Archive for February 27, 2012

Dads can be winners in downturn

UPDATE: This pieces has now been published on - thanks to Susan Daly for her quick response and desire to facilitate the debate.

I spent almost two weeks trying to get an Irish newspaper to publish the following article.

One considered it, but eventually declined.

None of the rest bothered to respond.

In the meantime, the subjects of parenting and getting people back to work have been widely discussed, yet only one editor saw fit to even acknowledge receipt.

It is presented here unedited. 

Dads can be winners in downturn

There are few silver linings to be found in the most savage recession in modern times, but if we’re creative about it we might be able to wring something golden from the misery for Irish families.

One such way would be to take the opportunity to give fathers the chance to spend more time with their children by introducing a comprehensive reform of parental leave in Ireland.

Living in Sweden, I was lucky enough to spend a total of ten months at home with my two daughters, and I can safely say it was the best thing I’ve ever done. During that time I received around 90% of my usual salary (80% from the state, topped up by 10% by my employer).

Under current circumstances there is no way that the Irish government or businesses could afford to mirror the generous Swedish system and give parents 480 days to split between them.

But what could be offered to fathers is the opportunity to take 60 or 90 days parental leave, to be replaced at work by someone on the live register.

The obvious benefits to families are twofold – more men would experience what it is like to spend more time with their children, developing strong bonds with them and taking a more active role in the formative years of their children’s lives.

For other families it would mean the chance for someone to get back into the workplace, even temporarily, to show what they can do and keep their skills sharp.

How payment is handled is a matter for government, employers and employees to work out, but there are a few obvious possibilities.

The person on parental leave could have their salary reduced somewhat, with the difference added to the unemployment benefit paid to the person who would be replacing them.

Any shortfall in income for the person on parental leave would be offset to some extent by a reduction in childcare costs during the period, thus rendering an effect that is close to neutral as possible on the household budget.

The effect for the unemployed person taking up the temporary role should not be underestimated either – in fact, I got my first real break in the Swedish job market when I did maternity cover for a girl having her first baby.

When given the chance, I worked as hard as I could to show what I could do, and when she returned I was kept on too – but if she had never had children I never would have had that chance.

There would doubtless be a disruptive effect on businesses in the beginning as they sought to deal with a new system; there are key employees that are essential to the running of many organisations.

But that too is a sign of weakness, and businesses need to learn to cope and become more resilient in case that person should become ill or find a new job.

Ultimately it is the benefit to the child that is most important., and the fact that they have a right to both parents.

For the most part, children love their parents unconditionally, if not always equally. Such a reform of the system would represent the first step in redressing that imbalance.

The Ten Commandments of Irish Journalism

And lo, the Lords did not answer their e-mails, or return the phone calls, leaving the faithful to draw their own conclusions.

These commandments have been handed down to me on my two tablets (an iPad and a Samsung) and hold as true now as they did in the days of Moses (and Dev):

Denis O'Brien addresses editorial staff

1. Thou shalt honour The Editors that commission you above all else. Nor shall you have other gods before the Editor, unless it happens to be another Editor that offers you a tenner more for your thousand-word rant attacking the unemployed.

2. Thou shalt, as far as possible, portray as craven immigrants, those on social welfare, public servants and travellers.
But never fellow journalists, as we are all untouchable and never do anything wrong. Ever.

3. Thou shalt not take the names of your Gods in vain- holding editors, publications and other journalists to account is neither desired nor acceptable. Let’s face it, you could be working for them tomorrow.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, and that your best bet for getting published on it is to attack Sinn Féin or RTE as viciously as possible.

5. Honour your father and mother. This is best done by writing under a pseudonym so the neighbours won’t be able to identify you as their progeny.

6. Thou shalt not kill a story for lack of evidence – if the facts don’t bear it out, make some up. Most people won’t check, but if they do just ignore them and after a while your version will magically become the truth.

7. Thou shalt commit as much adultery as possible by writing for eveyone who asks you, and many who don’t. You can’t eat loyalty.

8. Thou shalt not steal – but if you must nick an idea or a quote, try not to get caught.  Under no circumstances should you ever credit other media as a source. Ever. This is not negotiable.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbour. Save that for the foreigners, or the lads in the next parish.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house. Instead, thou shalt describe it as “a handyman’s dream” or whatever the estate agent or PR fop tells you to.

Thou shalt also remember that news is just a vehicle for advertising, and everything can be sold for a good price.

Except your stories, for which no-one is willing to pay more than a handful of peanuts for.

Won’t someone think of the children?

Blinds down. Curtains drawn.

Only visiting sites that end in .ie or .com – nothing with a .se that could ruin it.

Still it gets in.

The news that Sweden has a new royal baby. And the country’s media embarrasses itself.

Aftonbladet – at times one of the greatest newspapers in the free press, at other times guilty of the worst tabloid excesses- actually has the noise of a baby when you visit their site.

On Twitter, our good friends at Radio Sweden’s English-language service are asking me what I think.

As I don’t have a bag packed and standing in the hall I can’t answer (if I tell them, I doubt I’ll be allowed to stay)

But here goes.

I don’t care.

The reason I don’t care is because hundreds of thousands of kids are born into less-privileged circumstances every day, and I’d prefer to spend my time thinking abou them than a child who, by an accident of birth, will have little to worry about for the rest of its life.

I don’t care because I’d prefer to think about how Ireland, despite the Celtic Tiger years, still failed its children, and cannot now agree on where to build a new national hospital for them as the egos of politicians once again – and as always – take precedence over their rights.

I don’t care because I want to reserve my anger for the idiots who perpetuate this situation, putting themselves ahead of the needs of children in what is surely the ultimate act of selfishness.

I don’t care because I prefer to think of the Irish families who, in the absence of a properly-equipped hospital, are forced onto aeroplanes in their darkest hours and sent to Great Ormond Street or Astrid Lindgrens to get the treatment their children need.

I don’t care because I prefer to think about how we can help these people – dumped in a foreign country with little or no support and a very sick child – to cope with the shock of it all.

I don’t care because I prefer to think how the Irish community in Stockholm this year will support Stiftelsen För Astrid Lindgrens Barnsjukhus, where many seriously ill Irish children have been treated over the years.

Some made it back to Ireland alive. Others didn’t. This is not a fair world we – or they – are born into.

In supporting Astrid Lindgrens, we are supporting a charity also supported by princess Victoria, who this morning gave birth to her own little girl.

In that moment, when they handed her her baby for the first time, I hoped she realised that she can use her position of privilege to make the world a better place for all our children, and not just hers.

And I hope anyone reading this will realise that they can do their bit too, whether it be buying a badge in Stockholm or lobbying a politician in Sligo, or simply holding out a hand of friendship to someone having a tough time.

Why Hanafin’s hubris should herald the end for Fianna Fáil

Mary Hanafin waves goodbye to Leinster House.

There is, as we say, a narrative.

It’s not hard to work out.

Sure, Fianna Fáil were to blame- but the blame was not theirs alone.

It was Lehmann’s, and the Greeks, and the banks, and anyone else you care to mention.

We all partied- remember that?

Mary Hanafin went on Marian Finucane’s show this morning and gave what can only be described as a a car crash of an interview.

It was filled with the kind of arrogance and ignorance that – in a functioning democracy – should ensure the death of Fianna Fáil and all they stand for.

She is not alone in adopting this narcissistic narrative; ever since the departure of Brian “Tweedle Dumbest” Cowen, the story has been the same, led by the cringeworthy videos of Mícheál Martin strolling around his native Cork, oblivious to the misery he had wrought upon it.

It’s worth pointing out to Mary and the rest that it was nothing to do with the banks, or Lehmann’s, or the Greeks- the blame for the country’s economic destitution lies wholly and solely with Fianna Fáil. As the biggest party in government during the boom, they had responsibility to manage it. They failed utterly.

The Greeks don’t blame the Americans, or the banks, or Lehmann brothers. They know they massaged the figures to get into the euro – if any bank bears any responsibility, it is Goldman Sachs, who dealt the cards for the three-card trick that fooled the rest of the world into thinking they were solvent.

But Mary does. What she doesn’t do is explain what the Americans or Lehmann’s had to do with runaway lending, an unrestrained construction industry, rampant rises in public spending and reckless endangerment of the country’s finances.

When asked a hypothetical question about whether the big Don, Bertie Aherne, should be thrown out of the party should Mahon find that he acted inappropriately, she held the party line- “let’s wait for that decision”.

Even on the deck of the Titanic, she cannot bring herself to point out the iceberg.

It is, of course, the party line, and as Labour’s quislings have shown since their rise to power and subsequent similar betrayal of the Irish working class, the party comes before everything.

Psychopaths are usually defined by a number of characteristics, often to do with amorality and criminality.

Key among them are an absence of remorse or empathy – given their inability to apologise to the people of this country for destroying it, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Fianna Fáil is a psychopathic party.

They destroyed the country. And they in turn should be destroyed. They should never darken the door of Dáil Eireann again.

Towards the end, Hanafin even had the gall to suggest that she is not done with politics.

I hope to god the Irish people will show her that politics is done with her.

Let that be our new beginning.

It’s like a foreign country over there

"Hello, this is Ireland. We'd like to sell you some stuff. What, you're not interested? Oh my..."

I just had one of those phone calls.

You know the kind- the ones that leave you banging your head off the table in frustration, as tears and blood destroy your keyboard?

The ones where you’re finally disturbed by a wailing noise like a trapped animal, only to realise that it’s you doing the angry howling?

The reason? St Patrick’s Day is coming, and we still haven’t learned our lesson.

A friend called me to ask me if I knew that a trade delegation was on its way to Sweden to make a high-powered pitch for business.

That’s great you say, as you throw me my green jersey.

And it is. But it turns out that they’re meeting entirely the wrong people with a product that doesn’t suit them and a pitch that won’t appeal to them.

Worst of all, a single phone call to my friend – a businessman well-known in the community – before planning the delegation would have sorted it out in a jiffy.

This is not an attack on our public service – indeed my last post was how we should be giving them more, not less resources to help market Ireland abroad.

Rather, it is an attack on our business mentality – our inability to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes, to identify their wants and needs (not what we want them to want) and act accordingly.

The clock is ticking. St Patrick’s Day is nearly upon us, but it’s not too late.

If you’re taking part in one of these delegations, the following three phone calls will go a long way to making sure that at best, you don’t make a fool of yourself and at worst, you don’t destroy a market for the rest of us.

1. Call the local Irish trade office in the region you are visiting, whether it be Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland, IDA or whoever and ask them for every scrap of information they have.

When you get it – and this is the important part – read it carefully but do not look for what makes it similar to the Irish market.

To sell abroad, you will have to prepare to do so on the differences in their market, not the similarities with ours.

2. Pick up the phone to some of the people you’re meeting. Market reports are great, but no-one can fill you in on customer expectations from a pitch like a customer themselves. Just call ‘em up and tell them that you’re looking forward to meeting them.

Tell them you’re delighted that they’re taking the time to meet you, and you don’t want to waste their time so you’d like a little background info on their business and the market there. Most, if not all will oblige – none of us likes our time being wasted.

Lastly, make sure that whoever they’re sending to the meeting is capable of either making the decision, or having a very strong influence on it.

3. With the last shred of your Skype credit, do something revolutionary and call an Irish firm or person in the market and ask for the inside track.

They will often know the firms and individuals involved, as well as the trends and competitors – for instance, if you’re selling IT or software to one of Sweden’s biggest banks, you’d do well to mention the great hunting and fishing in Ireland (the CTO has no interest in IT but loves the great outdoors).

Many of us out in the big wide world are patriotic and will do almost anything to help the creation of jobs back home, even if it hurts us in the short term, but if they are in the same field as you, suggest partnership, not competition.

It’s up to you- make those three phone calls and even if you don’t make the sale, you’ll know an awful lot more about the market than you did before you started.

Don’t, and your wasting resources that a better-prepared firm could have had to bring revenue and jobs to Ireland.

It’s your call.

Why all roads don’t lead to Rome in foreign service

The following text about Irish diplomatic missions abroad was submitted to the Irish Times for consideration yesterday – as I haven’t heard anything I’m assuming it wound up in the bin.

In staring ourselves blind at the numbers, we are failing to see the value of diplomacy

Last week I spoke to an Irish government minister – a thoroughly decent man – who told me that “Ireland’s reputation abroad is improving“.

It pained me to tell him that I had just come from abroad, and it isn’t.

According to figures acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, the Irish government spent some €76 million on Ireland’s missions abroad.

At home there has been the usual furore about over-paid civil servants wasting taxpayer’s money.

From abroad, it looks slightly different.

I have lived in Sweden for over 12 years and worked with all the Scandinavian embassies to promote Irish business, culture and sport.

I have seen at first hand how Ireland’s embassies abroad work to improve our image and reputation, and bring valuable investment in trade in tourism to the country.

I have witnessed their tireless dedication as they struggle with the protocols of their office whilst trying to portray Ireland in the best possible light.

I have spoken to them on the phone in the middle of the night when an Irish person was ill or passed away abroad and needed to be brought home.

I have seen what they do for the Irish community abroad – much of it tedious, very little of it glamorous.

They co-ordinate everything from trade fairs to St Patrick’s Day parades to poetry readings, as well as having the envious task of trying to ensure that state bodies like Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia all sing from the same hymn sheet.

In truth, far from being too much, the resources they receive are often far too little for the job of work that needs to be done.

In times of austerity there is always a tendency to insist that we all wear the hairshirt, and woe betide anyone not seen to be suffering.

In doing so, we ignore the fact that many diplomats spend their careers abroad, sacrificing friends and family ties in the process.

Is there waste in our foreign missions? Undoubtedly. Do certain missions cost too much for what they bring in? Again, the answer is yes. But for the most part we need them, if only to go around cleaning up the mess made in the international arena by our politicians.

The foreign service is not being singled out for criticism when it comes to spending either; every government department is now fair game.

In our unrelenting search for cuts to make so we can pay back unsecured bondholders, we are scrabbling down the back of everyone’s sofa for pennies – except, of course, those of our bondholders.

In doing so, we are risking a kind of sovereign anorexia; in our desperate attempts to look pretty for the troika and the markets, we are denying ourselves the basics of a functioning state – a welfare system, education, a health service, a well-resourced diplomatic corps.

And when the situation changes and there is an opportunity for economic growth, there is a danger that we will be so weakened that we are unable to fight back.

The thousands who have recently left the country will tell you the same story; even for our own people, Brand Ireland is damaged. But it can be repaired, and the Irish foreign missions are at the forefront of that repair work.

Already under-resourced and under pressure, this latest barrage of criticism does nothing to help them.

Maybe the minister is right- maybe Ireland’s image abroad is improving.

And if it is €76 million will be a cheap price to pay, given the scale of the self-inflicted damage we have done in recent times.

Poles pay the bill for paper’s lack of resources

Hat for sale, one careless previous owner. Contact Norma Costello, c/o the Irish Independent.

As the perfect media storm formed over Donegal and Magda this week, it washed up a pathetic excuse from one of the journalists involved.

Norma Costello took to her blog to defend the indefensible, laughably attempting to suggest that her article wasn’t intended to be racist.

Amazing how none of her “inaccurately translated quotes” portrayed Polish people in a good light, isn’t it?

She has the gall to suggest that, to get a fuller understanding of how she herself has been a victim of racism, we should read the rest of her blog.

I won’t be doing that.

I’ve read one of her articles, and thus filled my quota of misinformed, badly-written racist tripe for this lifetime. I hope no-one else bothers to read it either.

She then attempts to justify herself, whining about inequality and suggesting that because of her degree, journalism owes her a living.

She got €80 off the Indo for her googling – not much more than forty pieces of silver, and about €80 more than I would have been prepared to pay had she submitted it to me.

There are two truths here – one is that the likes of Norma Costello doesn’t belong in journalism. Racism and inequality notwithstanding, she made fundamental errors that are the anathema to the profession.

Let me explain.

I was contacted late one night with information that could have brought down the Cowen government, long before its calamitous end.

The information was journalistic dynamite, and as it was breathlessly relayed to me over the phone, I prepared myself for the appearance on Morning Ireland that would inevitably result.

I never appeared on Morning Ireland.

Instead, I went and checked what I had been told with a variety of sources, all of whom confirmed that what I had been told was completely untrue. There was no story.

Because that is what journalists do. About 20% of the job is writing- the rest is reading, questioning, calling, checking –  sometimes even translating, provided you speak the language yourself.

This is what Norma should have done- checked the accuracy of her dynamite quotes. If she had, she would have realised her story was bunkum.

She could have done what Pat O’Mahony did- a proper journalist with years of experience in broadcasting and print- and actually tried to interview Magda herself.

Instead it appears that, for her €80, Norma was content only to get a dodgy translation and then let her prejudices run riot.

How much of the €80 was spent on a professional translation of the original Polish newspaper article? I’m going to hazard a guess and say zero.

But in that lies our second truth- it is impossible to produce quality journalism for €80.

It cannot be done.

You might be able to knock off 300 words about the Islamification of Moate or how the public service eat more biscuits than the rest, to name but two Indo favourites, but not a proper news article. And certainly not quality journalism, whatever Ian O’Doherty might say.

Laptops, phone calls, petrol, parking, bus tickets, notebooks and coffee all cost money. So too do digital cameras and degrees and software.

To do the Magda story properly for a freelancer should take about three or four hours- €20 an hour does not even come close to covering the cost.

Add to that the fact that freelancers don’t have regular work and you can why there is a temptation to cut corners.

But the papers won’t pay more unless we as advertisers or consumers pay more.

And as consumers, we can do two things- we can stop reading the newspapers that churn out this cack-handed, badly-written, barely-researched rubbish that shouldn’t even be used to wrap chips.

And instead of that, we can pay more for quality.

I’m a big fan of freedom of information, but the time has come to prepare ourselves to pay for content; far from limiting our access to information, time-limited paywalls will ensure that the quality of information we do receive is increased. Keep it exclusive for a week, then open it up.

In doing so we can recognise that the digital world is a cheaper marketplace to produce in, and make it both affordable and accessible.

And hopefully if media outlets do that, they’ll be able to pay editors who are smart enough to recognise that the likes of Norma Costello have no place in journalism.

Because in their incompetence, they cheapen  the work of proper journalists like Pat O’Mahony, and hundreds of others who try to get their story straight.

When “inaccurate” is just a fancy word for “wrong”

It says a lot about Ireland that the last written testament of a dead girl can be changed to protect the powerful, but the unwarranted vilification of an unemployed Polish immigrant doesn’t merit an apology, much less a retraction.

What it does tell us is, unfortunately, something we already know.

Ireland doesn’t do accountability.

Not from the politicians, one of whom saw fit to spoof his head off about “Magda” without knowing anything other than what he was told on the phone- by a non-Polish speaking journalist.

He offered to pay for her to go home; am I alone in hoping that he keeps the ticket for himself, and makes it one-way in the process?

Nor do we hold the bankers and bondholders accountable either, trucking over borrowed money to ensure that risk is erased from their portfolios, rather than forcing on them the losses that would make them accountable for those risks.

Nor can we get it from the fourth estate. Like the Irish Times before them, the Irish Independent- proud stable of thinly-veiled islamophobia as peddled by Ian O’Doherty, lest we forget – has neglected to offer any apology or explanation, other than the following:

YESTERDAY’S story about a Polish woman living on welfare payments in Ireland sparked much discussion and controversy.

Some parts of the original interview, on which the story was based, were inaccurately translated.

Let’s be honest here- they weren’t “inaccurately translated”.

They were wrong.

The article was wrong.

Publishing it was wrong.

Not deleting it immediately was wrong.

And not apologising to the readers and the Polish people is wrong.

What is most disturbing is the total silence from the two journalists who wrote the original cack-handed rubbish- where are they? Where is their explanation? Where is their apology?

Part of the job of newspapers is to hold others accountable.

And the major part of the problem with Irish newspapers is that they fail to hold either themselves or each other accountable, especially in cases like this or Kate Fitzgerald.

So there we have it- another scandal in Irish public life. There will be no resignations, no trials, no arrests and definitely no apologies.

It’s not what we do.

Those in power in Ireland are not accountable to anyone.

There is no-one policing those in power, and they cannot police themselves.

Is it any wonder we’re in hock to the world?

EDIT: I’ve just spotted on Twitter that the Press Ombudsman will not be taking any action against the Indo as they published a revised transcript and a letter from the Polish ambassador- so apparently it’s now OK to publish articles full of racist undertones and you don’t even have to apologise.

What was it I said about Ireland not doing accountability again?