Is there anything to be said for another Mass?

So, some of you might remember I tried to #FOI the lobbying efforts that led to a law banning foreign Mass cards undercutting Irish priests.

And the Dept of Justice refused, explaining that there was a box of files, and it would take 40 hours at €20 an hour to look through the box.

I had asked for all the records relating to Section 99 of the Act, and those records are mixed in with all the other Charities Act 2009 records.

So then I thought, Hold on! If I just ask for ALL the Charities Act records, they don’t have to search, so no search fee. €800 saved!

But Dept of Justice says “No dice”. They still have to go through all the records to decide which ones come within the scope of my request.

A schedule of records would be prepared, then they’d decide which ones are exempt. Oh, and there’s a 4p charge per page copied.

That 4p per page comes to a total of €640 in copy fees, which they forgot to mention last time. That’s on top of the €800 search and retrieval fees.

So now I’m looking at €1440 in fees for an FOI request, and no guarantee that at the end of the process I will be given even a single record.

When I first started the Mass Cards FOI, I wasn’t being completely serious. I intended it as an illustration of a minor, fun use of FOI.

Pick a small, simple FOI, one that raises a smile so I can sell it to a newspaper. Run an FOI, write a blog on How I Did An FOI.

Yet ridiculously, this turns instead into an illustration of the failure of the state to engage seriously with any kind of transparency.

And I don’t think it’s that they’re hiding anything. I don’t think there’s a letter from a cardinal about cheap foreign imported mass cards undercutting the local curates.

There’s just a system that jealously guards information, and regards anyone asking for it with suspicion.

We would never do that

Ireland would never vote for Donald Trump.

We would never vote for someone who wanted to restrict citizenship on the basis of skin colour.

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.

We would never vote for someone who said he would not represent people of African origin.

No, we would never vote for Donald Trump in Ireland.

Sure why would we need to?

‘I am not bound by decisions made by my predecessors’ – RTE FOI

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.

FOI.2016.59.A by faduda on Scribd

FOI.2016.59.B by faduda on Scribd

For completeness, here is the Freedom of Information request to RTÉ in 2012 seekings records relating to submissions from political parties regarding partiality and bias in political reporting.

FOI Request to RTÉ by faduda on Scribd

What’s the worth of a a freelance?

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.

Good luck.

FOI: The Poor Box

Ever wondered what happens to the donations people make to the poor box in the Irish courts system?  I sent in a freedom of information request to the Courts Service asking that question.

Poor Box Donations 2014
Poor Box Donations 2013
Poor Box Donations 2012

Civil War and civil rights

Civil War isn’t really sure what the conflict is about, only that it’s an excuse for fighting (Widow v Hawkeye, Ant-Man v Ironman, Spidey v pretty much everyone), and at the end of the day, it doesn’t do much except serve as a stealth origin story for Black Panther and a Peter Parker reboot.

This is a pity, because there’s a big unexplored idea at the heart of Civil War. Following Age of Ultron, governments want to register superheroes. There’s a very brief debate early in the film, where Tony Stark puts the case for oversight, and Steve Rogers argues for freedom.

Meanwhile, in a cramped television corner of the MCU, Agents of SHIELD has to acknowledge the events in the latest Captain America. And while its outlook could have been just as Americacentric as Civil War, maybe using the film to riff on gun control politics, it managed to surprise, with a brief Agent Coulson riffs on the dangers that begin when somebody in a government office starts making lists of people to watch.

In an era where privacy rights are a matter of international tension, from Snowden to EU data protection, Civil War feels like a lost opportunity.

Easter Risings

The disconnect between Official Ireland and the rest of the population has rarely been highlighted as effectively as during the past ten days.

The early Easter, barely a week after St Patrick’s Day, marks the contrast between the 1916 anniversary parade in Dublin this morning and the multiple parades around the country on 17 March. Dublin earlier today was locked down, as only invited guests were allowed onto O’Connell Street to watch as uniformed ranks marched past. It looked great on the television, but it didn’t look like fun.

Compare that to the informal, sometimes chaotic, but always joyful parades which took place  last week not just in cities like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, but in virtually every town and village in Ireland, featuring everything from kids wearing their local GAA colours to Macnas-inspired giant puppets. Parade floats showcased everything from  Patrick himself (snakes optional) to satirical political commentary (I spotted more than one living doirama of Joan Burton in a canoe).

And tractors. Tractors as far as the eye can see, from lovingly preserved vintage Fergusons to state-of-the-art John Deeres.

Official Ireland celebrates itself at Easter. But the people celebrate their Irishness on 17 March.

Comics 103

Comics 103

I’m not really a comic book guy. I’m a story guy with a strong Sci-Fi interest.

I didn’t follow comics as a kid, outside 200AD and Dredd. Instead I picked up a comic here and there, inbetween reading the collected Asimov stories, or Ursula K Le Guin and Philip K Dick in the school library. And a lot of Harlan Ellison for some reason. And more recently, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Yet every where I look, when I find TV that looks interesting, a lot of it is comics. Or comics inspired. Daredevil. Powers. Bitten. Supergirl. Walking Dead. iZombie. Agents of SHIELD. Jessica Jones. Granted, some stories interesting than others.

Dredd. CC Image via Craig Duffy/Flickr

Some stories feel “comicky”, even if not comics-based. Heroes was deliberately built on comic book tropes. Heroes Reborn. Supernatural. Orphan Black. Z Nation. Bitten. Grimm.

Some stories are brilliantly executed. Z Nation manages to take the best of Asylum Films production values (fast, cheap, not taking itself too seriously), and use them to create a story that is the exact opposite of the Walking Dead, yet eminently watchable. Tatiana Maslany’s acting range – one actor playing several distinct characters, each realised as an individual – makes Orphan Black compelling every season.

Some stories decay quickly. Sleepy Hollow became formulaic very fast. The third season has a villain I don’t care about. Tom Mison intoning dramatically can only take you so far.

And some I missed, because there’s only so many hours to watch screens, I’m still playing catch-up with Arrow. I have yet to watch any of Gotham. But maybe that’s something in me. Origin stories are frequently the most boring part of a superhero’s story, and The Phantom Menace has made me very wary of all prequels.

Besides, let’s face it. The best Batman is Lego Batman. He captures the essence, “I’m dark, Or grey. Dark grey.”

Comics 102

Comics are two dimensional. Literally. And because of that, I harbour a regular bias against comic characters, who are as two dimensional as the format in which they appear. But as more of my leisure entertainment is rooted in comics, that bias is challenged more and more.

That is to say, more of my entertainment seems to be rooted in comic book characters. I rarely read actual comics, but much of the movie and television I watch is dominated by comic book characters.

There’s comics in cinemas. And on TV. There’s no getting away from them.

But so far at least, only the American characters are making it to the screen (even if sometimes written or heavily influenced by British authors like Alan Moore.)

And I quite like them.

But I don’t know most of the comics. Sure, everyone knows Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Hulk and Captain America. And I suppose most people know the Flash, the Hulk, Iron Man. But Hawkman? Ant-Man? The talking racoon?

So the movies and TV stories need to stand on their own. Superman or Batman comes with goodwill. Viewers know where it’s going, so they’re forgiving. A talking racoon? You’ve got two minutes to make your pitch.

It helps that comics are created for 12 year old boys. They’re simple characterisations. Avenger. Lawgiver. Hero. Simples.

So in a way, it helps if the characters are two dimensional. A simple comic character is a simple pitch.

And sometimes, the story is just simple. And sometimes, simple stories can be very complex.

And sometimes, complexity gets hacked on to an existing template. The X-men evolve into a metaphor for discrimination and equal rights, from concentration camps to US race relations to gay rights.

But even then, the debates are often a case of “here’s a comic book reduction of the argument, now lets fight.”

That was the Marvel Civil War, for example. A debate that acts as a proxy for privacy wars and surveillance, or maybe for gun control, reduced to Tony Stark and Steve Austin exchanging blows, and a neat resolution at the end.

Spoiler alert: The surveillance state won, at least in the print version. That may change on screen, since it’s a Captain America film.

There are comics guys pulling their hair out at that over-simplification, because they followed the Civil War arc in detail. But stories evolve.

Comics 101

When I was a kid, comics were mostly filled with American superheroes, and British war heroes. Superman. Batman. Spiderman. Avengers. Battle. Victor. Warlord. Fireball. Action. For the younger kids, there was the Dandy. Beano. Topper. Whizzer and Chips.

Marvel and DC came in the post from the USA, an intermittent treat from the American cousins. One of the things I read it for was the classifieds, offering such intriguing goods as x-ray glasses and Hostess Twinkies. And sand monkeys. I always wanted sand monkeys.

And No Prizes. I wanted a No Prize.

Slan Lee, the orignal comic book guy. Public domain image posted to Flickr by donabelandewen

But the American comics weren’t dependable. I’d get a batch of five Supermans together, then nothing for months. Issues were skipped, so I’d land in the middle of a story, or never find our how an adventure ended. Warlord and Fireball weren’t as exciting, but at least you rarely missed an issue.

Then 2000AD came along. Sci-fi was in short supply outside US sources, and here was an English sci-fi comic. They even noticed Ireland occasionally, first Murphyville and the Irish judges, later the entire Slaine mythos. Though I’m still not sure if that was a breakout moment for Irish culture or just a shameless rip-off of the Ulster cycle to attract the Conan fans.

I read 2000AD for years, but I lost touch with it in college. Every few years, I do a catch up, and read a backlog of Judge Dredd multi-issue stories. Outside Dredd though, I don’t follow 2000AD any more. Every now and then I hear something interesting, like the resurrected Johnny Alpha, but nowadays we’re like Facebook friends who rarely cross paths anymore.