Monday, February 22, 2016

The media, the election, and the politics of fear


Has there ever been a General Election campaign in Ireland before in which the role of some elements of the mainstream media seemed so clear? Not to report the truth, or to compare policies, but to cheer on the establishment parties and spread an irrational fear of change.

For months now, we’ve been told that this election is giving us a choice between “stability” (voting for the parties who either bankrupt the country or imposed austerity on thousands of us) and “chaos” (God forbid if those upstarts from Sinn Fein or the small left wing parties came within a million miles of power).

Sometimes the mask slips, and you wonder whether Irish democracy is any better than the kind of electioneering you would find in modern day Russia or even North Korea.

Malcolm X had a jaundiced view back in the 1960s

Such as when the nation’s biggest selling newspaper gives over its main story to attacking Sinn Fein policies for three days in a row. That’s not balanced election coverage, that’s naked propaganda.

There is nothing wrong with challenging a party which has a sinister past, especially if they are a rising force on the brink of gaining power for the first time in the Republic.

But where is the investigative journalism into the policies of the Fianna Fail party which caused the economic crash less than a decade ago? Are they really ready to return to power?

And where is the acknowledgement that, by going into power with the DUP and embracing the peace process, Sinn Fein have actually come a long way in the space of a few years?

Where is the analysis of why the Labour Party abandoned their core voters (and all their principles) or why Fine Gael think it’s perfectly acceptable to punish so many for the sins of so few?

The same newspaper sent a representative, a crime reporter, onto the nation’s most popular chat show at the weekend. 

He managed to insult hundreds of thousands of people on Friday night by suggesting that anyone who votes for Sinn Fein is a drug-dealer, a killer, or a thug.

People have a right to be concerned at the prospect of former terrorists going into Government, but blatant scare-mongering is another thing. 

I’m not a Sinn Fein supporter, but I don’t need crime correspondent Paul Williams to ram his views down my throat. A man who has made a lot of money out of crime, by writing about it and spreading fear, Williams’ favourite word seems to be “scumbag” when he talks about drug gangs.

It was hard not to see his Late Late Show appearance as a hatchet-job on Sinn Fein just a week before the election.

On the day after his TV appearance, thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital to protest against austerity. The Right 2 Change march merited just one paragraph, and not a single photo, in one of the nation’s biggest selling Sunday papers the following day.

Six days before the election, thousands of people insisted that austerity was still a big issue. They said that the march was about so much more than Irish Water. But a Rupert Murdoch-owned ‘paper decided their march did not merit any coverage, even though so many of them took over the city centre.

Across the city, another editor was putting together a piece which suggested ten different reasons not to vote for Sinn Fein. Which was fair enough, but you’d be waiting a long time for ten different reasons not to vote for the party which bankrupt the country in the first place.

Sadly, the people who cover politics in Ireland largely move in the same circles as the political masters they write about. They broadly share the same views, seeing nothing wrong with the bank bailout or Ireland’s failure to stand by our Greek cousins when they sought debt relief last year.

To support Syriza in their hour of need would have involved challenging the status quo and an admission that the Irish were wrong. And nobody in the Irish Government wanted that!

So we get “fluffy” pieces from the campaign trail, in which reporters get access to our leaders as long as they play by their rules.

Still marching against Irish Water
So they can spend days on the campaign trail with Enda Kenny or Lucinda Creighton, as long as they never ask a tricky question such as why so many ordinary people had to bail out a tiny group of unsecured bondholders, bankers, and developers. 

Asking those type of questions is not part of the game and will soon get you thrown off the bandwagon.

Asking the Taoiseach why so many people are languishing on hospital trolleys is not part of the accepted script, either, nor is questioning why so many people are put on Job Bridge schemes in order to massage the unemployment figures.

This after all is the “best little country in the world to do business in”, especially for the multinationals who pay so little corporation tax compared to what they’d pay in other countries.

This election is all about the “recovery”, so it’s just not on to ask about the thousands who have been made homeless, the rental crisis, or the mental health crisis which has seen so many young people take their own lives in recent years.

Ask those questions and you will be soon denied access to the great and the good.

So a young lad with a video camera attends a “rally” in support of the Taoiseach in Castlebar, only to be man-handled out of the premises by Gardai because he’s not part of the inner circle. He hasn't learned how to play the game.

The “handlers” choose who gets access to our Prime Minister, so those who want crisp copy for the editors have to play by the rules. No hard questions about policies, when people keep talking about a recovery which seems to be on another planet as far as many of us are concerned.

So we are given “colour pieces” about An Taoiseach singing Bruce Springsteen songs to the faithful, rather than insightful articles which might challenge why his party has imposed such harsh austerity on those who could least afford to pay over the past five years.

The man who is on the verge of leading FG into office for a second term doesn’t like tough debates or probing questions. And his handlers, with the complicity of key elements of the media, ensure that he can get away with banal phrases most of the time.

When he allows the mask to slip, such as when he moans about “whingers” in his native Castlebar, the handlers try their best to ensure he has minimum engagement with those who ask the probing questions. The whole run-up to the election is perfectly scripted and staged.

There’s a good reason why Enda Kenny never appears on Tonight With Vincent Browne, he just can't cope with that kind of questioning. For our media, those kind of questions are reserved for People Before Profit or Sinn Fein, but the Taoiseach is largely left alone.

He is far more comfortable pressing the flesh with little old ladies than answering tough questions. He doesn’t stop for long enough on “walkabouts” for anyone to ask anything that might make him or his party handlers uncomfortable.

His stage-managed tours bring him to “positive” places, rather than the midland towns and city housing estates deep in recession, which have yet to be touched by the recovery.

So he talks about “recovery” and “stability” and anyone who threatens his narrative is seen to support the kind of “chaos” which will ensue if Sinn Fein, People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, or the myriad of independent factions get anywhere near power.

And everyone plays along. Access is granted if the hard questions are avoided. People can write all day about how good he is at pressing the flesh, but they never get to ask a serious question about issues such as homelessness, health care waiting lists, or how schemes like JobBridge are abused.

In this election, though, we should be grateful for social media. The landscape has been transformed. When people see videos of 100,000 people marching through Dublin city centre on Facebook, getting next to no coverage on national television, they begin to ask about pro-Government "spin".

More and more, people are beginning to ask questions about the information they are being fed. 

We see Irish Water protesters being labelled as the "sinister fringe" on the TV news, but the only footage we see of Gardai beating up protesters is away from the mainstream media.

On Facebook or Twitter, you can see photos of thousands upon thousands marching through the streets of the capital to protest against austerity, even if those images rarely end up in the national newspapers or on TV.

You can see the establishment politicians make fools of themselves, by trying to defend the indefensible in unguarded moments on Twitter.

You can find out about the parties’ policies by accessing their websites and avoiding the scare-mongering among some elements of the media.

By all means, question the policies of left wing groups such as PBP-AAA and Sinn Fein. A hung Dail, with so many Independents, is a scary thing. Perhaps they would lead Ireland to ruin. Fianna Fail certainly should know – they led Ireland to ruin only five short years ago.

By presenting voters with a stark choice between “stability” and “chaos”, though, elements of the establishment have gone too far. 

People don’t like to think they are being brainwashed or led a merry dance by those who have hidden agendas or a vested interest in holding onto power.

There is some vile stuff out there on social media, but it’s only there that you get a real taste of the anger running through the housing estates and parts of rural Ireland over the past five years. That anger surfaces at the Right2change protests, but rarely gets a look-in on national TV or our newspapers.

We have so many sources of information in 2016 that people can see right through the “spin”, in a way which would have been unthinkable before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. 

That can only be a good thing, when we’re sometimes faced with the kind of propaganda which would not seem out of place in Russia or Cuba.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A hatred based on ignorance

This time last week, I attended a Muslim festival.

A local school about 2km from where I was staying had been completely taken over by colourful food stalls, clothes stalls, children’s amusements, and temporary concert venues.

There were about 400 islanders milling about the place – and maybe ten tourists.

The welcome we received was incredible. Villagers were dressed to the nines for the three day festival and had a huge welcome for the two big Irishmen who arrived on motorcycles to see what all the fuss was about.

Koh Lanta is a pretty unique place. It had no electricity until 1997 and, before the tourists arrived, the population was a mixture of Muslim villagers and sea gypsies.

It’s been developed at an incredible rate since I first landed on Saladan pier 15 years ago, but still retains the kind of charm which has seen Thai Buddhist, Muslim, gypsy, Chinese and ‘farang’ (white foreign) immigrants live side-by-side in harmony for the past two decades.

My travelling companion had never been to Asia before and was blown away by the welcome of the ordinary people we met during a fortnight on the island, which has a popluation of about 30,000.

As we browsed through the market, people invited us to check out the home-made fare on offer. A young woman offered us a cup of tea, not looking for a cent in return.

The language barrier did not seem to matter, people genuinely wanted us to check out local hand-made goods and home-cooked foods, to make sure we were having a good time.

We had some wonderful banter with a group of young lads when I decided to buy a Liverpool FC beach towel and enjoyed sampling some of the local dishes as we made our way around the festival site.

This being 2016, the era of the mobile phone, we were able to meet a couple from home in the island’s only Irish bar a couple of hours later.

Long Beach, Koh Lanta
But, that night, so many of our preconceptions were blown away. 

We saw that ordinary Muslims love to dress up for special occasions, like most people do, and that the locals have a huge welcome for foreigners despite how much tourism has changed their island over the past two decades.

Even within Thailand, Koh Lanta is a special place. For over a decade now, Muslim separatists have been battling Thai Government forces in three of the nation’s southern provinces, but those hostilities have never reached the islanders on the Andaman Sea.

The warmth we experienced at that festival – even though we could have felt completely out of place – got us to thinking about people like Donald Trump and the irrational fear of the Muslim world they are trying to spread across the globe.

People like Trump don't want us to visit Koh Lanta or Malaysia, to see that ordinary Muslims are just like us, with hopes and dreams for peaceful, happy lives. That doesn't fit the current narrative.

A few days later, at the end of a fantastic holiday, I found myself back in wet and dreary Dublin only to be told that a new Islamophobic group called Pegida was about to hold their first public meeting in Ireland.

I was too jet-lagged to attend the counter-demonstration as I made my way home to Galway, but it was awful to think that people with racist or even fascist ideas were assembling in the capital of my country.

Ireland, more than any other country, has sent so many of its people away to live all across the globe and now people want to close our borders to troubled people who are fleeing persecution and slaughter in countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Thankfully, very few turned up to support the extremists' cause on Saturday.

I’ve seen the images of the clashes on social media and it’s clear that the fascists were put in their place.

The few who turned up were even chased by anti-fascists into a two euro store, as a large crowd chanted "Fascist scum off our streets".

For me, racism is based on ignorance.

The welcome my friend and I experienced from local Muslims on Koh Lanta last week was in complete contrast to the Islamophobia which seems to be sweeping across Europe and the US at the moment.

Instead of blaming the refugees for our nations’ ills, we should ask why our leaders are bombing the hell out of their countries and why so many have been displaced from their lands.

It’s a pity that the demonstration in Dublin ended in violence and that the Gardai drew their batons on the protesters.

It would be better if children could be brought along to an anti-fascist rally and that people could celebrate diversity in peace, harmony, and with a sense of fun.

Just as the lovely people on a Thai island made us feel so welcome 10,000kms from home.

The violence was regrettable. But at least the Islamophobes got the message that they are not wanted in this of all nations, the one which has exported so many of its people through good and bad times.