Archive for December 13, 2016

Forget “fake news”, fake debate is killing Irish discourse

Let’s get straight to the point here.

Last night’s “Claire Byrne Live” on RTE was a journalistic fiasco, a car crash of pub opinions presented as public service broadcasting.

And my suspicion is that it was no accident.

It was proceeded by a film called “The Crossing”, which highlighted the work being done by the Irish Navy in the Mediterranean, where they have been rescuing migrants by the boatload.

Indeed, some of those featured in the film were trotted out in a sort of mawkish public thank-you parade that seemed entirely out of place.

Some journeyman politician was then provided to give Official Ireland’s take, and actor Liam Cunningham, who has spent time in Syria, was also included.

To provide “balance”, the panel was completed by Ian O’Doherty, who has done … what, exactly, other than be sanctioned for racism by the Press Ombudsman when writing about Roma?

This is Irish journalism in the 21st century, where balance is giving equal weight to both sides, regardless of how inept, ill-informed or under-represented they are.

Given the opportunity on the national broadcaster, O’Doherty proceeded to march through the Breitbart checklist of racist tropes, ending up at one of his greatest hits – fundamentalist Islam.

Now I’m not sure if the refreshments were removed in the Green Room before the film was screened, but it seems that Ian missed the fact that many of those fleeing across the Med are from Eritrea – a country fairly evenly split between Christians and Muslims and from which people flee because of the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki, rather than any religious conviction.

He moved from something which in this case was to do with sub-Saharan Africa and the failed state of Libya, and shifted it back to ISIS, without any explanation or nuance whatsoever.

Facts are, of course, useless to Ian, and he continued on through the tropes at a breakneck pace.

Rape.

Cologne.

Sweden.

And so on and so on, deep down into the rabbit hole of racism and self-importance currently jammed to bursting point by conservative columnists shrieking for some air time.

At no point did Byrne make any effort to challenge any of the erroneous assertions made by O’Doherty.

From a public service broadcaster, this is the very definition of unacceptable.

It is unacceptable to present people on a panel if all they have to offer is bar-stool opinions, rather than expertise, lived experience or at least some sort of insight into the subject matter  - say what one likes about Cunningham, but at least he put his boots on the ground in Syria.

Being the Village Racist (a man so incapable of discussing things in a civilised manner that Twitter suspended him recently) or the talking head at the top of the researcher’s telephone list should not be enough.

(Added to that was the sputtering representative of the newly-formed and avowedly racist National Party, who thankfully could barely formulate a sentence before foaming at the mouth and losing the plot, allowing the host to move on).

It is unacceptable not to challenge serious assertions that are racist in nature and that denigrate entire swathes of people, and to instead blithely allow them to be presented as fact or (at best) informed opinion.

It is unacceptable for RTE and Claire Byrne Live not to take their responsibilities, both in general journalism and public service broadcasting, seriously.

In short, it is not enough for an interviewer or moderator to know the questions – they must also know the plausible answers, and be able to distinguish when they are being manipulated or lied to.

The reason tropes like the ones espoused by O’Doherty are given credence is because they are allowed to go unchallenged; if a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes true for those who wish it to be so.

Those who pay attention to such things will have noticed the shift lately towards Breitbartian rhetoric – “virtue signalling”, “SJW” and the constant, all-encompassing Islamophobia.

The far right are coming out in Ireland, and in doing so they are revealing that they have been in plain sight all along.

And as with everything else it is important that “debates” probe and test arguments properly, instead of being the equivalent of putting two cats in a sack and letting them fight it out.

Fake news is a huge threat in terms of democracy, but the onus lies very much with the reader, viewer or listener to discern what is true and what is not.

Fake debates are a different matter, and giving extremists the platform to air their ill-informed views on vulnerable groups, from immigrants to those on social welfare, without them being robustly challenged is a failure of public service.