How should we think about the newspaper columns of writers such as John Waters, Kevin Myers and Ian O’Doherty, as well as those of the Elders of Sindo (Harris, Dudley Edwards)?
These columns are a regular fixture in the rhythm of journalistic production in Ireland, and they address roughly the same range of topics, with varying degrees of flourish and indignation. For the past ten years at least (i.e. as long as I have been reading these newspapers), there has been a consistent throughput of content that deals with (this is not an exhaustive list) threats to Western civilisation from barbarous Oriental practices that sweep all before it; left-liberals whose softness and weak-mindedness on a host of issues belies their hegemonic powers of censorship, thought control and legislative cunning; the feminisation or emasculation of society; congenital terrorists who like to party like it’s 1938, as it always is.
Gavan Titley recently wrote a superb exploration of the public role of such individuals, to which I have nothing to add. But I would still like to address my long-cultivated exasperation at the grim regularity with which these pieces appear. I am mindful of the fact that part of their function is to elicit frustrated responses, so that the author can present herself or himself as the gaunt, heroic and embattled voice of reason, fighting off the hordes of hysterical reaction.
And so I’d like to move the focus away from the actual content toward the function fulfilled by that content in relation to the other content produced by the organ in which it appears.
This won’t be the most scientific of endeavours: both my sample size and my population will be 1. And I will be concerning myself simply with today’s Irish Times Comment and Analysis pages and John Waters’s column. To confound things further, as I’m in Spain and the local kiosk doesn’t sell the Irish Times and I don’t subscribe to the e-paper, I can’t see how Waters’s column is positioned in relation to the other columns, which in and of itself can intimate how much importance ought to be accorded to the column.
There are other things too that I can’t see: for example, the colour and font size of the byline. A little while back I had a piece published in the Irish Times and when I read the paper and saw my name printed in big block capitals I instantly thought “shit, I didn’t realise I was that important.”
In sum, when reading a newspaper, there are lots extra-textual factors that affect the way we perceive a particular column, beyond that column’s actual content. Our disposition when reading John Waters is affected by the way we read the other columns, or the headlines of the other columns. Similarly, how we read the other columns is affected by the way we read John Waters. I say this based on the assumption that your powers of perception do not allow you to seal off completely from memory what you had been reading two minutes previous.
So there is the experience of reading the newspaper, and reading the John Waters column is part of that experience. Unless, that is, you are not reading the John Waters column in the newspaper at all. You may very well be reading it from a link sent to you by someone else. And in this case how you read it may be prefigured by a sarcastic comment, or even by the tacit suggestion that there is something in the column that is worth looking for, whether heinous or marvellous.
But for the moment I would like to concentrate on the matter of the John Waters column relation to other columns in today’s paper, since it is the fact that the column is published in the Irish Times, and not on http://todroolthroughthefields.blogspot.com that makes it an object of interest.
We know the Irish Times is read by people with access to positions of influence and power (the US Embassy, for instance, considers it ‘the paper of record’, as shown in Wikileaks cables) and this affords its content a certain weightiness, regardless of the actual reliability of any particular article. So here is how today’s Comment web page layout looks.
And as we peruse the content, we find:
- A leader column with the tried and tested mixture of sympathy for people who are the victims of a patent injustice on the one hand, and world-weary circumspection about the prospects for a satisfactory resolution on the other. To be more specific – the denunciation of the manner in which the Talk Talk workers were dismissed, but an identification with the legitimate authority firm that conducted the dismissal (in that they attach value to the claim made by Talk Talk that the workers had shown ‘huge dedication and care’) and pat insistence on the continued need for improvement of ‘competitiveness’ and the ‘removal of red tape’. Unencumbered by the need to be more specific, the latter measures boil down to a) driving wages down further; b) reducing business running costs respectively. That is, the solution to the problem of a firm that zealously drove down business costs with scant regard for the welfare of its employees is the driving down of business costs. And yet it laments ‘the absence of common cause and a broad sense of purpose’.
- A second leader on the plane crash in Russia that killed 36 people. The crash is portrayed as the consequence of disastrous policies affecting Russia’s ‘once-mighty’ industry, and the author lays the blame for this, and the crumbling of public infrastructure, at the feet of Vladimir Putin. Precisely when Russia’s industry was mighty, and what has changed in terms of political economy since, is devoted no attention. Rather, Putin the cronyist securocrat is the sole depository of blame. As ever with these foreign dispatches, the piece is pitched to an Archimedean reader who does not live in any particular country. Whilst there may be comparisons and contrasts to be drawn, in terms of cronyism, lack of investment in public infrastructure, a failure to diversify the economy, and so on, between Ireland and Russia, this leader column is neither the time nor the place.
- An opinion piece by a man whose experience of witnessing a sex attack and the subsequent court case has allowed him to conclude that sometimes court cases take too long, that perhaps the court sittings could be extended, that an accused person’s prior record should not be revealed in a court case, that there should be adequate victim support, and that ‘faith’ in the jury system works. ‘Strange as it might sound, some decisions are too important to leave to the experts’, concludes the professor of criminology at University College Dublin.
- A disturbing testimony from a person who attempted suicide ‘some months ago’ who recounts difficulties with friends, health professionals and employer because she or he suffers from depression. ‘Crucially, I love my employers as a family,’ writes the author, who despite the fact that ‘employer has done and said since my absence has been illegal’ has ‘no interest in shaming those I work tirelessly for. Their interests are still inextricably entwined with my own.’ The author writes in order to raise awareness of suicide in Ireland ‘because we can’t afford it. Every day a company loses a valuable employee and every day a family loses one they love’, as though the two were somehow commensurate.
This is the content in the ‘left-liberal’ newspaper (Waters’s description) in direct proximity to Waters’s piece on how black people complaining to the police about racist symbols outside their home, along with ‘left-leaning’ people’s adherence to the ‘malignant ideology’ of ‘political correctness’ are contributing to the fall of Western Civilisation.
A quick run-down of what we have seen: identification with the priorities of firms in tackling the problem of unemployment even when the inciting event that led to the article getting written was a firm ruthlessly pursuing its own priorities; the treatment of Russian industrial decay as the fault of the cronyist policies of one man, as though the Soviet Union did not exist and as though none of this had any particular relevance to Ireland; a conclusion by an expert that the justice system works well on the whole; a personal account of troubles caused by the illegal activity of an employer with regard to an employee’s mental illness that refuses to blame the employer and views the employer as though it were family. Interestingly, none of the articles on the comment page today contains any critical treatment of the actions of any Irish politician.
What we see when reading through the content of the other pieces is a total absence of critical systematic questioning, whether in terms of political economy, power relations or social justice. Rather, the employer, the government, the legislature and the great man of history (or its inverse, in the case of Putin) are the fairly sturdy pillars on which the reader’s conception of society and everyday life –and crucially, the opinions that other people appear to hold on these questions- is built.
It is from amidst this wreckage that the would-be iconoclasm of John Waters comes to take centre stage, the gaunt prophet raising aloft his mighty staff to strike down that vile and dangerous beast: ‘the anti-golliwog lobby’.