Sit Down and Be Counted

It isn’t often you’re thinking about podcasting and stumble on a reference to your own grandfather. But that’s what happened today when I was bumped towards Richard Develan’s site to listen to his trial “Saturday View“-style podcast, Sunday Brunch.

I’d listened to it, and thought it a little too slow, a little too safe and not focused enough on Ireland, but not a bad start. So I subscribed to get the rest of them as they came up. Scrolling down, I noticed that he mentioned ‘Sit Down and Be Counted’ as a source for his Sunday Tribune column this week. This was written by my grandfather, Jack Dowling with Lelia Doolin who, though one of life’s odd twists, later taught me television production techniques in Galway.

I’d previously written an article about some of the issues raised in the book which had appeared in the Irish Times, to my surprise and pleasure.

In the last few months I’ve been mulling over a few different areas where the State bureaucracy seems to have failed. Working with Digital Rights Ireland, I’ve seen some of the effects of the inability of an administrative structure to recognise the difference between an ability to do something and whether it ought to be done. And in microcosm, my long-running irritation with the restrictions on the Four Courts is a reflection of the same tension.

In Sit Down and Be Counted, Jack and Lelia focus on the use of apparently apolitical systems and bureaucracies to endorse a particular political perspective. They described an organisation with a separate administrative class set in opposition to the creatives who were responsible for developing the grammar of a specifically Irish television where there had been none before. Then they went the vital next step and said that this was not an accident. Instead, the power that television represented had been recognised in advance by those in the ascendancy at the time and this structure had been established precisely to provide an institutional counter-weight.

In Ireland, commentators frequently ask why we don’t have the left and right split of other political systems. Sometimes it is presented as being a sign of political immaturity not to have embraced and institutionalised the divisions of the French Revolution in this way.

But perhaps (and I say this tentatively because I haven’t finished mulling yet) the reason we don’t have that split is because it doesn’t reflect the real division of power in Ireland.

Criticism of wrongful actions of Irish institutions is muted. If 50 million is wasted on buying electronic voting machines it is seen as a bit of a bad joke. If the Health Service Executive has been spending its capital budget to pay current expenses, it’s a matter of tidying up the accounting afterwards. When problems with banks taking money from their customers unlawfully became clear, one government TD, on Questions and Answers, said that he didn’t think it was right to be focussing on the matter, as it might undermine confidence in Irish banks internationally.

This is a worldview that recognises that, be they officially in private or public hands, all institutions benefit from a lack of change. Change is dangerous when you like things the way they are. And accountability is not a safe cry when you might be held to account in the same way.

It is possible to have effective government. I don’t despair of the state’s ability to reflect the collective will of the citizenry to improve their own lot and the lot of others. But to get there, we need an effective counterweight to the interest of institutions in civil society. We need people to be mentally active, to question what they’re told and to demand better answers if the ones they get the first time aren’t good enough. Mostly, at the moment, we do none of those things.

The traditional voice of civil society has been the media. But the proliferation of Irish newspapers, radio stations and even new television stations in the past decade has not been matched by any corresponding growth in outlets for new viewpoints.

Even the Irish Times, owned by a trust and therefore institutionally capable of ploughing its own furrow, now prefers to reflect clearly defined interest groups on its comment pages. Rather than the newspaper’s writers acting as our guides- weighing up the competing claims of sectional interests and perhaps indicating where the balance of truth lies- the Times now prefers to use its Opinion pages as ads for various points of view, many written by those with commercial stakes in the topic of their article. Wind Farm Company Directors have articles published on the virtues of Wind Farms, Government Senators are given space to repeat the government line on the issues of the week and so on. It is a sorry state of affairs when the least predictable author on your opinion pages is a octagenarian former Taoiseach with a fondness for statistics and bus timetables.

The result has been a further impoverishing of public discourse, when we have few enough outlets for genuine discussion already. It’s one of the reasons I think a podcast discussion programme is worth sticking with. We don’t have enough fora for real thought and talk. Anything that might help us look at the country we live in and try to make sense of it is worth a second and a third attempt. It is what Tuppenceworth, for all its flaws, is for as well.

I’ve no doubt that if the creators of RTE’s organisation had imagined a time when a large number of their listeners could produce their own radio programmes, or publish their own magazines they would have been shaken to their core at the risks to their comfortable world and their place in it. I think we should do what we can to justifiy that fear.

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