Why we need a political opposition, Part 327: To toughen up our thin-skinned politicians

Tony Grew in the Bel Tel quotes Lord Black of Brentwood…

“As a journalist, I can tell your Lordships that it is not so much what happens in the courts but the prospect of what might happen which has such a chilling effect on free speech and encourages the imposition of self-censorship.

And he added: “After talking to diverse journalists in the Province, it seems to me that many of the Province’s politicians are notoriously thin-skinned about criticism.

“Journalists and writers complain of their easy resort to the threat of defamation and keep [solicitor] Mr Paul Tweed, whom the noble Lord, Lord Lester mentioned, busy issuing threats of defamations.”

Most opposition that’s not coming from Jim Allister (whom Squinter dubs as Slugger’s Man of the Year), is coming from the media. The retreat from political opposition on the hill (Phil Flanagan of SF seems to be the only other MLA playing that role at the moment), means that there is no coherent political critique of this and other issues available other than that which journalism makes on its own behalf.

Besides one of the notable characteristics of the current set up is just how sensitive the folks on the hill are about anyone speaking out of turn. Hardly surprising since it so rarely happens in the chamber, that early (and often unreasonable/unsustainable) resort to the law has become commonplace.

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  • Ibutsu

    >Phil Flanagan of SF seems to be the only other MLA playing that role at the moment

    Is Steven Agnew not in opposition?

  • michael-mcivor

    Most seem to be happy with politics in the 6 now a days-well those that vote anyhow- about half of us-the first minister refuse’s to give any interviews to the Irish news because he did not like what they said about him-and nobody could give a toss about this-news stations keep one eye on the clock when they interview a politician-does not matter how its working out they will not miss advert time-soon be getting to the stage when we will all think we are repoters there is that many blogs

  • cynic2

    Its not just exposing the naked sectarianism and incompetence in policy.

    Its exposing the sheer petty corruption in the award of contracts, appointments to public sector pots and allocation of grants. Then there is the attempted undue influence on the police courts and prosecutors to get oursuns off charges and themuns prosecuted.

    Stormont is descending into a slightly more refined version of an African state where your tribal or clan relationship with the Minister either guarantees or excludes you from the honey pots of Government Money influence and justice

    We desperately need an opposition to keep this in check or it will fatally undermine any residual confidence in the political system

    Is that what we signed up for in GFA

    Is parity of esteem that oursuns can graft and steal just as much as yoursuns?

  • Mick Fealty

    Para 2 is worth exploring further… What changes in the tendering process have the Executive brought to bear that make it easier for small local firms to bid for contracts?

    I had a look at the tender papers for the new Assembly website (no, I wasn’t even dreaming of bidding), they ran to something in the region of 100 pages…

    This is not ‘petty corruption’, but it means govt mullah stays with big accountancy firms who have the bureaucracy to endure failed big bids… This is low hanging fruit for someone…

  • cynic2

    It is “petty corruption” or perhaps the deepest incompetence when tenders are awarded in processes controlled by SpAds on a “one of yours and one of ours” basis

  • cynic2

    “What changes in the tendering process have the Executive brought to bear that make it easier for small local firms to bid for contracts?”

    Well the etenders site is supposed to make it easier to see whats put out to tender – except that not all Councils or public bodies use it. I wonder why? Aside from that they have done nothing.

    In some councils many decisions on contract awards seem to still be made by Councillors in committee. Why? What can they possibly add?

    I have seen tenders scored by Councillors or Officials plainly using criteria that weren’t in the contract definition. Companies could challenge but whats the point? You are then damned for ever more by the Council or Department

    Just look at how many procurement challenges there are in the Courts. Not surprising perhaps but then look at how many of them are won by the applicants because of problems in the process eg the Department using criteria not in the bid / introducing additional factors or just plain making irrational decisions

  • FuturePhysicist

    Let’s look at this very plain and simple, the people here elect politicians into opposition in Westminster, and to be frank virtually into opposition in Europe as well, nearly every council has a governing lot and an opposing lot and the political vectors don’t really change and the politicians don’t get really any tougher.

    We all know what’s likely to happen if an opposition were introduced, journalists would give up on understanding issues like health, social and regional development, education and higher education, trade and employment, justice, agriculture, culture, arts and sports, even cohesion, sharing and integration.

    It will simply be a sectarian head count for its own sake, and deep down I feel with the exception of a few, that’s all our journalists know. Our journalists don’t have a thick skin, they are weak skinned, they cannot objectively criticise political policy without bringing back the old sectarian arguments. They are the malignant reminders of anger, hate and violence and trying to control your fellow man. Oppositions lead into a new wave of politics, I see nothing in most of today’s media that would not have been said by them 15 years ago.

    If you want Policy issues to take the mainstream talk about them, if you want Sectarianism to take the mainstream talk about it.

  • FP,

    ‘It will simply be a sectarian head count for its own sake, and deep down I feel with the exception of a few, that’s all our journalists know. Our journalists don’t have a thick skin, they are weak skinned, they cannot objectively criticise political policy without bringing back the old sectarian arguments. They are the malignant reminders of anger, hate and violence and trying to control your fellow man. Oppositions lead into a new wave of politics, I see nothing in most of today’s media that would not have been said by them 15 years ago.’

    I couldn’t agree more with your prognosis. Everytime I watch BBC Norn Iron or UTV or read the Bele Tele or something from the great and good in the MSM I whince, it’s simply awful stuff. I am thankful, on the other hand, that in the main their readerships and following are going down through the floor as people vote with their wallets and put these guys out of business.

    It’s easy to deal in the currency of sectarianism and war by other means. Take this place for instance, there is some 226 comments on some idiot being ambushed by Frank Mitchell (nice guy, not exactly Charlie Rose is he?) about tossing a tri colour on a big toxic fire during the summer and that being a OK with him and how many comments on tax avoidance and tax evasion being raised by the G8 on one of the threads? 25.

    http://sluggerotoole.com/2013/06/14/tax-avoidance-makes-the-g8-in-fermanagh-more-meaningful-to-dublin-than-stormont/comment-page-1/#comment-1387729

    I’m still waiting on having a discussion or contributing to a (serious) debate on that matter yet few engage in the substance or scratch at the technical stuff involved in a subject such as this; why is that? I’ll leave that up to you and others to figure that one out.

  • If an analysis were done, it would show that the most frequently word used in BelTel headlines, by far, is “Fury”. Idiots.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    We need to cut a little slack for the journalists here. The real stories, about which local politician knows which developer and uses their patronage to do them favours is what our politicains are really most thin skilled about. These stories cannot be told, as any journalist with a good story of this nature will be sued to hell and back, and local reporting rules, formed in an era of possible assassination, inhibit them in what they may say.

    Anyone with friends in the media, at Stormont or among our local councillors has heard the gossip. And gossip it remains because the stories cannot usually be told openly. All the main parties are implicated and it is in no-ones interest anywhere to expose any of the players in the various stages of the Peace Process®.

    If this were to be addressed, we would have to have a greatly extended register of interests, because it is very easy to maintain corrupt contacts through extended family, family marriage and the network of private friendships. We all like to help our families and friends, but when people have ready access to the public purse through decisions they are required to make such help is quite rightly seen as a corrupt activity. But the same people who are doing this are also the long stop on policing it all, so “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Current regulation has proved woefully inadequate to control any of this.

    Anthony Lester tells us that free speech is the lifeblood of democracy. But publically airing any of this with any open naming of the names would lead to injunctions and the closing of any website it appeared on.

    While our masters bigotry is, I honestly believe, often quite sincere in most cases, it is a massive “look Kittens!” deflection ploy for those punters who might just ask difficult questions about these contacts if they were not busy constantly discussing flag flying/burning or any of the other truly pressing issues that appear to be more important to us all than demanding some base standard of probity from our government.

  • Mick Fealty

    FP,

    They are thin skinned because the odds are heavily stacked against them… For just GBP 17,245.00 + Tax MLAs have cover through their public liability insurance to help with libel claims against them as well as the usual privileges.

    Journalists have no such protections (not least because since they are such targets for libel claims, no insurer would touch them)… In other words they have good reason to be cautious in their reporting of NI politics.

    In fact I think Big Journalisms greatest sin is that it defers to politicians to provide the analysis and then they step back and offer an on the one hand, and then on the other.

    Yet this is where people get the horse before the cart. Jim Allister is not (as Robin claims) our man of the year, but he would stand a fair chance of winning, simply because he is the only politician consistently offering an alternative analysis of government in issues that matter to a broad sweep of the population (sorry Steven)…

    It is NOT journalism’s job to conjure up an opposition outside the institutions, that’s for politicians who are seeking a mandate. Journalists should however be on the lookout for new developments, and give new initiatives (from new political parties or old) a fair hearing.

    FC,

    Bang on! More expert analysis would help, from those in the know… This is worth sharing from Jeff Jarvis writing (http://goo.gl/p0OIo) on the Snowden revelations:

    Journalism is not content. It is not a noun. It need not be a profession or an industry. It is not the province of a guild. It is not a scarcity to be controlled. It no longer happens in newsrooms. It is no longer confined to narrative form.

    So then what the hell is journalism?

    It is a service. It is a service whose end, again, is an informed public. For my entrepreneurial journalism students, I give them a broad umbrella of a definition: Journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves. [emphasis added]

  • cynic2

    the stories cannot usually be told openly

    Exactly. But an opposition an ask the questions in the House. The problem is that the trough is accessible to all the snouts so they all have a vested interest not to

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I must post again to eat some crow. Where I stated above that “All the main parties are implicated” I actually intended to say that “Members of all the main parties are implicated.”

    I was talking about the private activities of individual party members and I am well aware that our all of our main political parties fully endorse the principal of financial probity. I would be pained to think that anyone should take my words to imply anything other than that a few rotten apples private activities slur the excellent work of our political parties and the greater number of the honest, hard working MPs, MLAs and Local Councillors who are members.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Exactly, cynic2. We really need to get people into Stormont who are willing to apply themselves, like the late Robert Lindsey Mason, to naming names and describing the corruption in detail. I remember receiving an election leaflet he issued that had 70% of the text blacked out. by others on the council.

  • NOT NOW JOHN

    “Most opposition that’s not coming from Jim Allister (whom Squinter dubs as Slugger’s Man of the Year), is coming from the media. The retreat from political opposition on the hill (Phil Flanagan of SF seems to be the only other MLA playing that role at the moment), means that there is no coherent political critique of this and other issues available other than that which journalism makes on its own behalf. ”

    I rather hoped that NI21 (is that party still going?) would walk into Stormont the day after its launch and declare itself the leader of the unofficial opposition and start operating as an opposition immediately, including appointing unofficial shadow ministers. The creation of an effective opposition was, after all, one of its key founding principles. However so far nothing seems to be happening and Jim is left to go it alone. One wonders what they are waiting for. An opposition isn’t going to form itself.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes Mick, “Journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves.” And to do this they require some real freedom of action in reporting the very issues that are most hidden in the present climate of reporting.

    I was amazed some years back to find that David Gordon’s excellent “The Fall of the House of Paisley” was able present as much imformation as it did. I know that David was really helped by Ian Og co-operating to the extent that he kept putting his foot in his mouth at the time.

    My only real worry is that any Stormont opposition will simply play for access to the conduits of patronage, so that they may continue the same culture of favours, as we have seen in the past.

  • Mick Fealty

    Seaan,

    ‘Going native’ is always a concern around power. It happens to good journalists too. But on the whole some competition for power would appear to be a ‘good thing’, not least because it creates an opportunity for competing visions as well as providing a political critique that might make the next (or more likely the next but one) elections worth something…

  • Chris Donnelly

    It really is terrible to watch politicians almost enthusiastically skip an opportunity to criticise their political opponents quite simply because they feel they don’t need to. Health, education, employment, tourism- the opportunities to get stuck in are endless at the moment if the will existed.

    Absolutely dreadful.

  • Mick Fealty

    Almost as dreadful as the complaints that ‘themuns took our wee ball away…” The contrast with the south, where policy is still the prime currency, is utterly embarrassing…

  • FuturePhysicist

    FP,

    They are thin skinned because the odds are heavily stacked against them… For just GBP 17,245.00 + Tax MLAs have cover through their public liability insurance to help with libel claims against them as well as the usual privileges.

    Journalists have no such protections (not least because since they are such targets for libel claims, no insurer would touch them)… In other words they have good reason to be cautious in their reporting of NI politics.

    In fact I think Big Journalisms greatest sin is that it defers to politicians to provide the analysis and then they step back and offer an on the one hand, and then on the other.

    Yet this is where people get the horse before the cart. Jim Allister is not (as Robin claims) our man of the year, but he would stand a fair chance of winning, simply because he is the only politician consistently offering an alternative analysis of government in issues that matter to a broad sweep of the population (sorry Steven)…

    It is NOT journalism’s job to conjure up an opposition outside the institutions, that’s for politicians who are seeking a mandate. Journalists should however be on the lookout for new developments, and give new initiatives (from new political parties or old) a fair hearing.

    Since when was it libellous to talk about anything else but sectarianism? Since when did journalism have to confine itself to that with the minor exception of the odd sex scandal here or there? The local media blows its own trumpet about being the opposition here, what exactly are they opposed to, other than opposed to a lack of opposition?

    That is simply obnoxiousness for its own sake, in my mind.

    Have you ever seen a Westminster or European debate where policy examination takes priority here? No, we had UCUNF vs DUP vs TUV and the direction of Unionism on the one hand, and could SF top the poll, could the SDLP slip through on the other with regards to Europe, and the head counts in Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast on the other in Westminster, Naomi Long’s success was even hand waved by the Robinson family issues.

    That is what happens when you step back, I don’t even think they are deferring to politicians, in fact they actually make politicians look good. Westminster was an improvement though, there was at least some scrutiny of the real issues, but the Stormont debates were actually an awful development, can anyone really remember what Peter, Martin, Tom, Margaret, David or even Jim were made to talk about?

    Next Stormont’s debate will focus on Peices of Cloth, Men with Sashes and History. Even the CSI talked about creating employment opportunities for working class areas or even peace walls, the media only wants to turn attention back to pieces of cloths and a history that can’t be changed.

    Our journalists simply don’t have the ability of their British and Irish counterparts to talk about fiscal or social issues, the so called bread and butter politics, they don’t want a government to talk about them, they don’t want an opposition to talk about them. George Mitchell once said Politics here Will become Boring, I feel journalists here want to hark back to the interesting days, rather than have a policy debate.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Put simply I fear there is only one journalist in the spotlight talking about Bread and Butter issues and I feel it’s Mike Nesbitt. That’s how bad things are here.