Warning – long post ahead!
I blogged previously of my withdrawal of flash fiction from The Irish Times after their involvement in the controversy surrounding the late Kate Fitzgerald. Following furious reader feedback at some ill-advised remarks by the paper’s editor, Kevin O’Sullivan, the Irish Times‘s online editor, Hugh Linehan, has responded to some of the issues raised. I thank Mr Linehan for his comments. I would like to go into more detail about some of the things he has said – and my thoughts on what now needs to be done – but first I would like to add a long personal aside. I am writing not as a writer – yes I know that’s oxymoronical – but as a campaigner. Normal service is suspended. I have a dog in this fight.
Two years ago, I failed a psychometric test.
I was interviewing for a job for which I had already received a verbal offer. I had been seeking work for some time, so to have the offer was great for me. The test was merely a formality, I was assured. But later on, the assessor told me that my results established that I was highly bright, but a poor team player and very emotionally unstable. The people called me in for a third interview – and summarily withdrew their offer.
To use a cliché, I was devastated. I had been looking forward to again being able to plan for my future. On my return to the assessor, he was far more hostile to me than he had been previously. He drew a line on a piece of paper. “Here’s the middle,” he said, “and here’s you.” An asterisk right near the extreme end. Not ON the end, mind you, since I was demonstrably not mad – but close enough. Then he rounded on me. “How did you get this far in life without having learned to keep your emotions under control?” As if I were a failed dog trainer. Or a spoiled child who had never learned maturity. My personality, my intensity, my sensitivity – all were a matter of fault as his finger jabbed angrily at that marginal little asterisk that was me. When I wrote in my last post, “Are you sure you are good enough for Them?”, deep down I already knew I wasn’t. Because I had been tested, and had failed.
“I can help you, if you want,” he said, “but it has to come from you.” It took me a while to realise that no, actually, I did not need his help. I have worked in teams and everything is fine. It took a toughness that only comes from having lived in the world to realise I could disregard his words.
So, when I read Kate Fitzgerald’s unexpurgated article, I felt sick inside. It was like reading the same thing all over again. And I felt so sad and frustrated too. “If only you lived long enough,” I sighed at her ghost, “to realise it’s all a load of bullsh**, what They tell you.” I work in teams and so far nobody has died I have no doubt Ms Fitzgerald would have done far better in that test than I did.
My situation is not like Kate Fitzgerald’s. I have never been intimidated in that way, thank God. I cannot imagine what it must have been like. But I do know that when They call her a liar, They call me a liar too, because I am marginal. When They silence her, They silence me. As the New Testament says – what you do or fail to do to these people, you do or fail to do to me. That is my stake in proceedings.
Now – to the Irish Times article by Mr Linehan.
I commend him for writing it and I commend the paper for continuing to cover the fact that they were in deep doo-doo with members of the public. Given that nobody else was uttering a peep, they did not have to do that. They say “[We] have been very aware throughout of the criticism of The Irish Times on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.” He is telling the truth; I can see that they viewed this blog and I’ve no doubt others too. He made some points on why they felt obliged to edit the article which I could – very reluctantly – understand.
Will this change my stance on submitting fiction to the Irish Times or reading the paper? Very unfortunately, not at present.
The article has been so lawyered en route to publication that it has become a mere echo of the Furious Readers’ concern in the first place. “We’re angry” they said. “Readers are angry”, the article replies, to which the only response is “that’s what we bloody well said in the first place!” I do not believe it is a deliberate rhetorical trick, just the result of a heavy and unreasonable obligation pressed down on the writer from elsewhere to stay non-committal in defiance of his own feelings and of plain good sense. It doesn’t work for me, and I doubt it will work for the Furious Readers either.
Furthermore, I feel like shouting at the screen, “We’re not at home to Mr Passive Voice around here!” Example 1: “In the case of Kate Fitzgerald’s anonymous article of September 9th, following legal advice we were asked [my bold, SL] to edit it on the afternoon of Monday, November 28th” and then concerning that infamous apology to the Communications Clinic, which many readers, I among them, found particularly offensive, “When we make mistakes, we are often required to publish retractions in the Corrections and Clarifications slot on the Opinion page of The Irish Times, usually stating that our original assertions were not correct…”
Asked by whom? Required by whom? That passive voice puts a right shiver up my spine, ye gods. I notice that concerning the apology, Linehan does not go into the specific train of thought that went into putting up that specific apology to Ms Fitzgerald’s employers, perhaps too repelled by it himself to want to even try and justify it. I feel for him. What would I do, were it my livelihood?
Reading this article, I believe that the Irish Times will forever be too constrained by the possible consequences of their original – in my opinion divinely-driven in that it revealed the truth – mistake. The disowning of the apology to the Communications Clinic will never happen. This saddens me. I liked reading the paper and I have no personal beef with any of their staff, but that’s it for me.
The question is – what is to be done next?
Because of my personal involvement, this issue has shaken me to the core in a way larger movements have not. Because when I read Kate Fitzgerald’s final written words, she comes alive again in all that splendid rage, I cannot abandon this. I know many people are saying “Boycott the Irish Times”. But I do not believe that will work; I suspect not enough people will cease to buy the paper for long enough that it will go bust. And for all their dreadful mistakes and misjudgements, I do not wish to put the staff of a national newspaper I used to enjoy out of business. I believe, pace Sinead O’Connor and the pope, that we are fighting the wrong enemy.
We need to bring this Communications Clinic down to its knees. We need to make an example of them so that this disgrace may never happen again.
I regret saying this, as I was once their customer, but I see no other solution if justice is to be done.
Think I am extreme? Well yesterday its head, a Ms Terry Prone, published a column in another newspaper, The Irish Examiner, where she glibly and blithely started, “Had I any influence with the powers that be in RTÉ…” and I gaped at the screen. After all the rage and hurt her company’s contemptuous, behind-scenes actions have caused, she writes that? After muzzling the country’s media into not uttering a peep about this “for legal reasons”, she dares to say that? And then spins a morality tale using – and as a short story writer this disgusts me – a tale by that master of the art, O. Henry?
Pontius Pilate could give her a lesson on hand hygiene, let’s put it like that.
Another reason to focus on the Communications Clinic centres on a word used more than once in the Irish Times article – “fairness”. The compulsion to be “fair” to both sides. This evades the simple fact that the fight was unfair to start with. One side had already been endowed with such privileges (husband of the former director head of the national news and radio channel; current director now in a prominent position on rival station; firm current advisor to most prominent politicians in the country) that appealing for fairness on the part of the late Kate Fitzgerald – a 25-year old girl from a modest background – was a bit like asking David would he mind leaving the sling at home, after all Goliath didn’t have one and it was a bit unfair, like?
Such unfairness makes it especially hard to fight back. David Robert Grimes, a close friend of Ms Fitzgerald, made the point in his excellent post that it didn’t matter whether it was the Communications Clinic or a chip shop in Glasthule. I would slightly disagree with him there in that a chip shop in Glasthule could hardly exert radio silence, legal reasons or no legal reasons. This is not about the law, it never was, no matter what They laughingly say. This is about power.
And we have to be careful when we take on the powerful. They are already using two very clever tactics against us, Ms Fitzgerald’s advocates. The first is the shooting down of our arguments by calling them “emotional”. They, on the other hand are rational, looking at it from the point of view of the law, in a professional way. We are unprofessional – they are the clean, sober Establishment which finds no need to howl abuse on the internet. They would never hurt you openly. They prefer to operate in secret and were happy to continue doing so until a felicitous error by a well-intentioned journalist, Peter Murtagh, exposed them.
Remember what Sinead O’Connor said: They laugh because they know they’re untouchable, not because what we said was wrong. Keep remembering that. And don’t give them ammunition. I prefer to refer to Ms Fitzgerald, whom I never knew, with a salutation rather than informally call her “Kate”. We cannot swear or insult. We need to use their language to fight them.
The second tactic is to discount everything that is on the internet. They do not engage with the newer social media. They are above all that time-wasting malarkey, preferring loftier, solider methods of communication, such as threatening the staff of broadsheet.ie down the phone and calling Kate Fitzgerald – let’s not forget what they called her, please – “mentally ill” and “not to be trusted”.
We need to be aware of this. We need to take the fight off the internet. There are two things that I would suggest to get the ball rolling which I promise to do myself before the end of the year: 1. write to my political representative expressing my concern at the influence of The Communications Clinic in light of the Kate Fitzgerald fiasco and 2. tell one friend or family member who infrequently uses the internet about this disastrous state of affairs.
We must never again have the situation where one company has so much power they can suppress a national newspaper and the entire fourth estate into abject submission. We must never again facilitate a space where bullying is allowed and mental illness is ridiculed. And – I speak particularly to those who are marginal here and those who struggle – we must never again allow Them to humiliate us and make us feel any less than our true worth. We owe the memory of Kate Fitzgerald that much.
Delenda est Carthago.
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