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UPDATE: This piece was written in response to earlier threats by O Brien to sue the Dail. Now he is threatening to sue the satirical website Waterford Whispers, for a satirical article. The article is no longer on their website, but you can find a link at the bottom of this post.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about how Denis O’Brien’s ability to scare Irish media from commenting on the specifics of relationship he has with state owned banks is a “threat to democracy.”
TD’s of all shades are claiming a “constitutional threat”, because Irish mainstream media refuses to report on the factual content of a statement read into the Dail by TD Catherine Murphy last week. And I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view.
But such utterances are founded upon the idea that we live in a functioning democracy. We don’t. We like in a technocratic representative democracy. Hired Knave has down a brilliant job of tackling this last week here
However it is worth looking over the terrain of conflict around Denis O’Brien trying to shut down public conversation about his 1.25% interest deal with IBRC.
Rarely do we ordinary plebs get to see the rich individual dinosaurs of inequality battle it out with institutions of the state and cultural power. O’Brien seeking to challenge TD’s speech and reporting is a ‘big story.’ But its also a familiar story across the globe were the concentration of media ownership allows rich and powerful people veneers of respectability as they go about the business of exploiting ever more people.
But there are much more interesting stories within that story.
We – those of us likely to spend the rest of our lives on the flip side of that inequality, those of us living with precarity – shouldn’t be simply be looking on as passive observers.
Before Denis O’Brien next hops on his private jet – to stay out of the country long enough to avoid paying taxes like the rest of us – perhaps it worth flagging a few reasons why we he might be doing us all a wee favour.
1 He provides us with a perfect example of how screwed mainstream media actually is.
Luckily for the plucky and otherwise brave and fearless media institutions like RTE, The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post, a judge has ruled today that those organisations wouldn’t be breaking an injunction granted to O’Brien last week. Independent News and Media played no part in the court proceeding because they are of course owned by the tax exile trying to do the gagging.
This is being lauded as a win for common sense, but in essence the judges ruling shows that fear of litigation held by large media organisations in Ireland trumped the simple act of transcribing or rebroadcasting protected speech from a left wing TD. Its a pyrrhic victory at best for the institutions themselves.
The ideology of bureaucratic risk managerialism is a poisonous one simply because it bleaches (individual and collective) values, ethics and moral into the amoral language of cost-benefit pragmatism. This cultural practice is now so deeply embedded in most institutions of state, media and professional political organisations that its impulse is followed through even though it results in de-legitimising the same organisations. That observation remains regardless or whether you think that de-legitimising is a good or bad thing. It is probably obvious I think its a good thing.
There is little difference in the calculus of the Irish Times, RTE et al deciding to not covering Murphys statement and the decision by Fianna Fail TD’s to not canvass for a ‘Yes’ vote in the marriage equality referendum. Both relied on a cost-benefit analysis devoid of ethical dimensions or of the demands of cursory social justice. Both have been found – in the eyes of an increasingly politicised public – to have made the wrong call.
I’m empathic to the precarious nature of journalism and some of the existential threats to business models. I get that people need to pay bills and have some sense of job security. We all need that. But most of us don’t. This isnt an accident. This is how late capitalism works. Media workers are in the same boat as the rest of us.
There is no doubt that journalism is a necessity in assisting wider publics to understand how society works, why inequality is growing and how it is that specific interests in Ireland have captured specific state decision making for their own benefits. And there is no doubt that those vested interests with fight with everything at their disposal to maintain their status quo.
But if journalists themselves dont or cant start to find ways of breaking out of the ideology of bureaucratic risk managerialism, or at least speaking out about the limitations of the job itself in speaking truth to power, there is little reason why the public will continue to support and pay for the product that Irish journalism produces.
Media organisations may feel that changing business models and consumption patterns and advertsing revenues posed a form of existential threat. I’d posit that a far greater threat in the longer term is the disillusionment of wide swathes of society because Irish media organisations bend the knee much more than they land punches.
Enforcing silence is perhaps the most corrosive structural element in reproducing injustice. The history of this state is littered with the consequences of institutions being able to keep things quietly to protect themselves against the organised hurt they carried out. It has only ever been the sustained struggles by people affected that ultimately break the silence. What we need most from journalism – be that lay or professional journalism – is a much more militant approach to transparency and accountability. Tackling enforced silence mean embracing enforced transparency. Tackling the illegitimate and unjust forces of power shown by O’Brien means embracing tactics and strategies of storytelling and truth telling based on bravery rather than fear.
2 He reminds us how important social media is to popular political education and informed publics
Last week I was working out in Slane for the set up of the gig on Saturday. By Friday everyone I spoke to knew that Denis O Brien managed to stop most media from reporting Murphy statement from the Dail. Many knew the specifics of his 1.25% interest deal with IBRC. Think about that. This wasn’t a newsroom, or a meeting of political activists. This was a temporary workplace made up mostly of people in precarious work, in a field in Meath without a TV or newspaper in sight. Social media and communication technology, used by ordinary people to find out what was going on, bypassed high court injunctions and mainstream media stalling.
It is without doubt that these networks, many or which have emerged during Irish Water mobilisations, have become channels of information sharing and political discourse that are shaping political literacy in our wider population. These networks eschew ‘balance’ and ‘objectivity’ in favour of being tools of active narrative making. They have fluid boundaries that make the distinction between online and offline increasingly obsolete.
I made a point of checking the YouTube of Catherine Murphy statement in to Dail as news broke on Twitter or todays ruling. The video had been watched over 34,000 times. In the metric of YouTube hits that might not seem massive. But no one likely watched that video and didn’t chat to someone about it. Its was a conversation primer. Id hazard a guess that few watched it a didn’t figure out even if this was all legal, it was also a stitch-up.
Likewise Twitter and Facebook was alight with #redacted as people crowd sourced previous attempts by O’Brien to censor media. They shared screen grabs of the Moriarty reports showing O’Brien payments to bent politician FG Michael Lowry. Others created meme’s and visual images taking the piss out of O’Brien and media organisations. Some where humorous, some where angry, some kind of daft, many, many deeply on point.
Broadsheet.ie deserve a special mention. They in particular have been head and shoulders above all on the Irish media landscape in not being afraid to bust the respect for authority on this issue (and others like police corruption.)
Waterford Whispers used satire to rip the shite out of O’Brien and compliant media organisations. Their “Maltese Tax Exile Briefs Government On What To Say Next” was shared over 11,000 times
And of course left wing social media groups and organisations tooks no pause in sharing out the details of Murphys statement. One Visual image shared out by SolidarityTimes have been viewed over 35,000 times.
Personal blogs posts offering an analysis on O’Brien versus media have also been getting very high hits. In very brief chats with Hired Knave and Oireachtas Retort before posting this both described how their O’Brien related posts were going through the roof even though they spend little time promoting them. Again the networks of local community anti water tax groups acted as a conduits for sharing, liking, reading and discussion.
All these totally circumscribed O’Briens legal threats and used diverse language and literary forms to articulate a deep frustration with how power works in this state. Social media and communication technology clearly allows us to create our own analysis, much of it geared to a radical analysis that desires real social transformation. And by radical I mean going to the roots of issues, not just the veneer of a 24hr news cycle.
From the perspective of struggles against structural imposition of inequality – of which O’Brien’s matters are but one specific symptom and reproducing cause – what we are seeing here relates very much to Gramsci’s ‘war of position.’ The idea that a central component (and indeed strategy) of pro-democracy/equality social movements is the challenging of common sense by remaking common sense itself.
In the specifics of this case it means challenging the common sense presented by O’Brien and his team of the green jersey wearing hard working man fighting for his privacy as well as the common sense that present day mainstream media institutions are harbringers of as-yet unfullfilled democratic possibilities.
This proffering of analysis by citizen journalists or innately curious human beings motivated by social justice, or blogging punters – call them/us what you will – offers a much more rich and nuance tapestry of democratic expression that you will find in any mainstream media organisations products. Laden not just with critique, readers know that at the core of this lies other possibilities that the present set up actually negates. We are making relationships of understanding between our own existences and the reality of macro economics and micro corruptions. This of course will not bring about change itself.
What O’Brien has helped us do – as with Irish Water and years of austerity – is help us find each other. Communication technology is not a panacea for the ills of late capitalism, but it can and does provide both tools and public space for deliberation, education and community/movement building essential for challenging social systems that enable the continuing growth of massive inequality and illegitimate power.
Which perhaps brings me nicely to this next point we could thank O’Brien for.
3 He reminds us that censorship is something the Labour party are pushing in government.
The Irish government is a fan of censorship as I outlined a few weeks back. If the proposed censorship bills by the Labour Party pass, you could be taken to court for sharing this post with your friends across your social media networks if Denis O Brien was offended by it.
The present bills allow for people – particularly the rich and litigious type we know so well – to shut up people blogging, tweeting and sharing updates, articles and analysis that they merely find offensive.
In this respect I predict that tomorrow ventures by Joan Burton’s PR team to engage the population with the #TalkToJoan hashtag will be used by right wing Labour members to illustrate once again that ordinary people voicing anger at state policies are a dangerous rabble.
4 He reminds us that controlling communication is what Denis O’Brien does.
Curtailing peoples capacity to communicate might seem like an odd thing for a man so heavily involved in telecommunications. At first glance it seems counter-intuitive. Surely he wants people to talk is he is in the telecommunications business?
Well not really.
In reality Denis O’Brien isn’t interested in enabling communication between people. He is interested in controlling the means of communication in order to maximise the benefit for himself and the companies he owns. If peoples communication damages those benefits then Denis will quite happily stuff gagging orders down their throats. It is the archetypical approach of media megalomaniacs.
And I use the term benefits rather than profits deliberately. Profits are a particular type of benefit, but they are not the only one. Today O’Brien got a full page spread to state his case that hes is being demonised. Yet not one of us called ‘facists’ or ‘nazi’s under Dail privilege has gotten a full page spread in the IT to refute such exaggerated and disgusting slurs.
I was on the Marian Finucane show at the start of February trying to make that exact point via phone. In the studio Thomas Molloy, Group Business Editor of O’Briens IMN tried to argue that O Brien exercised no control over his papers employed journalists .
There’s no polite way of putting this. Molloy is either a liar or is Group Business Editor for the state largest media organisation with little cognisance of what actually goes on under the bonnet of IMN. O’Brien specifically intervened to try and get Sam Smyth kicked off the Independents coverage of Moriarty tribunal as Smyth was making O’Brien look back by printing the facts. Those facts being O’Brien paid cash to a Michael Lowry.
Of course Molloy didn’t like the temerity of a wee bollix like me calling out O’Brien on the day his own front page called anti water tax protests an “attack on democracy” He refused couldn’t bring his plummy voiced self to address me by name, instead calling me one of “these people.” I had very little to do to show the contempt Molloy holds for most folks outside his golden circle. You know, people actually pushing for social justice and democracy.
O’Brien has a long history of shutting down free speech that challenges his world view. And like most media owners he has a long history of using his media companies to present an analysis of the world that suits himself. That’s want most for profit owners do.
He even made this point himself the last time the Irish Times gave over a page or two to decry how he was being demonised back in 2011. He describes how the previous owner O’Reilly used the paper to attack O’Brien as O’Brien was engaged in a slow hostile takeover of the organisation. He made no bones about the fact that the paper was a tool for O’Reilly. Yet Molloy now asks us to believe that O Brien doesnt so same as previous owners.
O’Brien goes out of his way to play the “im wearing the green jersey” and did it again in today Irish Times. One has to wonder is it now fierce warm to be wearing that in Malta.
5 O’Brien reminds us to follow the money.
O’Brien says in todays Irish Times he is a republican with a small ‘r.’ He might as well say he is an anarchist with a small ‘a’ or a socialist with a small ‘s’. He is in fact a capitalist with a capital ‘C’ without the courage and honesty to say so.
Ireland is a corrupt bought and sold state, with its officials and owners in permanent denial that our society is run a functionary of late capitalism, specifically beholden to financial capitalism. Many will complain that the present banking inquiry is futile, no one will go to jail and everyone is escaping scott free.
But that misses the point. Sure, the banking inquiry is set up to fail if we see success as a pair of handcuff on smug rich men. However there is no smoking guns. There is no bad guys sitting stroking cats and planning our future precarity. There is just patterns of behaviours, relationships based in shared ideology and lots and lots of money if you are willing to forgo a pretence that democracy and equality actually matters to you. Ireland is the country were if you want to get along the most important talent to have is low cunning. Its all in the game..
There is just the mundane reality of people like of O’Brien telling his mates in the banks what interest he’s willing to pay for cheap deals. Mundane facts of Enda Kenny meeting with O’Brien in the Shelbourne to plan out what moves their vision of society now needs. The mundane reality of vulture capitalists buying low when blood is on the streets. The mundane stupidity of papers like the Sunday Business Post getting hard ons for ideas like infinite growth on a planet of finite resources.
Just the mundane reality of silent circles still craving to hold on to power and wealth and decision making. The mundane rituals of respect for respectability. Just the mundane reality of identikit professional politicians within the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael devoid of any type of social vision beyond that proffered in quiet meetings.
Just the mundane world view held by the deeply ideological civil service in the permanent state always looking forward to the next asset stripping so they so can magic up a revolving door they can jump through. Just the mundane reality of big Irish lawyer firms ready to rubber stamp the money flows laundered through our state by multinationals running a global network of legal criminality.
Just mundane facts of men in suits, well educated in legalese and accountancy trickery and PR spin and high frequency trading and shelf companies and tax avoidance and promissory notes and interest rates and asset stripping and all the other mundane obtuse realities far too complex for people like us to understand.
Far too dangerous for people like us to be involved with.
Far too important for people like me and you to be part of actual democratic discussion and deliberation.
Except that we were and are talking about it when mainstream media was silenced and cowed.
We did speak about it in a field in Meath while setting up a gig were people would get drunk and dance in the pissing rain. We pulled it apart online and in pubs and around dinner tables as we crowd sourced and commented. Shrill voices from professional politicians called this an attack on democracy, and engaged in shadow puppetry debate, ever careful to not talk about the actual facts.
And we will continue to do so.
And more question arises for us all.
How do we best use these tools at our disposal?
What would a culture of enforced transparency look like? And how could it be used to removed silence and ignorance. To shine lights on aspects of the captured state?
Should we be hacking more, should be be setting up platforms for leaking more? Should a radical-tech community (does one exist?) be reaching out to journalists?
Any as I post this more question come to mind. Why was it that the ‘Anglo tapes’ were leaked to INM via Paul Williams who in effect is a Garda spokesperson. He clearly is not an investigative journalist. Perhaps that was the point? I dunno.
More questions arise as I write but for today perhaps we have a little to be thankful to O Brien for. Because it gives us all pause to think about questions of how the people living in this state will never live lives as equals while such unjust powers and scare tactics are seen as legitimate and part of democracy.
Heres that link to the Waterford Whispers piece