A pivotal moment

The resounding ‘Yes” vote in the Irish Referendum on changing the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage is a pivotal moment in the history of my beloved homeland. And in the history of the world too, in a small way, because this is the first occasion in which legal equality has been conferred on non-heterosexuals by a popular vote.

My private expectation was that it would be a narrowly positive vote, and that it would be decided by the urban/rural divide, with the electorates of Dublin, Cork and Galway voting overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ and most of the rural constituencies voting ‘No’. In the event I was completely wrong: only one constituency (Roscommon-South Leitrim) went negative, and that by a small margin. There was still an urban/rural divide, but it was much narrower than I had expected.


Cartoon by Martyn Turner in today’s Irish Times.

What it means (and what the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, conceded) is that Irish society has finally turned the corner towards secularity. What’s astonishing, in some ways, is that it took so long, especially given how long the revelations about the hypocrisy and criminality of the Catholic church over child abuse have been in the public domain. The idea that this decrepit, decaying institution could pretend to be a guide to morals (not to mention politics) was laughable for decades, but it seems that it is only now that its bluff has finally been called.

In one way, it was bound to happen, for demographic reasons — or what marketing consultants call “biological leakage”, i.e. the remorseless tendency of older people to pass away. But that doesn’t lessen the sense of wonder that it has finally happened. As the Irish Times put it in its First Leader,

“the time when bishops could instruct the Irish people on how to vote has long gone. What we may not have appreciated until now is that being a young, networked society has political consequences that can overturn the cynical conventional wisdom about voting behaviour, turnout and engagement.

This is the first Irish electoral event in which young people have taken the lead and determined the outcome and it has been a bracing, refreshing experience. It had been visible on the streets for weeks in the Yes badges that became ubiquitous during the campaign but it had its most potent and poignant expression in the multitude of young emigrants who came home to vote on Friday. Here, in a single gesture, was all the pathos of separation and longing; an expression of solidarity and belonging; and an enduring loyalty to the nation that had so signally failed them. The tweets from those returning to vote for marriage equality were at once inspiring and heartbreaking, testimony to our failure and their promise.”

The campaign was fascinating because it was, as Noel Whelan put it in the Times, “the most extensive civic society campaign ever seen in Irish politics”. In that sense, it reminded one of the campaign that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008. The people who masterminded it — Brian Sheehan and Gráinne Healey — have shown themselves to be consummate, canny strategists who crafted a campaign that was deliberately open and conversational rather than confrontational. (The chosen theme was: “I’m Voting Yes, Ask Me Why?”)

For me, it was especially cheering to see that a long, lonely and exceedingly courageous campaign by a fellow Joycean, Senator David Norris, had finally born fruit. Writing in the Times today, he recalled the long and winding road “from criminal to equal citizen”:

I have been privileged in my life to follow a remarkable trajectory from being defined into criminality, challenging the criminal law, losing in the High Court and Supreme Courts, finally winning out by a margin of one vote in Europe, seeing the criminal law changed and then starting to build on this basis for human and civil rights for gay people.

Fifty years ago my first boyfriend said to me outside a Wimpy Bar on Burgh Quay: “I love you David but I can’t marry you.” I still remember that all these years later.

Go forward 10 years when, after a debate on decriminalisation, the late Mona Bean O’Cribben remarked vehemently to me: “This isn’t just about decriminalisation. You have a homosexual agenda. You won’t be satisfied until you have homosexual marriage.” I turned to her and said: “What a wonderful idea, thank you very much madam, have you got any other suggestions?”

But there is another, intangible but real, aspect to this vote. One of the strangely positive side-effects of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years — when the Irish economy zoomed from sensible economic development to casino property-development insanity — was that my fellow citizens experienced for the first time what it was like to be seen as successful by the rest of the world. It was suddenly, as some of them observed at the time, “cool to be Irish”. All of which meant that the bust and the subsequent economic collapse had an even harsher psychic impact: it turned out that we had been kidding ourselves; that we had, as Frank McDonald (the great Irish Times journalist) used to say, “lost the run of ourselves”.

But one of the most unexpected byproducts of Friday’s vote is that we can be genuinely proud of ourselves, and for a reason infinitely better than fuelling a crazed property boom: for once, we did the right thing. Not a bad day’s work.

Quote of the Day

“Those are my principles. If you don’t like them,… well, I’ve got others.”

Groucho Marx

Funny that this quote should the one that came to mind when I was thinking about David Cameron.

The Kony video: an ethical virus?

My take on the Kony video.

According to YouTube, 60 hours of video material are uploaded to it every minute – an hour a second. In the midst of such abundance, how can anything get noticed? Attention is now the scarcest commodity in cyberspace – which explains why virality is so craved by those with things to sell or messages to transmit. In that sense, the most significant thing about the Kony video is that it represents the most successful exploitation of virality to date. But when you delve deeper, it turns out that its success owes something to network theory as well as to storytelling craft.

Many years ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published a seminal article in the American Journal of Sociology on the special role of “weak ties” in networks – links among people who are not closely bonded – as being critical for spreading ideas and for helping people join together for action.

An examination of the spread of the Kony video suggests that one weak tie in particular may have been critical in launching it to its present eminence. Her name is Oprah Winfrey and she tweeted: “Have watched the film. Had them on show last year” on 6 March, after which the graph of YouTube views of the video switches to the trajectory of a bat out of hell. Winfrey, it turns out, has 9.7 million followers on Twitter.

The problem with taking the tabloids

Amid the furore surrounding the Leveson Inquiry, one aspect of the affair is curiously absent: the role of the great British public in all of this. To illustrate this, consider the paradox that at a time when an increasing number of Sun journalists have been arrested on suspicion of making or facilitating corrupt payments to public officials, Rupert Murdoch launches the Sunday Sun to replace the late lamented News of the World — and it sells 3m copies on its launch day. So three million of our fellow-citizens went out and, of their own volition, paid good money to buy the thing.

And that, it seems to me, lies at the root of the problem. The underlying cause of the malfeasance at the Sun and other tabloid papers is that the tabloid market is an intensely competitive one. That’s why journalism in Britain can never be a ’profession’ — with all that implies in terms of standards, ethics and professional sanctions: it’s a trade grafted onto businesses operating in a fiercely competitive market. So journalists on tabloid newspapers are under intense pressure to come with ’stories’ that will give their paper a competitive edge.

But sleazy journalism wouldn’t give them such an edge if readers exercised some kind of moral or ethical judgement when choosing newspapers to buy. So the responsibility ultimately rests with consumers of the British tabloid product. If they genuinely abhorred the kinds of journalistic practices now being unearthed by Leveson, then the incentives to break or bend the law would be dramatically reduced. Bad behaviour would be punished. But what happens instead is that bad behaviour is rewarded — by increased circulation. (***See footnote)

So the great mystery is why consumers of journalistic products seem to be ethically neutered. I had a disturbing insight into this many years ago when visiting some friends of a friend. The couple in question were lovely, decent, unpretentious people in their mid-sixties from a working-class background. I noticed that they were readers of the Daily Express and asked if they were regular subscribers. They were. So, I asked, did it bother them that the paper they read every day was owned by a pornographer?

What was astonishing (to me) is that they were completely floored by the question — not in the sense that they didn’t have an answer, but in the sense that the question seemed, literally, meaningless to them. The idea that there might be an ethical dimension to their newspaper purchasing habit had clearly never crossed their minds. So there was an awkward silence and the conversation moved on. But as I saw the sales figures for the new Sunday Sun, memories of that conversation came flooding back. And as long as media ’consumption’ takes place in that ethical vacuum, then the problems being unearthed by Leveson will continue to plague us.


*Footnote: As far as I can remember, there has only been one occasion in recent history where bad behaviour was punished by readers — and that was when Liverpool readers boycotted the Sun after its disgraceful allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool football fans during the Hillsborough disaster.

My colleague Andrew Cupples points out that the Sun’s readership in Liverpool has never recovered from the paper’s coverage of the disaster. He pointed me at a Guardian story on the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough, which reads, in part:

The newspaper, which has a circulation of more than 3m nationally, sold just 8,000 copies in the area on the day of the memorial service at Anfield, which was attended by more than 30,000 people.

Inside the newspaper, still known as “The Scum” in Liverpool, “lifelong fan” David Wooding, the Whitehall editor, delivered a poignant tribute to the men, women and children who lost their lives. But for those who gathered at Anfield this week, it was far too little and far too late.

At the Albert pub, squeezed next to the ground, football scarves and Liverpool memorabilia cover the walls and ceiling. The entrance of the pub has a poster mocking the front page of the Sun’s notorious splash, which appeared a few days after the tragedy. The tabloid’s masthead appears to be dripping in blood. “The truth,” it reads. “96 dead. Hillsborough 15th April 1989. Don’t buy the Sun.”

Tommy Doran, who works at the Albert, remembers one regular reading the Sun in a corner of the pub. “I went over to him and said: ‘What’s that?’ and he went: ‘The Sun.’ I just ripped it up into pieces in front of him.” Like many others on Merseyside, Doran will never forgive the decision of then editor Kelvin MacKenzie to lead on 19 April 1989 with a story headlined “The Truth” that was anything but. In it, quoting unnamed police sources and a Tory MP, it claimed drunken Liverpool fans urinated on and picked the pockets of the dead, hampered rescue efforts and attacked policemen.

And the Wikipedia entry about the Hillsborough catastrophe claims that:

Many people in the Liverpool area continue to reject buying The Sun as a matter of principle, and the paper’s sales figures within Merseyside remain very poor. It is the only major newspaper not to have articles published on Liverpool’s official website. As of 2004, the average daily circulation of The Sun in Liverpool was just 12,000 copies a day. Some Liverpudlians refer to the paper as simply: The Scum.

This is interesting, but I suspect it’s the exception that proves the rule.

That awkward question

Uncomfortable questions from David Pogue following on from the NYT’s big story on conditions in Chinese electronics factories.

It’s safe to say that most electronics sold in the United States are made in these Chinese factories.

So yes, we should pressure Apple to continue putting pressure on Foxconn. But at the same time, we seem to be ignoring a much bigger and more important question: How much do we care?

That Chinese workers are paid less than American workers is no big shock. We’ve known that forever. That’s why everybody outsources to China in the first place. There’s a long list of Chinese manufacturing costs that are lower than American manufacturing costs: hourly employee rates, worker benefits, taxes, the cost of power, buildings and equipment, and more.

Bringing workplace standards and pay in Chinese factories up to American levels would, of course, raise the price of our electronics. How much is hard to say, but a financial analyst for an outsourcing company figures a $200 iPhone might cost $350 if it were built here.

Do we care enough about Chinese factory conditions to pay nearly twice as much for our phones, tablets, cameras, TVs, computers, GPS units, camcorders, music players, DVD players, DVRs, networking gear and stereo equipment?

Good piece, and those of us who cheerfully live inside the Apple ecosystem are all a bit compromised. But there is one aspect of the question that Pogue omits, namely the extraordinarily high margins that Apple squeezes from its products.