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“Hate Speech” Through the Eyes of the Irish Media
Who has skin in the game when it comes to free speech?
About a week ago Irish YouTuber Keith Woods tweeted a highlighted passage from the proposed Hate Crime legislation that was then working it’s way through the Dáil. He called out some unusually draconion provions in the law, which appeared to suggest that a person could be covincted simply for having something that violated the law without disseminating it; and that there would be no presumption of innocence in such cases.
The story was picked up by a number of people including Elon Musk, and circulated widley on right-wing twitter for a day, eventually becoming so prominent that the legacy irish media was forced to cover the issue. Woods’ initial tweet currently has 12 million impressions.
I’ve written quite a lot about Hate Crime and Hate Speech laws in the past - links to various articles on this subject here. What I’m going to discuss here is less the content of the laws themselves but how they are reported by the press; and how the media acts as a de facto partner for government in sheperding issues away from the public square.
People looking in from outside will often ask how it is that issues such as Hate Speech don’t cause more controversy in Ireland. There are a variety of answers to that; certainly one is that some proportion of the public simply don’t care about the laws or see them as a good thing. But the role of the legacy media as (to paraphrase Aldous Huxley) a reducing valve is essential in understanding how more controversial stances are neutralised.
I’m going take a representative article discussing the issue and break it down so you can see what I’m talking about. This is how the Irish Indepedent, Ireland’s biggest-selling broadsheet, covered the controversy. (Note that the article was initially free but has since been paywalled.) They begin by noting that the law has been attacked by Donald Trump Jr.:
The eldest child of the former US president was responding to a Tweet highlighting aspects of the legislation, called the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022.
The updated legislation will add a “demonstration test”, where prosecutors can rely on the use of hostile or prejudiced slurs, gestures or symbols at the time of offending, in order to make it easier to secure prosecutions…
The law will legislate for hate crimes by creating new, aggravated forms of certain existing criminal offences, where those offences are motivated by prejudice against a protected characteristic such as race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, gender and disability.
I don’t believe anyone reading this would get a good sense of what was being objected to in the inital tweets; it’s an unusual case where a piece of legislation is written more plainly and directly than a newspaper article summarising that legislation. When the newspaper says “prosecutors can rely on…” they mean but don’t say “in the absence of any other evidence”. That’s an important nuance.
The article also does some weird editorialising. It was published in the news section and it’s not clearly flagged as opinion - nothing in the headline indicates that it is. Yet when explaining the background of the law we get this - not in inverted commas:
There have only been 50 convictions for incitement to hatred since that was introduced, so we need a law that has teeth, that you can prosecute, but we also need a law around hate crimes…
These aren’t the words of the writer but quote from the former minister of Justice Helen McEntee, a key driver of the law, from July last year. It’s not clear from the context that it is a quote - a superficial reading of the article is that the reporter is simply telling us this is true. The sentence is a neat synopsis of the relationship between the media and the government on these issues; the government outlines how it wants the law to be understood, and the media supports them by presenting that perspective as a fact.
Another perspective presented as fact is that Donald Trump Jr is a contemptible clown. While I agree with this one, what is interesting here is not the man himself but the framing. The article chooses a maximally unflattering cover photo and reminds us that he “is very much in the same mould as his father… He regularly taunts Democrats and people he sees as liberal”, before listing the usual litany of his transgressions (Jan 6th, “build the wall” etc etc).
The framing around Trump Jr is important because it illustrates how the media chooses talks about something that it never wanted to speak on in the first place. Whether from cowardice at the prosepct of embroiled in cultural controversies, because they are in favour of the laws and wish to support the government, or from simple ignorance, the first stance of the irish press in relation to this kind of law is to simply not cover it, or to do so minimally. In the days leading up to the vote in the Dáil that saw the legislation being passed, there was no coverage that it was imminent. If it’s passage hadn’t become a controversy online, you can be sure it would have gone unremarked. Prior to this article the last time the Independent dedicated any substantial time to the laws in question was the previous year.
But if they do have to talk about Donald Trump Jr gives them the best possible canvas to do so. It enables them to fit the discussion into a convenient Sensible Progressive/ daft troublemaker framework that is very appealing to irish journalists, politicians and in fairness plenty of readers. I’ve written recently on Ireland as a consensus-based society, and this provided a perfect synopsis of how that functions in practice with both press and politicians invoking the invisible barriers of consensus to ward the discussion. “It doesn’t matter what your objections are. You want to be associated with *this* guy?”
The approach of this article on Hate Speech acts as a summary of how all such changes are managed in the legacy media. The first step is to give the issue minimal, and preferably no, coverage. If that doesn’t work, mislead about what’s at stake and avoid giving readers sufficient context to understand reasonable objections to the laws; editorialise in support of changes in what should be neutral news pieces; and intentionally frames changes as only being objected to by loopers, degenerates and the downwardly mobile, to discourage further discussion.
When you map this pattern against the narrow range of opinion avaialble on cultural issues in the legacy irish media, is it a surprise that objections to such changes don’t coalesce into something bigger? Concerned people can’t leapfrog the media and go straight to politicians, since both institutions are more or less in lock-step on these issues. So where would such a debate even take place?
But journalists in Ireland haven’t always opposed debates about laws limiting what they, and the public, can say. It’s interesting to compare their attitude to Hate Speech laws to that in relation to Libel laws. It’s famously easy to sue someone in Ireland, and as long as I’ve been alive the press have been agitating for a loosening of restrictions in this area. How do we account for their support for implicit speech restrictions of one type with their opposition to others?
The truth is that the Irish media feel that they have no skin in the game in relation to freedom of speech on cultural topics. Libel is one thing, because as the recent Ditch controversy shows reporters may occasionally be on a different side of the debate to powerful people when it comes to issues of (say) corruption. That’s as it should be.
But cultural change is something else. Journalists support Hate Speech laws because they know they will always be on the same side of the debate as powerful people; and their coverage will never be sufficiently adversarial, inquisitive or insighful that they run the risk of saying the wrong thing, even when trying to say the right thing. I think that is a betrayal of their profession, and much worse, of the most essential instincts they’re supposed to have as writers and creators. And that is honestly just incredibly sad, in every sense of the word.