians are fixated on privacy. Their own privacy. Apart from inveighing against Israel it was the one issue guaranteed to get them all singing from the same sheet.

That is why I am sceptical about senior politicians parading a concern with anonymous cyber abuse. Fine if they can find a way to save a suicidal teenager. Not so fine if it's just a Trojan horse to hide another privacy bill.

Here I can be sceptical with a clear conscience. Nobody would benefit more than me from a ban on anonymous internet abuse. Because I made three lots of enemies by taking three stands.

First, I took a public stand against Provo nationalism. Second, I took a stand against socialism. Third, I took a stand against Croke Park. That means I get a lot of grief.

This grief is not the gormless vulgar abuse aimed at politicians. My anonymous abusers regularly wish I would die of cancer, die roaring, die with a bullet in my head. To me these attacks provide welcome proof that I can still annoy people with bad politics.

Journalists like Kevin Myers, David Quinn and John Waters get grief too. None of which bothered politicians before the sad suicide of Shane McEntee. Do they not see how this looks to the public ?

I believe the campaign against cyber-bullying is but a cloak. It will not stop there. Alan Shatter is always standing by with a Politicians Privacy Bill in his briefcase. But while I would benefit from a ban on anonymous posting I have two problems with such a project. Is it possible to prevent such posting short of a world-wide agreement? Is it desirable given the need to protect freedom fighters from repressive regimes?

We cannot control the world wide web. But we can ban Irish broadcasters from using anonymous texts. Apart from that reform I would give three pieces of advice to any Oireachtas inquiry.

First, politicians and presenters should stop being so precious. Bette Davis says old age is not for sissies. The same is true of public life.

Second, politicians should get a sense of historical perspective. Lewd pamphlets, corrosive cartoons and verbal viciousness were the norm in 18th Century political discourse. Daniel O'Connell was continually defamed but it never deterred him.

Finally, people in public life should take their cue from the stoic Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon, 1609-1674, who stood by the Stuarts in the civil war against Cromwell. He should have done well from the Restoration. But he had made many enemies and was exiled by the cowardly Charles II.

Clarendon spent his exile working on his classic History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. Here is his precept for coping with the slings and arrows of public life. Politicians should paste it over their desks.

The best provision for a political project is a stock of innocence that cannot be impaired, a firm confidence in God Almighty that he will never suffer that innocence to be utterly oppressed or notoriously defamed, an expectation of these gusts and storms of rumour, detraction and envy, and the resolution not to be over-sensible of all calumnies, unkindness or injustice, but to believe that by being preferred before other men, they have an obligation on them to suffer more than other men would do, and that the best way to convince (refute) scandals and misreports, is by neglecting them, to appear not to have deserved them.

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Accordingly I want to announce a Clarendon Award. It goes to the journalist or broadcaster who lives a public life without getting too picky about his personal privacy. The 2012 Clarendon goes to George Hook.

It is given through gritted teeth. Hook and myself were at school together in Presentation Brothers College in Cork. But this simply sharpens our eye for excessive displays of ego [what in Cork is called "shaping"] in each other.

Hook's show is seldom boring. But Friday's is my favourite. For over two hours he talks in something close to a Joycean stream of consciousness, taking us on a riveting ramble through politics, history, sport and film.

The highlight of the year was his recent riff on Ryan Tubridy's recurring call for privacy. Like Clarendon, Hook believes in letting his critics do their worst. He sees no merit in public figures getting sensitive about their private lives.

As a broadcaster, Hook has shared his life with the public from the the beginning: from prostate cancer to lack of potency to what the lovely Ingrid said to him last night. By doing so he confounds his critics.

Like me, Hook long ago figured out the best way to guard your privacy in Ireland is to hang a lantern on it. Don't dodge your nosey Irish neighbours. Come forward to meet them, tell them about your illnesses, your daughter's genius, your son's sporting prowess.

And watch them run away. Give the Irish people all the information they want, and then some more, and they will never come back. How come politicians don't know the psychology of their own people like us two old Pres boys do?

Sunday Independent

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