Friday 20 September 2019

Jody Corcoran: Varadkar misses point in a tizzy over Twitter 'spin'

The Taoiseach is presenting highly questionable information for his own political purposes, writes Jody Corcoran

Tweeter: Leo Varadkar walks on a pier after leaving the luncheon during the European Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, on November 17, 2017. Photo: Getty Images
Tweeter: Leo Varadkar walks on a pier after leaving the luncheon during the European Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, on November 17, 2017. Photo: Getty Images
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

'If you're not paying for the product, you are the product'.

The Taoiseach got quite touchy in the Dail last week when questioned by Opposition leaders on an issue I also wrote about last weekend, namely his posting on his personal Twitter account of a photograph of 'Cabinet committee F' related to national security.

So touchy, in fact, that the Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin suggested he needed to "relax a little", Richard Boyd Barrett said he was "on a roll" and the Ceann Comhairle, tongue-in-cheek, said he was "blazing a trail".

To quote the Taoiseach, the role of Cabinet committee F is to "keep the State's systems for the analysis of, preparation for, and response to threats to national security under review and to provide for high-level co-ordination between relevant departments and agencies on related matters". The Cabinet committee also allows for greater ministerial involvement in preparing for and managing "major security threats".

So, no ordinary committee this, you would think. And you would be right. In terms of the responsibilities of government, primary among which is to keep citizens safe, it is probably the most, or certainly one of the most important Cabinet committees.

In this context, in the Dail the Taoiseach was questioned on cybersecurity, Storm Ophelia and more generally on whether this new committee is intended to complement the role of the existing national security committee or to replace it. Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain also suggested the "unprecedented" tweeting of a photograph of the committee was an "unwise thing to do".

Whereupon the Taoiseach kicked off: the committee membership was "public knowledge," he said; he recalled the first meeting of Cabinet committee F had the RTE cameras in to pan a shot of the people at the table, which garnered no comment whatsoever at the time; it said a lot about some people's "terror and fear" of modern media. "They just do not understand, do not know what it means, cannot cope and even think it is a threat to national security. Never have I seen a criticism scrape the bottom of the barrel more so than such nonsensical criticism," he said.

To which I can only say the Taoiseach entirely, and I suspect wilfully, misses the point.

Meanwhile, in another questionable lapse, Leo Varadkar, in his capacity as Fine Gael leader, told that party's national conference last weekend that the level of homelessness in Ireland is low by international standards. In this regard, analysis by the OECD was subsequently cited.

However, the OECD data to which was referred explicitly states: "The data themselves are not easily comparable due to different counting methods, meaning that the figures should not be taken as a 'league table' of homelessness."

For example, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway and Greece include those 'living in institutions', 'living in non-conventional dwellings due to lack of housing' and 'living temporarily with family and friends due to lack of housing' when compiling the number of homeless. Ireland does not. Ireland only includes those 'sleeping rough', 'in emergency accommodation' and 'living in accommodation for the homeless'.

There are other anomalies. Japan only includes those 'sleeping rough' while Austria, Estonia and Slovenia do not count the numbers 'sleeping rough' at all, but do in several other categories: only the US, Spain, Portugal, France and Chile use a methodology similar to Ireland.

So, as you can see, it is like comparing apples and oranges. Therefore, Varadkar is accused of 'spinning' - and also of attempting to normalise the level of homelessness here - to make it seem comparably better on an international level when it is difficult to say with real accuracy whether the level of homelessness here is low, average or high by international standards.

To support his claim after the event, Varadkar also cited Conor Skehan, the outgoing chairman of the Housing Agency, and a regular contributor to the Fine Gael 'think tank' the Collins Institute, who has also written on the housing issue in this newspaper, but Mr Skehan has since stressed the difficulty in comparing international homeless statistics.

There is a common thread here, and it relates to the Taoiseach's presentation of information to suit his own political purpose, which is what he was accused of here last weekend and it is an accusation that still stands, notwithstanding his statement to the Dail last week.

Let us look at that statement: the identification of members of Cabinet committee F is not necessarily the main issue, although I am sure the identity of those present was noted. Furthermore, it was since also noted that there were seven evident eavesdropping devices in the tweeted photograph.

Nor necessarily is it that RTE in the past was invited in to pan the room. RTE is a public service broadcaster, after all. The issue is the Taoiseach's use of his personal Twitter account, where he urges his followers to 'campaign for Leo', to post a photograph of a Cabinet committee which, in his own words, reviews threats to national security.

Let us also remember, in the Dail the Taoiseach did not provide any information whatsoever as to what this committee even discussed. Therefore, the only purpose of this photograph on his personal Twitter account (which urges people to campaign for him) is political, to portray Leo Varadkar as across all issues related to State security.

Nor is it an issue that critics of this development are in "terror and fear" of modern media. How ridiculous is that?

Social media plays a significant part in political communication. The recent US presidential election proves that. It recently emerged that Facebook defines 14 independent segments of users along a political ideology spectrum. For example, in the US election, there was 10.2m 'very liberal' youthful urban users, 41.4m moderates with an average age of 33, 18.4m conservative 'diverse parents' average age 42, 11.3m very conservative post grad 'nest builders' average age 47 and so on, broken down further in ever greater detail. The point is, Facebook can offer politicians direct access to specific segments of society.

At home, last week it also emerged that a "key part" of what the Taoiseach calls the "modernisation of Government communications" also involves greater use of social media. No problem there.

Recent initiatives in his department have included videos related to Ireland's Rugby World Cup bid, information about going back to school, and the Budget and treatment benefits. This modernisation of Government communications has involved "sponsored posts" which have appeared on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The cost, so far, is a relatively modest €21,895.

As they say in the tech industry, if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. But here's the thing: not only are you, dear modern media reader, the product, you are also paying, through taxes, for the Government to directly target you with propaganda, sorry, advertising, thanks to Facebook's slicing and dicing of users into political segmentations, based on whatever image those users seek to portray to their online 'friends'.

According to another Government document, it is the intention of the Government's Strategic Communications Unit to target you on other issues, alongside the failed Rugby World Cup bid and others referred to above, which include: the Capital Plan, Brexit, the National Children's Hospital, Creative Ireland, Global Ireland, Rebuilding Ireland and 'Winter Ready'.

Needless to say, Leo Varadkar will use his personal Twitter account to this end, if not in the hope that you will campaign, then certainly that you will vote for him. When he does modern Leo will be closely monitored by us old fogeys in the traditional media and, as promised, called out when he oversteps what is, admittedly, an ill-defined mark, as I still contend he absolutely did when he posted online, alongside a tweet of his latest colourful pair of socks, a photograph of a high-level meeting related the security of the State.

Sunday Independent

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