Writer and Author

Tag: Twitter (Page 2 of 3)

Taking Stock

It’s been almost three years since I started this blog.  I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November.  The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.

Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases.  All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here.  For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered.  I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.

But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year.  Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again.  I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career.  But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it.  I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial.  I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases.  The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time.  As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.

I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time.  It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court.  I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts.  Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all.  That’s not always the way it feels though.  The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches.  It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public.  I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis.  There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.

As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover.  I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell.  Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast.  Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground.  It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.

This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of justifying what I do.  I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes).  I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them.  I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results.  Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing.  I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.

Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from.  I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules.  I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else.  For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build.  But increasingly that’s not enough.  I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films.  I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music.  I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine.  I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel.  It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.

After all there’s so much more to life than death!

Whats in a Hashtag?

When my family first moved to Ireland when I was a teenager I was asked by a neighbour “Do you have prayers in your religion?” That was the first time I ever felt I was on the other side of a fence. Even though I had grown up hearing about sectarian attacks in the North and knew the difference between Cavaliers and Roundheads in the English Civil War it had never occurred to me that the church I had gone to as a child belonged on any side of any fence.  It was a place of bells and smells, somewhere that occasionally held jumble sales and children’s parties, somewhere where my less exciting friends hung out.

By the time we moved to Ireland I had gone off the idea of becoming a nun (a week long fad after watching A Nun’s Story and Black Narcissus in quick succession) and pretty much lost interest in religion as a whole. It’s an interest I never particularly regained.  But as I got used to living in the west of Ireland it was a subject I couldn’t quite leave behind.  It was there when my school was selected. It was there on the doorstep when I moved north to college in Belfast.  It was in the countless  jokes I shared with friends over the years – measuring differentness be it remembered kids’ shows (me Bagpuss & Saturday Swapshop, them Bosco & Wanderly Wagon), pub snacks (me salt & vinegar crisps or dry roasted peanuts, them Tayto or King).  Even though none of us went to any kind of church from one end of the year to the next we all knew which tribe we belonged to for that game at least.

The thing about the religion question was that it always did and always will underline differences.  It builds a them and an us and running under “them” and “us” is usually a current of entitlement. Heirs to the kingdom and all that.  But surely now the kingdom is up to it’s armpits in mortgage arrears and we are all apparently up a proverbial creek without propulsion “them” and “us” should be put aside.

This morning on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTE’s 2FM there was a light hearted discussion about how to spot an Irish protestant.  As frequently happens these days with light hearted radio discussions it came with a Twitter hashtag.  Everyone had lashings of fun pointing out those differences (including at least one physiological one concerning optical distance).  There was no harm done, no offence taken and no malice meant…well mostly.  Tubridy addressed the negative comments beginning to clutter up the Twitter stream as belonging to a po-faced minority and advised them to turn off and listen to something else.

There it was again, the Them and Us.  They can’t take a joke.

The problem is that perhaps encouraging a large group of people to itemise how they differ from another large group isn’t very funny.  It’s not really something that encourages empathy and understanding.  Pointing and laughing at another peer group wouldn’t be funny if that group was made up of gay men, or black families, or Jews or Muslims.  Everyone knows this.  There would never be a slot on how to spot an Irish Jew or How Good’s Your Gaydar?  We’re all the children of the PC 80s in one way or another.  We are so careful not to offend.

And what was there to offend about the Irish Protestant slot? It was all meant as a bit of a joke.  Why am I even writing about it –I’m not even in the group being (gently) slagged?  The problem is that it encourages Them and Us thinking.  Ireland’s come a long way in terms of tolerance as last weekends Dublin Pride proved.  We no longer send unmarried mothers into slave labour in the Magdalene Laundries or turn round to stare at an African on the street.

But racism and sexism and sectarianism haven’t gone away, you know, and they won’t while Them and Us is the default joke position.  It might mean being a little po-faced once in a while but surely tolerance and empathy are worth the hassle?  There’ll always be forms of tribalism in society, but couldn’t we just leave it on the pitch?  We should be looking for similarities not differences and not pointing and laughing at the other side.

A Matter of Credibility

If you’re Irish the last 24 hours will have had you cringing.  Not one but two government ministers have made international headlines in ways that can only bring embarrassment to the country as a whole.  One of them would have been bad enough but two in such quick succession does nothing to disprove any stereotypes that Ireland has been trying to escape for years.

If you haven’t been following the news or if you’re not Irish and are wondering what the hell I’m talking about it all started yesterday evening when the news broke that Minister for Science Conor Lenihan was to launch a self published book by a constituent which aims to debunk the theory of evolution.

The story had been buzzing around cyberspace for a couple of months but as the launch neared it gained critical mass and went well and truly viral.  The subject was being discussed on two popular Irish forums, Politics.ie and Boards.ie then it found it’s way onto Twitter.  As tends to happen, this sent the story into the stratosphere.  Before long the story had been picked up by high profile tweeters like Ben Goldacre, the science writer and Guardian columnist.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/bengoldacre/status/24424753852[/tweeted]

Dara O’Briain, the comedian and broadcaster also chimed in.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/daraobriain/status/24415254156[/tweeted]

Then the story got picked up by the traditional media appearing on the evening news on both RTE and the BBC.  Conor Lenihan appeared on RTE’s 9 o’clock news completely unrepentant.  He said he didn’t see a problem with the launch as the author, John J. May, was a constituent and a friend.  His name disappeared off the launch flyer on Mr May’s website.  Then this morning the Irish Times announced that Lenihan had pulled out of the launch.

This is John J. May.  This is the man who Conor Lenihan was willing to hold himself up to public ridicule for.  Many, many years ago I worked for John May.  He ran a company called The Day You Were Born.  The name kind of gives it away.  For a small fee you could get a piece of paper with information about the day you were born.  You know the kind of thing – that day’s headlines, sports results, what was in the chart.  You can still get that kind of thing now but back then, in the early 90s it was a reasonably new idea.

My job was to get the headlines.  I spent some very happy weeks in the Reading Room of the National Library going through microfilms picking headlines for each day in a certain year.  I still remember some of the news stories I found during that time.  The broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the World, as covered by the Irish Times, or the reading in the Abbey of one of Yeat’s plays when he had engaged with a heckler about the merits of his writing.  I was there the day Charlie Haughey walked out of Leinster House for the last time.  I had been listening to the radio knowing something was imminent and lead a mass walkout as we all left our books and ran downstairs to watch the doleful procession leave Leinster House, ignoring our pale faces pressed up against the wire that separates the Dail from the Library.

There were a group of us working for May. Every couple of weeks, it might have been once a month, we all met up in a pub in Clondalkin where he would brief us and hand out the pay cheques.  We all thought him a little odd but we all needed the work  so no one wanted to rock the boat.  It was definitely one of the odder jobs I have had.

Years later I ran into May again.  I was getting work experience in special interest station Anna Livia FM and May turned up as a funding guru with radio experience.  Rumour had it he had run a pirate station in the 80s that had been based around where the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre is now.

John May always seemed in those days to be a bit of a Flash Harry character.  I’m not by any means suggesting that he did anything untoward, just that he was a man who always had an eye for a fast buck and was enthusiastic and diligent in getting it.  I had heard something about affiliations with some kind of Christian group but don’t know any details about that.

The way he is pushing this book of his is no deviation from type.  He’s a pushy, fast talking person and it doesn’t surprise me that he would manage to pull off a coup like this, guaranteeing his tome will get world wide publicity and will undoubtedly sell more than it would otherwise.

It doesn’t surprise me that he would end up in the middle of something like this but what does surprise me is why a government minister would get involved.  It doesn’t really matter if Conor Lenihan goes along to tomorrow’s Gorillas and Girls launch party in Buswells Hotel.  What does matter is the fact that he agreed to it in the first place.

He might think that he was going in a personal capacity but he is a government minister with special responsibility for science and the book is anti evolution.  What exactly did he think was going to happen.  Surely if John May is a friend of his he would know that May would make sure the launch got as much publicity as possible.  It’s years since I’ve seen the man and even I could figure that one out.  The problem the minister doesn’t seem to understand is that in cases like this there is no “personal capacity”.  If in his personal life he is a rabid creationist, say, he should not be the man standing as a figurehead to promote and champion Irish science. If he can’t understand this surely at the very least his political acumen should be severely in doubt?

The Lenihan debacle was bad enough but this morning another embarrassing story broke, this time centring around the Taoiseach himself, Brian Cowen. This morning Brian Cowen appeared on Morning Ireland, the main breakfast news programme in the country.  It was a pre arranged interview.  The Fianna Fail party, his party, were having their yearly think in down in Galway before the Dail resumes sitting next month after the summer break.

You would have to have spent the last year or so on another planet not to have heard of the spectacular crash and burn that has been the Irish economy.  Things have been bad for a while now and this December’s Budget is likely to be a particularly tough one.  You always know things are bad when the media start over using the word “swingeing” when talking about funding.

Cowen’s appearance on radio to talk about the economy isn’t so very unusual in these trying times but this morning something about his voice on air and the way he bumbled through some of his answers provoked a fairly speedy response.  Opposition politician, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney got the ball rolling.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/simoncoveney/status/24458595143[/tweeted]

When Cowen got off air he was approached by the waiting media in Galway.  TV3’s Ursula Halligan asked him if he was in fact hung over after a late night, a fact he spiritedly denied.  But by then it was too late.  Once again the story had leapt from Twitter into the waiting arms of the International media.  As I write this the story of the question and Cowen’s denial has made it onto the BBC news.  It’s also been picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and has been picked up websites in South Africa and India.  It’ll probably keep growing.

Throughout the day those who were in the bar of the Ardilaun Hotel near Salthill in Galway last night, where the Fianna Fail party and attendant political correspondents are staying, came forward with stories of what went on last night.  Stories of late night sessions abounded, but whether or not anyone breaks ranks to give a full blow by blow account remains to be seen.  In the end only those who were there on the night will know exactly who was there and what went on but again, it’s not really important.

On Liveline this afternoon, members of the public were queuing up to give their support to the beleaguered leader.  Everybody deserves time to unwind, they said.  Give the guy a break.  We all like to think our politicians are human, Ireland perhaps embraces such displays of human frailty more than most.  Maybe this was why Bill Clinton decided to wait until he was on a visit to Dublin to apologise from his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  But there’s a big difference between Brian Cowen and Bill Clinton in this regard.  Clinton was leading another country.  He was a visitor and his admission put us in the glare of international media.

Brian Cowen is leading this country and he’s not accused of playing around with an intern.  The suggestion is that he was unprofessional enough to stay up so late he was groggy and hoarse the next morning when he knew he had an interview on one of the most listened to shows in the country, his country.  He’s the guy in charge.  He doesn’t get to play with the rank and file.  He has the ultimate responsiblity for steering this sinking ship and, at a time when decisions are being made about how much the country is going to suffer in the forthcoming Budget, surely coming on air sounding, at best tired and disinterested, at worst hung over, is not the way to instill confidence.

Once again if he can’t understand why appearances are important now, why having credibility as someone who’s holding the reigns is vital.  If you were working in a company and had heard rumours of redundancies and pay cuts how would you feel if you came into work to a boss who was unshaven, sweating and looked like they were wearing last night’s clothes.  I’ve no idea what Cowen was wearing on the radio this morning, he could have even been in his pyjamas, but he sounded as if he was wearing last night’s suit.

What both incidents in the past 24 hours have shown is that there are people in Fianna Fail, who are the majority partner in our coalition government, who do not understand that the job they are doing has a lot to do with appearances.  You keep up appearances to keep people’s confidence – not just the voters but also the world outside.  All these two stories have done is give a picture of a country that is floundering, one that is a joke.  A country that has no leadership.

It’s that that makes me embarrassed to be Irish today.  I hope it embarrasses those at the centre of the stories as much.

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.

Broadcasting from the Water Cooler?

Twitter’s got itself in the news again this weekend. Once again people have had cause to realise what a powerful tool for the dissemination of information the social networking site is.  At this stage Twitter has become mainstream and yet it’s still new enough that the issues it raises – the reliability of it as a source, the ethics of news breaking so quickly, the awesome power of this brand new form of broadcasting – are still to be hammered out satisfactorily.

The latest thing to throw the spotlight on the little blue bird is of course the way that the death of Gerry Ryan, one of Ireland’s foremost figures of broadcasting, spread like wildfire even before the news had been officially confirmed.

In fairness there’s always been a way of doing these things. Stories have to be confirmed before they’re made public and I can still vividly remember spending a very late night as a journalism student watching the Sky newsreader struggle not to break the news of Princess Diana’s death.  We had happened across the story quite early on, when it was still a serious car accident in Paris involving a man and a woman. Even with those meagre details it was obvious from the prominence the story was being given that someone very well known had been in the crash and we decided to stay with the story.

Eventually they confirmed the fact that it was Diana but it was a considerable time before they confirmed she was dead.  I remember watching the newsreader’s face crumble for a split second as the early confirmation came in his ear but he carried on for more than half an hour before he could share the news with his audience.

Twitter is as ever present as those 24 hour news bulletins but it’s far more anarchic in the way it operates. It’s not treated as the on air studio, it’s more the office water cooler.  People go there to vent and to comment and to enjoy a freedom that isn’t normally available to working journalists outside the ranks of colleagues who physically share the scene. Maybe we shouldn’t think of it that way but we do, that’s just the way it works.

Journalists are naturally gossipy creatures and it ‘s the most natural thing in the world for us to want to share what we know around the water cooler.  But with Twitter the water cooler has moved into that on air studio and broadcasting has become open to everyone.  There’s a very good reason for that bright red ON AIR light in any studio. It reminds us that people are listening.  With Twitter there’s no red light and sometimes people are going to forget.  It’s natural and it’s human nature.

There are good reasons why news organisations hold back on reporting deaths.  The main one is to allow the family the basic human dignity of hearing the news directly.  It’s brutal enough when news like that is broken by the arrival of sympathetic gardai, to hear it at the same time of hundreds of thousands of other people is just too cruel. However, when the death is as high profile as that of Gerry Ryan journalistic instincts can over ride caution.  It’s hard to describe what it means to break a story if you’re not a journalist but it’s such an intrinsic part of the job it becomes an almost physical urge that goes beyond merely doing the job you’re paid for. It’s the heart of what we do and that race to the finish can be – I hesitate to say addictive because I don’t want to be taken up wrong but it’s probably the best word for that feeling.

Twitter is the kind of place where you want to share a story that big. The first journalist to really break the news was Sunday Business Post journalist Adrian Weckler, he’s written about what happened on his blog here.  There are a lot of Irish journos on Twitter these days and everyone jumped on the story.  As the details emerged the debate was already raging about whether Weckler had been right to confirm the details before there had been any official confirmation.  Una Mullally, writing in the Sunday Tribune, has written about what happened and she goes into far more detail than I’m going to.  I know that the news broke where I was, in court, through Twitter but I was late to the story and didn’t get involved.

This isn’t the first time Irish media news has broken on Twitter.  When the INN news agency took the decision to close last year Twitter somehow got the story before the journalists were informed they were about to lose their jobs.  The news spread from Twitter into the mainstream media, just as it did on Friday, and staff listening to the news while they waited for a meeting with management to start, first heard they were out on their ears.

Journalism as we know it is changing rapidly. It’s easy to forget how loud a megaphone Twitter gives you.  I’ve been an active user of Twitter for well over a year and I’ve made friends and contacts there I would have found it very difficult to find anywhere else.  I’m fairly evangelistic about it, I tweet trials and during the recent Eamonn Lillis trial earlier this year that live tweeting really came into it’s own.  I was tweeting from my personal account and being listened to by people in so many different newsrooms not to mention the general public.  It makes you realise that Twitter is more than just a social tool.  It’s a very powerful broadcasting medium.

Now I’m no longer the only journalist tweeting updates from the trials I cover and it’s only a matter of time before the subject comes up for debate within the courtroom. Social media is raising brand new questions about the nature of broadcasting and how journalism is done and some day it’ll need to be discussed properly and ruled on. But I’m not going into the whole issue of live blogging and tweeting in courtrooms. Another time maybe.

What it all boils down to is that the old journalistic adage “If in doubt leave it out”.  If you put out news on Twitter it WILL spread.  If you’re not willing to stand by what you said or have any doubt about it’s veracity don’t Tweet it.  Most of us would do that anyway but there are times on Twitter when you know that your information is solid and you’re left with the decision of whether to share it.

Since we all became our own publishers these questions have become a lot more pressing.  It’s going to be a while before they are all hammered out and even when the talking’s all been done it remains to be seen whether news will ever go back to being something that could be easily embargoed by tacit agreement.  We’re going to see a lot more leaks like this, it’s simply the nature of the beast.

Close Encounters of an Urban Kind?

I was expecting to be writing tonight about the first day of the trial of Thomas Barrett but it’s been put off to a later date so I’m left with a quandary about what to write.

I doubt if anyone out there would be interested in my quest to find the cat a suitable comb to get rid of the prodigious amounts of hair she’s leaving anywhere within a two mile radius at the moment (although I must admit I did tweet about that this afternoon – I’m not usually that inane honestly).

Normally when I check in on my blog the first thing I do is check my stats.  I’m endlessly fascinated by what brings people here and if and why they come back.  Surprisingly not everyone seems to be a true crime buff since that’s my main topic of conversation here.  The search results that have brought people to this blog can be bizarre at the best of times but are often illuminating.

Today for example they gave me an idea about what to write about.  I’d forgotten about the strange lights over Dublin one last night week…until I saw that several people had arrived looking for information into just that.

Now I can’t offer any information.  They were strange lights all right.  Both myself and the husband saw them and watched them for several minutes until they very suddenly disappeared.  At 12.50 a.m on June 12th I sent the first tweet below.

I didn’t get any replies (well it was rather late) so I don’t know if anyone else saw them but I’m guessing from the search terms people used to find this blog we weren’t the only ones who did after all.  If anyone out there knows where the lights were some kind of weather balloon, military test, over-zealous night club lighting or anything with a rational explanation, please let me know.

Maybe there’s a reason, maybe it’s just one of those totally random things that occasionally happen in Dublin.  If you know what they were, or if I find out anything more, I’ll update this post and put everyone’s minds at rest that there is no alien invasion…unless…

A Web 2.0 Election

If you’ve worked as a journalist and ever covered an election count with all the boredom and rushes of excitement and pandemonium it’s hard not to get the politics bug.  Yesterday’s elections in Ireland have today provided some of the most interesting counts in years and then there’s the added ghoulish fascination with watching the Government parties take heavy hits.

I’m not working today, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the general news beat and so in line to get sent to a count centre but these days the Net provides so many ways to follow proceedings that you can have the information pretty much as soon as it’s felt on the count centre floor.  It’s at times like these that the immediacy of the social web and the speed and ease that information can now be transmitted and received really come into their own.

I’m a big fan of Twitter.  I’ve tweeted updates of trials I’ve followed in the past and have long been fascinated by the possibilities of the service as way of getting news.  Twitter has hit the headlines in the past when news of major events has spread like wildfire through the community, beating conventional news outlets.  The Mumbai attacks and the Hudson River plane crash were two cases in point and both garnered the site international press attention.

Today, watching the steady stream of chatter from Irish twitterers around the country, was like a virtual equivalent of covering a count.  You’re hearing the chatter, the gossip and the early tallys as well as the comments and the jokes.  Quite a different experience to watching the coverage on TV or listening to the radio.  Of course it helps that Irish twitters are a  media savvy lot and are passionate about what’s going on today.  This election was always going to get people interested with Government approval ratings plummeting and job losses hitting record highs every month.

I watch a lot of media types and bloggers so a fair few were down in the count centres which added to the atmosphere but this really was a day when Twitter came into it’s own.  These days Twitter is often my first port of call when I want to see how a story is developing, maybe it’s because it’s like having access to a wire service at home, but also because I know I can shout out a question and chances are someone will come back with the answer quicker than I could find it through more conventional means.  A day like today is absolutely ideal to see these strengths in action.

All over the country people were tweeting from count centres, giving updates often before they were available through the conventional media.

  1. Christine Bohan
    christinebohan Joe Higgins just elected to Fingal with a surplus of over one thousand #le09
  2. Simon McGarr
    Tupp_Ed RDS awash with Labour, triumphant. Other parties circumspect. #le09
  3. Suzy Byrne
    suzybie Fine Gael to move motion of no confidence in government next week #le09
  4. Emily Tully
    EmilyTully Pat the Cope Gallagher: “Its been a bad day for FF – we expected that” #le09

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This is the first time I’ve monitored a story like this entirely online.  I’ve been streaming Newstalk 106’s coverage which was excellent, and available after RTE radio had switched their attention to sport.  They had live coverage from the RDS count centre (the main centre in Dublin) with reports from around the country at regular intervals.  For a station with far smaller resources than RTE they really mobilised well and provided great coverage.

Irishelection.com also provided excellent coverage from the count centres with a live blog of election results which again rivalled the coverage provided by RTE.  It’s great to see online news services providing such great coverage of something like this – it opens up so many possibilities.

In previous elections the only constant coverage would have been RTE television, which is always excellent but it’s only one view.  Being able to follow so many different viewpoints gives a far rounder idea of what’s going on and if you’re slightly obsessive like me, it makes for a fascinating afternoon.

This election has been the first one that can truly be said to have been fought online.  During the campaign candidate after candidate took a leaf out of Obama’s book and fought the fight through Twitter and Facebook.  The list of Irish politicians on Twitter exploded with names like Joe Higgins, Ivana Bacik, Proinsias De Rossa and Eoin Ryan all seeking to woo the twitterverse.  Many of them also courted the Facebook generation with hastily elected pages once the fight had begun.

It seems fitting that their success or demise should be so comprehensively examined in the same places they sought to kiss virtual babies and press virtual flesh.  Certainly from now on the way elections are covered will never be the same.  The traditional Irish media might have been wary of  new fangled social networking in the past but it has finally come of age in Ireland.  This election, new media arguably beat old media when it came to rapidly getting news out there.  Irish election coverage was all the better for it.

Democracy in Action?

Today’s the day of the local and European elections, in Dublin there are two by elections as well.  It’s a day that Fianna Fail probably have reason to be very worried about…public opinion, according to the numerous polls that have appeared in the papers over the run of the campaigning, is decidedly against them.

Now at this point I should probably come clean.  I’m not a fan of Fianna Fail.  Anyone who’s read this blog on a fairly regular basis could probably have guessed that but in the interests of full disclosure there it is.  I would most definitely not be sorry to see them hurting come Monday morning even if our esteemed Taoiseach seems to be in deep denial about what a convincing arse whipping in these elections would mean to the credibility of his leadership.  But this post isn’t about party bashing.

I’ve been giving out on Twitter over the past few weeks about the constant knocks on the door from the various party candidates.  I know it’s an essential part of electioneering but once you’ve met them all once it wears a bit thin.  I’ve got particularly aerated about the failure of certain Fianna Fail reps to grasp that they are not going to convince me to vote for them under any circumstances.

But today is voting day.  The leaflets have been posted, the hands have been shaken and now it’s all done bar the counting.  I know that there’s still the matter of getting the voters out but one thing I like about going to vote is that once you near that voting station the desperate babble has to ease because the buggers aren’t allowed within 50 metres of the polling station.  It’s the first bit of quite we get after weeks of political chit chat on the doorstep and in my book, can’t come soon enough.

But obviously there are those who disagree with our need for a little peace and quiet to place our votes.  As the husband and I neared the voting station on Cowper St in the Dublin Central constituency this morning we were greeted by a barrage of Fianna Failers.  Tom Stafford and his minions had stationed themselves well within the safe zone, hidden round the corner so the garda standing outside the voting station wouldn’t call shenanigans.

Democracy in action

They slapped backs and pumped hands and leered over little old ladies in a forced amiability that seriously smacked of desperation.  Passers by noticed them encroaching on the polling station and muttered about Fianna Fail being a “dirty word” in these parts.  Another, clocking the distance asked “is this an example of Fianna Fail using the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of democracy?”

Stafford insisted that he wasn’t illegally campaigning but merely talking to friends.  Well he had a point.  I often chat to my mates clutching bundles of hundreds of Fianna Fail election leaflets…

It was just another sign that, whatever their leader thinks, the rank and file of Fianna Fail are worried and rightfully so (I hope…)  We shall all just have to wait until the votes are counted to see what the country has decided.

Is there a future for Irish publishing?

As I’ve written already this week this week saw the second annual Dublin Book Festival at the City Hall.  It’s organised by Cle, the Irish Book Publishers Association and will hopefully become a fixture of the Dublin cultural scene over the next few years.

Yesterday I went to a seminar on the future of Irish publishing.  Obviously, as a writer with a book published by an Irish publisher it’s something I have a vested interest in but, as a reader, it’s something I’ve always had a keen interest in as well.

Ireland is a country where it’s quite hard to avoid bumping into an aspiring writer. I’ve lost count of the times friends and acquaintances and in some cases total strangers within a few minutes of meeting have brought up the subject of the book they’ve either always wanted to write or that has been sitting in a box under the bed for years.

Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with being an aspiring writer – I’ve been one for years – but I’m not talking about the serious obsessives.  The saying that “everyone has a book in them” has been taken to heart in Ireland and there are a lot of very peculiar people out there.  I’ve read a lot of publishing blogs over the years and I know every agent or editor has their horror stories about slush pile rejects but we do seem to have more per head of population than average.

With this in mind it’s always surprised me how little there is for the aspiring writer in Ireland.  Once you’re published it’s grand, there’s the Artist’s Tax Exemption, Aosdana and the Arts Council for starters, but in terms of places where you can rub shoulders with the publishing elite we’re a bit under stocked.  The Book Festival aims at setting this right.

I’ve already posted here about the Forum on Copyright issues that was held on Friday.  As a journalist I’d always been aware of copyright but it’s such a huge subject and when you can publish your words online in seconds these days it’s a massive issue for anyone who wants to make a living from writing.

There’s been a lot of discussion online about the future of publishing in the current economic climate.  Like any other business it’s been hit hard but there are also plenty of new opportunities as technology changes on an almost daily basis.

Yesterday, the Seamus Brennan Memorial Seminar on Irish Publishing tackled the issue from an Irish perspective.  I’d gone along expecting to find it depressing listening but the four speakers all shared a bullish attitude to the rocky seas.

I tweeted the talk live as much as I could, although using a mobile phone isn’t the most efficient way of using Twitter in Ireland.  Apart from anything else I kept getting distracted by the points being thrown up.  For example, there are around 100 publishers in Ireland at the moment.  For such a small country that’s a massive amount.  A lot of them would be virtual cottage industries dealing with a very niche market but it still represents a bewildering amount of choice for the writer with a manuscript to pitch.

Author and publisher Steve McDonogh of Brandon press spoke passionately in favour of amalgamation which would allow Irish publishers to pool their resources to better confront the international scene.  He also spoke at some length about the challenges introduced by the new technologies.  The fact that digital rights are now such a hot issue is a fascinating subject and it’s one that Irish publishers are just as concerned about as their counterparts elsewhere.

Ireland has it’s own issues to deal with as well though.  Even though the majority of books taken out of the library here might be by Irish authors, the vast majority of books on the shelves of bookshops have been published elsewhere.  Irish publishers can’t compete with the UK houses if they decide to come and throw money at Irish authors.

As a writer myself I don’t think I’d refuse if someone offered me shed loads of money, any opportunity to spend all your time writing without having to worry about how the bills are paid.  But Ireland has such a rich literary heritage it would be a shame if Irish publishing couldn’t withstand the pressures.

The Arts Council came in for a lot of criticism.  Growing up in a theatre household I’m familiar with their work but I had never realised that there was such a major disparity when it came to funding for drama and funding for literature.  Theatre receives a third of the funding…Literature gets a mere 8%.

How is publishing ever supposed to move into the 21st Century if they can’t apply for state support for R&D, not to mention supporting us poor starving writers.  We might not have to pay tax on our earnings but to qualify for that you actually have to earn something.  Writing is not a very well paid profession (unless you are one of the golden few).  Advances don’t come along very often and when they do they arrive piecemeal.  Research takes time and funds and usually isn’t paid for at all.  It’s no wonder so many writers have a day job as well.

All in all though the mood yesterday was upbeat.  Jean Harrington, the MD of my own publishers, Maverick House, told us to “read our way through the recession” and to support Irish publishing by buying Irish.  It’s easy to be drawn to the latest blockbuster release but as the Book Festival showed there is a phenomenal choice of Irish writing out there.

Patsy Horton from Northern Irish imprint Blackstaff Press spoke about the possibilities for niche markets, especially in an environment as small as the one in the North.

Finally Michael O’Brien, the man behind O’Brien Press gave us the A-Z of Irish publishing.  There are a lot of strengths out there but the problems of negotiating the international markets kept rising again and again.

It’s was great to see the crowds of people wandering around the bookshelves arranged around the entrance hall of the City Hall.  Apart from the publishing bods, out in force, there were plenty of writers not to mention a gratifying number of members of the public.

It would be nice to see the festival grow in the years to come.  We do great arts festivals but there is very little in terms of a proper literary festival.  Yes, every so often there are opportunities for successful writers to give readings to their adoring fans but we have very little in terms of the kind of festival that offers master classes and seminars.  The Dublin Book Festival is definitely going in the right direction but it’s getting there and with luck it will only get better.

A Whole New Way of Doing Things?

I was talking to a friend on Skype earlier today and the conversation turned to social networking…as it does.  I was trying to explain the concept of Twitter to her and persuade her to give it a try and the conversation turned to the whole social networking phenomenon and how much the business of writing and researching has changed since we both studied journalism in college.

Now granted, since I learnt the ropes things have moved on from quarter in reel to reel recorder (one of these…, through minidiscs on to hardrive recorders.  Elsewhere the revolution of being able to file copy from anywhere without having to use a copy taker or an ISDN line as long as you have access to an internet connection has made minute by minute breaking news achievable.

But apart from the tools we carry about with us to perform our daily business it’s the actual job that has changed almost beyond recognition over the year.  I graduated from college in 2000.  Back then learning how to use search engines was a fairly new part of the curriculum.  These days, if the Internet went bang in the morning I wonder how many of us would remember how to do things the old fashioned way.  There are so many routine inquiries that would have required several hours of judicial phone calls or knocks on doors that can now be answered by a few minutes Googling.

It’s something that we all take for granted yet still on occassion becomes something to marvel at.  I’ve lost count of the number of times the press room in the Four Courts has been agog over a piece of video or audio that would have previously meant a search of the archives back at base that you might only have seen when it went to air.  During the Joe O’Reilly trial, for example the footage of his appearance on the Late, Late Show in the company of his obviously uncomfortable mother-in-law three weeks after he had murdered his wife got an almost daily showing.

Similarly the video that Siobhan Kearney shot to publicise the guest house she and her husband Brian Kearney had run in Spain was played again and again in the media room during his trial for her murder.

These are the kinds of archive material that have always been obtainable but never quite as readily as they are now.  These days colour writers wanting to describe an earlier event in vivid technicolour can call up their subject in a Google search rather than rely on rusty memories.

Even basic newsgathering is changing according to the advances in technology.  Journalists can now look at someone’s Myspace or Facebook page.  Incereasingly this is the first place to look in the case of murder victims.  A Bebo memorial page set up in their honour is a source of photographs not just of them but of the friends and family who attend the court each day, a way of putting names to faces without intruding.  In the recent trial of Finn Colclough, which I’ve written about at some length, journalists quickly found the Bebo page set up for victim Sean Nolan with the outpouring of grief from his devoted friends which still continues to this day.

We live in a technological world and it is at their peril that a journalist doesn’t move with the times.  YouTube is the source for the kind of eye witness footage captured by increasingly high resolution mobile phones that news editors could have only dreamed of in the past.  Twitter has become the new buzz word for a second by second stream of information from any major news event.  You only have to look at the number of articles and courses springing up on electronic news gathering to see the impact it’s having.

As I discovered researching the book it’s now possible to gather information from the other side of the road simply sitting at your desk.  I’m a great fan of the idea of VOIP (quite apart from the fact it allows me to chat with people who have decided to move back to Sweden and are no longer eligable to be my Call a Friend for Free!)  I get very excited about the fact that I can Google someone or somewhere, go to their website then simply click on a phone number somewhere in that page of text and within seconds talk to them through Skype (using the Firefox Skype plugin).

As a writer too the advent of Web 2.0 has totally changed the reality of life.  The fact that you have become some grungy creature who hasn’t change dout of your pajamas and who lives in a small pool of light over  you cluttered desk and overheating laptop is no longer a barrier to you networking with editors or agents in any of the major cities.

Living in Ireland and not having access to a lot of writing festivals or author appearances where publishers and agents would be in attendance it’s fantastic.  I can be as cheeky as I like in approaching people through Twitter or blogs (although it remains to be seen how successful my networking is – to date I’ve probably got most of my most concrete contacts the old fashioned way but I’m optimistic for the future).

I’m constantly in awe of all these changes.  I love technology but I’m not young enough to be born to it.  I remember what life was like in the dark Luddite days and I like the way things have changed.  Personnally I think the reality is that this is simply a new way of doing something we’ve always done.  I’m fascinated with the opportunities to self publicise that the Internet provides (obviously I’m aware of the blogging one) and the idea of virtual book tours and being able to reach a global audience is too exciting to pass up.

The Internet has allowed us to go back to the kind of old fashioned communities and intensive networking that were bog standard a century or more ago.  These days we may hang out on Twitter, in the 18th Century coffee shops were all the rage.  Thanks to Google I’m now in touch with a community gardening initiative that happens not five minutes from my front door.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if everything went bang (it’s a thought that feels natural with the ongoing economic doom and gloom) but I can’t help thinking we’d probably carry on much as we are now.  We’d just have to get out more.  As long as Armageddon isn’t coming any time soon, I’m happy enough with the way things are.  We’ve come a long way, even if the communities we’re building hark back to earlier times and I for one am more than happy to embrace tweeting and blogging and exploring the big wide world from the comfort of my desk!

 

 

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