Inspiration, Intellectuals & Iconoclasts on the Internet: Interview with Colum McCaffery

In an online profile, Colum McCaffery describes himself as “Lecturer, researcher, contrarian”, but his contrarian side is professional and in person he’s witty and agreeable. “Contrarian is something that other people call me”, he says. Born and reared in Inchicore in Dublin, McCaffery trained as a technician and he worked for RTÉ, mostly in the engineering division, for 30 years. During that time he studied political communication and broadcasting and earned his PhD at UCD where he then taught Political Communication for 20 years. A socialist and Labour party member, he’s now retired but he still teaches adult education classes – and he’s a regular blogger.

Colum McCaffery

Colum McCaffery

Colum, what inspired you to start blogging?

I was encouraging my students to get out and participate and get involved in public debates, and one of them said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you do it yourself?’ So I started a blog. For a while it was the most ignored blog on earth but about two years ago, people began to mention to me something that they had read on the blog. The blogosphere is old hat now; these days it’s all about social media. But you can put the link from your blog on your Facebook site and it will attract some readers.

You write about the impact of the Internet on political communication. It’s conventional wisdom that the Internet has increased the amount of information available to interested people but you dispute that view.

With the arrival of the Internet, my course on political communication was becoming much more about citizenship. I talk about the average citizen having a think about things, and having information, and coming to judgment of an issue. But when we talk about information, going back to John Stuart Mill, we are not talking about bits of information, because information includes all the relevant arguments, in other words committed arguments on this side and this side and this side. Also, we’re not just talking about balancing one argument against the other, because there might be five arguments.

The best way to look at it is that if you go into court, the defence has the same facts as the prosecution. Facts of themselves are not enough. What sways the jury is the arguments, the use of the facts. Yet people increasingly just don’t want to be bothered with all of that stuff. The technology of the past century, including the Internet, is facilitating closing down challenge and argument.

When you talk of people ‘not being bothered’, you’re referring to these models of liberal and republican citizenship?

[At this point, Colum hands me a book by Robert Hutton titled 'Romps, Tots and Boffins' and invites me to read a quote from the opening pages, by Evelyn Waugh: “News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. It’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.”]

That’s liberal citizenship: ‘I really don’t care. I want you to amuse me, to give me stuff to gossip about. But if there’s something that really threatens the way I live this life, that threatens my having a nice house and a nice car, then what I want you to do is ring the alarm bell.’

Now, there is a totally different view of what it means to be a citizen, going back to Pericles in ancient Greece. Pericles said: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all.”

Then you have the republican citizen who wants what I call the full spectrum service. This person wants to talk to his mates about everything that is going on. He wants to be part of a political opinion that means something.

In your blogs you refer to the need for citizens to involve themselves in public controversies, but what do you mean by public controversy?

A recent public controversy is the junior doctors’ dispute. I went all over the place, online, trying to find out about it. Is it about scheduling or money? Will rescheduling bring in a requirement for lots of new doctors, in which case the problem won’t be solvable in the near future? I couldn’t get to the bottom of it.

I asked on Facebook if someone would please explain the dispute to me. One guy explained that it was to do with the handover from one shift to the next, and that you need someone that continues all the way through. If you don’t have this, then it means bringing the consultants in more regularly, and they are opposed to that. Now, I didn’t find that explanation anywhere in the media. My point is that if, as a citizen, I want to decide which side I’m on, it is virtually impossible using today’s media to work this out.

So what do you see as the role of the media in public controversies?

Well, it’s no use telling me that there’s a whole pile of information on any particular controversy available on the web if I have to search to find it. You can’t expect the average interested person to do that. They need to have the important controversies plonked in front of them: here’s all the issues, here’s what you should be thinking about today.

Journalists are the people that have the access to all the information and they have the time and it’s their job to sort that out so that I, who haven’t got the time, will know what this debate is about.

So despite the increase in the availability of information through the Internet, the manner of presentation of that information is limiting?

Well, have you ever bought anything on Amazon? When you buy something like a book, Amazon comes back with ‘Stuff recommended for you’. So what they have done is they have looked at the things that you have bought in the past, and recommended more of the same.

In the 1960s, when there’s only newspapers, radio and television, Herbert Marcuse talks about ‘closing the universe of discourse’, that there’s no way of getting out of that circle, that no questions will ever be asked. That notion of ‘closing the universe of discourse’ can also be applied to the Internet and Facebook, but the next phase is even more scary. Now people are using apps to cut down the stuff they don’t want to be seeing.

So, what can we say about the role of public intellectuals in public controversies?

Well, apart from the big names and outside of the field of economics, you don’t have much attention paid to public intellectuals. Diarmuid Ferriter is making a bit of a name for himself. It’s incumbent on anyone working in universities or anyone who has a high position in any vital industry or institution to take part in public controversies. I would go further and say that I think teachers should take part in public controversies.

Michael D Higgins is a case in point and I’m reminded of a phrase I love from John Stuart Mill about women and feminism, when he says the problem is that women are put down on a pedestal.

Michael D Higgins gets up and says something that is so completely at odds with the consensus that I expect people to get up and start screaming and shouting at him. Instead you’ll will have a reaction where someone will say: ‘What a wonderful man, aren’t we lucky to have him as President?’ Whatever he said might be reported in the paper the following day, and after that it will be ignored.

At the start of his presidency, Michael D painted a picture of education that is utterly at odds with the one presented by the Higher Education Authority. The speech was made, applauded, and ignored. As Minister for Education and a member of the Labour Party, Ruairi Quinn really ought to say to the HEA: “HEA, please take on board what the President has said, and write me a report on how we can move our higher education system towards the one that Michael D. Higgins is outlining”. Otherwise, I want him to come out and say “Michael D Higgins, on the subject of education, is talking complete bollocks”. It can’t be both. Everything Michael D says is utterly ignored. All right-thinking people agree with him but it doesn’t go anywhere after that.

Let’s talk about the use of language in the public arena, because you’ve talked about the language of business and public relations and how that has crept into the language of public services.

The ultimate expression of an argument built into a term is that ‘citizen’ has been removed from discourse. For example, I am now a ‘customer’ of the county council, and a ‘customer’ of the HSE. It’s been said back to me that the service is so bad that they have introduced the concept of ‘the customer is right’, but if the service is so bad, why not reform the service?

There is an unwillingness to engage with the average citizen, and if you ask a question, there is an unwillingness to answer. There’s no legal reason that I can’t request the county manager to put something on the agenda for a meeting. So I asked the County Council, who declined. I’ve asked the Broadcasting Standards Authority to put something to the board. The response of the director was, ‘I decline’. I asked FETAC, who declined. The Roads Authority won’t co-operate. So, I’ve failed absolutely except in one case, which was with the regulator of health insurance. I asked him to put one thing to the board, and he did.

I’ve tried to get Dublin County Council to delete all reference to ‘customer’ and replace it with ‘citizen’. I was asking for the language to be changed not just for the hell of it, but to say to a public servant that you can’t treat the person coming in to see you as a customer. This person is a much bigger deal; this person is a citizen.

The move from using the term citizen to customer is a fundamental change. It’s designed to cut down contact. It starts off with ‘for this dial one, for that dial two’. Unless you are paying money, there is no service, or it’s very difficult.

Regarding this use of language to limit of discourse, you refer to the expression ‘the political class’ as another term that has become widespread, even among well-regarded journalists.

Well, before this term arose you had a tendency to talk about ‘The Politicians’, which is also used as a way to eliminate discourse. It eliminates the very possibility that there are different politicians with different points of view. Michael D Higgins called it “an ecumenism of blame”.

You now see this term changing to ‘the political class’, so you have the political class and people change within it, but it’s permanent. So we have the impression that there is a political class that has access to an unlimited bag of money, and that the only thing that prevents them paying for everything is that they are too mean or too stupid. You rarely hear journalists challenging people and asking “Do you really think that the Minister is stupid? Do you not think that there may be some other reason for this?”.

Society is split into various interest groups: old people, young people, special interest groups. Each group puts pressure on the Emperor / political class, and whoever put on the most pressure wins at the expense of the other.

There’s a mood abroad at the moment that I call ‘ASAP’, anti-state and anti-politics, and it’s extremely right wing and extremely individualist. If you want to appeal to it, you should be talking in terms of cutting the numbers of politicians or talking about politics as being a bad thing. That’s what happened in the [Seanad] referendum, as if someone in the Taoiseach’s office said, “Look, the mood out there is really about sticking the boot into politicians and politics, and we can ingratiate ourselves with the fastest growing constituency in the country”.

Meanwhile you have the Left, who see in the ASAP people some kind of on-the-streets movement that is therefore progressive. I spoke to the Occupy movement, I went to the public meetings against the property tax but I have never encountered such right-wing views in my life. What the Left want to do is to lead the masses, and I belong to that tradition, but when you’re faced with a group of people who are so utterly at odds with what you believe, you have to say ‘No!’

Most of the Left today try to get off the hook by saying, ‘Well if we hadn’t paid these bank debts and we told the IMF and the European Central Bank to shag off, then we could go back to living the way we were’. But it’s just not true. The income doesn’t match what we want to spend. We are going to have to find money from somewhere. You can either tax or you limit spending. If you tax, you have to decide who to tax. If you limit spending, you have to decide which areas to cut. But no one will talk about priorities.

What priorities are you talking about?

I used to teach Orla Tinsley, the CF (Cystic Fibrosis) campaigner. As far as I’m concerned, CF is a number one priority. If people with CF don’t get their ward and a bed where they can’t get an infection, they will die. Life and death issues are the most important ones and we have to pay for those.

My lowest priority is salaries above €100,000 and salaries above €50,000 in the public service. A couple of years ago, I tried to run this idea about a €100,000 limit on pay and a €50,000 limit on pensions in the public service. I tried to get this motion on to the Labour Party conference agenda, but I couldn’t even get it past my own branch. What fundamentally killed it off was the notion of fairness: It wouldn’t be fair to do something about rich civil servants unless you did something about people similarly situated in the private sector.

I think that €100,000 and €50,000 are very generous, but my argument is that we have to put ceilings on those, if we really are short of money. Once that is done, if we still haven’t enough money, we have to look at the next thing. I’m not saying that we should keep cutting and cutting but we have to look at priorities.

I heard Michael O’Leary from Ryanair talking about how it wouldn’t be fair to take any more from rich people. So every political party is in favour of fairness, but none of them are defining it in the same way. When you’re talking about fairness, you’re asking, how much can we move away from the way things are before it becomes unfair? Fairness is trying to keep the structures of inequality relatively unchanged.

I became convinced that fairness was the conservative weasel word that we use all time. I’ve been arguing that the Labour party should never use the term ‘fairness’. I mean, the French revolution was about liberty, equality and fraternity, not about fairness. They weren’t arguing that it would be unfair to take something from the aristocracy.

I argued that if Labour went into coalition, we needed to make a demand that was specifically socialist, which I refer to as the Rosa Test. That’s the idea that a socialist party should make a demand that no other party will agree with. I was saying that a precondition of coalition should be to lower the level of income inequality over the course of the lifetime of the Dáil. People would talk about inequality, and it would give people a reason to vote for the Labour party. That suggestion was ignored.

The Labour party does have a position of auditing new legislation for inequality but it’s a secret. The parliamentary party makes no reference to it, or the media. Even the most extreme critics of the Labour party pay no attention to it! When the Green Party was in government, they were looking for environmental audits. This is the same principle.

Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman

Russell Brand has caused a real stir recently after he edited an issue of the New Statesman and a subsequent interview with Jeremy Paxman caught the imagination of a lot of people.

Russell Brand in particular illustrates a lot of what I talk about. He sets out a checklist of what’s wrong in the world. He then dismisses every institution that might be used to make any change. Reform becomes impossible, there’s no point in talking about it, and what we need as he puts it, is a spiritual revolution. Part of what Russell Brand is saying is that ‘nothing can be done about anything until something can be done about everything’.

I don’t want to be unfair to him, and he’s not the first person to talk about revolution in terms of being spiritual but he has a particular meaning, and what he is trying to do is keep onside all of the people who talk in terms of New Age stuff, mind body and spirit, and the whole constituency that wants to return to ancient myths.

He wants to keep them onside because for many years they have rejected any kind of politics. So he is pulling socialist values in behind what I consider a right-wing perspective, and and I get very angry about that. It’s when dissent becomes institutionalised and quasi-constitutional. Then when he’s asked what he would like to do, he’ll throw it back by saying ”That’s up to the political class, I’m just a poor uneducated comedian”.

The idea that the world has been divided into 1% against the 99% has become a political meme.

I think the 1% thing is essentially conservative. It’s a way of allowing the majority of rich people to hide and it’s a way of doing shag all. You’ll get people who are extraordinarily rich complaining about the one per cent. A lot of people in this one percent are in other countries, and we can’t get at them. But if you talk about the top 10% or 20% in Ireland, now we’re talking about something. We’re talking about people about whom we can make decisions.

The figures change from year to year, but with the figure of 10% you are probably talking about people earning upwards of €100,000 or €150,000 a year – an awful lot of the movers and shakers in this country.

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