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“Hot”, or not? February 13, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Media and Journalism.
13 comments

Mitchell and Webb
“I see Hot Press have only gone and put out a bloody SEX ISSUE!”

Ah, Hot Press. 30 years old this year, and more to be pitied than laughed at (or read, perhaps). Like so much else referred to on this blog as being ‘good in the old days’ (Magill, music, socialism) I have some fond memories of Hot Press. I started reading it properly in the early 1990s, and while there was quite a bit of filler in it even then, it did contain some serious, interesting and relevant articles. It mightn’t have been quite required reading, but I recall the interviews with politicians back then as being the most informative and most probing available in Ireland at the time. Writers like Bill Graham or, particularly, Liam Fay came up with some fantastic stuff – Fay in particularly had a great line in witty, but not smirky or condescending, pieces on religion in Irish life, including profiles of people like Pat Buckley, Cornelius Horan and that woman who dances in the middle of O’Connell Street (collected in Beyond Belief – pick it up if you can) .

The quality of the writing aside, though, there was something vital about Hot Press. Certainly when it was first launched, and for nearly twenty years afterwards, it was an important, progressive voice in Irish public life, pushing the so-called ‘liberal agenda’ (and more) at a time when such views were in a minority and well before the rest of the country finally (and belatedly) caught up. And, as such, it deserves some commendation.

Now, unfortunately, it’s little more than a shadow of its former self, and seems to be living off past glories. Reading the current ‘Sex Issue’ (which I picked up out of curiosity after hearing it touted continuously on ads on Newstalk), it strikes me as a rather odd, vaguely embarrassing leftover from the 1980s, which hasn’t quite realised that times have changed and everyone else has moved on (not unlike Gavin Friday, in fact).

Niall Stokes’ editorial celebrates how wonderful and life-affirming sex is. He points out how things used to be very bad in the old repressive days (before Hot Press, of course) and how sex-hating religion is and was. He then tells us that things have changed and that people are more tolerant and open, with pornography pretty accessible across the country (thus proving wrong his more extreme critics who believe he has literally been living under a rock for the last 15 years). Is pornography bad, he wonders? Maybe, but not as bad sexual repression from the bad old days. Sex rocks! Take that, THECHURCH!

To which the only sensible reaction must be a dejected shrug of the shoulders and the thought ‘Yeah, and so what?’. That kind of approach, along with the accompanying articles in the issue (including an interview with Lee Dunne, one with media sex therapist Traci Cox, a piece of ‘dating’ and some stunningly unerotic ‘erotic’ photographs) might have represented an important statement when condoms were still unavailable and homosexuality was still criminalised. Now, though, it seems to say nothing more than ‘I am 50 years old but wish I wasn’t’.

It’s the Anne Sexton phenomenon spread across an entire issue (an issue which, it must be said, is indicative of the dead-end Hot Press has driven itself down). Anne Sexton, for those lucky enough to be unaware, is Hot Press‘s resident ‘sexpert’, with her regular feature ‘Sexed Up’, where she apparently covers all aspects of sex. Rather than just being an unimaginative pun, the title is very accurate. Sexton’s articles, from what I have seen, seem to invariably revolve about how incredibly amazing she is, and how open she is about sex and even though this might be shocking to the squares it’s just no big deal to her so she’ll go on and on and on about herself to prove how open she is (and how much sex she’s had). She’s essentially Roisín Ingle with a vibrator, but without the charm.

As you can imagine, she’s a relentless narcissistic writer and her articles are probably the most unsexy pieces you will ever read. At least with Loaded or the other men’s magazines, the sex columns are deliberately prurient and juvenile. This stuff, with its affectations of importance is far more irritating, joyless and just … well … shit.

It’s a shame in a way. It would be good to see a genuinely popular magazine covering both music and culture and current affairs and politics in a readable and intelligent way. There’s also something to be said for writing about sex that doesn’t fall into the categories of ‘Phwoarr! Check out her assets’, ‘How to give oral pleasure to your Junior Cert invigilator’ or ‘I’m Anne Sexton: I have sex’. Unfortunately, for such a publication to be compelling, it would have to serve a purpose, be relevant and have a clear editorial line. And Hot Press doesn’t seem to tick any of those boxes any more.

Niall Stokes used to be the cool older brother. Now he’s just the creepy uncle.

Sort of self-referential stuff… or thanks February 13, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
17 comments

A quick word of thanks to anyone who nominated us for the Blog Awards. We’re in far better company than we deserve (well I am anyway).

The Irish Times, that Labour Party Tax Proposal and a vision for the socialist millennium. February 12, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Labour Party, media, The Left.
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My God, I love the Irish Times, and in particular their editorials. So much enjoyment to be had for so little (I receive it FOC in one of my places of work). And while fisking is a dull sport, and one we naturally abhor around these parts if only for the way it in some tiny fractional fashion slows down the really really important parts of the internet, hey, someone’s got to do it.

So what to make of the IT’s response to the 18% tax policy proposal by Pat Rabbitte? According to the IT:

Mr Rabbitte hopes to tap an aspect of the national mood that does not feel comfortable with the one-dimensional “we’ve never had it so good” mood of Fianna Fail and the PDs. “Yes we have seen great economic progress, but are you happy?” he asked the voters, then enumerating the many reasons that they may not be content.

And this ‘one-dimensional mood’ is to be answered by the two, or is it three, dimensional 2% off the lower rate across two years? Increasing disposable income (a bit) sure, but also leading to some potentially interesting times if the economy softens? And really, this differs in what significant way from the policies of the FF/PDs? The prescription round IT towers is not – to my mind – a genuine alternative, but instead a simple variation of the same. ‘Let’s tinker with the tax rates, but not too much,’ the cry goes up! (speaking of which worth noting the centre section of Donagh’s post on Dublin Opinion on this very topic).

And as the IT notes: Fine Gael, its partner for any alternative, has already come out to support its low-tax proposals.

Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Is it just me, or does it feel as if rather too much time has been spent by Rabbitte in conference with FG and rather too little time spent the other way (and as an aside one wonders is this the fate of former WP members, to chameleon-like assume the political characteristics of those they meet, look at Eoghan Harris, barely a year out of the organisation in 88/89 and he was practically a member of Fine Gael).

For today, however, the outlining of the thinking of Labour in an alternative coalition is to be welcomed. Voters can make up their own minds. For the last number of months, as the election approached with a defined date, there has been no vision of what a Fine Gael/Labour and possibly Green Party had to offer.

Er…no, not really. Quite the opposite if anything. This doesn’t undermine the notion of a similarity between the alternative coalitions, if anything it reinforces that idea.

But the best is of course left until last.

Labour can only break from its consistent 11 per cent poll standing if it becomes more than the party of the marginalised. For one thing, the marginalised tend not to vote; for another, the rest, although they may be sympathetic, will ultimately vote where their pocket and experience leads them. Mr Rabbitte presented a vision of a “Fair Society”, with echoes of Fine Gael’s “Just Society”, and provided concrete proposals on which this vision can be judged.

Now, no disrespect intended to any members of Labour past or present. It is a party with a good record on many many issues. But to describe it as being the ‘party of the marginalised’ perhaps shows us that the heights commanded by those who write editorials at the IT are becoming perhaps politically a little too rarified. A more accurate description would be the ‘party of some of the public sector, some of the secular/leftish middle class and some of the working class’. And before anyone rushes in to attack that description I would equally have applied it (with perhaps a proportionally slightly greater ‘some’ of the working class which is hardly an achievement) to my old home of the Workers’ Party.

There is a principled argument that the left should address which deals with taxation and how it impacts upon the marginalised and others. franklittle has already noted some of the issues relating to this in the previous post.

But this, this is the ‘Fair Society’? 2% off the standard rate? That’s it? That’s the great overarching vision that will sweep all before it towards a liberal and slightly – very very slightly – socialist utopia.

Somehow it doesn’t feel like it…

Labour lying somewhere February 11, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Economics, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Uncategorized.
11 comments

Economics is not particularly complicated. There is a mini industry in academia and newspaper commentary to argue to the contrary, but by and large anyone who has ever dealt with a household budget understands the basics of economics. If you spend more than you have coming in, you need to borrow or reduce spending. Big capital investments, require long-term financing. And if the whole thing goes wrong, the MABS can serve an IMF like role in terms of advising you out of debt. MABS people also tend to be smarter and nicer than your average IMF official.

That’s why the announcement by Rabbitte that Labour is going to cut 2% off the standard rate of tax, benefitting low AND high income earners, should set alarm bells ringing. Like most people, my immediate reaction was to calculate how much it would mean for me a week and it added up to a little over a week’s salary. The next question I asked myself, was who’s week’s salary was I getting. A nurse? A community garda? A civil servant?

Labour has committed itself to increased spending in a host of social welfare, capital infrastructure, public sector pay claims and the like. And they’ve committed themselves to not increasing taxes. And now, they’ve committed themselves to cutting tax on the standard rate leaving, as one politics.ie contributor rightly observed, ‘a hole the size of Texas’ in the economy.

Does this mean that Labour, in order to fill this hole, are going to fail to provide the investment in social services? Will they fill the hole through the introduction of deeply regressive service charges? Will they privatise public property in order to pay for tax cuts?

On a political level, it sounds good. People understand a tax cut better than they understand widening the tax bands and tax credits, which would have delivered more for those on low incomes for less money than a standard rate cut that benefits the very wealthy as well as low to average income earners. It also kills dead the notion that Fianna Fáil and the PDs can portray Labour as a ‘high tax’ party.

From an economic point of view, it doesn’t make sense. Labour cannot, repeat cannot, cut taxes at the standard rate AND increase spending. As I pointed out before, their claim that they could increase spending and not increase taxes for the wealthy was dishonest. This is even worse. So which is Labour going to choose? Tax cuts or social services? It is a choice it is going to have to face.

Look at their other commitments: Over 2,000 new hospital beds, costed by Labour at 600 million; pre-school education for one year for all children, costed by Labour at 180 million (Woeful underestimate I suspect); tripling the number of community Gardaí at a cost of 10 million; abolition of the means test for carers at 140 million; and another hundred million (Again, underestimated I think) for their ‘Begin to Buy’ campaign.

These five commitments alone amount to an extra billion a year in spending on an annual basis. It ignores the extra spending they’re promising in public transport, such as the proposal to cut Dublin Bus fares for example, or their proposals for higher social welfare spending. Where is the money to come from? This is not the 1980s. Pat can’t simply get De Rossa to speed-dial Pyongyang again.

They could have targetted regressive service charges that hit low income households, they could have widened the tax bands, but they went for the simplest option, the most political expident option, and the one that will cost the most.

And people say Fianna Fáil and Labour have little in common.

A New Vision or just another rumour…a new visual identity for Labour? February 9, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Labour Party.
5 comments

Rumours circulating yesterday and today that we’ll see a new visual identity (or a reworking – as it was put to me) revealed for the Labour Party at it’s upcoming and imminent conference?

Could it be true, and more importantly is it a good idea this close to an election if it’s a revamp of their imagery?

Priorities February 8, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.
9 comments

From today’s Irish Times (sub required):

The driver of a bus which hit and killed five people outside the Clarence Hotel in Dublin city centre three years ago was supposed to be on a day off, but was doing overtime to pay for his daughter to go on holiday.

A Dublin Circuit Criminal Court jury heard on day three of the trial that Kenneth Henvey was in a state of extreme shock when the bus came to a halt and he had to be coaxed out of his seat.

Eyewitness Oliver Galvin said Mr Henvey got on his radio and said there were dead bodies everywhere, then put his head in his hands and began sobbing and repeating “this can’t be happening”.

(…)

In a witness statement read to the jury, Joao Philippe, an Angolan asylum seeker, told gardaí how an elderly woman screamed at him “get back to your own country” when he shouted at her to call an ambulance.

Mr Philippe said he was waiting for a bus when he felt something “hit me hard from behind” and he was knocked to the ground.

He said he saw the bus driving on the pavement with its front left wheel “going over a Chinese girl’s leg”. “I was screaming at the woman to call an ambulance, but she was shouting at me to get out of the country.”

 Good old Ireland!

Free speech on trial in Paris February 8, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Freedom of speech, Islam, media, Media and Journalism, The Left.
2 comments

The never less than outstanding Lara Marlowe reports from Paris in today’s Irish Times on the trial of Philippe Val, editor of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.

Last year, Val chose to publish two of the cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad that had first appeared in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. He did this as a show of solidarity with the newspaper, and also with the editor of France Soir, one of the country’s leading newspapers, who was fired for similarly publishing the cartoons in solidarity. Indeed, off the top of my head I think Ireland was the only EU country where not a single newspaper chose to publish the cartoons in support of free speech.

Val is being sued for defamation by the The Grand Mosque, World Islamic League and Union of French Islamic Organisations, an action that has united the French Left and Right in support of free speech. One of Val’s lawyers read out a letter of support from right-wing Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy saying ‘I prefer an excess of caricature to the absence of caricature.’

Francois Hollande, head of the French Socialist Party and wife of their candidate Segolene Royal, took the stand in support of Val, pointing out that if the magazine is convicted of insulting Islam, ‘newspapers will think twice before publishing articles or drawings, and in a way, censorship will have been established.’

Meanwhile, the Germans continue to push their daft plan to criminalise people for arguing that the Holocaust didn’t take place at EU level and some of the geniuses in the Irish left, especially the so-called left in the SWP, argue for the erosion of civil liberties as part of their campaign against ‘hate speech’. Genuine radicals will remember, as this article in the Weekly Worker on the SWP’s campaign against a ballerina with a BNP membership card points out, that structures of censorship once established, are very easily turned on the left, and historically, far more likely to be used in such a manner.

See Reuters here for more details if you don’t have an Irish Times registration.

Religion Part 1…or the liberal society and the Catholic Church. February 6, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
4 comments

Heartening news in the Guardian last week. Apparently the doctrines of the Catholic Church are being interpreted by priests (in Italy at least) in a much more flexible way than one might have imagined. L’espresso magazine sent reporters to 24 Italian churches where in confession they put various moral conundrums to priests.

On a range of issues from artificial extension of life for the terminally ill, to homosexuality, to a putative offer of work in the area of stem cell research the advice was pretty much ‘don’t think any more about it…I myself, if I had a father, a wife or a child who had lived for years only because of artificial means, would pull out the [plug]’…’be yourself’ and ‘Yes. Yes. Of course’.

Now, for me this broadly seems like a sensible and humane approach by these priests. I’ve always been wary of an excess of doctrine in the political or the religious sphere (and it’s worth noting that the belief in outcomes in both tend to be rather similar – and one doesn’t have to descend to the tedious comparisons between Communism and Catholicism). That’s not to say that some forms of guidance are inappropriate, nor that – for those who feel strongly about such things – they may indeed be quite a good thing. Still, I might also point out that in my experience the clergy have tended to be way ahead of the laity, particularly on social issues where the most fire-breathing traditionalists are those with ability to marry etc, etc…

The Guardian notes that the only area where Pope Benedict could find comfort from this storm of moral relativism (or common sense as it might otherwise be termed) was:

    On one issue alone – abortion – the priests all stuck firmly to official doctrine. A reporter who said his wife had discovered their child would be born with Down’s Syndrome, and that they were preparing to terminate her pregnancy, was told: “I swear to God: if you do it, you’ll be a murderer.”

And even there, as a rabbi in the West Wing episode “Take this Sabbath Day” which dealt with the death penalty in the US noted at least the Catholic Church was consistent in it’s line.

But it’s a small but telling example of how our society (and I think it’s reasonable to expect the Irish situation to be rather similar) has changed even in the last twenty or thirty years. The norms of liberalism, or even left liberalism have become much more widely accepted, or if one prefers not to put such an explicitly ‘political’ slant on it, tolerance of a certain form is now more readily integrated into societal thinking.

I think that’s progress of sorts.

24, Jack Bauer and torture… February 5, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Television Shows, Terrorism.
9 comments

Okay, so far in it’s myriad seasons we’ve been treated to Jack Bauer torturing enemies of the US, traitors to the US, colleagues who have been misled by said enemies, colleagues who have been misled by said traitors, former friends turned enemy, former friends turned traitor and now this very evening his own brother who maybe an enemy, maybe a traitor or most likely is both.

Where left to go?

Presumably next season in order to get the necessary information to move the plot along we can expect to see him torturing himself.

The Multilocated Man: or the strange ubiquity of the ‘myth’ of Bertie Ahern in Saturday’s Irish Times. February 4, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens, Ireland, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, media, Media and Journalism, Sinn Féin.
2 comments

I have to thank my friend Fergus for pointing me towards the initial subject of this post. He had noted that on television spots for the latest edition of the Farmer’s Journal the ghostly visage of Bertie Ahern appeared amongst a montage of other graphics. Fergus taking a, perhaps, more cynical view of these things than I believes that this is part of a concerted PR effort. I’m not so sure. As An Taoiseach it’s to be expected that we’ll see his face in many places.

Many places. Many, many places.

Take yesterday for instance. For those of us watching the Dublin Tyrone match on Setanta yesterday evening (and let’s not talk about the game itself – yet another example of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory) there was Ahern in the crowd.

Meanwhile a rapid perusal of the printed version of the Irish Times saw his face appear amongst the header photographs of the second part of the poll details on pages 1 and 6. Not just once though, he appears twice on page 1 as a component of proposed different electoral blocs and five times on page 6 both as a component of electoral blocs but also in photographs of him with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (interesting to see the continuing preoccupation of the IT as regards a possible SF-supported FF government) and with Enda Kenny as part of a proposed FF/FG coalition (a mere 23% of the electorate going for this option – and thousands of leftwingers weep over the lack of prospect of a ‘grand’ realignment of Irish politics).

Now, arguably that’s not so surprising. Of course his face will appear as representative of his party. Still, should one begin to miss him while reading the rest of the paper he appears on page 5 with Terry Wogan (the latter receiving the Limerick Lifetime Achievement award) and on page 7 with a group of school children while on a visit in Tipperary.

So that’s a total of nine photographs within the paper. Enda Kenny comes in at a low four, with Pat Rabbitte at a rather more healthy six, although sadly for both they are relegated to the photographs accompanying the the polling results.

By the by, only Trevor Sargent and Pat Rabbitte are smiling in their poll photo’s. Ahern and Kenny reasonably serious.

On the other hand, there is some slight effort made to ameliorate this smorgasbord of Aherness. In one photograph Adams is shown beside and slightly behind Ahern – perhaps suggesting that he (Adams) would have equal influence. In another beside the pollling data relating to Labour entering government with FF Pat Rabbitte is shown on his own with Leinster House in the background. Why no Ahern?

So, is any of this important? A bit, probably, is the answer. If one applies a bit of semiotic analysis to it – bear with me please – it does throw up some interesting thoughts. Perhaps the main proponent of semiotic analysis, Roland Barthes wrote in the 1950s about the means by which images can incorporate a multitude of signs (aspects or indicators of meaning) which generate ‘myths’ or concepts that influence and operate on a conscious and unconscious level.

In his book Mythologies Barthes gave a particularly well-known example of this when deconstructing an image on the cover of Paris Match magazine. Barthes describes how the cover presents ‘…a young negro in a French uniform…saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour’. Barthes considered that each element of the image together or separate to other elements allows for multiple interpretations and secondary levels of meaning beyond the image itself, most obviously the relationship between the soldier and the colonial power, the meanings implicit in the French flag and so on.

paris_match.gif

And each element is a ‘sign’, signifying some meaning or referencing some meaning. Thus the soldier is a sign in itself (being that particular soldier) but it is also a signifier (a sort of second level of meaning) that ultimately references French colonialism.

He goes on to consider that in evoking a semblance of ‘naturalness’ the image effectively validates French colonialism by presenting it as both benevolent and natural. It is also interesting to note that the flag is unseen in the photograph. The photograph is cropped so that the face of the young soldier is the dominant element. The face is raised towards the flag, his hand is at his forehead in a salute and the background is devoid of colour or features. The existence of the flag is implicit, but unstated.

So, to put it simply Barthes is arguing that the image, built up from various signs (soldier/salute/flag etc) is operating as a means of containing and promoting concepts or ‘myths’ about the French state and so on. Now Barthes saw this as a pretty passive process whereby generally it was up to ‘mythologists’ such as himself to decode it and the public plays it’s part by simply assimilating the ‘myths’ unquestioningly.

US visual communication theorists Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller have revisited Barthes and provide a useful analysis of ‘mythic’ speech which extends the Barthesian thesis further. They suggest that Barthes believes that the acceptance of naturalness is central to the image.

The Paris-Match cover is important to Barthe’s analysis because, as a photograph, it is the record of a real (even if staged) event. But the belief in naturalness would depend on a viewer who accepts it as an uncontrived image. While Barthes accords a critical capacity to the journalist, who constructs such images, and to the mythologist, who deciphers them, he posits a gullible public as the consumers of such myths.

Lupton and Miller highlight the difficulty implicit in this analysis, since clearly the public are not entirely passive recipients of such ‘mythic’ imagery. They argue that ‘An audience can recognize “mythic speech” as ideological, but recognition does not necessarily defuse the power of the myth. We can consume stereotypes and clichés knowingly, but this knowledge does not preclude the ability of such images to shape beliefs’.

And that’s the crucial thing. The public isn’t passive in the sense Barthes proposes, but it can be, and often is, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ‘mythic’ discourse in a society. Consider a small example. If I ask you to name a brand of Cola chances are you’ll say Coca Cola more often than Pepsi Cola. Much more often. And that’s in part simply to the enormous power of the repetition of Coca Cola in advertising in the public space, and not just the public space, but the private space of our homes. Consider too the annoying linkage between Coca Cola and Christmas in it’s advertising over the past two months.

Anyhow, what you might ask has this to do with Bertie (the first name being of course another sign, one which has referents of normality, familiarity etc)? Ahern, as with his rivals, is a ‘sign’, arguably the clearest sign representing FF at this point in time. The repetition of this sign again and again, and as the focal point of possible coalitions is one that has at least the potential to reinforce a political discourse. And the thing is, it’s unavoidable. Unless the Irish Times were to utilise his name instead of his photograph, what else can they do? And in this day and age where image trumps text on that level that simply isn’t going to happen.

I don’t go for the all-embracing conspiracy of everything where FF is able to manipulate the media and particularly the Irish Times. But…but…if I were Geraldine Kennedy I’d think twice about presenting such a generous array of ‘mythic’ imagery based around one B. Ahern.

You can’t buy that sort of publicity and FF Headquarters could hardly ask for better – or indeed on a slightly different level of ‘mythic’ activity the headline that accompanies the article “Majority expects FF-Labour coalition in a hung Dáil”.

A final irony? This very post contributes to the discourse. There’s no escaping it, and unless Fine Gael and Labour can fashion the narrative to their own ends they will find that while it is not the be all and end all it will in part contribute to the efficacy of Fianna Fáil as an electoral machine.

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