Archive for December 27, 2011

Three wishes for 2012

Fresh from a few whirlwind weeks of book promotion and PR, I’ve been trying to relax and celebrate Christmas here in Dublin, but it’s never easy.

For one thing, Christmas in Ireland is celebrated with the boundless madness that pervaded ancient Rome, with tons of food and drink and promises not to eat or drink this much again for a very long time.

For another, my appearances last week on Pat Kenny’s programmes on RTE TV and radio prompted huge amounts of feedback, and for once I’m wishing my days away. I’m looking forward to getting back to Stockholm and getting stuck into a whole bunch of different initiatives.

I said in the foreword to A Parish Far From Home that I did not recognise the Ireland often depicted in the media here, and those interviews showed signs of finally proving me to be at least partially right.

There is a huge amount of energy and ideas that, with a little help from our friends, can be channelled into real achievements, real businesses, real art, real jobs. As with Dave Browne’s staggering world record back in June, sometimes you just have to do something.

But there is still a lot that is rotten at the core of Irish society – it cannot be changed overnight, but in 2012 we can make steps towards making our society and the debate that surrounds it more open and inclusive.

Here’s three of them.

Reform the laws that govern our media: It should not be possible for the powerful to suppress valid critcism and discussion simply by threatening legal action. What is needed is an independent system where those who feel wronged by the media – and there are many who rightfully feel they have a case – can get justice.

In turn, the media in Ireland needs to have a long, hard look at itself. So do those of us who consume it.

Too many stories are written before the subjects are even interviewed, and what passes for debate is often two extreme sides locking horns, completely unrepresentative of the vast swathe of opinion that occupies the middle ground.

We all need to be more reasonable, to listen more and to be willing to question what we believe to be right. There is no other path to lasting change.

There is also a lot we are not being told. When an argument does not stand up to public scrutiny, it is either wrong or not the real reason behind a decision or policy. For too long we have been spun different yarns- who will pay the nurses and the Gardai? Our ATMs will be out of cash by Monday and the rest – which are as idiotic as they are simplistic.

There a highly complex political reasons for why Ireland cannot be seen to win in our struggle against Europe and the financial woes that afflict us, but our leaders think that we can’t or won’t understand them.

We gave the world Joyce and Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Paul McGrath – try us.

And if we still don’t understand them, give us an education system that gives our children the tools to do so.

That way, we might prevent it from ever happening again.

Get involved: Far too many of us sit on the sidelines and don’t take part.
A friend of mine ended a lifetime of political inertia to go canvass for a party in the February election.
The messages on the doorsteps taught him more about the Irish political climate than a lifetime on the internet politics message boards. Since then, he has trotted back to the sidelines – one strike and he was out.
It’s a simple fact of democracy – the more of us that engage ourselves, the purer our democracy becomes. There is little or no chance of changing things from the outside. If you’re not in, you can’t win.
Talk about it: For once, let us have a story that runs and runs to a happy conclusion. 2011 has put suicide on the map in Ireland, often grudgingly so. Make no mistake- there are those who, like certain employers in the PR business, do not want to see the discussion take place in public.

It is a discussion that is painful for all of us, as it confronts us with our shortcomings as friends and siblings and lovers. It also asks us the deepest questions of ourselves – could we ever think of doing it ourselves? What would happen to our children and our friends and families?

However painful that discussion is, it is nowhere near as painful as sitting with a pill jar or a noose in your hand.

So let’s keep the discussion going. And if at the end of next year we find that less people have taken their own lives than this year, let’s keep it going for another year after that.

Happy New Year.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Kate

Publish and be damned!

- Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, when the courtesan Harriette Wilson threatened to publish her memoirs and his letters

It’s very hard to comment on anything in the Irish Times nowadays- by the time I get to the end of this post someone in a position of power might have threatened legal action and changed the whole thing.

But given the toothless, vacuous, cowardly non-explanation offered by the Irish Times blog about their despicable handling of the Kate Fitzgerald article, here goes.

Firstly, as soon as I saw the length of it I knew there would be no apology for calling the dead girl a liar.

I was right – 1500 words, and not one of them was ‘sorry’. It seems that, in the Irish Times, that word is reserved for a select few.

Instead, it opens with the classic excuse, and goes downhill from there, rambling on and on before finishing up with a mealy-mouthed pseudo excuse the like of which Sinn Féin are rightly pilloried for when they denigrate the memories of dead innocent women.

Rather than an apology, it is a 1500-word admission that journalism in Ireland has no teeth, and it does its best work when covering up its own inadequacies.

Some examples:

It is neither appropriate nor possible for me to go into detail on the specific legal issues involved in this case.

On the contrary Hugh- it would have been more than appropriate to comment on such issues, if only to explain what they were, if not the actual details.

Let us not forget that in the craven apology printed by your paper, you accused Kate Fitzgerald of being a liar, and that “significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”.

We still don’t know what they were, and no-one seems to be in any hurry to tell us.

There follows a lot of waffle about corrections policy, the net effect being to again imply that Kate had done something wrong in her original article.

For the entire 1500 words, the Irish Times are extremely cautious in their use of language to describe what went on, but there is one staggering, glaring fact- a veritable herd of elephants in the room – that is absolutely and utterly immutable, and that is this:

The piece that caused all the trouble was not Kate’s article.

It was the subsequent piece by Peter Murtagh and the revelation that Kate had worked for Terry Prone that caused the whole situation to go nuclear, and by then the genie was out of the bottle.

Changing Kate’s original article did not change anything, because there was nothing wrong with it.

All it did was appease the beast, as the baby was thrown out with the journalistic bathwater.

But make no mistake- this charade will be played out to the end, until Terry Prone or whoever is satisfied that it has been repeated often enough to become the truth.

The weasel words continue:

However, unfortunate and painful though these events have been, we as professional journalists and publishers took what we believed to be the best action from an ethical and legal perspective.

The implication here is that he and the Irish TImes must adhere to higher standards than bloggers or other social media – conveniently ignoring the fact that many of us who criticise their “ethical” course of action are professional journalists and publishers ourselves.

This is not about some kiss-and-tell Twitter rumour about a Premiership footballer. This is about a powerful woman reading something unpleasant and having her nose put out of joint – ironic, given Prone’s confessed love of plastic surgery.

This is about people on both sides ignoring the rights of writers and readers and deciding the narrative after the fact.

In Ireland, history is not written by the winners, because there are no winners any more.

It is written by the rich and the powerful and those with influence.

The version written by young women, the life crushed out of them under the burden of depression, is seemingly a mere footnote to be changed at will.

In kowtowing to the former, the Irish Times is in dereliction of its journalistic duty as the paper of record.

Not only have they sullied the name of a dead woman, they have singularly failed to follow up the story and ask the questions people would like to see answered by Terry Prone and Kate’s ex-colleagues at the Communications Clinic about Kate and her demise.

I somehow doubt Prone and the Communications Clinic, not to mention would-be president and friend of the suicidal Gay Mitchell, will be in a hurry to give their side of this uncomfortable story, so why not send someone out to ask them?

But instead of Prone using her considerable network and influence to explore and explain the death of Kate Fitzgerald, she has chosen to ignore it – instead, she wrote some folksy nonsense for the Irish Examiner.

Worse still, they published it.

All this does is copper-fastens the idea that in Ireland, we still don’t do accountability, and we don’t tolerate criticism.

Like Fianna Fáil’s inability to apologise for ruining the country – saying “mistakes were made” is not the same thing – it seems that everyone can do whatever they like, and never be held accountable.

Nor is it acceptable to criticise anyone, however deserving they may be.

I have no problem with Hugh Linehan or any other journalist in Ireland.

I have a massive problem with how he and his paper have handled this case.

It’s not good enough.

I want them to win their credibility back.

I want to know the circumstances around Kate’s death.

I want to know if her employers supported her in her battle with the illness that led her to take her own life, or if they didn’t.

I want to know what Terry Prone thinks about Kate and what she wrote and why the Communications Clinic reacted so badly to it.

I want the Irish Times to ask those questions.

And then I want them to publish and be damned.

How quickly we forget

It all seems so long ago now.

A week or two ago, we were filled with anger and anguish, despair and indignation at two deaths.

The death of Gary Speed- one of the only true nice guys in football- had us reeling as it forced us once again to confront the unknowable that is suicide.

The death of Kate Fitzgerald did something similar.

But the nature of her passing went several steps further, coming as it did after her article about her struggle with depression and her perceptions of her employer’s attitude towards her illness became the story.

The furore was a passionate as it was short-lived. The Irish Times was loudly pilloried for pulling a sheet over her corpse and telling us “there’s nothing to see here”.

The stony silence of Terry Prone  and the rest at the Communications Clinic- who have still to make any public comment on the matter – says it all. There is no more story. There is nothing to see here.

In journalism, one of the most prized talents is also one of the most indefinable and elusive- that of “news sense”. In a good journalist, editor or subeditor, it is the ability to observe a story with laser-like precision and decide whether or not it is worth investing resources in.

That’s the first part. The latter part is knowing when to get out of a story with impeccable timing – when there’s nothing left but an empty shell. When there’s nothing to see here.

An example – I’ll be in Oslo again next week, and I can guarantee two things. People there will be weary of talking to the media about Anders Behring Breivik. And the foreign media will no longer be there.

What a difference from a few months ago, when the quietest city of them all was the centre of a media maelstrom. But the story is gone. There is nothing to see here.

For once, I question the judgement, the news sense of those far more talented than I.

I think, in relation to the deaths of Gary Speed and certainly in relation to Kate Fitzgerald, there most certainly is something to see here.

So I’m going to go against the grain for another little while and keep writing about Kate and Gary. In particular, there are still things we need to know about Kate’s situation.

One question I’d like to see answered centres on the paradox of why The Communications Clinic now has nothing to say about Kate or depression, or anything, when a few short months ago Gay Mitchell- a presidential candidate apparently schooled by them – was talking up his interest in mental health and how he would put suicide at the top of the agenda in the Aras.

For all his foghorning then, Gay seems very silent on the matter now- as do the rest of the candidates.

But I wonder did he ever meet Kate Fitzgerald during his media training? I wonder did he know of her illness? I wonder did he think of her on the campaign trail when he was making those statements?

Maybe Gay is displaying impeccable news sense. Maybe he’s moved on. But I don’t intend to, not yet.

I may not get very far, because sometimes it’s not just news sense that kills a story. Sometimes there are other reasons that we as journalists decide that there is nothing more to see here.

But this time, I’m not buying it. Not yet.

Before the Deluge

"Nothing to see here"- Enda Kenny addresses the nation.

Today is the day when payment for the worst of the excesses of the Celtic tiger falls due.

Today, Brendan Howlin will stand up in the Dáil and tell the poor, the sick and the old in Ireland not why they have to pay the debts of the bankers, but how. And how much.

This should come as no surprise- after all, we voted for it. As I wrote the day before the general election in February, a vote for Fine Gael or Labour was a vote to accept these debts as our own.

In particular, I made the sour prediction that this day would soon be upon us:

We are also accepting that Ireland is to remain a society of haves and have-nots. Those who have resources- cash, credit, access to political power – will continue to ensure that only the weakest in society – the old, the sick, the children – will be called on to pay the debts foisted upon them. They were the ones who benefitted the least from the property boom, but they will now be asked to foot the bill.

The cuts today in euros and cents will hit hardest on those who can afford it least, the rises in taxes tomorrow will do the same, and the words about how those who were responsible for the crisis would pay for it will ring as hollow as they ever did.

Enda Kenny’s address to the nation last night can be summed up in one word.

Pitiful.

When it was most needed, he offered neither hope nor leadership. Often, he offered his unique brand of patronising stupidity.

“If you’re unemployed, you’re one of the many who still can’t find work.”

“Difficult decisions are never easy”.

And lest we forget: “You are not responsible for the crisis.”

But we’re paying for it Enda. Not the bankers, or the banks. The citizens. Often poor, unemployed, old, sick or children.

To paraphrase Charles Haughey’s similar address thirty years ago, Enda’s speech could be summed up as follows: “we are living beyond your means”.

He and his government have offered nothing in the way of new thinking – no spark that would or could inspire the public, the entrepreneurs, the hard-working lucky enough to have work.

Never has so little been achieved by so many.

At a time when our corporation tax rate is under threat, no-one has thought to threaten to cut it to stimulate jobs and create growth.

No-oner has thought to make an industry out of caring for our old and our sick and our young by offering them the care and dignity they deserve.

No-one has thought to leverage Ireland as Europe’s English-language service provider in accounting or human resources.

Instead, they’re going to take Bertie’s mobile phone off him- something which might have worked to save Ireland ten years ago, but won’t help much now.

Keep this in mind when Brendan Howlin stands up in the Dáil today and hands the bill for the banks to your children.

A right of reply

Terry Prone - expert on what working women should do - doesn't appear to be too keen to share that knowledge with us at the moment.

Busy day today, but here goes anyway – some things cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

The Irish Times has issued an apology to the Communications Clinic- the house of spin owned by Terry Prone and her family – after Kate Fitzgerald’s article published on September 9.

There is a simple anomaly here- neither she nor they were mentioned by name, so what is the Times apologising for?

Surely it should be regretting the fact that their identities became known by other means, rather than the article itself?

The Times goes on to say that “ significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”, but neither they nor the Communications Clinic specify what these assertions were.

In fact, I cannot recall seeing a single public statement from Prone on the issue, despite the fact that it appears she’d normally turn up at the opening of an envelope if it was televised or photographed.

The craven apology then goes on to state “their publication was significantly damaging to the staff and management of her employer, the Communications Clinic”.

Is it glib to suggest that the writing of the article was even more damaging to Kate Fitzgerald, who took her own life shortly after doing so?

But the killer blow comes at the end, when the Times blithely states that “no legal representation was made to us on this matter.”

It’s as if they woke up one morning and said “remember that anoymous piece about depression by that girl who killed herself? That must have been very upsetting for the Communications Company. We really should apologise for that.”

The reason for this rebuttal is this; the Irish Times is saying that it was wrong to publish the article. I disagree.

Despite the application of the highest journalistic standars, in an open debate about depression and its effects on the family, society and the workplace, reputations are going to get questioned and in some cases damaged.

Instead, the Irish Times has chosen the easy way out and apologised to, possibly without realising that in doing so, they are implying in the process that Kate Fitzgerald was lying in her article – a serious allegation in itself, I think you’ll agree.

In allowing the piece to be published anonymously with no reference to her employer, the Irish Times has done all that is reasonably possible to facillitate that debate whilst protecting the reputations of those involved.

That the Communications Clinic was subsequently identified is regrettable; that they have been apologised to in this manner is shameful.

They have offered nothing to the public debate on the treatment of people who suffer from depression in the workplace – all they have offered is more of the same thing that allows depression and bullying to prosper.

Silence.

Saying the unsayable

George Carlin said the seven things you can't say on television. On television.

As comedian George Carlin once bravely stated, there are some things you just can’t say.

So he did.

He went on television and said the seven words that he believed you couldn’t say on television, and in the end the Supreme Court intervened to try to set the bar for what could and couldn’t be said.

There are certain things that, to a greater or lesser degree, cannot or should not be said in a recession-era Irish workplace – not if you want to keep your job.

Here’s six of them.

Depression.

Alcoholic.

Stress.

Suicide.

Abuse.

Sexual harassment.

Cancer? Fine, to a degree, as is having a heart attack.

After all, any employer seeking to curtail the rights of anyone suffering from these ailments would be seen as heartless.

But there is a stigma attached to the six conditions described above.

They are not seen by some employers as being illnesses or medical problems or acts perpetrated on a person against their will.

They are seen as signs of  weakness or selfishness.

Employers often don’t want to know. Perhaps understandably, they have enough to worry about with the collapse in domestic demand and rent and rates and taxes, and the problems of their employees just add to their burden.

But the fact of the matter is that you don’t just employ the sales person or the marketer or the teacher or, in the case of Kate Fitzgerald, the PR professional – you employ the person, and all that comes with them.

It’s time to remove the stigma around those words.

I used to drink a lot. I don’t anymore.

Was I an alcoholic? I don’t know.

But I have never used the “a” word in relation to myself, or anyone else, because it is of no help whatsoever.

Nor do I intend to. To do so would be to label myself and others, to narrow the perception of who we are and what it is we have to offer.

I absolutely refuse to have that done to me, and I refuse to do it to others.

Equally, like the vast majority of people, I have imagined what it would be like if I just wasn’t here any more.

Can you classify that as a suicidal thought? Probably, for all the good it will do you.

But others have taken those thoughts an awful lot further, many to their appalling conclusion.

Why can they not speak out?

Shame.

There is a sense of shame attached to all of the above, but as I’ve previously written, what good does that serve? Where does being ashamed get us?

At best, nowhere. At worst, the end of a rope.

The point is this. There are a lot of people – a lot of people – who are barely keeping it together.

But they cannot talk about their drinking, or their abuse, or their depression or suicidal thoughts, because to do so would be to draw a veil of shame over themselves and effectively end their careers.

This has to stop.

The sooner we can see these things for what they are – illnesses that can be treated and/or cured, or life events that we can be counseled for – the sooner we can remove the stigma from them.

There is no shame in drinking too much, or in being stressed, depressed or suicidal. Rape or abuse is not your fault.

The depressing thing about George Carlin’s seven things you can’t say on television is that most of them still cannot be said on television.

If forty years from now the same was to be said of depression, alcoholism and the rest in Ireland, that would be a real tragedy.