Archive for Irish Life

There was only ever one Martin McGuinness

Picture courtesy of rte.ie

In the rush to eulogise Martin McGuinness on his passing, it is fascinating to observe the discomfort as Ireland’s media outlets wrestle with how to remember a man they despised for the most part, but who ultimately brought peace to our island.

The laziest, yet most common knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that there were two Martin McGuinnesses – the post-ceasefire peacemaker and politician on one side, and the IRA leader on the other.

It is the conclusion drawn by those who still, almost 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, cannot even begin to understand why a young man like McGuinness would become a high-ranking IRA man and wage a guerrilla war against the British for so long and in such a bloody fashion.

It says more about the writer than it does about their subject.

It says that they have never really addressed the root cause of violent republicanism – that is, the state violence perpetrated on a minority whose human rights were constantly suspended, ignored and denied.

It says that they haven’t looked into the Bogside – or, for that matter, The Diamond – and tried to understand the political forces that spilt the community in Derry and turned them against one another.

It says that what they want is a clinical, road-to-Damascus-style conversion where the savage learns to speak and thus realises his potential, becoming acceptable to polite society in the process.

Because in Ireland, that makes us feel better about how we abandoned our brothers and sisters in the North – Catholic and Protestant, unionist and Nationalist – for so long.

In Britain, it allows our neighbours to ignore their role in the disaster of their rule.

McGuinness was undoubtedly a violent man in command of a group of violent men.

His opponents on the battlefield – the streets of Derry – were equally violent, but their violence was backed by the Crown and made them all but immune from prosecution or consequence.

When both sides had enough, much was made of the conversion of the “men of violence”, a term exclusively employed to describe the IRA, the INLA, the LVF, the UVF and other armed groups.

Little or nothing was said about the complicity of the state forces of the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent the Republic of Ireland), and their role in the tragedy of those decades.

In our islands we wish to consign the Troubles to history, blithely ignoring that we continue to visit injustices – sometimes violently – on sections of our populations.

Whether it be the economic violence of austerity or the physical violence of state brutality, we still divide into “us” and “them”.

The reason we try to make this distinction is that we cannot countenance the fact that the “men of violence” were exactly like us – mostly fathers, brothers and sons, but also mothers, sisters and daughters who reached a point where they believed that peaceful protest was no longer effective.

We abhor their actions, but then we turn on the news to hear of a wedding bombed in Afghanistan and we feel nothing.

Beware the commentary that would simplify and attempt to remove Martin McGuinness from his context, and that would somehow suggest that he had a monopoly on violence, or that the violence of the state is automatically justified and justifiable.

There was never two Martin McGuinnesses – he was both a violent man and a skilled political operator.

So too was Nelson Mandela, another man once considered a terrorist only to be all but absolved of his sins in peace and, ultimately, in death.

Eventually the time came when both of them realised that the ballot box was indeed more useful than the Armalite.

But it is probably fair to say that, if either of them were ever again faced with the same level of cruelty or injustice being visited on their people, they would not have hesitated for one second to take up their arms again.

Nelson Mandela didn’t change.

Martin McGuinness didn’t change.

We did.

Why I won’t be watching Claire Byrne Live

So apparently Clair Byrne Live is to be the latest to provide a platform to the self-proclaimed “alt-right”, presumably as some part of a “freedom of speech” segment designed to provoke a reaction, while blithely ignoring the consequences for Irish society.

I won’t be watching.

I won’t be watching because we have already had a real live discussion about their supremacist values, and found them wanting.

The first part of it ended in 1945, with millions dead – killed because of their ethnicity, their sexual preferences, their religion.

Their “values” lived on in the form of apartheid and segregation, until they too were gradually and thankfully consigned to the scrapbooks of history.

I won’t be watching because human dignity and equality are not a matters for discussion – they are enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

I won’t be watching because I don’t want to be part of the fact-free masturbatory fantasies about Muslim rape waves of white, male, emotionally stunted keyboard warriors.

I won’t be watching because I don’t believe that people fleeing from war and persecution should be painted as a threat.

I won’t be watching because I refuse to legitimise the language of their hatred.

I won’t be watching because I believe journalism is best served not by dragging these hateful cretins into the light, but by leaving them in the shadows where they have festered for so long, only to bloom when the lights of publicity were recently turned upon them.

I wont’ be watching for the same reasons I wouldn’t watch ISIS justify their murderous “caliphate” on the show, or Gary Glitter justify having sex with children.

I won’t be watching, because this “debate” about human dignity is already over, and they lost – and I am not prepared to offer the Nazis a chance to come in from the cold.

The real danger of normalising racism

Peter Mangs, who shot and killed people in southern Sweden based on their ehtnicity

I’m not quite sure every bleating quasi-liberal, from ministers to newspaper editors, has realised it yet, so I better take the time to point it out again – normalising racism and making hate acceptable has actual real-life consequences, not just for the discourse, but also for society itself.

I realised this recently when I said on Marian Finucane’s radio show that society as a whole was pretty much agreed on what constituted hate speech, and social protection minister Leo Varadkar disagreed with me.

I never got the chance to explain it then, but what I meant by that was that society has set the boundaries through its laws against incitement to hatred, as well as in Article 1 of the UN Convention of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

As for what Minister Varadkar meant, you’ll have to ask him – but he did mention “shutting down the debate”, which in this instance is what people say when what they really mean is “I want to be able to present my ideas unopposed, and have everyone agree with them.”

(For now I’m not even going to bother with the car-crash that is the Irish Times’ latest fuck-up in the rush to embrace the far right, and its pathetic explanation – let us just say it is indicative of the genre.)

Over the last 15 or so years I have seen the normalisation of racism and hate speech in the media lead to the rapid rise of the far right in Scandinavia, in the UK and in America, to the extent that they have recent government experience in many countries, and they have also moved the goalposts for the more “liberal” parties.

Ireland is behind the curve in that regard – or perhaps ahead of it, given that right-wing populism has been the order of the day since the foundation of the state – but it is more than capable of accommodating an upsurge similar to the one that happened in Scandinavia.

Despite its reputation for social democracy and equality, some in the Nordic region have always had a penchant for white supremacy, and it’s something that raises its Aryan head from time to time.

It is when it moves out of the shadows and into the mainstream that violence becomes acceptable, and in many cases inevitable.

Take the early nineties in Sweden when “New Democracy”, a hotch-potch of neo-Nazis, racists, Islamophobes and a man famed for churning out Eurovision stars, came into being.

Their rise, and the utilisation of their rhetoric, coincided with the advent of “The Laser Man”, a racist who targeted non-Aryan looking people and shot eleven people, killing one and paralysing my friend’s father.

As the century turned and Sweden gradually forgot the horror of the Laser Man, once again it was time to “hear them out”, and racists were again provided with a platform.

The rise in the polls of the Sweden Democrats coincided with the appearance of another racist murderer, this time in the form of Peter Mangs, who was eventually convicted of two murders and four attempted murders.

This is to say nothing of the wave of arson attacks against buildings that were ear-marked as housing for refugees in 2015, at a time when the anti-foreigner rhetoric being “heard out” from the far-right was at a peak.

What happens is that when we allow the racists airtime and column inches, when we “hear them out” and let them tell us about their “legitimate concerns”, we are allowing them to set the boundaries.

Regardless of whether we are editors, journalists or media consumers, we allow them to discuss things in terms of race, ethnicity and religion, and in those terms only – that African men are rapists, or that Muslims are potential terrorists who want to destroy “our values”, and the birth rate of feckless immigrants will mean that Europeans will soon be a minority in their own continent.

Once we go head first down that rabbit hole, there is no backing out, because these people are immune to facts – they just jump to the next trope, the next meme, the next fact-free accusation let loose on the airwaves.

Here’s one from personal experience – Sweden’s “55 no-go zones”.

This far-right racist trope arises from an op-ed piece written for the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, in which it was claimed that there were 55 lawless areas into which police essentially could not go.

Frankly, that claim is bollocks, as illustrated in this short (Swedish-language) video I made as a rebuttal – and if Svenska Dagbladet’s writer had bothered his arse to go to any of these areas, he would have seen the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong – there has been a spate of shootings, some fatal and many of them in the five suburbs where I live and circulate, and a young man was shot dead at the top of my street last year – but pretty much every one of them has to do with crime, rather than ethnicity.

Despite all this, the researchers at the Economist rank Stockholm as the fourth-safest city in the world – and the safest in Europe.

When I mentioned this to an Irish debater, and the fact that I had visited many of the areas listed among the 55 “no-go” areas without problem, he sent me a link … to a double murder carried out by a failed asylum seeker at IKEA in Västerås.

Now I’m not sure if his point was that IKEA is a now no-gone zone, but it illustrates the tactics perfectly – make an accusation, and when it is disproved, abandon it and make another, until you have a discussion based only on race, ethnicity or religion.

This is how racism is normalised.

This is what Clare Byrne Live and the Late Late Show are promoting and encouraging when they invite Ian O’Doherty or that vile Hopkins woman on and give them a platform to spew their bile.

Put simply, editors and producers are gatekeepers, and it is their editorial responsibility to ensure that anyone given a platform uses it responsibly – not to spew lies and hate and then change the subject when called out.

The neo-Nazi “alt-right” grew out of the dark reaches of the Internet, but it only became a political force when it was given a platform by the mainstream media to spread its ideas, its jargon and ultimately its hatred.

It should have been left in those dark corners of the Internet, along with the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the Grassy Knoll brigade and the chemtrails enthusiasts.

Because as soon as you start to give these ideas and this rhetoric legitimacy, be that on the public service airwaves or in the paper of record, you are letting the genie of racism out of the bottle and giving him a seat at the table.

And experience shows that it is never those who do the letting-out that pay the price.

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.

Remarks to Social Democrats convention in Dublin

Speaking at the Social Democrats National Convention in Dublin. (Source: @SocDems’ Twitter account)

For the most part I stay out of party politics, but I was honoured to be invited to speak about my experience of 17 years of living, working and travelling in social democratic countries in Scandinavia by Ireland’s Social Democrats, who held their first national congress in Dublin last weekend.

The night before I sat in a hotel room not really knowing what to expect.

Sweden and Scandinavia are often held up as paragons of virtue, and Ireland is often pilloried as being backward, but the truth of both is somewhere in between, and that was something I tried to address in these remarks.

They were not delivered verbatim as written here, mostly because I left my glasses on the table, and indeed one of the most important statements was left out.

That is, that Ireland should learn from not just the successes of social democracy, but perhaps even more so from its failures, and in that way chart its own course to a fairer future for all who live there.

I thank the Social Democrats for inviting me to speak and for giving me the chance to be part of a democratic process that those of us who have emigrated are normally and unapologetically shut out from.

REMARKS TO SOCIAL DEMOCRATS CONVENTION IN DUBLIN, NOV 19 2017

I live in Sweden.

I live in a country where I was welcomed with open arms in 1999 and treated fairly and with humanity, despite having nothing to invest and not being the most attractive person on the labour market until a few years after I arrived.

I live in a country that taught me its language and completed my education at its own expense.

I live in a country which believed in me, and I have repaid that country’s faith by paying my taxes ever since.

I live in a country that fixed my broken arm after playing football on a Saturday evening, and still had me home in time to see Match of the Day

I live in a country that saw people fleeing from war and who were in need, and that took them in and gave them food and shelter – 163,000 of them in one calendar year.

I live in a country where the chairperson of the sports journalists association I am a member of is a woman, and there are many more of them beside me in the press box.

I live in a country where full-time childcare for two children cost me around €220 a month.

I live in a country where I do not worry about my in-laws ageing, or being self-employed and getting sick.

I live in a country with a comprehensive public transport system that runs on time.

I live in a county where I do not worry for the future of my children, and where our hall door in an urban area is unlocked most of the time.

I live in a country where third-level education is free and students can get both grants and loans to help them complete it.

I live in a country where the beer is expensive and tastes horrible, where you can’t get smoked cod and chips and where they have never even heard of a spice bag.

I live in a country which has a terrible shortage of housing as it adopts free-market solutions to the problems of the state.

I live in a country – one of only a handful in the developed world – where it is legal and possible for a private enterprise to make a profit from running a school.

I live in a country that sells weapons to despotic regimes, and that is home to companies who manufacture technologies for those weapons, as well as technologies to prevent refugees from reaching Europe.

I live in a country that has subtly racist structures that builds glass walls around areas such as the one where I live, and that prevent some of my friends and neighbours from advancing and achieving their true potential.

I live in a country that is by no means perfect.

I live in a country that is built on generations of social democratic values, in which everyone is equal, and everyone is taken care of, regardless of the thickness of their wallet or where they went to school

I live in a country that I have lived in for 17 years, but I am not a citizen of that country.

I live in a country that is not my country.

But I long for the day when this country – my country – learns from my current home.

I want this country – my country – to treat my father, my mother, my brothers, my sister, and all my fellow citizens with the dignity and the care that all of us deserve.

I want this country – my country – to recognise the strength that comes from togetherness, from meeting the challenges of life head on, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, and not as individuals all just out for ourselves.

I want this country – my country – to be led by leaders whose first loyalty is to my fellow citizens, and not to themselves or the markets or the shareholders or the lobby groups.

I want this country – my country – to learn from the successes and perhaps even more so from the failures of social democracy.

 

I want this country – my country – to be worthy of my fellow citizens, and to recognise the truth in one of the oldest proverbs of our native language.

 

“Ní neart go chur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Immortality awaits McGregor in the Garden, but there are no guarantees

Those who have visited the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave often get a rude awakening on their arrival in New York.

Instead of the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty with her torch raised to welcome them, there is usually a long, winding queue for passport control.

Not so this week as I waltzed through Newark Airport and straight up to gate 49, where a clean-shaven young man inspected my newly-minted passport with both courtesy and studied detachment.

“What is the purpose of your visit, sir?”

“To watch the UFC and the NBA.”

He nodded approvingly.

Fingerprints and photographs taken, he snapped the passport shut.

“You’re all set. Let’s hope our boy wins on Saturday,” he said, his face cracking into a wide smile.

“Our boy” is Conor McGregor, and if the Irish once ruled New York, from the firehouses and the police precincts to City Hall and back, he is claiming it back at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, but the stakes are arguably higher than they ever were in Las Vegas.

Interest in McGregor is at fever pitch, but Eddie Alvarez, whom he faces as he seeks to become the first two-weight champion in the history of the UFC, is no slouch.

McGregor has seemed swept up in the hype this week, his manic behaviour at Thursday’s press conference a perfect example of a man highly strung, so close to achieving his dream, yet still vulnerable to failure.

No customised Rolls Royce or Gucci fur coat could hide the fact that, on Saturday, it will be Reebok shorts, four-ounce gloves and a gate that snaps shut when the moment of truth arrives – and that is all that matters.

If he wins, his legend will be complete, and the much-touted major announcement he has promised after the fight will take on even greater significance.

He will effectively control the UFC for the foreseeable future, reversing the master-and-servant relationship that once saw him beg Dana White for sixty grand; instead, White will be forced to go to McGregor on his knees if he wishes to keep the company steamrollering forward on the back of its most notorious fighter.

Lose, and the questions that were prompted by his defeat to Nate Diaz in March will once again echo around the sport.

Ronda Rousey and others may have done the spadework, but McGregor is undeniably the sport’s biggest truly cross-cultural global icon, but there is a huge risk that, with tens of millions in the bank and a promotion that has little choice but to bend to his demands, that McGregor will find himself surrounded by yes men – and that could signal the beginning of the end.

Those who have known him a long time say he has changed – he has become a brand, a one-man global industry with spin-offs and offshoots, with a bottom line and bills to pay, and expensive tastes to satisfy.

Honed over a decade or more, he knows his craft inside the octagon better than anyone else.

Given his meteoric rise, it would be foolish to assume that his mastery of the outside world – of the business of fighting and celebrity and investing – is at the same level, although the iron control he exerts over his brand and his support staff would suggest he is a fast learner, at least in terms of minimising the risk to himself.

It is unlikely that we will ever again see an open-hearted interview which allows us to see into the soul of the man – instead, we will be treated to staged videos and set-piece interviews where the answers are decided in advance, and are entirely independent of the questions.

He is uncouth and vulgar at times, but McGregor is no fool – he knows that the prospect of getting punched and kicked in the head for a living is not going to be attractive forever, and even at this stage he probably has his exit strategy mapped out.

Whatever that strategy is, it is surely based on the presumption that he will win this iconic fight in this iconic venue on Saturday, cementing his legend and opening up a world of wealth, fame and possibilities, financial and otherwise, beyond even his wildest dreams.

There is talk of movies, a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather and even a brief but lucrative move to professional wrestling and the WWE.

But the difference between the UFC and professional wrestling is a stark one – nothing in the octagon is scripted, and one clean shot could lay waste to whatever plans McGregor may have.

And you can be sure Eddie Alvarez is planning an entirely different ending.

Five ways to put the “public” back into public service

Thankfully, I don’t get invited to too many media conferences any more.

I don’t have the time to attend, and I can’t afford to lose anymore friends in the business.

Still, it would have been fascinating to listen to new RTE DG Dee Forbes talking about the future of Ireland’s public service broadcaster, even if her comments fall far short of the revolution that is necessary to reboot it.

Dee spoke of the need to make more “frenemies”, for more collaboration and, of course, to cut costs.

All depressingly familiar to audiences and journalists alike – and probably the exact opposite of what is needed.

Unfortunately Dee’s comments portray someone who seems to have accepted the narrative that the problems of modern media are for journalists and program-makers to solve, not politicians or bean-counters.

But reform of RTE would go a long way towards righting the listing ship of Irish media – and in turn it might even restore the faith that many have lost in public service broadcasting.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I would do if literally every competent person in Irish media management died and somehow left me in charge of our public service broadcaster.

1. Get RTE out of the advertising market.

Ban everything – product endorsements, ad breaks, sponsored competitions, the works, and instead run it on government funding alone, through a combination of tax-payer’s money and the license fee.

No logos, no product placement – just public service.

It can’t be done?

Sure it can.

Here in Sweden, when two girls from the Stockholm Gaels appeared on state TV to talk about Gaelic football, the floor manager put a strip of gaffer tape over the logo on the O’Neills ball they had brought with them. There would be no free advertising there.

Getting RTE out of the market would open up an enormous revenue stream for private media outlets and remove the need for RTE to produce popular (and indeed populist) programming, and instead get it to focus on its public service mandate.

2. Switch the focus of the sales teams, with those currently involved in selling advertising selling Irish-developed content and concepts abroad. Long before the success of Nordic noir, “The Lyrics Board” was lighting up Scandinavian TV screens, although that may not entirely be a good thing.

3. With the removal of advertising as a driving force behind every decision, reassess the talent pool. There would no longer be a need to pay hundreds of thousands of euros to individuals, just because their names are synonymous with hundreds of thousands of listeners or viewers.

I firmly believe that those who work for public service broadcasters should be (very) well-paid, but even the top talent themselves would surely admit that things have gotten out of hand.

4. Become a centre of excellence for the broadcasters and producers of the future.

The two-day RTE radio documentary course I did a few years back, conducted by their award-winning staff in Montrose, totally changed my approach to how I work with radio, and that for the better. My work has become much, much better, which benefits both me and my listeners.

RTE’s crews, producers, directors and broadcasters are all top-of-the-line professionals – why not share their work ethic and methods with coming generations of journalists and technicians via paid six-month internships?

5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, work with other media outlets and the government to create workable legislation and guidelines for the industry.

At the moment it is far too easy for powerful organisations and individuals to suppress the truth by sending a flurry of solicitor’s letters, or by leveraging the depth of their pockets knowing that neither RTE nor anyone else can afford to defend a case against them.

Equally, there is little alternative for those ordinary Joes and Josephines who have been wronged by media reporting to gain recompense.

Given that RTE acts to all intents and purposes like a commercial broadcaster, it’s easy to forget just how important public service broadcasting is to a democracy. It needs to be able to report without fear or favour on all aspects of Irish life, and to ensure that all aspects of Irish life are represented in its output.

At the moment it is basically Sky One with the Angelus, and that is far, far short of the kind of journalism and programming that some of the most talented people in broadcasting could deliver to a country that so desperately needs it.

If the media won’t take part, McGregor will take over

Conor McGregor’s hand is raised in victory following his epic battle with Nate Diaz

Last week, an Irish athlete won one of the most epic contests ever seen in his chosen sport, and yet for a variety of reasons, it barely caused a ripple in the media consciousness.

In a bloody battle that raged for the full 25 minutes, the initiative ebbing and flowing between its two protagonists, the Notorious Conor McGregor finally emerged victorious.

In doing so, he avenged his March defeat to Nate Diaz and put himself once again at the pinnacle of mixed martial arts, redeeming both himself and the somewhat erroneous reputation of the Fighting Irish.

This is no longer a niche sport, confined to dingy hotel function rooms and fight clubs – it is a $4 billion business that is only going to get bigger.

For me, McGregor’s win beat Barry McGuigan’s victory over Eusebio Pedroza, and even eclipsed Steve Collins’ run of wins at super-middleweight back when he, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn struggled for supremacy in boxing.

It was one of the most exhilarating sporting events I have ever seen live, if not the most exhilarating.

But with Pat Hickey behind bars and a myriad of other sports to cover, plus a nine-hour time difference from Las Vegas, it seemingly got lost, slipping through the cracks and never really getting the credit or coverage it deserved.

Considering the fact that, together with Joe Callaghan, Petesy Carroll and a select few others, I was responsible for spreading the news about one of the most remarkable victories in Irish sporting history, it might seem strange that I am bemoaning the lack of coverage.

But it’s worth looking a little more closely at how one of the big global sports stories of last week – one that over a million US TV viewers paid almost $70 each to watch – was covered.

Petesy is a stalwart of the Irish MMA beat – enormously knowledgeable on every level, well-connected, he wrote for a variety of websites and contributed to Newstalk, among others.

Joe was kept busy writing for the Irish Independent, the Irish Examiner, and the RTE website.

As the elder lemon, I was tasked with bringing the fight game to the mainstream, writing for the Irish Times and the Reuters news agency (I also filmed the weigh-ins and the press conference for the latter), and covering the event on radio for the BBC and RTE.

The coverage of the build-up cannot be faulted – the pitched battle at the David Copperfield Theatre in the MGM Grand ensured the headlines there – but it was the aftermath that felt abrupt and unsatisfying.

It would be understandable if the fight had been a turgid, clinch-heavy affair with little drama, but with Diaz downed early in the first and McGregor seemingly out on his feet at the end of the third, this was a fight that you couldn’t take your eyes off.

Though pretty much everyone in the arena (or at least everyone who wasn’t from Stockton, California) gave the win to McGregor, there was still a sense of nervous anticipation as the results from the judges’ scorecards were read out.

McGregor won, and the subsequent press conference, which he entered on crutches, was an emotional affair, his voice cracking as he revealed how important the fight and the result was for him.

Strange, then, that there was little interest in the video I had of the post-fight press conference, and indeed the lack of post-fight discussion in some of the major media outlets.

I did contribute a report to RTE Sport, but the more wide-reaching Marian Finucane show, which had me on for the guts of half an hour after the March defeat, didn’t seem to cover it at all, aside form a couple of questions as a preview late on Saturday.

Nor did RTE come looking for the video. Neither did Reuters.

Why is this relevant? Because it tells us a lot about how editorial decisions are made, what influences them and how budgets are spent.

Mixed martial arts still hasn’t gained the acceptance enjoyed by amateur boxing, or the genteel respect of golf.

But how many world champions does Ireland have at anything?

How many sports can boast a stable like the Straight Blast Gym, which had two winners on Saturday night’s card and which is teeming with prospects for the future?

MMA is a sport fervently followed by young to middle-aged fans, many of them urban working class males.

In other words, the very class of people most often denied access to the airwaves and the pages of our finer publications.

The class of people from which McGregor himself emerged.

In our burgeoning media culture of interns and working for “exposure”, it is a class of people who are an endangered species in our newsrooms.

But whereas once upon a time McGregor and everyone else would simply have to accept that fact, that is no longer the case, as demonstrated late in the week.

Having fallen out with the UFC, McGregor launched his own media channel, The Mac Life, and the publication of a remarkable behind-the-scenes video from UFC 202 instantly made other media redundant.

This is nothing new. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of many footballers who uses an app to communicate directly with fans, and plenty of athletes and personalities leverage their social media presence to boost themselves, but McGregor has taken it to a new level.

Combining his enormous social media reach with more traditional media such as the “Man’s Work” short doc, he will get his message out there to his fans, whether more mainstream outlets help him or not.

But at a time when they are struggling to remain relevant, the more traditional players need to question their editorial decisions now more than ever, lest they be left behind in a changing landscape.

This doesn’t just apply to McGregor either – from news to politics to sport, new players, new issues and subjects are emerging, as are new ways of disseminating them.

The new voices that are so badly needed to round out the discourse will make themselves heard, one way or another.

And the media house that doesn’t recognise that what once was a one-way broadcast business has now become a conversation with media consumers has a very dark – and short – future ahead of it.

 

 

On spokespeople, attacking integrity and the eighth amendment

Sometimes 140 characters is not enough, so what follows in a bit of background to a story playing out on my Twitter feed.

I was in Dublin last week working on a number of stories, among them one for Swedish radio on the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which effectively bans abortion in virtually all circumstances.

In my attempt to create a rounded, balanced report I contacted a number of organisations and private individuals to ask them to comment. There was a window of four and a half days in which I could schedule interviews.

Those in favour of repealing the eighth were quick to respond, and all those interviews were done on Thursday afternoon last.

From the anti-abortion side there were several people who were very generous in trying to help me set things up, but unfortunately, apart from an interview with journalists and author John Waters, I came away empty-handed.

Over the course of several e-mails, the tone of which was both respectful and nuanced, John had initially politely declined my request for him to speak on the record, instead informing me of a conference in Tralee where the delegates would include many who opposed the repealing of the eighth amendment.

I drove to Tralee on Saturday morning and asked the organisers if they could provide someone who would speak to me.

Their suggestion was John Waters.

John generously attempted to procure other interviewees for me during lunch, but was unsuccessful and ended up doing the interview himself.

Before he did so, he said to me: “You appear to have upset a lot of people in there,” meaning the dining room where the group was eating.

What followed was a very respectful and insightful 20-minute conversation where he outlined the current state of play in Ireland and his views on the situation, and though I was disappointed to have only collected one voice on such a long trip, I consoled myself on the way back to Dublin with the fact that he had been comprehensive in his remarks.

In the interests of the balance both sides seem to crave in this debate, I continued looking for further interview subjects, via Twitter, phone calls and e-mails.

I returned to Stockholm yesterday, and I would still like to talk to anti-abortion activists for the piece, which will be edited later this week.

This morning I find myself being sent two- and three-year old tweets, the implication being that people wouldn’t want to talk to me due to my personal (note: not private) opinions on the eighth amendment, and some of my comments on those involved in the debate around it.

In many of them, there are a few fundamental understandings about what journalism is, and indeed what it is not.

Firstly, reporting has nothing to do with one’s personal opinions. It is akin to a doctor treating a family member, or a lawyer defending a murderer he knows is guilty.

Perceived vested interests are put aside, and it is surprisingly easy to do so.

That some have great difficulty accepting that says more about the standard of journalism in Ireland than perhaps anything else.

I have interviewed politicians, union officials, criminals, doped sports people, neo-Nazis, Islamic extremists and everyone in between.

In all instances, my own personal opinions are left at the door. It doesn’t matter how many Facebook posts or Tweets I’ve made on any given issue, the process is always the same.

Do the research, ask the questions, publish the results.

In particular when reporting for a non-Irish audience on an Irish story, the aim is to present the information to them – this is why the story is of relevance now, this side wants the amendment repealed, this side wants it kept – in a way that they will understand, giving history and context, and let them make up their own minds.

I have never once been accused by anyone I have interviewed of misquoting them, or misrepresenting their views in any way.

In any case, this issue – that of my personal opinions contaminating my ability to report – was only been raised after I left Ireland yesterday.

It is true that I have said nasty things about public figures, and I apologise profusely to anyone that has been offended by that.

But as noted above, there is a fundamental difference between attacking a person’s public persona, the opinions they hold and the tactics they use to get their point across, and attacking them personally.

However much I disagree with them, their views are for the most part honestly held, but that doesn’t preclude anyone from questioning the veracity of public statements made or research offered in support of them, or the tactics employed in advancing their cause.

In Ireland these distinctions are seldom made – I know of one person who no longer speaks to me because I criticised a glib point about boxing made by his wife on a TV show, which he took very personally. He called me up to tell me.

In contrast, I recently engaged in a very heated debate with a friend and colleague here in Sweden about how a certain story was presented by him in his newspaper; at no time did it get personal, and both of us learned something from it.

And this is the nub of the issue.

Some have reacted to my attempts to secure spokespeople by searching for tweets and trying to undermine my credibility before I even sit down to edit the report.

Though not an attack on me personally (and believe me, when you write abbout immigration, abortion or LGBT rights, you get plenty of them, some of them threatening, most of them anonymous), it is a direct attack on my professional reputation.

Thankfully it is the first time this has happened, but I fear that it might say more about the climate around the debate on the eighth amendment than many of us would care to admit.

The point is that none of us – journalists, editors, campaigners, voters – will ever get anywhere if we only talk to people we agree with. Social media is enough of an echo chamber already.

And nor, I hasten to add, will we get very far by attacking them personally.

I don’t know if it’s even possible to have a civilised debate about abortion in Ireland any more.

Recent evidence would suggest that it isn’t.

But either way a debate will be had, and it is up to everyone participating in it to try to keep it as open and respectful as possible.

Public interest demands that RTE answer questions on McCollum

Screenshot of an RTE tweet publicising the McCollum interview

Some stories stick out, and not for a good reason – there’s a whiff of something not right off them, and the much-trumpeted interview with Michaella McCollum is one of them.

(Not that I have been able to see it in full, of course. The RTE Player continues to discriminate against the Irish abroad, limiting access to content which, although brilliant, as with the recent I Am Traveller documentary, has questionable or negligible resale value abroad).

But the McCollum story itself is now a story, and there are questions that RTE needs to answer in relation to it.

I have worked for the various editorial departments of RTE (mostly radio) on many occasions, and without exception they are highly-qualified and extremely professional people.

But in this case the state broadcaster needs to be utterly transparent about how the interview was conducted. Nothing less than the journalistic credibility of the national broadcaster is at stake – stories that wouldn’t look out of place in the tabloids are all well and good, but tabloid tactics and chequebook journalism are not.

The “why Michaela?” question is irrelevant – news editors make such decisions all the time, and besides, her arrest, denial of guilt and trial were big news stories, and it is logical to cover her release and to try to unearth the truth.

The following questions need to be answered, promptly and thoroughly:

1. Who initiated the story/interview – was it Michaela, the journalist on the ground, the RTE news desk, a book publisher, PR agency or similar?

2. Did Michaella, her family, her foundation or any other party connected with her receive any sort of compensation (including, but not limited to, cash, flights or accommodation) in return for her co-operation?

3. Did McCollum and/or her representatives promise RTE or their representatives exclusivity? If so, what did they receive in return?

4. Were there any demands or requirements made by McCollum or her representatives as to where, when and under what circumstances the interview would take place?

5. Did McCollum and/or her representatives refuse to answer particular questions, or seek a list of questions prior to the interview? If so, did RTE acceded to those requests? Did the journalist on site decide the questions to be asked or was he instructed by the news desk?

6. Is there more than one take of any of McCollum’s answers to the questions posed?

I am aware that there are confidentiality issues at play here, and therefore I have not asked for specific numbers regarding compensation or costs, so RTE should be well able to reply.

And if they have signed any confidentiality agreement that precludes them from explaining the journalistic method used, then that raises a whole new set of worrying questions.