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In August 1922 a newspaper publisher named Robert W. Sawyer attempted to define what constitutes “news”.   The nearest he could come, he said, is: “If the paper wants it worse than the person handing it in, it’s news….if the person handing it in wants it published worse than the newspaper, it’s advertising.”

A variant of this has been attributed variously to Lord Northcliffe, William Randolph Hearst and others: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

It helps to keep this principle in mind when reading the “Letters to the Editor” section of one’s newspaper.

The letters page with which I am most familiar is that of the Irish Times, which newspaper I still consume daily — albeit sometimes with gritted teeth, thanks to its over-concentration and preachiness on gender issues, an approach exemplified by (but not limited to) Una Mullally.

If you think that the “Paper of Record” would have the sense to shield its readers from too much propaganda and special pleading in its letters page, think again. Most days, the letters originate from people who have a vested interest in the matter on which they are commentating, and the writers appear to be given free range by the editor to bang their own drum.  Maybe the editor reckons that the readers of the Irish Times are a sophisticated lot who can see through such obviously self-serving contributions.  Or maybe he is fixated with the concept of “balance” and is afraid to close off his columns to all and any hired guns – sorry, lobbyists – sorry, I mean spokespersons.

Today’s letter page is not untypical. A mere 6 letters, so a bit smaller than usual.  But they include letters from:

  • three “masters” of Dublin maternity hospitals, explaining why the mastership system needs to be retained;
  • a senior executive with the International Energy Research Centre, advocating greater stimulation by the government of low-carbon technologies;
  • a representative of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation LGBT Group, voicing concern about how teachers are expected to deal with the recent papal document Amoris Laetitia;
  • a resident of one of Dublin’s most expensive neighbourhoods arguing that the local property tax is unjust and should be the subject of greater agitation (as in water-tax-protests).

Insofar as I can tell, the remaining two letter-writers have no vested interest in the matter about which they are writing.

So two-thirds of the letters appear to be from people expressing views which they are paid to propagate or which are in their own personal interest. This is not to say that the views being expressed are wrong, or that they are not genuinely held; however it is helpful (nay, vital) to understand the context in which the letter-writers operate, and how that context might be influencing or accentuating their views, or making it much more likely that they will feel the need to publicly advocate them in the letters pages of our newspapers.

So I have adopted an invariable practice when reading these letters: start at the end of the letter, and take note of what role the writer performs or is representing. Not only will this help to put the content of the letter in its proper context (as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”), but it also allows me to forego reading the letter completely on some occasions, on the grounds that my store of objective truth will not be thereby enhanced, and life is too short to waste on mere propaganda.

I notice a tendency for some self-proclaimed feminists to behave not as true, objectively fair, feminists, but as one-sided gender warriors in what they see as a never-ending battle to cut men down to size and to avenge perceived historic injustices.  They seem to think that current day men should be punished in some way for the behaviour of their fathers, grandfathers and other male antecedents, even if that behaviour was the cultural and societal norm in its day.  In the process, they are running the risk that their cause will be discredited.
As a true feminist, I like to be helpful to the sisters in these matters.  So here are a few guidelines, rules (commandments even), adherence to which will allow feminists to be taken seriously by society at large.
There is no charge for this service.  Pass them on.
  • All men are not rapists or idiots. Have respect for both genders in your utterances. Stop portraying men as universally stupid or primitive e.g. in advertising.
  • Please recognise that there remain significant differences between how the sexes behave – due partly (or even mainly?) to inescapable and unconscious evolutionary forces. In a dangerous world the survival of the human race once depended on the specialisation that these differences facilitated. We can’t expunge these traits from our DNA overnight, even if we all wanted to do so (and many people of both sexes wouldn’t want to).  In other words, men are more aggressive because they are built that way, not because they want to be.  Cut us some slack.
  • You should accept that job quotas apply both ways.  So if you want fair representation in politics, business, the arts, the professions, and in other such desirable occupations, then you should accept that women should shoulder their fair share of lousy or demanding jobs – in the army, as road sweepers, bike couriers, potato pickers, mine workers and so on.  I just don’t see this happening.  And while we are at it, should men not have quotas too? Where are all the male nurses, primary school teachers, chick lit writers?
  • Judge other women objectively: stop biting your tongue or giving them free passes when they deserve criticism or generally screw up.  Irish Times journalists, please note.
  • Stop focusing on soft targets (e.g. men-only golf clubs) and ever-smaller issues (e.g. so-called micro-aggressions) when large ones have been achieved or appear just too tricky to deal with (e.g. the attitude of many refugees/immigrants to women). And avoid mission creep.
  • Islam should be your number one enemy. Not Muslim people, but their religion and how it subjugates women.  If you turn a blind eye to this issue, then you don’t deserve to be taken seriously as a feminist.  If you don’t wish to speak out against it, then please shut up about other alleged sources of gender discrimination.
  • The Roman Catholic Church isn’t far behind.  So have a go at them instead of attacking (for instance) Portmarnock Golf Club.  Yes I know it isn’t as much fun, and your Mammy probably won’t like it, but then you want to seen as a serious feminist, don’t you?
  • Please recognise that most women, relative to their male counterparts, spend huge amounts of time and money trying to appear or remain sexually alluring.  This is a fact of life.  Men should be allowed show appreciation for such efforts.  Or are women only doing it to enhance their own self-esteem, or even to show up their less attractive sisters?  I don’t think so.
  • Take on board the fact that, when you control for relevant variables (occupations, qualifications, length of time in workplace), the alleged wage gap narrows to effectively nothing.  So stop going on about it as if it’s a wicked plot to subjugate women, and stop using its alleged existence to justify your misandry.
  • And so on…..
And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

So our ex-President Mrs Mary Robinson is to open the State’s first presidential archive and research centre in 2017.  Good for her.

In a touching piece in the Irish Times, Robinson-biographer and acolyte Lorna Siggins tells us that “A quarter of a century after her promise to keep a symbolic candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, former president Mary Robinson has outlined plans to brighten her north Mayo birthplace with the State’s first presidential archive and research centre.  The €8.35 million centre in her former family home – the 19th-century Victoria House, overlooking the river Moy in Ballina – will open in the second quarter of 2017, Mrs Robinson said in Ballina at the weekend.”

€8.35 million!  Wow, that’s very generous of her, isn’t it?  Why, I’m almost ready to forgive her for quitting her pathetic little job as President of Ireland in 1997 two months early so she could nail down a real job with the United Nations as their High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Oh but wait a minute, Mary isn’t paying for the house – you and I are footing most of the bill it seems.  Here’s what Lorna tells us:

  • €1.5 million has been provided by Mayo County Council to buy the house and to provide an adjoining site for construction of an annexe, along with architectural and design services;
  • The State has committed just over €2 million through the Department of the Taoiseach;
  • Mrs Robinson has donated her archive, valued at €2.5 million, to the State, under section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, which provides that people who donate heritage items can credit the value against certain tax liabilities.

So this vanity project for Mrs Robinson will cost the Irish citizens up to €5.5 million, depending on what is the net effect on the State coffers of the tax foregone as a result of the big fat tax credit she will get.  She may not have thought enough of us to serve her full term as President, but obviously our money is as good as anybody else’s.

It seems that the archive “will house files relating to Mrs Robinson’s legal work, her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 and her term as UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.”

I am impressed with the prescience she showed in keeping safe all those boxes of files spanning some five decades.  She must have been confident from an early date that history was being created.

However, in my self-appointed role as intrepid defender of the hard-pressed Irish taxpayer, I have to ask two questions: (a) How come the archive is worth €2.5 million and who decided this?  And (b) how come the papers in the archive are Mrs Robinson’s to donate in the first place?

The latter question is interesting.  Mrs Robinson, both as President of Ireland and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was effectively employed by and paid for by Ireland and the United Nations respectively.  Under most legal systems and contractual arrangements with which I am familiar, any materials produced in the course of the execution of the paid-for role belong to the employer organisation, not the individual involved.

Why are the files relating to her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 not already the property of the State?  Why are we effectively paying for them twice – the first time through her salary when she was President and was generating the relevant papers, and now in giving her an 80% tax credit for handing them over to us?   Maybe we need to take a look at the terms of our Presidential “employment contract”.

If Mrs Robinson is anything, she is ethical and law-abiding.  So I’m sure everything is above board.  But somebody has to ask the right questions.  If you are waiting for the Irish Times to ask any challenging questions of her, don’t hold your breath.

PS…. I note that for our money we also will get a research centre that will have “a particular emphasis on the ‘critical area of women’s leadership’, unleashing ‘energy for change’ through women’s empowerment”.   I can’t wait.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home…..

 

Sherlock Holmes famously spotted the significance of the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time“: the fact that it didn’t bark was of great importance.  But this has nothing on the biggest non-barking dog in Ireland: the absence of any follow-up to the 4-year-old Moriarty Report.

In October 2015, Lucinda Creighton told the Dáil:

It is almost five years since Mr. Justice Moriarty, in his tribunal report on payments to politicians, found that it is beyond doubt that Deputy Michael Lowry imparted substantive information to Denis O’Brien which was of “significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence”. It has since emerged that there has been, for over three years, a Garda investigation following the Moriarty tribunal’s findings of suspected criminality in payments to politicians. Extraordinarily, this has not yet led to an investigation file being sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. No one has yet been charged and there have been zero consequences for two of the key individuals against whom adverse findings were made…….

But it seems that Lucinda may not be completely accurate here: the delay might not be with the Gardaí, but in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.  According to TheJournal.ie,

“Gardaí have not begun a full investigation into the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal over four years after its findings were published, it has emerged.  Though Gardaí carried out an initial examination of the report they are still waiting for guidance from the Director of Public Prosecutions as to whether a full Garda investigation should be carried out.  This has been the same position that the government has been outlining in responses to Dáil questions about the tribunal since May 2012….Identical or almost identical responses have been issued on at least eight occasions to TDs who have submitted queries.”

So what’s going on in the DPP’s office?  Why hasn’t she supplied the requested guidance?  Is her office working overtime on this, as they should be, or is there some deliberate foot-dragging going on?

Three years ago, in a different context, I wrote:

 …the current DPP, James Hamilton, takes early retirement this month, and the Government have appointed Claire Loftus as his successor.  She has been promoted from her role as the Head of the Directing Division in the DPP’s office, and before that she was the DPP’s chief prosecution solicitor from 2001 to 2009.  I hope she can move things forward at a faster rate than her predecessor, but unfortunately I can find no reason to believe that a long and successful career in our DPP’s office is an indicator of a dynamic and energetic character.  Maybe I will be proved wrong.  For the sake of the morale of the general populace, I hope so.

The DPP’s information booklet, available on their website, assures us that “the DPP is independent when making her decisions. This means that no-one – including the Government or the Gardaí – can make the DPP prosecute a particular case or stop her from doing so.”  And the Code of Ethics for Prosecutors is equally reassuring: “Prosecutors shall carry out their functions in accordance with section 2(5) of the Prosecution of Offences Act, 1974 which provides that the Director of Public Prosecutions shall be independent in the performance of his functions. They shall exercise their functions free of any extraneous influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interference, direct or indirect, from any quarter or for any reason.”

So it would surely be very wrong for anybody to suggest that the DPP is succumbing to political or other pressure to sit on the file until after the election, or maybe forever?  Hmmmm.

As for the boys in blue, we know that, because any evidence presented to a Tribunal of Inquiry cannot be used to secure a criminal conviction, the Gardaí need to start from scratch and produce criminal-conviction-standard evidence through a new investigation.  But why aren’t they getting on with this task instead of using the DPP’s delay as an excuse?  What is it that they want guidance about from the DPP before pulling their finger out?  Are they under pressure to slow things down?  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the resources being applied to this case within the Gardaí are less than adequate, and that there isn’t any real desire to get cracking.

It stinks.

And meanwhile, poor Denis O’Brien, and poor Michael Lowry, have to suffer the indignity of not being able properly to clear their names after Mr Justice Moriarty accused them of corruption.  I’m sure they are itching to have things brought to a head, and are despairing of the sloth being displayed in the Gardaí and the DPP’s office.

So what can they do about it?  Well, how about Denis or Michael making a complaint to the DPP’s office about their delay in the case?  The DPP’s Information Booklet helpfully tells us:  “9. Can I complain to the Office of the DPP?    Yes. If you have a complaint about how we work, you can contact us at our Office – see contact details on page 16.”

So there you have it.  And if Denis or Michael are too busy to lodge a complaint about the DPP’s tardiness, maybe a helpful member of the public would do so instead?  I’m sure they would be grateful.

 

 

 

 

I think there should be mandatory jail sentences for those who publish bar charts and other graphs that show a misleading position as a result of selecting an incorrect base line or y-axis (usually, but not always, this should be zero).

Here’s a particularly egregious example from a publication that should know better, the Sunday Business Post.  It appeared in its 11th October 2015 edition.  Visually, the current minimum wage appears to be less than 20% of the living wage.  However it is in fact about 75% of it, and setting the y-axis to start at zero would have given the correct visual impression.

File 19-10-2015, 15 13 47 So why didn’t they do this?  Careless journalism, careless editing, lack of numeracy, or a deliberate wish to create a striking image where there was no justification for it?

The Sunday Business Post is in dishonourable company in this practice.  Here are two choice examples from Fox News in the United States, which of course has a political agenda to promote.

        Fox chart

Fox unemployment-rate

Rather than using a nonsensical bar chart, it would have been better had the Sunday Business Post not published it at all, and instead allowed the reader to draw the necessary information from published text.  However that would probably have gone against another apparent Sunday Business Post policy – that of using up lots of space with unnecessary (or unnecessarily large) photos and graphics.  Cheaper than actual journalism, I suppose.

 

Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter from 55 members of the US Congress asking him to address what they see as the human rights violations of women in El Salvador.

Amnesty International explains the background:

El Salvador banned abortion in all circumstances in 1998….. Women and girls found guilty of having an abortion face a prison sentence of two to eight years. Health care providers who assist them face up to 12 years in prison….. Women who have had miscarriages have been charged with aggravated homicide, a charge which can bring a sentence of up to 50 years in prison. Amnesty International has documented the cases of many women who have been sentenced to decades in prison after having a miscarriage.

According to the BBC:

El Salvador is not the only country in Latin America to have such strict laws, but it is particularly strict in enforcing it. Doctors have to inform the authorities if they think a woman has tried to end her pregnancy. If they fail to report such cases, they, too, could face long sentences in jail. The result is what human rights groups are calling a criminalisation of miscarriages and medical emergencies.

San Salvador’s auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez was quoted as saying: “Every human life is sacred. To get rid of that is committing murder. If there are two lives in danger, you have to save the one that’s most fragile and that’s the child”.

So El Salvador is being entirely logical in how it enshrines Roman Catholic theology (can that be the right word in to describe such a cruel policy?) in its civil law.

If I may repeat myself, even in Ireland we implicitly, and necessarily, recognise that the death of a foetus does not warrant the same legal protection as the death of a child or adult.  For otherwise our law would require that, every time a woman becomes pregnant but fails to deliver a live baby in due course, there would be a full and formal legal Inquest into the “death” of the “person” .   Under Irish law, an Inquest must be held if a coroner has reasonable cause to believe that a death occurred suddenly and/or from unknown causes.  That we don’t subject women to such a ridiculous process every time there is a miscarriage during a pregnancy demonstrates that even in Ireland we are prepared to accept that in practice a foetus does not warrant the same legal due process and protection as a fully formed human being.

I suspect that if we did follow the anti-abortionists’ logic and launch a full Inquest every time a woman suffered a miscarriage, just in case there had been some intent on her part to induce the miscarriage, or negligence in this regard, then we would see an uproar from all sane people, and Amnesty International and US politicians would be on our case with a vengeance.

But requiring an inquest in these circumstances would be the logical (but crazy) outcome of the call for the “unborn” to have the same legal rights as a child or adult. Sometimes those guilty of folly and cruelty need to be shown a reductio as absurdum to help change their mindset.

We are, one might surmise, less savage in our laws (or their implementation) than El Salvador is; but we are undoubtedly less consistent too. If we are to enshrine the doctrine of a particular religion in our laws, then why don’t we go the whole hog, just as Iran or Saudi Arabia do?

Michael Flatley, of Riverdance fame, has a new career as an artist, and it is giving me considerable entertainment. According to the Irish Times, Mr Flatley “creates his paintings by dancing on canvases (strips of marley – a type of linoleum floor covering used on stage by dancers)”.  We learn that “At least 12 of the paintings sold, for an average price of £52,000 (€74,000). Negotiations are continuing regarding further sales”.

You couldn’t make it up.  Truly, life is imitating art – in this case the amusing 1960 film “The Rebel”, starring the late comedian Tony Hancock.  To quote from Wikipedia:

Hancock plays a downtrodden London office clerk who gives up his office job to pursue full-time his vocation as an artist. Single mindedly, and with an enthusiasm far exceeding any artistic talent (his ‘art’ has a ‘childlike’ quality – to put it mildly), he sets to work on his masterpiece Aphrodite at the Waterhole, moving to  Paris where he expects his genius will be appreciated….. The film explores existentialist themes by mocking Parisian intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the English middle class…. The film also includes scenes parodying modern art. The scene showing Hancock splashing paint onto a canvas and riding a bike over it is a lampoon of the work of Action Painter, William Green while the childlike paintings of Hancock, referred to as the ‘infantile school’ or the ‘shapeist school’ parody the naïve style.

Alternatively, I hope Mr Flatley, with his “art”,  is having a good old-fashioned piss-take – otherwise known as “mocking … intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the … middle class”.  Good for him if that is the case.

Surely he doesn’t actually believe his offerings are worth €50-100,000? No, it is no doubt a wonderful leg-pull on his part, at the expense of those blinded by fame into laying out large sums of money on unattractive and random smears of paint.  This must be the case, as Mr Flatley is a clever fellow.  Maybe he has even seen “the Rebel” and is carrying out his own experiment, testing the limits of art buyers’ gullibility!

Or perhaps he has seen the wonderful recent Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Belleza), in which a young child creates highly-prized “art” by having a temper tantrum and flinging paint at a large canvas (YouTube link here). Yes, that must be the case……

[More on the madness of modern/conceptual art here, here, here and here].

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