The need for equality of suffering and of coverage
Last week, a montage formed in my mind, made up of the three main media stories: public sector pay, Tony Gregory's politics, and the Israeli incursion into Gaza. By the end of the week they had merged into one black media mountain, biased against good authority and in favour of bad politics.
Good authority is about challenging the comfortable consensus. Bad politics is a seamless robe woven from the same consensus. By bad politics I mean parroting politically correct positions. By seamless robe I mean that a pundit who is wrong on one major moral issue is likely to be wrong on more than one. By consensus I mean the weak way politicians, commentators and academics seek shelter under the same roof.
Let me start with public sector pay. Until recently, few commentators had the courage to call for root and branch reform. Stephen Collins in the Irish Times did so consistently. But even after the recession revealed itself, red in tooth and claw, RTE News and Current Affairs refused -- as I recorded here recently -- to give the story any serious coverage.
Far from subjecting public sector pay to severe scrutiny, highly-paid RTE presenters call on critical commentators to pack it in. Last Sunday, Joe Duffy warned his Mail readers about a "head of steam building up from the commentariat blaming those who work for the State for our financial woes". And he piously added: "There's no benefit to be gained from advocating equality of suffering for workers."
Actually, equality of suffering is the whole point. In a boom we shrug our shoulders if shoved aside by an SUV. In a recession we want to shove back. From now on, private sector workers will rightly require a flatter economy with no great divides between public and private sector workers. And since there is no way of increasing private sector pay, the public sector must help close the gap.
If Duffy still doubts that the gap is deeply divisive, all he has to do is consult Constantin Gurdgiev in his own paper. Gurdgiev pointed out (days before the Dell news) that, this coming year, private sector workers will see their income shrink by up to 15 per cent.
And while private sector workers suffer, what sacrifices will public sector workers make? None. "Nobody will seriously ask any of them to raise their productivity (on average about 30 per cent below that of the private sector) or to take a significant cut in their pay (about 40 per cent above private sector)."
Last Monday, Dan White in the Evening Herald drove the point home. "With public sector pay now averaging more than 20pc above the private sector, even before public sector employees' bullet-proof pensions are taken into account, what we need are across-the-board public sector pay cuts. If that causes the public sector trade unions to walk away from the so-called "social partnership" in a huff, then so much the better."
At least RTE presenters look after their own jobs. Not so TV3 presenter Vincent Browne who looks after the whole public sector. Last Monday, when Professor Brendan Lucey of TCD said he was prepared to take a pay cut, Browne brushed him aside.
Last Thursday, Browne did the same to Dr Bill Tormey, a public sector consultant.
As soon as Dr Tormey courageously called for cuts in public-sector pay. Browne instantly diverted attention from the core issue by demanding to know how much Tormey earned -- a question he did not put to the other two on the panel -- and then moved away from the core issue of public-sector pay cuts.
Furthermore, Browne never seems comfortable with criticism of RTE. You would never think he works for TV3, a small, private television company competing with the public sector colossus of RTE. Indeed, Browne has such a crush on his old flame that I often wish he and RTE would rent a room, or at least a studio.
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Let me now turn to the late Tony Gregory. Here I find it easy to conform with the Irish custom of not criticising the dead. Mr Gregory was a good man and a good public representative. But the President and the Taoiseach's presence at his funeral mass glossed over some problematical aspects of his politics in two areas.
According to his Irish Times obituary: "In 1984, he (Gregory) said he had no misgivings about the then Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement." If so he was seriously out of step with many on the left, not least Barry Desmond, who challenged the vigilante behaviour of the CPAD and was targeted by them in retaliation.
It was common knowledge that the CPAD vigilantes were infiltrated by IRA gunmen. In May 1996, a small-time dealer, Josie Dwyer, who was wasted by Aids and only weighed seven stone, was beaten to a pulp with iron bars and lump hammers. After massive IRA intimidation, only two men were convicted. One of those who escaped conviction was later arrested after an armed Real IRA robbery and later still was convicted of murdering his wife.
The President and Taoiseach were also told at his funeral that Gregory's "political hero" was Seamus Costello, founder of the INLA. According to the University of Ulster's aptly named CAIN project, the INLA was responsible for 113 deaths, including two members of An Garda Siochana and 10 of its own members.
In turning up for Mr Gregory's funeral but not for Conor Cruise O'Brien's, Official Ireland seemed to reject revisionists and showed respect for republican socialists. Bad choice. Far too many starry eyes under the starry plough.
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Finally, let me turn to Fintan O'Toole's polemic against Israeli military actions in Gaza, in last Tuesday's Irish Times. After a cursory attempt to protect his posterior by proclaiming he was not going to compare Israel with Nazi Germany, O'Toole went on write: "There are, however, two respects in which Israel's current behaviour demonstrates attitudes that overlap with the Nazi mentality."
In a robust reply last Friday, the Israeli ambassador, Zion Evrony, accused O'Toole of "trying to insulate himself in advance from the charge of equating Israel with Nazi Germany. But in a transparent display of intellectual dishonesty he then proceeded to do just that".
At least the Irish Times sometimes lets us hear both sides. The rest of the media, ranging from newspapers to RTE News, is far too fond of inflaming our passions with footage of alleged atrocities featuring the corpses of little children, shorn of any subtext seeking to ask if Hamas bears any responsibility for these little bodies.
Particularly praiseworthy is the work done by Liam McAuley, letters editor of the Irish Times. Although in my view his choice of correspondence leans a little to the anti-Israeli side, he would probably argue this is a true reflection of public opinion. But what matters is that he chooses letters which seem to listen to each other, creating the effect of an engaged dialogue rather than a series of stand-alone denunciations.
The result is that right now, as the polemics roar like rockets, the letters page of the Irish Times is a calm oasis where both sides can have their say in peace.