The Vilification of The Reasonable

This is a version of a comment I left on an analysis by Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee, titled ‘Imprisonment will galvanise support in anti-water charge groups’.


Harry McGee’s piece, typically for a political correspondent, purports to be the work of an impartial observer of a wider fray.

But the function of this piece, as with others of its kind, is to actively shape public perceptions along particular lines.

McGee wonders how the ‘public mood’ will be affected by the jailing of water protesters. He does so as if Ireland’s media apparatus -of which he and his paper are part- had no role in shaping the public mood, whether in general or, in this specific case, through its representation of the water charges protesters.

No doubt the pearl-clutching frenzy that followed Joan Burton’s minor inconvenience -farcical when considered in light of the brutal damage inflicted on Irish society by her government- ‘alienated some moderates’, as McGee claims. But many such ‘moderates’ exist only in the collective imagination of political correspondents and establishment politicians anyway.

The concern with ‘moderates’ here is but the expression of an urge to divide and conquer. It is a matter of separating the ‘reasonable’ opposition to water charges from supposedly unsavoury characters like Derek Byrne. McGee in his article reserves especial vitriol for Byrne, despite the fact the behaviour he alleges bears no relation to the reasons for Byrne’s imprisonment. What is more, these details about Byrne have nothing whatsoever to do with the stated reasons for the imprisonment of the other protesters. Still, just as the Irish Times speculates about the public mood, one might also speculate as to the ways the presentation of anti-water charges protesters in the media, including the uncritical repetition of claims that they were “fascist” and a “threat to democracy”, to quote the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach in turn, influenced the mood of the presiding judge.

The reasonable opposition to water charges lies in the fact that they amount to the punishment of the poor for the money-grubbing activities of spivs and speculators. Such activities are endorsed by the Irish Times, through its property supplements, its business columns and the economic sensibility that informs the paper’s analysis.

The reasonable opposition to such punishment comes from the same place as peoples’ movements across Europe who recognise the destructive and fundamentally anti-democratic character of austerity policies, and the fact that their governments act in the interests of bankers and business elites first and foremost. But the Irish Times rarely, if ever, gives voice to such reasonable opposition. When its political correspondent Stephen Collins travelled to Athens in 2012, he omitted to make any mention of Syriza in the articles he wrote on the visit, despite the fact they were top of the polls at the time. Opposing austerity policies, according to Arthur Beesley in today’s paper, is “dogma”: as if the policies his newspaper has consistently recommended as a self-evident necessity were not!

The vilification of Derek Byrne, and by extension, the broad mass of water charges protesters, comes from the same place the grim economic sadism inflicted by European and Irish policy elites. It has nothing to do with worries over decorum or “shocking words” such as “scumbags” -the protesters’ regular portrayal as “scumbags” by Fine Gael and Labour supporters on social media would scarcely cause a moment’s pause for thought. It has everything to do with the vertiginous sense of dread felt by the political and media establishment when confronted by a mobilised public, as has been the case in recent months, and with the need to make people divided and unsure about the consequences of challenging neoliberal rule on the streets. Or anywhere else.

Hence those who think the Irish Times or the wider media establishment is only concerned with the ‘unreasonable’ and supposedly ‘nasty’ few would need to wise up, and check their wallets.

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