“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
– John Adams
“Well, if the vote is for Brexit things will be more interesting.” “Facts don’t matter”. “When I offered them my contact book, none were interested. Young journalists these days are only interested in a 9-5 job job which involves taking no risks.” These are all off record quotes from local working journalists or prominent political commentators over the last seven or eight years.
So what do we mean by public service journalism these days? What’s left of it when research is consigned to the past in a trade where the business model is in freefall? The best retain sceptical inquiry, without falling into the cynical mis-signals from Twitter and TickTok where what’s popular floats to the top above than what’s actually new.
One of my oldest schoolmates only ever wanted to be a reporter: a marvellous noun that describes its own essential function. Our long phone calls were punctuated by breaks to listen to the late news on Radio Ulster (which, as an exile back in the 80s and 90s, was a rare treat for me too) as he turned up the radio to listen to the latest breaking news.
Recently, however, he’s given up listening to everything but the early evening news, because, as he put it, it gives you something to eat your tea with. He notes how most news stations has dropped Ukraine and are now encamped in Gaza and Israel. Not even the licence fee is enough to maintain a meaningful attention to both at the same time.
What has replaced it is a politicised battle of narrative in which journalists passively herald other people’s views, where the most powerful, attractive and/or simplifying float to the top. News is no longer a quest to cut through the forest of the unknown in which hacks compete for new insight but to help third parties script their prefered simulacrums of the world.
A recent example was a BBC interview (spread over two programmes) with Tanaiste Micheál Martin in which there were just three main topics: the border poll trope; the likelihood of a united Ireland and a compare and contrast between commemorations of the war of independence and the commemoration of PIRA actions in Northern Ireland.
Research shows shows there’s nothing like a mandate for a border poll, including data gathered by academics who are publicly supportive of the idea that one is inevitable, such that the upper reaches of support for a UI only reaches 45%, and that only depends upon a highly unlikely low turnout for the proposition of NI remaining in the UK.
Yes, there is an ongoing conversation on future unity, but much of it is on Twitter and not in real Ireland (or indeed real Northern Ireland): much of it the same abstract variety that was prevalent in the pre GFA Ireland of the early 1970s when the same story was rendered as ‘Ireland Free in 73’. Fif tyyears later unity remains a shining glimmer on the horizon.
There was little discussion of current realities: ie, the absence of the Strands One and Two of the Belfast Agreement or more positively Martin’s Shared Island Initiative, which as well as developing research into shared needs and identifying opportunities without conditional outcomes, and the largest sum of investment by the southern state into Northern Ireland’s infrastructure.
Perhaps such focus on the issues that matter to ordinary people, their communities, and particularly the border regions, which builds on existing civic relationships and recognises that “identities aren’t one-dimensional” isn’t news any more? Maybe potential for reconciliation between parties in what some claim is an unquenchable conflict is just a buzz kill?
Yet, when you look away from the busy angry online world towards the more considered data (including the census)the letter that’s arriving on a slow boat from our past is that the past is over, and the door of the prison is open. This is not a Northern Irish feature alone. It’s reflected in the way connected tech is changing the modern method of creating knowledge.
As Kurt Andersen observed in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire
Before the Internet, crackpots were mostly isolated and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. Now their devoutly believed opinions are all over the airwaves and the Web, just like actual news. Now all the fantasies look real.<
We have fiction mimicking truth, and truth mimicking fiction. We have a dangerous overlap, a dangerous blur. And in all probability, it is not deliberate. In fact, that is part of the problem.
This is not just about the out and out fantasists, the deplorables, or even the controversialists moonlighting from other jobs (like Trump and his many analogues). One feature in elite commentary in Ireland over the years has been the morphing of political analysis into something more akin to literary criticism that puts certain ‘holy’ abstractions above the assaying of real issues.
This can lead to what Paul Collier and John Kay reference as ‘self righteous narcissism’ in their book Greed Is Dead as part of a wider analysis of how a once confident left, which in the mid 20th century brought in a whole raft of powerfully progressive rights-based reforms is now happier to “feel the Bern” rather than doing something tangible about solving social problems.
Take the riots in Dublin last week as an example? What triggered them? What fuelled them? How did the the cops handle it? There are no easy (or buzzy) answers. Debt, inequality and the dragging effects of the long crisis all will have played a part. After a week of widespread scrabbling around in the dark, Pat Leahy makes a decent stab at asking some of the right questions:
There is a sort of piety abroad that “this is not us”; I am afraid it very much is a part of us. These people are Irish. This is now an Irish social and political problem. Pretending that this isn’t us is like pretending that the city is adequately policed or that the streets aren’t frequently filthy. If you want to solve a problem, you have to face up to it.
This includes facing up to the fact that immigration has now become an issue in Irish politics. Every week now independent TDs use Dáil time to complain about the proposed accommodation of asylum seekers in their constituencies. Government TDs tend to raise their concerns in private, but they also see the public meetings in their constituencies and they hear the public concerns.
Systems frequently get upended by issues that they’ve rather busily tried to pretend did not exist. And the denial of those often hard to define (and even harder to track) problems by the very bodies set up to inform the public, only adds to the general distrust in those same institutions by relating something approximating the truth in its outflows to the wider public.
Those figures for racial abuse I shared last week, suggest Ireland is only beginning to learn how to manage the tensions that come with the integration of new populations into its society. But in Anti Systems Politics: The Crisis of Market Liberalism in Rich Democracies Jonathan Hopkins suggests it’s a stalled demand for greater economic equality rather than immigration that’s the key to resolution.
Ireland in this regard is in a delicate transition from the market fundamentalism of the Tiger years. The government’s house building programme suffered a delayed start through lockdowns, and will take at least another term in office before it can deliver a fit redress to the current housing crisis. But it’s also a race against what Rafael Behr calls a giant fracking of democracy, in which…
…it doesn’t really matter which side wins as long as everyone is more embittered and opinion more entrenched by the process. The primary goal is to aggravate grievance, spread doubt about the veracity of all sources and trigger a chain reaction of radicalisation…
…a malicious pollution of the information space that makes it hard to evaluate what is true, inviting the hyper-cynical conclusion that truth itself is unavailable from the established political channels.
The other thought I borrowed from Behr when I heard him talk at a book festival recently is that within political journalism the examination of possible or probable outcomes barely seems to feature in a time when journalists and editors are overtly socialised in a world where conforming to one’s one (invariably liberal) tribe now seems to matter more than the truth.
It’s as though there’s been a general flight from individual judgement, as if in fear of disjuncture from the crowd, or killing the buzz of chosen narrative. This is hardly new. The ultimate joke in Evelyn Waugh’s great skit on the vanities of professional journalism Scoop, is that it is bumbling naturalist who gets the prize because he wasn’t clever enough to follow “sources’.
It’s not new, but the hyper-socialisation of news and current affairs and the giddy investment in wherever the buzz comes from next, may be. Here’s the political theorist Hannah Arendt (H/T Raf) writing about an earlier (early 20th Century) age when the world momentarily slid towards a more totalitarian set of politics:
In an ever changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.
It spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds.
Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.
In the ceaseless demands for instant responses, where’s the opportunity to recuperate, to re-imagine the past, to re-immerse ourselves in the genuine complexities of the present and re-envision a larger future?
“Unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities. Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
– Phillip K Dick
*Headline nicked from Rafael Behr’s “Politics: A Survivor’s Guide“.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty