controversey

I have a cunning plan…

So today we awoke to the news that John Waters is being paid €30,000 (aka, more than Mouse makes in a year) by RTÉ because someone on TV implied that writing and advocating against gay people being allowed to marry might qualify you as a homophobe. The other persons mentioned by Rory O’Neill have also been compensated for this dreadful trauma (that’s the trouble with gays, they can’t know just how hurtful some names can be) and according to the Irish Independent the total sum being paid to these guys amounts to €85,000 of taxpayers money. My last post on this matter was criticised by some as being overly conciliatory. I agree. The time for reasoned debate is over. My friends, I’m here to advocate for blind, unthinking revenge. It’s got a bad rep, but I do think that its moment has come. What we need in this situation is sheer, vindictive malevolence. A complete lack of mercy. My friends, we need a total and utter bastard.

Blackadder

Let me explain. In the fourth episode of Blackadder the Third, “Sense and Senility”, Blackadder has to put up with a pair of insufferable, stuck up actors. He learns that every time he says the word “Macbeth” the actors have to go through a long, complex and extremely painful ritual to banish bad luck. Blackadder, naturally, treats this like a big, shiny red button marked “press here to feel total joy”.

I believe that RTÉ, unwittingly, has now given everyone in this country such a button. What have we learned? That anytime someone calls John Waters or the Iona Institute a homophobe, RTÉ has to pay them my annual salary before tax. So, let’s push the button.

I hereby announce the commencement of Operation Blackadder. It goes like this. Anytime you are stopped on the street by an RTÉ newcaster looking for your opinion for one of those stupid Vox Pops, casually mention that John Waters and the Iona Institute are homophobes. Call into an RTÉ radio show and say that John Waters and the Iona Insitute are homophobes. If there’s an event where you can be sure RTÉ cameras are rolling, make sure to be there with your “John Waters and the Iona Insitute are Homophobes and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt” T-Shirt. Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth.  If done successfully, there will be two possible outcomes.

  • RTÉ goes bankrupt within a week. This will also mean that John Waters and the Iona Insitute will be obscenely wealthy so this is not ideal.
  • RTÉ realises very quickly that they backed the wrong fucking horse.

I am under no illusions that Operation Blackadder has any real chance of success, these things rarely do. The only way something like this could have a real chance is if people working in RTÉ, gay employees and straight allies who are livid at their employer for its craven surrender and enrichment of bigots decided that they wanted to send a message. I mean if, hypothetically, enough RTÉ employees decided that there was safety in numbers, enough casual on-air mentions could bring the entire organization to its knees in a matter of days.

Completely fanciful of course. If however, anyone working for RTÉ is reading this and is feeling rather pissed off right now? Do share, won’t you?

Don’t get your Pantis in a twist.

This is getting to be a habit so let me say this right off the bat; I don’t actually hate the Irish media. In fact I quite like it. 99% of the time it does a decent to good job of letting me know what’s going on in the world and whether this chicken sandwich is going to give me salmonella. Actually, I was originally going to write about the backlash to Macklemore winning the grammy (I even had an awesome name for it: Macklash!) but then this latest controversy reared its ugly head so I had to put that post on ice (short version, he’s a really decent guy who maybe didn’t deserve to beat Kendrick, not the second coming of Hitler and anyway it’s a grammy so who cares?). So yeah, I don’t want  to seem like I hate the Irish media even though whenever I bring them up on this blog I’m raking them across the coals. I’m sorry. It’s like the toilet, you only ever notice it when it stops working and you’re up to your oxters in fecal matter. But this time around I feel there’s an added urgency to put something in writing because this business is embarrassing to not only the state broadcaster RTÉ but also the national paper of record, The Irish Times. Which, amazingly, means that coverage of it in the national media has been slightly muted to say the least. So, as usual, it falls to a bunch of oddballs on the internet to spread the word. Alright, so let me set the scene.
Around a fortnight ago on RTÉs The Saturday Night Show host Brendan O’Connor was interviewing drag artist Rory O’Neill (aka Panti). And I will say this, if there is one positive thing to come out of this whole episode it is that it has finally justified my irrational fear and loathing of Brendan O’Connor. You can read his Wikipedia page here, I think it gives a good flavour of the man. Anyway, the topic of homophobia came up and O’Neill was asked who in the Irish media he felt were homophobic. O’Neill is obviously one of the those poor deluded fools who was raised to believe that when someone asks you a question you give an honest answer (“truthies” we used to call ‘em when I was growing up) and mentioned the Iona Institute and Irish journalist John Waters.
Who is John Waters?
Hahahahahahaha...no.

Hahahahahahaha…no.

johnwaters1-e1342097286838

That’s our boy.

John Waters is a conservative columnist and professional crankypants for the Irish Times known for his opposition to gay marriage particularly and the increasingly secularisation of Ireland more generally. He has also written such books as Hey you kids, get off my lawn!, This here is private property dagnabbit and of course I Know Your Parents!
And the Iona Institute?
The Iona Institute is a Conservative Catholic lobby group formed in 2007 to prevent the establishment of gay marriage in Ireland and promote hardline conservative Catholicism. This was as a response to the mass exodus of Irish people from the Catholic Church from the mid nineties and onward (I blame TV and rock and roll. Also the mass child rape and the vast conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and protect those responsible. But mostly the first two.)
So then what happened?
At first, nothing. The interview was broadcast in its entirety and then went up on RTÉs online player. But then it was taken down, and re-uplaoded with O’Neill’s comments about Waters and the Iona Institute excised. When asked why this was; RTÉ responded: “Last weekend’s The Saturday Night Show was removed from the Player due to potential legal issues and for reasons of sensitivity following the death of Tom O’Gorman as would be standard practice in such situations.”

Woah, back up. Who’s Tom O’Gorman?

Yeah, he just kinda flew outta nowhere there didn’t he? Tom O’Gorman was a researcher for the Iona Institute who earlier this month was murdered and partially eaten in his home by his Italian chess partner. Seriously. I’m not making a joke, that actually happened. This of course was a horrific and tragic crime which would certainly be grounds for editing O’Neill’s interview if he had mentioned Tom O’Gorman in any way.

Okay…so, that’s weird.

It gets weirder. Well…no, it doesn’t really get weirder than cannibalistic Italian chess players but it continues to be weird in different, less horrifying ways. As it turns out, this was an attempt by RTÉ to use  a horrific crime to give themselves cover for censoring the interview. The reason they did this pretty soon became apparent. John Waters and the Iona Institute had lawyered up. And they did not take kindly to being called homophobes. On a later episode of The Saturday Night Brendan O’Connor addressed the audience. Now, let me be clear, if O’Connor had just come out and said “RTE wishes to clarify that the views expressed on this show do not necessarily reflect the views of RTE blah blah boilerplate” that’s fine. Regardless of my personal stance on the issue, the national broadcaster must be seen to be impartial . That’s fine. That’s not what this was.

Now, on the Saturday night show two weeks ago comments were made by a guest suggesting the journalist and broadcaster John Waters, Breda O’Brien and some members of the Iona institute are homophobic. These are not the views of RTÉ and we would like to apologise for any upset or distress caused to the individuals named or identified. It is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues.

So…what you have here is the national broadcaster censoring itself and then apologising profusely under legal threat because a private citizen expressed a personal opinion that individuals who have devoted a considerable portion of their adult lives to ensuring that gay people do not achieve equal marriage rights could be considered homophobic…and then lecturing us on the importance of freedom of expression in a healthy democracy.

"And now, please rise for the two minutes hate. DEATH TO THE TRAITOR GOLDSTEIN!"

“And now, please rise for the two minutes hate. DEATH TO THE TRAITOR GOLDSTEIN!”

However, it was the news that RTÉ is actually paying a cash settlement to the Iona Institute (which, since RTÉ is state funded essentially amounts to a gift from the Irish taxpayer) that people have loudly declaring that Up With This We Will Not Put. Ironically, John Waters was until recently a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, whose purpose is to actually protect liberty of expression in Irish broadcasting. To his credit, I suppose he’s not a hypocrite. It’s just a little disheartening that when faced with choosing between freedom of speech and media suppression he looked at the latter and said “Ooh that one!”

RTÉ’s behaviour in all this baffles me. See, I’ve spent time in RTÉ. I worked their briefly as an intern and I was interviewed once for an afternoon programme and let me tell you, the place is not exactly what you’d call gay unfriendly.

A Thursday morning in RTE.

A Thursday morning in RTÉ.

The obvious reason of course is cowardice. As in, RTÉ are cowards. Big wusses. Total pussbags. And if this was a simple case of a craven obeisance to power that would be something. That at least can indicate a rat-like survival instinct which is kind of admirable in a way. But, and I cannot emphasise this enough, NOBODY GIVES A FLYING FIDDLER’S FUCK ABOUT THE IONA INSTITUTE. Seriously, they’re a joke. Ireland’s gay marriage referendum is scheduled for 2015 and there’s every indication that it’s going to  be a walk for the YES side. I’ve seen polls putting support at upwards of seventy percent, the highest level of support for anything in Ireland since pollsters stopped asking “Beer good?” Given Iona’s complete lack of clout the only reason for RTE’s craven grovelling is that they think Iona and John Waters actually have a case.

So that’s the real question. Was O’Neill’s remark an objective fact or an unproven slander? Does opposing gay marriage in and of itself make you a homophobe? Now I know that thousands…hundreds? Okay, several readers are now screaming at the screen “Yes. Mouse. Yes.” But honestly, I think that kind of absolutist “with us or agin’ us” mentality is very harmful for the gay rights movement. Take somebody who supports civil unions for gay couples and abhors discrimination and anti-gay prejudice but draws the line at full marriage equality. He may be wrong, but he’s not Fred Phelps, and treating him like he is Fred Phelps is not going to win him over. In every great social struggle like this the side that is the more flexible, pragmatic, patient and willing to make messy compromises in the present for greater gains in the future always wins.

So if you were to tell me that you honestly and sincerely bear no ill will or prejudice towards gays but just believe that marriage should be between a man or a woman, I can’t read your soul. I can’t know if that’s true or not so I’m just going to have to take you at your word until I get my hands on a Klingon mind sifter.

It is extremely effective if...unpleasant.

It is extremely effective if…unpleasant.

Also, because I am an incurable optimist, I can’t help but see the bright side in this. If being labeled a homophobe is now so toxic in Irish society that even the friggin’ Iona institute feels the need to yank out the heavy legal artillery at the mere suggestion that they might be such, then the war is very nearly over and we are in the advanced stages of endgame.

However, I would like to close with a little bit of unsolicited career advice for the Iona Institute and Mr John Waters. If the idea of being labelled a homophobe is so abhorrent to you? If the mere notion that anyone could possibly consider you to be a homophobe is so awful that you would sue the national broadcaster and throw the very notion that we live in a country where freedom of expression is permitted into serious doubt?

If it is really as bad as all that?

Maybe you’re in the wrong line of work.

I hear Game of Thrones is looking for extras?

I hear Game of Thrones is looking for extras?

“Increase quality of Theatre Output by 30%”

My friends, let us be frank. This is no mere kerfuffle. It is not even a brouahaha. This is a full on clusterpickle. I refer of course to the controversy following the release by the Irish Times of the findings of the Abbey Theatre’s independent assessment…you have no idea what I’m talking about do you?
Okay, little background. The Abbey Theatre was founded in Dublin in 1902 by WB Yeats and others to showcase Irish writing and culture and played an important part in fostering a sense of unique cultural Irish identity in the early twentieth century. This in turn fed into the political and military independence movements of the time which finally resulted in the creation of an Irish Free State in the twenties. This is why, from 1925 onward the Abbey became the first state-subsidised theatre in the English speaking world, a status it retains to this day (although it is not fully funded by the government and never has been). We can argue about the appropriateness of a theatre being even partially funded by the taxpayer but I would argue that this has been hugely beneficial to both parties. Firstly, the Abbey is a major part of Ireland’s reputation as a literary powerhouse; Yeats, O’Casey, Synge, Hugh Leonard, Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness, Tom Murphy, Conor McPhearson…all have worked with and been supported by the Abbey at one time or another, and this commitment to new writing continues to this day. Contrast this with the other venerable institution of the Dublin Theatre scene, the Gate, which now deals almost exclusively in either classics from the theatrical canon that can be assured of a big draw or adaptations of popular novels. That can be assured of a big draw. And that’s not a diss on the Gate, but the fact remains that in a theatre scene as small and yet as fiercely competitive as Dublin’s, there is precious little room for error for a theatre the size of the Gate. One flop could kill them, and when you’re in that situation the last thing you can afford to do is experiment. The next great Irish playwright to emerge will almost certainly emerge from the Abbey, not the Gate, because government funding allows the Abbey to take the chance on the next big thing. And I will be waiting by the phone.
"It's for you." "At last!"

“It’s for you.”
“At last!”

Now, when you receive tax-payer money there is of course a responsibility to ensure that money is being spent well. This is why Fiach MacConghail, the director of the Abbey Theatre, and the Arts Council who provide the Abbey’s funding, asked three independent experts to assess the Abbey’s productions for a year. Honest criticism is very hard to come by in the Irish theatre scene because a) you don’t want to insult someone you may be working with in a few months’ time and b) EVERYBODY KNOWS EVERYBODY. This is why the three assessors were chosen from outside Ireland, an English professor of Irish history and two theatre directors, one English and one Scottish. The resulting report was pretty tough, but then that was the point. This was supposed to be a frank, take no prisoners, tell it like it is sort of report to allow the Abbey to work on areas that needed improvement. And that would have been that. But then, enter the Irish Media…
lightning17
 
The Irish Times requested access to the report from the Arts Council for the full report under freedom of information legislation and published the whole damn thing. Not only that, but they refused a request by Fiach to at least redact the names of the individual actors, writers and directors who came in for criticism by the panel (you can read his dignified response to the whole mess here). Which is what is known in the theatrical world as a “dick move”. It is also known as that in other worlds. And now the Irish theatre scene has basically blown up over this. People are feeling betrayed and humiliated, accusations are flying, critics of the Abbey are crowing like big massive cocks (the birds of course) and basically, in a word: DRAMA.
Now if you’ve come here for a sober and dispassionate take on all this you’ve probably come to the wrong place. I love the Abbey. I go whenever I can get a babysitter, a great many of my friends work there in one capacity or another, they trained me as a playwright for a year, have supported me as a writer for five, staged the first ever professional production of my writing on the Peacock stage. I owe these guys a lot so let me be very clear that I am in their corner here. But I’m not going to dispute or criticise the findings of the panel, who were asked to give their honest opinion and gave it. And that opinion basically boils down to: “We saw twelve plays. Four of them were awesome (though we can’t agree which ones). Five were solid. And there were three that we thought really needed to be better for a professional theatre (although again, we can’t agree which ones).” What I would dispute, however, is the implication by the Irish Times and others that these findings mean that the Abbey is not a “world class” theatre. That somehow, being one of the most historic and storied theatres in the English speaking world that has and continues to foster the best in new Irish writing means nothing unless three individuals go to twelve plays and love every single last one of them. Because theatre doesn’t work like that. No three people will ever agree on what makes a fantastic piece of theatre. I have stood in lobbies after a show cursing the two hours that I will never get back while my wife stands trembling beside me in the still lingering throes of near religious theatrical ecstasy. Some people will now genuinely, with a straight face, say that the Abbey should produce “better plays” or risk losing its funding. Okay. How will you measure that? Write down for me what makes a good play. If it’s financially successful? If it’s “ripped from the headlines” relevant to the present day? If it’s timeless in its themes and message? Creating theatre is not chemistry, it’s alchemy. It’s the fusing of a million different elements, egos, talents, words, hopes, sweat, blood, prayers, fear, madness and a huge big frothy dollop of luck and throwing it onstage and hoping something sparkles in the darkness. It is not something that can be quantified and planned and worked out to the last decimal place (and if it was I sure as hell wouldn’t want to watch it). You cannot increase the quality of Theatre Output by 30%. If there are obvious problems with the way some plays are produced then obviously that should be addressed (which was the point of the whole exercise in the first place). But no theatre can produce exceptional theatre 100% per cent of the time. That’s the whole point. It is exceptionalAll any theatre can do, be it a small parish hall or the National Theatre, is to honestly and whole-heartedly work to make every piece of theatre as good as it can be. Speaking from personal experience, in the Abbey Theatre that is all they ever do. And they will make mistakes. In the words of another Irish writer who never had any sort of relationship with the Abbey because that would make this ending so much more effective, damn it: “Ever try. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  
NOTE: This post originally stated that the Abbey is the only theatre  in Ireland to receive public funding. This is incorrect, many theatres and theatre companies in Ireland receive some level of government subsidy. Thanks to Derbhle Crotty for the correction.