Monday, December 28, 2009

Scoop? Brian Lenihan's cancer diagnosis

Link to the YouTube video of the TV3 broadcast:

It might be Christmas, a time when regional journos like me are sitting at home drowning our sorrows (or toasting our joys, whichever). But for the "vultures" in the national media, Christmas is a time like any other, a time when stories are made and broken, and can sometimes have the same effect on people.
I say "vultures" because I was rather torn this week when the story of Brian Lenihan's cancer diagnosis broke, on St Stephen's Day.
And I do call it a story, something which may offend non-media people reading this.
A number of conversations I've had with different people in the two days since the story broke have served only to show me that we in the media think completely differently from 'civilians'.
Before I go into this further I will just say, for the record, that I wish Brian Lenihan the best with his illness. It must be an absolutely awful time for him and for his family and friends. My own family has been through this and I know how difficult it is. On a human level this news is among the worst you can get and I hope that he can get through it with the support of his loved ones. The media coverage, particularly when all his family had not been informed, must have been a further blow.
Going back to the story, there has been a huge amount of criticism of the manner in which it was broken. There have even been a number of Facebook groups set up a) in support of Mr Lenihan and b) to protest at TV3's handling of the story.
The general reaction seems to be one of disgust at the way TV3 broke the story over the Christmas break, after seemingly issuing Mr Lenihan with an ultimatum - he was forced to inform people on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day whom he may otherwise not have informed for quite a while. According to the Irish Independent (link above) a number of his family members were not aware of the nature of his illness before the broadcast, at 5.30pm on St Stephen's Day.
As one friend put it, 'That used to be the difference between the English press and the Irish press' - the fact that the Irish press respected personal privacy and 'open secrets'. Like that of the affair between Charles J Haughey and Terry Keane, or the fact that Bertie Ahern was living with Celia Larkin, or the drink problems that are consistently whispered about in relation to senior politicians in this country, or a million other aspects of politicians'  and other public figures' personal lives, .
Of course, the serious illness of a Cabinet Minister does not reflect on his character in the way that, say, an extra-marital affair or a drug problem might. But I agree with TV3 on one thing - that it will have implications for the country.
Brian Lenihan is arguably the best Minister serving in the current Cabinet. He is constantly mooted as Brian Cowen's successor, and he is generally considered intelligent, educated, and remarkably free from the insane level of populism that has tainted so many of his colleagues.
The fact that he is so seriously ill and may have to step down in 2010 is nothing short of a disaster for a Government that has weathered some major storms in 2008 and 2009, against all the odds. That would prompt a Cabinet reshuffle, bickering among backbenchers, junior ministers and senior ministers who will all want a sweetener (especially after taking fairly hefty pay cuts), and will throw Cowen's Government right back into the mire it has just, miraculously, climbed out of. Public support for Lenihan is far in excess of that for Cowen (even before the diagnosis), and he has been an asset to the Government. Without him, it's possible that the public will completely turn away from the Government, and the 'buy-in' it has been so anxious to achieve, will be lost.
Having said all of that, it's hard to see why TV3 couldn't have waited just one more day. I understand the urgency of wanting to be first with a story. During last year's Galway Water Crisis ('the one with the lead'),
I was hopping out of my skin to be first, but was defeated by working for a weekly paper - the local radio station scooped me by a day, although I'd known of the story for two days before them.
What my friend said about the Irish media is true - there are still some standards that do not apply in Britain. The issue of Lenihan's diagnosis appears to have been subject to some kind of Gentleman's Agreement - rumours had been circulating within a very small media and political circle for over a week. And obviously a decision was taken to wait until after Christmas, for which TV3 deserve some credit. A gentleman's agreement, however, is just like those old-fashioned pistol duels, where you are trusting the other person not to draw before you do. Somebody is always going to cheat, and you might as well be first.
And TV3 would have been afraid, with the might of RTE and that of Denis O'Brien's twin channels, Newstalk and Today FM, that they'd be scooped. Unlikely, because most of the current affairs heavy hitters in both places - the likes of Matt Cooper, Mark Little, Pat Kenny - are all on Christmas holidays. And it's unlikely that a story of that magnitude would be left to the fill-in journos to break - that decision would be made further up the line. RTE would've been unlikely to break it, because they know on which side their bread is buttered - so it was left to an independent newsroom to do so.
Ursula Halligan has been building a very strong reputation in recent years, and it remains to be seen whether this story will make or break her. It could give her the serious news credentials she is looking for, or it could make her a pariah. She can certainly forget about landing a plum job in Government Information Services - ever. Even Fine Gael wouldn't hire her after this!
Whatever their reasoning, this appears to have been a serious error of judgment by the TV3 editorial staff. We've all made them, but, to judge by the level of public condemnation, this one might stick.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best site ever for media nerds

This site is fun, tremendous fun as my mother would say!

For those of you not in the media, keep an eye out for the little 'Corrections & Clarifications' box in your local paper. The Times' one is rarely entertaining but as this site shows, some of them can be downright hilarious.

Abuse and the Irish

The Listowel sex assailant is to appeal his conviction.

Speaking to a friend who is from Listowel over the weekend, some of my suspicions about this case were confirmed.

Without wishing to compromise her anonymity, the girl is from what would be considered a 'rough' area in the town.

Foley is from a GAA family and his brother (I think) played for Kerry.

This is not just small-town. This is a clear and simple class issue, made starker by being played out on a very small stage.

This case stinks.

In other news the revelation that Gerry Adams' brother is a paedophile and his father allegedly abused also is quite shocking. Between this, Listowel and the church scandals that finally seem to be hitting the Church where it hurts - captains resigning rather than footsoldiers - perhaps this is a watershed in this country's relationship with abuse and sexuality and where they intersect.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The sinister side of rural Ireland

Rural Ireland is a sinister place. On the surface, small villages are fantastic. A sense of community, everyone knowing everyone else, and sometimes, if you're lucky, a real pride of place and a sense of shared history that binds people together.

But there is a sinister side to village life.

The very 'shared history' that binds people can tear them apart, and 'community' can quickly turn to pure parochialism when something goes wrong. Our own village has a 200 year old feud between neighbouring families - one of whose ancestors shopped the other to the local squire for republican activities in the 1700s, causing his execution. Every time there is drink taken the feud reappears.

There are three Irish writers who have illustrated this dichotomy beautifully; Martin McDonagh, in his brilliant Leenane trilogy; Pat McCabe, in the Butcher Boy and other work; and John B. Keane, the legendary playwright and raconteur whose epic work The Field showed off rural Ireland at its darkest; a village divided by greed, power, corruption and parochialism.

Keane's home town of Listowel, Co Kerry, this week became the epicentre of a scandal involving a sexual assault and a town divided between victim and accused. While everyone is innocent until proven guilty - especially in such a serious case, where a man's reputation will be destroyed if wrongly accused - the accused in this case, Danny Foley, has been convicted of a serious and violent sexual assault. But his conviction, with a unanimous jury and a hefty sentence (for this type of offence) did not convince his supporters.

50 of them, mostly middle aged and older men, queued up to shake his hand after he was convicted. They included his local parish priest.

This procession of shame took place in the courtroom where the victim was sitting, appalled and humiliated. Although her anonymity has been respected by the media, as is their legal obligation, Listowel is a small place, and the whole town knows her identity.

The town is reportedly split between her family and that of the convicted sex offender, whose parish priest said he "doesn't have an abusive bone in his body". Well, I'm sorry, Fr Sheehy, but he does. A court of law has found that he does. And by claiming otherwise, you are accusing the victim of wasting police time, perjury, and slander.

She is being shunned; refused service in pubs and shops as if she were the criminal.

While there are other issues here about treatment of women and our attitudes towards sexual crime, the clear implication of this case is that our history over the past few years - Magdalen laundries, clerical and other sexual abuse, domestic violence and terrorism all kept secret to look after 'our own' - have taught us absolutely nothing about what it means to be a society.

The shock and disgust apparent at the revelations of the Murphy and Cloyne investigations into religious institutions can be no more than posturing, if we have not taken the lessons of the reports to heart; there can be no more turning a blind eye, no more defence of the indefensible and no more defiance of the rule of law where it happens to apply to somebody we know. Bishop Donal Murray has (finally) acknowledged this last rule and resigned, but only after a fight.

The banking and political scandals that have been rocking this country - 'Seanie' Fitz, 'Fingers' Fingleton and their blatant disregard for the law, and a number of corrupt politicians who continue to get elected despite defrauding their constituents and everybody else - are a less emotive but just as fundamental symptom of our appalling lack of perspective when it comes to application of the law, and of basic moral standards.

This is a small country; everyone knows everyone. That's what makes Ireland a welcoming and warm country, but it's also what made it corrupt, immoral and backward when Keane wrote The Field.

Whatever our developments over the past few years, cases like this one in Listowel show that this Ireland has not disappeared.

UPDATE: The priest has resigned

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Children and animals...

This video was doing the rounds of the office this morning. I'm not feeling the Mae West after a night out courtesy of Fuzion Communications (thanks guys... I think!) but this definitely lifted my spirits!

They say never work with children or animals but this unfortunate presenter has both real children and fake animals to deal with, never an easy task. I love the way he tries to hold it altogether at first but just gives in after a while.

And as for poor Kevin... he will never, ever forget that day! (Or maybe he will, considering he "is a sheep"!)

Here's a link to the video...

It's a Wonderful Life

It may be cheesy, but It’s a Wonderful Life is the perfect Christmas film for all of us this year.

I scoffed at the person who told me to bring tissues to the screening. I am a cynical journalist, I told them, and I do not cry at soppy movies! By the end, both I and the (equally cynical) politician I went to the movie with were bawling. The teacher sitting between us was dry-eyed. What this says about our respective professions I don’t know.

But I digress. For those of you who don’t know the story, George Bailey is a dreamer saddled with mundane responsibilities. His local town, Bedford Falls, is run as a fiefdom by the malicious millionaire Potter, and George’s family has been the only one to stand up to him, founding a Building & Loan society that is helping to pull people out of slums and poverty.

It’s the usual David & Goliath, good versus evil story you see in Christmas films. But what’s particularly resonant about it today, in Ireland, is the fact that it’s all about banks. Banks, building, and small businesses.

George’s business is more like a charity. He runs it for the good of the community, and has forgone the opportunity to get rich to do so. Potter, on the other hand, is a rich, miserable, control freak who thrives on the unhappiness of others – he profits massively from the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which increases his hold over the town.

Under these circumstances, small businesses like George’s can barely survive. But George, through a combination of adroitness and kindness, manages to keep a roof over his head and those of his customers.

Without ruining the ending for you, the fact that George’s business continues to grow is no thanks to the bank, which is owned by big, bad Potter. It’s thanks to the small-timers.

The comparisons between Depression-era Bedford Falls and modern Ireland are stark.

Every day we are seeing small businesses go to the wall while our taxes bail out banks whose greed during the good times now holds the country to ransom. In our case, however, the ‘small-timers’ – taxpayers and social welfare recipients – are cushioning banks, while small businesses like the Bailey Building & Loan have nowhere to go for help.

With the City Council this week deciding not to hike rates for 2010, it’s clear the powers that be recognise businesses are facing a tough year. But it’s not enough.

Businesses suffering from the recession, lack of consumer confidence and of course the floods need more from Government than a constant assurance that prices are dropping. They need practical help – an onus on the banks to be more flexible would help.

For businesses like Plugd Records, which this week announced its closure, it’s all been too much. They need more than is being given.

To that end the Cork Independent hopes to play a very small part in helping flood-affected businesses get back on their feet, by offering free coverage to those re-opening in January (see p46 for details).

It’s a small thing, but, like the community of Bedford Falls, the community of Cork has rallied. The Raising Cork quiz and the various charity collections going on at the moment show that people are generous even in adversity Individual charity donations are up; staff in our office donated to the Saint Vincent de Paul rather than do our customary Kris Kindle this year.

There is an understanding now, more than there ever was in the Celtic Tiger years, that there but for the grace of God go we. Together, we can take whatever is thrown at us; it might be hard, but it’s a wonderful life.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Catholic Church in Ireland: the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?

After reading Theo Dorgan's thought-provoking piece in today's Irish Times, something struck me.

The horror and sorrow of those who trusted the Church at these latest revelations, and the bishops' sadly inadequate reactions to them, is not present among my generation.

To those of us who grew up in the 1990s, this is completely normal.

We do not know a Church that engenders fear. We do not even know a Church that engenders respect. We know only a Church that engenders disgust, anger and the desire for retribution and the toppling from pedestals of idols who have been falsely worshipped for too long.

My childhood was full of the Church. Small rural villages were still built around the GAA and the Church in the early 1990s. These days my cousins go to Ju Jitsu instead of camogie, and the Crescent Shopping Centre instead of Mass. And why wouldn't they?

I was the most dedicated member of our parish choir from 8 to about 15, when I got too cool. At about 9, I pleaded with my mother to let me be an altar server. The boys in my class had served Mass for years, and it was opened to girls later. She said no. Now, I know why. Not because she had any suspicions about our local priest,  a genuinely nice man, and one of the good guys. Because she wasn't going to let me serve at an altar I could never preside over. She didn't raise me to be anybody's handmaiden.

By the time my Confirmation came about, I'd decided I was an atheist. Or maybe an agnostic. I didn't really know the difference and I didn't really care. I knew I didn't believe in all the smoke and mirror, incense-scented hokum that had entranced me just a year or two previously. I have a bit more respect for the Catholic religion these days, but my views on the Church have steadily deteriorated.

Since my Confirmation, fallen idols like Eamonn Casey and paedophiles like Brendan Smith have become almost the norm. Throughout my teenage years there were reports upon reports, revelatory television shows and tell-all books that opened up the dreadful wounds of a country in its infancy where the price of freedom had been a new, more evil tyranny.

On a visit to the Vatican a couple of years ago, I found myself crying with rage. I was so angry I had to leave. The wealth and ostentation, and above all, cheek,  of a small group of Western men who are still telling the rest of the world how to live was like a ball of rage in the pit of my stomach. Comparing the splendours of St Peter's Basilica with the misery of people in, in particular, Africa, who continue to spread and contract HIV/AIDS because the Vatican prohibits contraception was eye-opening. The fact, too, that this was the biggest club in the world, and as a woman I couldn't fully join it, angered me. 

Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and the legion of books like it made the miserable Irish Catholic childhood almost fashionable, and most people my age have by now found out whether their parents experienced it or not. But it's almost a given, now, that they did. To some degree.

The shocked reactions of people their age - fifties and older - to the latest series of revelations, first from Cloyne and now from Dublin, is to us, disingenuous at best. We've all known this was about to burst for quite a while now. So why the shock?

Theo Dorgan's assertion that this is the beginning of the end for the Church in Ireland is interesting, because he is still in the mindset of somebody who grew up with an infallible Church. Find me somebody under forty who thinks like this. As far as we are concerned, the beginning of the end took place a long time ago.

Christmas spirit

Despite the Budget doom and gloom, there seems to be a surfeit of Christmas spirit around at the moment. This is the first year I've ever seen mulled wine for sale in Ireland, and it's definitely a welcome development!
Cork Marketing Partnership's Christmas Celebration on Grand Parade is an inspired idea. Having received both pictures and press releases over the past few weeks, I was still a bit unclear as to what was actually happening there. I blame my own lack of attention for this and not a deficiency in the press releasing skills of Steve from the Partnership!
Wandering past on Friday at lunchtime I was all agog at the mulled wine, pig on a spit and even sausages in a bun (no CMOT Dibbler, Pratchett fans). I went back on Saturday for a look - twice - because the Peace Park wasn't open during the day. On Saturday evening I went back to see it in all its winter wonderland glory, and the boyfriend and I agreed that it most reminded us of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, probably the most Christmassy place on earth. Little kids squealing with excitement at photo points with Rudolph, Santa and various Christmassy characters (although I'm not sure about the giant squirrel), elderly couples walking around holding hands, Christmas music playing and lights in every tree and bush in the park. Not to mention the best bit - the fake snow! I've always been a sucker for all things Christmassy and the Christmas Celebration on Grand Parade is up there with the best of them in providing a lovely, free activity for families and couples in search of some Christmas cheer. A hot port in Mutton Lane on the way, and home to make and write the Christmas cards. You might not live in a Disney movie but this sure is a good way of pretending to...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Desserts... but not "just" desserts

No room to Budge(t)

Sorry for the terrible pun... but I couldn't resist it.

This week's editorial, written in post-Budget craziness!

Waiting for yesterday’s Budget, one thing was clear. From radio, television, Twitter, Facebook and carrier pigeon the message was coming across loud and clear that people were terrified and angry.
I learned at about 11am that protesters had already assembled outside Leinster House to protest against ‘potential’ cuts to be made in the Budget. While much of the document’s content had been gradually leaked over the past number of weeks, it was clear that whatever Brian Lenihan came up with, there were going to be protests against it.
Fair enough – measures announced yesterday will have a serious impact on a lot of people. But protesting before you even know what you’re protesting against is something else.
The Government press office are masters of spin, and there’s no doubt that this Budget was spun like candy floss, until whatever substance there was in it was hidden in a cloud of speculation and worry.
Over the past couple of weeks, the idea that public sector pay would be cut and a carbon tax would be imposed became pretty certain. But most people were expecting larger cuts to social welfare and a bigger impact on income in the private sector, so understandably breathed a sigh of relief when these did not materialise.
The response, which began before the speech concluded, is a predictable mixture of both justified and unjustified protests, complaints and sectional interests protecting their patch.
While Brian Lenihan was at pains to suggest that this would be the hardest Budget of this recession, it’s almost certain that it won’t be. The country’s structural deficit will be somewhat addressed by cuts to public sector pay, but the drastic restructuring needed did not materialise.
The major step of cutting public sector pay, which has been the most controversial aspect of the financial situation over the past year, has been taken. This is going to create serious unrest. Elsewhere on this page, read about GRA members in Cork who are soon to be ballotted about industrial action. Taking a cut of between five and eight per cent under yesterday’s Budget, there is little doubt that they will vote to strike. And with one SIPTU official calling this “the harshest Budget since the 1930s”, they will not be alone. The public service has been hit hard and will strike back.
But they are not alone – the student maintenance grant, carers’ payments, child benefit and dole payments have all been cut.
Business organisations and many private sector workers have been seeking such cuts, but their introduction may change the minds of many on their relative benefits; how many private sector workers have children in college, elderly parents being cared for, or public sector spouses?
While the Government had no room to budge – whatever they cut would hurt somebody – it will become apparent in the days and weeks ahead whether they have made the right choices.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Florence and the Machine

Florence and the Machine are playing in Cork this weekend. Check out Brian's feature on Florence and the fantastic acts supporting her in this week's paper.

I absolutely love Florence. I have never played a CD so often, on repeat, nor so loud. She has the most amazing voice, with depth and pain and soul, and her songs speak to me like none ever have. I have the same passion for that album that I had for the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, and I can't help thinking there are more parallels there than just my feelings for them. Both Florence's album and the Narnia books speak of epic journeys, pain, and the ultimate triumph of goodness and glory.

So I should be delighted she is playing in Cork. I couldn't get tickets for her in Dublin, as they sold out within minutes. And, even more, this gig is actually free. Free! And, doing the job I do, in Cork, I am able to get on the guest list. Thank God for pull.

Not only is there Florence, but the Magic Numbers and Lisa Hannigan, two more of my favourite acts, are supporting. In the Opera House. Five minutes from where I live.

It's like it was fated. Except for one thing... I can't go.

I have a prior commitment.

To put some perspective on it, when I told my boyfriend Florence was playing in Cork, he said he would break up with me if I didn't get us tickets. And I duly did.

Before I realised it was on the same night as that prior commitment; his granny's birthday.

There are some things worth the sacrifice. I suppose.

Compromise will hurt services

Compromise will hurt services

Conflicting statements from the Government and the unions over the last few days have left most of us in a state of some confusion. The fact that they are talking again, rather than issuing tit-for-tat hollow threats, is to be welcomed, but the subject and focus of these talks are something to be wondered at.

A number of weeks ago I wrote about a campaign run by the public service unions that was disingenuous at best, and at worst cynical and dishonest. I won’t go over old ground, but the campaign in question featured stock images of a fictitious sick baby (‘Laura’) and the claim that the child needed services more than the Government needed to cut them.

And what has happened since? One public service strike, which caused a lot of hassle (for non-public service parents in particular, many of whom lost a day’s pay in order to stay at home and mind their kids). Widespread flooding across the country, throughout which public service workers have been admirably diligent and dedicated. And now, talks which have seemingly resulted in a decision not to cut their pay, but to cut the amount of time they work.

I may be getting something wrong here, but will this not impact directly on the level of services being offered to ‘Laura’ and others like her?

It’s not fair to blame public sector workers for the disaster the country is in. And if you follow this line of reasoning, it’s not fair to cut their pay either. But companies across the country have already done this, and private sector workers, most of whom did not get any great benefit from the boom, have already taken the pain.

I have great admiration for most public servants. I could never be a nurse, or a teacher – I simply don’t have those skills. But the unions are doing their members a disservice by talking out of both sides of their mouths.

Unions represent their members. They do not represent anyone else – sick babies, old people or flood victims. This is evidenced by the proposal to cut days worked, which will have a clear and major impact on services provided, especially those in key front line areas, where staff are already stretched.

The Government and unions have been uniquely short-sighted in seeing this as a solution. As one private sector friend of mine suggested yesterday, why not reduce public sector sick pay to the statutory level that private sector workers have? This would decrease the amount of absenteeism and make a hug saving. Some imagination would not go amiss.

Another public sector strike would merely have served to deepen the divide between public and private sector workers, when we really are in this together. Let’s just hope a more imaginative and equitable solution can be found.