Monthly Archives: January 2018

A note on impartiality in reporting on the 8th Amendment

A referendum on the repeal of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland is to be held this year. It is likely, as with previous referendum campaigns, that a great deal of attention will be devoted to the matters of ‘fairness’, ‘impartiality’, ‘objectivity’, and that broadcasters, particularly the State broadcaster RTÉ, will devote equal airtime to voices for and against.

If an article in the constitution is the subject of a referendum, it follows, in the interests of the ‘impartiality’ regularly cited to ensure that both sides are given equal hearing, that the assertions of that article should not be reported as valid.

Some people will argue that the article is valid and others will argue that it is not. So, having regard for the declared need to ensure ‘impartiality’, it follows that a broadcaster should not do anything to give the impression, from its own coverage, that the article is valid. Or not valid, for that matter.

Yesterday afternoon RTÉ Radio 1 ran a news report during its Drivetime programme on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s speech in support of repealing the 8th Amendment.

Introducing the speech, household name Eileen Dunne referred to “the 8th Amendment that recognises the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child”. This is a paraphrasing of the wording of the amendment. It is also -perhaps coincidentally- the exact wording used on the Wikipedia article on the 8th Amendment (as of today).

Given that the amendment in question will be under consideration for removal through a referendum, you might conclude that impartiality means not taking a stance on whether the right mentioned by the text, or the categories associated to that right, exist in fact. Some people think the right exists, others do not.

If we say “the 8th Amendment recognises the equal right to life”, which is what RTÉ News says, then we are tacitly proposing that this equal right to life actually exists, and that the 8th Amendment recognises it. Hence its removal would not remove this right from existence: it would simply remove it from the constitution.

If we refer to “mothers” in this way,, we are tacitly proposing that anyone who is pregnant is a mother, regardless of whether they want to be or not.

If we refer to the “unborn child” in this way we are tacitly proposing that anyone who is pregnant ought to be considered as carrying an unborn child, regardless of whether they wish to give birth to a child. Or in other words, the question of whether they are going to give birth to a child is not a matter for whoever is pregnant.

The point is that the validity of what the constitutional amendment says is being contested by a referendum, but RTÉ in this instance (and I would venture that this happens regularly, not only with RTÉ) has effectively reported that what the constitutional amendment says is valid, and in so doing has conveyed the political perspective that informs this constitutional amendment as simple fact. Such reporting cannot be considered impartial.

Later on in the Drivetime programme, RTÉ played a 42-second recording of Micheál Martin’s speech, and a one minute long recording of Fine Gael anti-choice TD Peter Fitzpatrick’s malign drivel.

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Both Sides, Then and Now

One of the striking things that about Miriam O’Callaghan’s interview with Kingsmills massacre survivor Alan Black was the presenter’s emphasis given to atrocities being committed on ‘both sides’ -and also humanity on ‘both sides’.

I was never part of a ‘side’. So many people I know did not consider themselves part of a ‘side’, least of all a side from which people perpetrated atrocities on their behalf. Like many others I never supported any kind of killing. I was very much aware, however, that there were others who were very much inclined to kill me, and others like me, because they deemed that I was on an opposite ‘side’.

My religious denomination meant I was automatically part of the ‘pan-nationalist front’. This was a common phrase used by the DUP at the time. and an entity that the Mid-Ulster UVF in its Portadown murals proclaimed it would smash.

The effect of the commonplace rhetoric of ‘both sides’ -or, on occasion, ‘both tribes’, is to present the Northern conflict as borne primarily out of sectarianism. Sectarianism viewed in this light has little to do with the character of institutions in Northern Ireland, or how life is organised by and large. Rather, it is considered more of a mindset: it reflects a poverty of vision among those who fall prey to it, in contrast to those who observe it.

In describing the Northern conflict in terms of ‘both sides’, or the ‘two sides’, the role of the British State in prolonging that conflict is effaced. Its sponsorship of loyalist death squads is ignored. Instead, the British State is elevated it to its desired status as an honest broker seeking to keep a lid on warring sectarian ‘tribes’, just as it has claimed to do in a whole swathe of territories around the globe.

whataboutery

A frequent self-satisfied diagnosis is whataboutery. This is supposedly an inability of members of one side to recognise their side’s own crimes and misdeeds while decrying the crimes and shortcomings and blindspots of the other side. Diagnosticians of whataboutery, of course, have neither crimes nor shortcomings nor blindspots of their own. 

If the role of the British State is left out of consideration, massacres appear as savagery emerging from the dark side of human nature, manifestations of pure evil. The Kingsmills massacre, a brutal sectarian atrocity, was preceded immediately by the Reavey and O’Dowd killings. These were carried out by the Glenanne Gang, a group of loyalists, British solidiers, and RUC and UDR members responsible for dozens of murders. John Weir, one of the members of the Glenanne Gang, said that the purpose of their activities was to provoke a “civil war” in which the IRA would eventually be crushed.

Kingsmills did not emerge out of some unfathomable tribal savagery, or that strange apparently natural phenomenon known as the ‘cycle of violence’. It was a retaliation, just as the Greysteel massacre was a retaliation for the Shankill bomb. To describe it as a retaliation is not to justify it. It does not render the perpetrators any less culpable for the sectarian bloodbath. It is simply to point out that the role of the British State in inciting the event should be considered important, if one is interested in the truth of these matters, and in ending the possibility of future violent conflict.

To categorise this and other such questions as the ‘whataboutery’ of ‘one side’ is to acquiesce in the preferred logic of forces that have blood on their hands, and no inclination to come clean. It takes no small amount of gall to polish one’s halo about the depravity of IRA violence and simultaneously let the British State off the hook, in effect conceding to the latter its right to murder whoever -including Irish citizens- in defence of the realm.

The idea that I, or anyone else, Catholic, Protestant, nationalist, unionist or otherwise, are automatically part of a ‘tribe’ or a ‘side’, whereas people in Dublin or London sit in splendid Olympian detachment from the whole thing, borne by higher ideals and more civilised inclinations, is one of the main factors in prolonging the prospect of sectarian barbarism.

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The Inquest of Bread

Unintended faux pas do happen

Some quiz questions:

Which date is the anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of Bloody Friday?

Which date is the anniversary of the La Mon restaurant bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Droppin Well bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Teebane bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Shankill Road bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Omagh bomb?

Which date is the anniversary of the Loughinisland massacre?

Which date is the anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings?

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know the exact answer to any of these questions. The year and the month of some, at a stretch.

Barry McElduff, the Sinn Féin MP suspended from the party for three months, is supposed to have known the date of the Kingsmills massacre. He is supposed to have known that it was a very bad day to put a Kingsmill loaf on top of his head. He is supposed to have known, at the very least, the brand names of the products he puts on top of his head for videos shared online have potentially damaging connotations for people who might watch those videos.

Some people think Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. They think that he knew very well it was the anniversary of the Kingsmills massacre, and that he went down to the local shop, picked up a Kingsmill brand loaf, and placed it on his head. They think the MP then posted it on his Facebook page for the world to see, maybe because he thought some of the viewers would find it funny, or maybe because he thought, with calculated malevolence, that other viewers would find it desperately hurtful.

Some people say they do not know if Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. However, they say, he should have known what date it was. Or he should have made the association between the brand of the loaf he picked up, and the massacre.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the date when you know all the dates of all the atrocities conducted in the Northern conflict over 30 years. Maybe there are lots of people who keep a close watch on such dates, but I don’t think I’ve ever met any.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the association between the brand name of the loaf and the massacre when this is what you yourself think whenever you pick up a Kingsmill loaf in the supermarket. Or maybe you do not pick up such products, because of what they connote for you.

But Kingsmill is one of the most common bakery brand names in Northern Ireland. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland eat these branded products every day. They lift the packet from the bread bin or wherever, take out a couple of slices, and put them in the toaster, or maybe they make a sandwich. I have done this many times myself.

How many people, would you say, are put off eating the sandwich when the association with the massacre comes to mind, as it is supposed to? If it’s a common association, which is what people appear to think, then there are tens of thousands of people who are regularly reminded of the massacre by the food in front of them, but they carry on eating regardless, their appetite undimmed. What kind of person does something like that? I cannot help think of the regular scenes from House of Cards, with the monstrous Frank Underwood preparing himself a white bread sandwich in his kitchen late at night, unmoved by the carnage that surrounds him. Would it not be a society of monsters, if so many people have the stomach for that?

Is Northern Ireland a society filled with monsters? Some would have you think that is, and that there are significant numbers of people whose fuel for living is the purest hate. One of the most horrible images in my mind -it seems no less horrible even though I wasn’t even there when it happened- is of one group of teenagers passing through a schoolyard, crying and bewildered because two of their classmates had been shot, and another group, from inside a classroom, banging on the windows, laughing and shaking their fists at those outside in taunting celebration. What do you do with images like that? You could give in to them, let them take hold of you. You could build an entire outlook on the idea that there is an enemy out there, ever present, hiding perhaps, but ever willing to seize the opportunity to humiliate and annihilate. You would find it easy to find others who have the same enemy as you. There are plenty of Facebook groups devoted to that kind of thing. And one of the attractions -for want of a better word- for this outlook is that you can never know, for sure, that some other person isn’t secretly harbouring some pure hate towards you under an outwardly friendly disposition.

It seems sensible to me, though, to try and avoid making out that there is some malign force at work when there might be good grounds for believing that there may not be, to try and avoid stocking up on fuel for nightmares. In the response to Barry McElduff’s video what is striking is how seemingly few people are open to the possibility of pure coincidence. As if pure coincidence were some sort of logical impossibility, let alone a likely explanation. If it is right and proper that people should do nothing that adds to the pain of victims of atrocities -and of course it is- then we can’t confine this to the initial circulation of an image, but also to the act of lending it a significance and weight that it may not have. In this regard I don’t know what good purpose anyone thinks they are serving by calling upon a victim of an atrocity and asking them to weigh up whether or not such and such a thing relates to that atrocity or not. Or worse, presenting them once again with their painful memories, and asking them to relive it once more. It seems sensible to me, as well, to try and distinguish between ghoulish opportunism on the one hand, and, on the other, a disinterested effort to prevent a flare-up of sectarian paranoia.

For what it’s worth, which is very, very little, I believe Barry McElduff is telling the truth when he says he did not intend any hurt with his silly video. Believing it doesn’t mean I know for certain what he intended, because I can’t. I just choose to live in a world where I’m not fetching up monsters at every turn. And maybe you should too.

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