Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Dermot Ahern

Poetry and profanity–a couple of thoughts on Miggeldy and blasphemy

Michael D. at Arbour Hill

So Ireland has voted to #keepthepoet and take blasphemy out of the constitution. Miggeldy will have another seven years in the Aras. For any non-Irish readers I should explain, Miggeldy is the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Miggeldy is an affectionate pet name for this president used widely by Irish people after a child’s school essay misspelling his name went viral some years ago. The name is a joke on how the president has been referred to for years, especially in the West of Ireland, as a popular left-leaning politician and minister. Back then he was universally known as Michael D. rather than as Minister or Deputy Higgins. It’s fitting for someone who has spent his entire career arguing for equality and fairness. Michael D. was the politician everyone would stop on the street to say hello to. Miggedly is the president who loves his dogs and is immortalised in a popular tea cosy. He’s also the president who had a pleasingly humanistic inauguration ceremony the first time round and who’s official speeches have made me repeatedly proud of one of my countries on a regular basis over the past seven years.

Since Mary Robinson took the job back in 1990 the Irish presidency has become a very aspirational role. The presidency was where the Irish people could try out new ideas for size. There have been two female presidents but no female Taoiseach for example. Seven years ago Ireland could have had their first openly gay president in the shape of Senator David Norris but instead voted for their first humanist president, someone who’s further left than the majority of TDs. Michael D. was elected before Ireland’s historic referendum votes in favour of marriage equality and to remove the 8th amendment banning abortion. The winds of change might have already been blowing but once again, it was the presidency that tried out the idea to look for a fit. I’ve often thought that in recent years the presidency has become the face Ireland wants to show the world, a “good room” in human form to be brought out for visitors and kept under plastic covers the rest of the time – and we’re almost back to tea cosies.

This election campaign has been a bit extreme though. Coming so soon after the abortion vote it was always going to be. That vote revealed a lie that had been told to liberal Ireland for a generation – there are more of us than you. That vote proved the lie and gave a breakdown. Of course there are complexities in any vote result, a variety of reasons why people may vote this way or that, but the abortion vote, like marriage equality before it, showed the breakdown to be  somewhere in the region of a 60/40 split. You see Ireland, like many other countries has always had two faces. There is conservative, Catholic Ireland – the country of greys and blacks, right wing, dogmatic tendencies and an ultra Catholic tone – and there’s liberal Ireland – the land of saints and scholars, dark cynical humour, dazzling discoveries. These two countries have always existed in theory. In practice Ireland as she really is is a balance of the two. The question is always what is the balance. It’s the balance we glimpse in referendum results. Divorce in 1992 told us it was 50/50. Since marriage equality we know it’s shifted a bit but you can never be certain.

So when it was announced that Miggeldy was in fact going to seek a second term (he had always said he would only do the one) they all came out of the woodwork. That’s how there were early stories about famine theme parks and anti-vaxxers and Dragons Den. Actually it all got very odd. In the end there was only one other contender. Peter Casey managed to garner around a third of the vote by dog whistling anti traveller sentiments and being generally reactionary. The last 24 hours have seen a flurry of articles explaining that Casey is not the Irish Trump. He’s not – but his comments about travellers did appeal very neatly to that section of Irish society who are reeling from discovering that they don’t have 50 % of the vote anymore, that they are now in the minority. They didn’t vote for Miggeldy the first time round, they didn’t vote for marriage equality and they didn’t vote to repeal the 8th. That lot have always been there, they just can’t say they’re in the majority anymore. It isn’t that long ago when Casey may well have won. This isn’t a sign that Ireland has a growing rump of right wing sentiment, it’s just an indication of where they are.

Which brings me to blasphemy. As well as the presidential election there was also a referendum on whether or not to remove “blasphemous” from the statement “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” This hadn’t been a major problem until 2009 when a clause on blasphemy was added to the Defamation Act, thus defining it in law. Now it might have been a pretty useless law that was ultimately unprosecutable but it was still put in there. It seems to have just been there to catch out comics with Tommy Tiernan inadvertently triggering the damn thing in the first place and Stephen Fry falling foul of it and ultimately setting the ball rolling to get rid of it. Well kind of. Most of the coverage of this blasphemy referendum has referred to the Irish people voting to remove the law on blasphemy. They’re not. The law will still stand but at least now politicians can no longer argue it’s a gap that needs filling and hopefully speedily remove the clause from the Defamation Act.

So having Miggeldy for another seven years is a good thing. Having further confirmation that liberal Ireland is still in the majority is a good thing – even if there is still a third of the population who would vote hard right conservatism. Given Ireland’s history this is actually a pretty good figure. There’s still a very long way to go but at least Ireland has decided to put a progressive face to the world.

To Defame or Not to Defame

On Monday Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced that comments posted on social networking sites could be defamatory.  The papers the following day were full of headlines that warned users of Facebook and Twitter to be careful what they said because they could now be guilty of libel.

This is all fine and dandy but for one thing. They always could be.  Libel covers any defamatory material that is written, printed or otherwise permanently represented. Surely any first year journalism student could work out that just as letters, emails, blogs or graffiti can be defamatory so can tweets or Facebook updates.

We should all be aware that what we write online is no different from something written in a newspaper or set down permanently in any other way.  I have to be aware that anything I write online about the trials I cover is not going to land me in contempt of court just as I have to be careful with any copy I write for newspapers, magazines or books.  Defamation is no different.

I understand that there are millions of people now writing stuff online who have not been taught a basic primer in defamation law that the average journalist receives in college but surely most people have a rough idea of what libel is?

The minister’s comments at the second annual report of the Press Ombudsman on Monday evening were indicative of a widespread assumption that online words somehow exist in a special alternative reality that needs special laws and special rules.  The defamation laws are not suddenly applying to stuff that has been blissfully unregulated since it came into being, they always did.  If online material is permanent then surely it is covered by the standard libel definition, just as letters to a third party have always been, just as graffiti has always been and just as blogs and emails are and have been proved to be in recent cases here in Ireland.

Yes the spectacular growth of social networking has given a lot of new ways to libel people but it beats me why this should come as a shock to anyone.  The idea that online communities are in some way private, or at least give that impression, is often bandied around as as reason for why people are so cavalier about basic common sense online but this doesn’t really wash.  You can commit libel in a letter to your mum…if you’re talking about a third party and the letter is put lovingly away in a box.  It’s the making of defamatory comments to a third party that breaks the law.  That could be over the counter in your local shop (talking the old offence of slander), over a pint in your local pub or standing with semaphore flags on your roof. 

We should all be familiar with the basic idea of defamation.  Now we all spend so much time writing down our defamatory thoughts, rather than cheerfully slandering people with gay abandon, we all need to be more aware of libel.

It’s something that internet forums have long needed to deal with, as has anyone who has to monitor comments on a website or blog and it’s not something that only journalists need to understand.

I remember being taught media law in college.  Our lecturer came from the assumption that there was a lot we would already know.  When did people stop assuming that? When did people start thinking that new rules applied?  There are a lot of things that do need to be looked at afresh in light of modern technological changes, things that will have to be decided in the courts at some stage because they’ve never existed before.  Defamation isn’t one of them.

Maybe it’s about time that social media sites or blogging platforms started to give people signing up a primer on the legal issues they’ll be facing.  It could be something you had to work through before you could finish signing up…like reading the Terms and Conditions always is. 

Commentators are fond of saying that we’re all journalists now.  No we’re not, but we will all need to learn how not to defame people.  It’s something we should all already know.  It’s hardly rocket science.  The penny is going to have to drop sometime that social networks are not some magic special case where the normal rules do not apply.  It’s common sense.  It shouldn’t be such a big shock that it makes headlines.

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