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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’d never vote for someone who wanted to restrict women’s reproductive choices, who would forcibly imprison a pregnant women and carry out a caesarian section by force, or keep a pregnant corpse on life support while a young family watched in helpless despair.
We would never vote for someone who would imprison asylum seekers for years in Orwellian-sounding “direct provision” centres, and ban political candidates who wanted to visit those asylum seekers.
A few years ago, after reading a news story about a “dossier” sent to RTE about its political coverage by a political party, I sent in a freedom of information request, asking for “any submissions from political parties regarding partiality and bias in political reporting and commentary on RTE”.
The request was initially refused, on the grounds that RTE did not have to supply information on “programme related functions”, citing Statutory Instrument 115/2000.
I appealed the decision, on the grounds that the SI was designed to protect sources used and the editorial decision-making process in the production of news programmes and the like but, not discussions or criticisms of the programmes afterwards by anyone external to RTE. The appeal was granted. That was 2012.
A couple of months ago, I sent in an identical request, in order to update from 2012 to the present. the request was refused again. In addition to citing SI 115/2000, this time a legal case was cited, RTÉ v Information Commissioner.
The correspondence from RTÉ is posted below. I am considering my next move. Any opinions?
Update: As of 22 July, I have appealed his refusal. As TJ McIntyre pointed out during a Twitter discussion, unsolicited correspondence and complaints cannot reasonably be regarded as data “gathered” by RTÉ, which covered the documents in the cited High court decision.
PS: I note in passing that in refusing my FOI request, RTÉ is in effect claiming that complaints from politicians and political parties affect its editorial decision making process.
A while back, someone posted to a freelance journalism group in Facebook looking for some advice on rates/ They’d been told by a published that they paid “standard rates”, and naturally, this raised the question, what are the standard rates?
So I answered in part as follows:
There is no such thing as a standard rate. and if I were to tell you one, I would be breaking the law.
Once upon a time, there were agreed rates in Ireland for freelance journalists. There was a particular fee is you were called in to do an eight-hour sub-editing shift, or sent on assignment for the day to cover a court case, or an inquest, or any other story. These rates were negotiated over the years between publishers and freelances, through the National Union of Journalists.
And then the Competition Authority came along, and decided that since freelances are self-employed, if we negotiated a set rate for a shift, or an assignment, we were acting as a cartel. And cartels are illegal.
And that means that, if I tell you how much you could expect to get paid for a reporting shift, or for a 1000 word feature article, I’m breaking the law.
And it also leads to odd situations. There’s a Twitter account called WhoPaysWriters, for example.
WhoPaysWrtiers is US-based, so Irish law doesn’t affect it. and being US based, it mostly tweets out data on US publishers, though I’ve seen links to other titles too, like the Guardian, which have a US presence.
In theory, I could send them data on what an Irish newspaper paid, and they could tweet it out.
But it is not entirely clear if I can legally do that. Am I, by sharing that information, encouraging a cartel to form? What if someone else sends the rate data, and I just link to the tweet, or retweet it? What if I link to the rate, and comment that its too low, and should be 50%, or 80% higher? Am I encouraging the formation of a cartel? Are Denis O’Brien and Rupert Murdoch shaking in their boots because I could bring down their empires by tweeting the rate for a job?
There are ongoing murmurs about amending the law to create an exemption from the Competition Act for freelance journalists (and for some other classes of traditionally casual workers, including actors and session musicians). There was a commitment to change the law in a social partnership agreement called Towards 2016, but that was abandoned when the government got distracted by the Great Crash and the IMF. Ivana Bacik proposed a bill in the Seanad in the dying says of the last government (see below), but Labour are no longer in power, so for the foreseeable future, no one can tell you what a “standard rate” is.
So here’s my advice.
When someone says they will pay you a “Standard rate”, ask how much that is, exactly. And when they tell you, don’t treat it as a fact of nature, but as the beginning of a negotiation.
And if someone instead asks you what your “standard rate” is, don’t give them a number, because you end up bidding against yourself, Instead, see above, ask them what they pay, and treat the answer as the beginning of a negotiation. You know what your time is worth, so depending on the offer either (a) accept if it is insanely generous, which is rare, (b) negotiate if its too low, or (c) give them their money’s worth when they quote a ridiculously low number, which may or may not be a good thing, but is sometimes necessary.