Archive for May 31st, 2011

David Norris and Ireland’s sordid media culture

This morning I turned on the Pat Kenny show to hear David Norris vehemently rebutting insinuations made, apparently on the back of a Liveline feature yesterday focusing on an article written some ten years back, that he approved of paedophilia in some shape or form.

It made for disturbing listening, not on account of anything in particular Norris himself had said, either in the original article (which to my eyes looks very much of a hit job consciously designed to tease out some sort of previously unseen seamy side to Norris), but for the very fact that he felt obliged to come on national radio and say it.

The disturbing listening was compounded by the fact that Norris felt obliged to admit to  foolishness regarding the remarks he had made to his original interviewer. Since the content of his original discussion was wide-ranging  and academic in character, he claimed he should have borne in mind the potential for them to be distorted once released for public consumption. This is appalling. I do not blame David Norris for this, but to be held back by the idea that one should refrain from saying a particular thing for fear of having one’s reputation destroyed, simply because what is said offers potential for widespread distortion and manipulation to suit a particular agenda, is to be held back by a highly corrosive form of censorship.

The fact that a person feels they have to refrain from expressing an opinion, however reasonable that opinion might turn out to be on deeper examination, because they know the country’s political media apparatus will seize on it, turn it into a media event and use it to manipulate public perceptions, is an indication that something is seriously wrong with the ownership and control of news media.

You are probably aware of the refrain that politicians who complain about the media are like sailors who complain about the sea, but the difference between the sea and the character of media institutions is that the latter are subject to human agency and control. Therefore if media institutions generate an event, there are particular motivations at stake. To treat these motivations as naturally occurring phenomena, as the adage recommends, is to disregard, and in so doing submit to, the illegitimate authority of these institutions. It was a disgrace, but not a surprise, that when Norris admitted he had been foolish, public broadcaster Pat Kenny did not seek to probe precisely why he had been foolish to say such a thing, and in whose interest it might be, giving Norris the benefit of the doubt that he had not actually done anything wrong, that his words might be distorted.

Consider this characteristically disgusting article by Fionnan Sheahan, which claims that Norris’s ‘prospects of being a presidential election candidate were thrown into doubt last night’ on the back of the ‘controversial comments’ that had ‘come back to haunt him’. Sheahan knows full well that an important -if not the most important- element of the ‘haunting’ are in the reproduction of these comments and assessment of their potential impact as mere factual, dispassionate objective reporting. But in reality, political correspondents such as Sheahan are the very same people who decide what comments haunt whom and to what measure, and even shape the perception of how those people are haunted by these comments, such as in the phrase that Norris had ‘gone to ground’ as though he were a fugitive who had opted not to respond to criminal accusations. Sheahan and others hide behind this veneer of objectivity and factuality to manipulate perceptions of the political landscape, in the manner that they and their employers see fit.

There are echoes here of the Wikileaks ‘controversy’ last year when ‘revelations’ that Bertie Ahern suspected the SF leadership of responsibility of the Northern Bank robbery were now going to come back and haunt Sinn Fein, even when the knowledge of this suspicion had been in the public domain ever since Bertie Ahern had himself announced them when the Northern Bank robbery took place.

I don’t care much for Norris’s presidential campaign, in fact I see the presidential campaign as mostly pointless, but no matter: this strikes me as a sadistic hit job intended to restrict the spectrum of public political voices in Ireland to those who are completely subservient to market imperatives and to the prevailing macho, anti-intellectual, pro-ignorance, ball-scratching, heterosexist, misogynist, yawping, ‘objective’, ‘realist’ culture of the political correspondent, the right-wing reactionary pundit and the media oligarch. Therefore any competing presidential campaign that fails to issue a robust denunciation of Norris’s treatment should be considered complicit with it.

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May 2011