On voting

I wasn’t at home for the divorce referendum in 1995, so I could only follow it from a distance online. It wasn’t until a few years later I got talking to my brother about the day of the vote.
He was off work, or they finished a job early that day (I can’t remember which), and they ended up in the pub. And across the street from the pub is the national school, and they watched the voters come and go.
And of course some of the voters stopped for a pint afterwards, and naturally the conversation in the pub turned around to the debate that had gone on for the past month.
At the start of the day, he hadn’t planned on voting at all, but the conversation went on, and eventually he decided he’d cast a vote in favour of the referendum.
Someone said afterwards the difference between Yes and No came down to one vote in every ballot box, and that pub conversation may have decided up to half a dozen votes in one ballot box. So I think about that pub debate every now and again.
The thing is, all of this happened in the heart of rural Donegal. In a constituency with a reputation for saying No in every referendum. Where 59% voted No to divorce. The story of one vote in a box.
I was in Donegal for other votes. The first attempt to introduce divorce. The original eighth amendment vote in 1983. I remember the local FF and FG hacks cooperating to get the vote out on that one.
I moved to Dublin to start college two weeks after the Eighth vote. I don’t think I ever met someone who voted No before then. In Donegal, it was easy to believe you were a lunatic for opposing that vote.
I think even in 1995, a lot of people must have felt very alone voting Yes in Donegal. But here’s the thing. The nationwide Yes margin was 9,114 votes. There were 10,450 Yes votes in the Donegal SW constituency, where my story took place. The story of one vote in a box, added to all the other votes.
Every vote matters is a platitude. But it’s also true. And more importantly, every voter matters. So take a minute now, and make sure your vote is still there. Check the register.

Outside the bubble

About a fortnight ago, I accidentally escaped the Twitter filter bubble.
Without thinking about it, I’ve been refining my online filter bubbles for a while, quietly unfollowing some accounts, muting others, occasionally blocking when to send a public signal.
I do the same with particular keywords. Try it sometime. Twitter becomes a much nicer experience if you mute all mentions of ‘Trump’, for example.
The thing is, at the same time, I’m aware I’m cutting myself off from particular debates in doing this.
But as it happens, I was building a different kind of timeline at the same time.
A few years ago, I started an account for a business idea that never went anywhere. And don’t ask me why, but whenever Twitter suggested new followers for that account, I added them. I did apply some rules. I only added people, not corporate accounts. I didn’t add TDs and other aspiring politicians, because they might as well be corporate. And I excluded anyone outside Ireland.
Two weeks ago, I moved from @faduda to @maccuinneagain (I now skip back and forth). And all I can say is, unfiltered Twitter is a bitter, angry place. No wonder their user numbers are stagnant.

Outside help

Last month, the Young Scientist of the Year contest was won by a kid who found  new kind of antibiotic in blackberries.

There was some minor controversy afterwards, as it came out the kid had access to some facilities in a third level institution.

It seems the use of outside facilities is allowed under the rules of the Young Scientist competition, provided it is acknowledged by the entrant, something that was done in this case.

Kevin O’Sullivan wrote a followup to the row, quoting UCC academic Tadhg Ó Cróinín who said “Every entrant can pick up the telephone to a university or college for help if he or she needs equipment, or help.”

So I sent in a Freedom of Information request to University College Cork asking for:

  • Records relating to granting permission for access to UCC facilities
    and laboratories by Young Scientist winner Simon Meehan
  • Records relating to general policies on access to such facilities by
    second level students for the Young Scientists competition or other
    projects.

Here’s the reply I received:

“the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts shave been taken.”

Make of that what you will.

Young Scientist fallout – tweet from Kevin O’Sullivan

Freedom of Information reply (pdf)

Bump, Slump, and Subs

Facebook doesn’t want to be a publisher, and it really doesn’t want to be a news publisher, so it should come as no surprise their reaction to accusations they spread fake news is to kill all news in the “newfeed”.

This brings us back to a long-running argument. The future of journalism is not in hunting page impressions on social media. Sure, tell people news sites exist, but the advertising micropennies from the resulting pageviews aren’t going to pay the rent. Longterm, news needs paying customers, not advertisers. Not even if the advertisers are paying for “brand journalism” commercial features.

Subscriptions are the future. Own your words, and sell them to your readers. Call it something else if necessary, membership programme, premium community, supporters and donors, anything. Build a hard paywall, soft paywall, or regular donation drives, but revenues will come from readers. Advertising is not worth the effort for ever-diminishing returns.

And don’t take recent readers for granted. Just as there was a Trump Bump, there will be a Trump Slump. All those new readership subs from last year’s Shellshock Moment are about to expire. They need more than just the latest madness from Washington. Keep it local, stupid.

Journalism in 2018: A pocket guide

Don’t pivot to video. Or anything else that requires you to fire half your reporters in order to chase fickle advertising revenue. Google and Faceboook own advertising, That ship has sailed.

Don’t think that anything good comes from firing subs. Fire your star controversialist first. Trust me, there will be a queue of mediocre white men lining up to replace him at half the cost.

Don’t do humour. You’re not funny. I don’t care how much the guys loved it down in the pub last night.
No, seriously, don’t. At all.

Hiring Nazis isn’t edgy. Firing Nazis, now that’s edgy. Yes, that’s the world we live in now.

Google is not your friend. Facebook is not your friend. Advertising is not your friend. Readers are your friends. So stop insulting them, which is what you do every time you sneer at social media. Everyone has a social media account. Turn them into subscribers.

And finally, stop thinking that debate means giving the stage to opposing extremes. That’s not where most of the voices are. Imagine for example reporting the 99 viewpoints at the Citizens’ Assembly rather than the showboating parliamentarians walking out of a committee room instead of listening to evidence.

Fry Up

They’ve wasted a perfectly good controversy

The Irish police are investigating Stephen Fry for blasphemy.
Well, not really.
A few years ago, Fry gave one of those “If you’re so great, why is everything crap?” answers to Gay Byrne on a lightweight Irish religious programme when asked what he’d say if he ever met God.
A viewer decided to put Irish law to the test, and complained to the police.
As the unidentified viewer explains, he was not personally offended, but felt it was his civic duty to complain, as no doubt other viewers had their feelings hurt.
The Guards assured him they would “look into it”.
And then, as far as anyone can tell, precisely nothing happened.
Eventually, the viewer wrote to the Garda commissioner asking for an update.
The commissioner wrote what the viewer described as a “standard” reply.
All of this happened because, while amending defamation law in 2009, the government tagged on a last minute amendment creating an offence of “blasphemous utterance or publication.”
They did this because the old law on blasphemy had been rendered meaningless by various court decisions, but blasphemy was outlawed in the constitution.
Changing the constitution takes time and money, and the attorney general was apparently worried that not having a blasphemy law might lead to legal difficulties.
So we created a new law.
The law says it is an offence to upset a “substantial number” of believers in a religious faith. It doesn’t specify any particular faith, though it does say that “cults” — defined as organisations focused on moneymaking — are excluded. So religions looking to take offence better be about prophets, not profits. Poor old Mammon gets no respect.
And speaking of money, the original proposal was to impose a penalty fine of €100,000. This was later reduced to €25,000. The Labour party proposed an amendment — voted down by the government — to reduce the fine even further, to €1,000. Some voices even suggested that, since the law was intended to be merely symbolic, the fine should be reduced to a nominal sum of one euro. Dermot Ahern, the justice minister in charge of turning the bill into law, said no. The law could be a nod and a wink, but not a blatant nod and a wink.
But wait, there’s more. The religiously offended have to suck it up if the utterer of blasphemy can show that a reasonable person would consider their utterance had genuine artistic, scientific, literary, political or academic value.

So the Irish state, while promising that they’d get around to removing blasphemy from the constitution (it’s one of a long list of proposed constitutional reforms, we’ll get to it eventually) replaced a law the courts said was unenforceable with one designed to be almost impossible to break.
Go on. Think of a blasphemous act that doesn’t slip through one of those loopholes. The Act is designed to satisfy the need to have an offence on the statute books, but to make a prosecution as difficult as possible.
Of course, nothing is foolproof. A government acting in bad faith could, in the future, appoint prosecutors and judges who pushed through prosecutions, chilling speech in the process. That’s why it’s generally a bad idea to give governments too many powers to limit individual liberties.
For the moment though, Stephen Fry’s liberty is not at risk from the Irish courts. The real harm from Irish blasphemy laws, until such time as we amend our constitution to get rid of them, lies in the fact that they exist at all. Just as the non-story of the non-investigation of a non-blasphemous utterance is distorted by outrage and overheated takes as it spreads, so our statute is used by intolerant regimes around the world to justify punitive laws allowing everything up to death penalties for those who upset officially protected faiths. From Pussy Riot to death sentences in Pakistan, blasphemy is serious business. Our unknown viewer complaining to the local Garda station unwittingly trivialises it as a joke, with clickbait friendly Stephen Fry as the punchline.
I think our blasphemy laws should be protested. But I think the way to do that is to do what the law says, and cause “outrage among a substantial number of adherents.”
With all due respect to Stephen Fry, he’s not really going to upset that many Irish people, no matter how hard he tries. To do that, you need to declare war on everyday Catholicism. Not the extremists, but the ordinary and the mundane.
Kidnap and desecrate a communion wafer on stage, for example. Get drunk on stolen communion wine, for extra points.
That gets you outrage, if you do it right. And outrage gets you genuine calls for a prosecution. Maybe you don’t get a prosecution (the kidnap is after all a political and artistic act). Though if the outrage is loud enough, it might lead to prosecution from a politically weak prosecutor. But either way, you get a proper debate about blasphemy, religion, and freedom of speech.
So I’m annoyed at the Unknown Viewer. He wasted the opportunity to have a real debate by playing to the cheap seats.

Justice “administered in public” and data protection

A few weeks ago, a message appeared on a Facebook journalism court from a reporter, who had just been told he would not be allowed advance notice of district court cases any more because of “data protection” issues.

I was curious to learn more, so I sent in a Freedom of Information request to find out what these instructions were, and what the reasoning behind them was.

An email has now been released to me, and a section “sets out the detail of an incident which gave rise to the issue of the email has been redacted as it contains information in relation to the functions of a Court Office which if released could have a significant adverse effect on the performance of this office function and the general management of the Court Office”, a reason which tells me nothing but mirrors exactly the wording of an exclusion provided for in legislation.

No further details are given about the “incident”.

The full email from the Circuit & District Courts head of operations appears below.

FOI 39-17 Gerard Cunningham – Appendix 1 by faduda on Scribd

The Charleton Report

As possibly the only journalist in Ireland to have covered two Garda tribunals of inquiry in their entirety, I should probably say a few words about what will probably come to be known in shorthand as the Charleton Tribunal.

For starters, although I’d be glad to do so, it’s deeply unlikely I will cover a third Garda inquiry. The Morris and Smithwick tribunals — Morris in particular — occurred under particular circumstances that made them viable propositions for a freelance journalist.

Morris began at a time when it seemed half the Irish legal profession was employed full-time at tribunals, taking place at the same time as the Moriarty, Mahon (originally Flood), and Barr tribunals, and media outlets were already stretched. Morris was seen as complex and far-away, since it looked at events in Donegal a decade earlier. Unlike Moriarty and Mahon, it didn’t feature any big name developers or politicians, except tangentially. As a result, I made a living covering the Morris tribunal. Regina Hennelly did the same at the Barr tribunal, which ran simultaneously and looked at the fatal Garda shooting of John Carthy in Abbeylara.

Later, I covered the Smithwick tribunal, which looked at the killing of two senior RUC officers as they returned from a meeting with Garda counterparts in 1989. Smithwick for the most part attracted even less public interest than the Morris tribunal. It probably didn’t help that half the ex-RUC witnesses were identified only by initials to protect their identity, which made the story difficult to follow. The events looked at took place two decades earlier, before ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement. It was notable that while RTÉ and the Irish Times covered the tribunal every day, none of the other southern papers did so. And Vincent Browne, who covered earlier tribunals and introduced the innovation of dramatising their coverage by having actors perform extracts from the official transcripts on his late-night radio show, had moved on to TV3.

The Charleton Tribunal will be different. Unlike other Garda tribunals, it will have to address directly not what happened down the country in Raphoe or Abbeylara, but in Garda headquarters. Garda commissioners and senior HQ staff won’t have walk-on parts, they will be key witnesses. Politicians will be called to explain their roles, and not just county councillors and backbench opposition TDs, but ministers and even a taoiseach.

So I’ll show up at the first few days of the Charleton tribunal. But even if the high political drama is already over, and Enda Kenny is no longer a taoiseach (or even a TD) by the time he is called to give evidence, I get the feeling that the high profiles involved in this story may mean that there won’t be a gap where a freelancer can fit into the coverage.

Final Note

Every time a Morris report was published, experts and commentators suddenly appeared. They were almost entirely uninformed.

And an awful lot of commentary will obsess about the tribunal’s costs.

My sustained impression after almost a decade of seeing An Garda Síochána dealing with its problems up close is that there is no institutional or political will to look under the hood, never mind fix the engine. Tribunals aren’t about solutions, they’re about the appearance of solutions, and their reports go largely unread.

When the Charleton report is eventually published, in two or three years time, it is likely that most of the main players will have retired from public life. The news cycle will follow a predictable pattern, with selective leaks to political and crime correspondents beforehand to set the stage, a “feeding frenzy” for two or three days after publication, and then nothing. Barring some extraordinary developments, there will be a few speeches from people in charge assuring the public that changes have been made, new procedures put in place, and everyone will move on to the next story. GSOC will remain underfunded. Garda records will for the most part remain outside the reach of Freedom of Information law. Tusla and the HSE will carry on business as usual.

All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.

Nimbyland

Blocking the twitter accounts of nazi yanks who write “controversial” articles in The Irish Times is all very well, but we really need to talk about Ballaghadreen. Because its typical, not exceptional

The thing is, we don’t need a lexicon to explain the half-mouthed pieties of local councillors or ambitious senators.

You know the kind of thing. When people have “concerns.”

We tell ourselves comforting lies. Sure we’re grand altogether, tell us how much you love us. You’re new to the parish and we don’t see colour.

We recognise Pell as an abomination. He’s an alien. He’s from outside the culture, so his language jars. He’s loud, brashy, American, and let’s face it, just plain weird. But quiet voiced “concerns” about local jobs are even more poisonous, because they seem ordinary.

Here’s today’s assignment on tolerance in modern Ireland. Show me Enda Kenny’s statement about Ballaghadreen. Because silence often speaks volumes.

The Trouble With Algorithms

There’s a notion going round that not only should Facebook not interfere with the newsfeed to stop Fake News, but it is incapable of doing so.
This is absolute nonsense.
I follow maybe 300 people on Facebook. I regularly see updates from about a dozen.
Sometimes, that’s because people haven’t posted recently. But usually it’s because Facebook decided I don’t need to see their updates.
So whenever you hear that interfering with the Newsfeed would amount to censorship, remember Facebook is already interfering.
In fact, there’s an argument that interference is what caused the whole problem in the first place.
As I wrote this article, reports came in that Facebook wants users to report fake news.
This is doomed to fail.
Facebook, like most of Silicon Valley, is addicted to automation. Measure likes, shares, and comments, then weaponise that data.
Well yes, but it also allows the system to be gamed.
Facebook isn’t going to mistake the New York Times or Washington Post for fakery.
But what happens when a mob decides to tag real news as fake from smaller news outlets?
Go on. Try phoning Facebook and talking to a human being with the power to override an algorithmic decision.