The Impact of the Net

This is an assignment written as part of my recent masters in Broadcast Production. It was interesting to take an overview of online media, a decade after regularly writing about its impacts. In a sense surprisingly little has changed… Remix culture is still alive, and still illegal. Podcasts and online video are more popular than ever, but have done little to replace established media. Blogs have ceased to matter, despite the efforts of medium and aggregators, and more surprisingly despite their utility and disseminators of free specialist knowledge. There exists in the public conversation only the polarised ‘mainstream media’ and the ephemeral and even more polarised tweet. The level of online discourse has hence inarguably diminished; a further impact of the ‘Eternal September’ ongoing since the weeds of the net outgrew the ivy league. Overall though, the online world of 2017 looks remarkably similar to the world of a decade past.

Title: An optimistic view of the impact of the internet is that it is a democratic and life-enhancing force for culture and communication. The main criticisms of that hopeful approach are that the internet has enabled unequal access, centralization of power and new forms of power through surveillance. (Hesmondhalgh, David. The Cultural Industries (3rded). Ch9 Sage 2013) Analyse these contrasting arguments with reference to broadcasting.

Introduction

Today’s English language internet is dominated by a single search engine (Google), two social networks (Facebook and Twitter), and a few hundred smartphone applications (Alexia.com, 2017) (Perry, 2016). Yet it is also paradoxically stocked by ‘user created content’ – the podcasts, comments, blog posts, images and videos created by the nets 3.5 billion users (ITU, 2016). Today’s ‘network of networks’ is in a sense the final medium, a canvas for all current and future communications technologies, from mobile phone calls to virtual reality. But it exists in a state of tension. Since its inception the internet has struggled with competing imperatives – openness vs privacy, free speech vs censorship, commercialisation vs open source, privacy vs the panopticon. The internet frees us to communicate instantaneously across the globe, even as it makes the monitoring and permanent storage of that communication trivial. It lets us publish our ideas and creative work, even as it makes them so ubiquitous, easily mimicked and duplicated as to be valueless. It’s the source of limitless education and constant manipulation. This essay will examine how this most contradictory of mediums has impacted broadcasters and audiences alike.

The Evolution of the Net

The internet was born at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the US defence department. Work at APRA and the RAND think tank in the 1960’s and early 70’s laid the groundwork for a single grand computer network, interconnecting all others. The network was based on the decentralised structure of the human brain, an interconnected system with no single point of failure (Ryan, 2010). Beginning in 1973 the net spread from exclusive military use to the research community (Ziewitz, 2011). Through enthusiasts and later commercial internet service providers, the net opened to home users beginning in the late 1970’s (Ryan, 2010). The advent of the world wide web, developed at CERN in 1991, popularised the domestic and commercial uses of the net (Berners-Lee & Fischetti, 2000). However, the modern internet, composed of mobile apps, the web, chat services, cloud storage and processing, file-sharing, the ‘always on’ elements of computer operating systems and the emerging ‘internet of things’, still relies on the core infrastructure developed at ARPA (Khodkari & Maghrebi, 2016).

As bulletin board systems, gopher internet relay chat, and latterly the web spread, they competed with private subscription services offering curated programmatic content. Services like Compuserve and America Online did not initially include access to the open internet, despite relying on its underlying TCP/IP technology (Ryan, 2010). Like today’s social networks they were ‘walled gardens’, private spaces where content modelled on network television was curated, managed and sanitised (Bruns & Burgess, 2015). In stark contrast, the ‘user generated’ wilds of the early internet contained any number of thorns, from pirated media and illegal pornography, to guides to the manufacture and use of weapons (Deibert, 2010).

Ultimately the internet’s greater variety of content and wider pool of users outcompeted the private online services. But this dynamic conflict between the open free transfer of information and corporate networks that offer polished services at the expense of user control, continues to this day (Noam et al, 2003). Today’s internet user primarily consumes and produces content through closed source applications purchased from curated stores owned and operated by powerful corporations (Adams et al, 2012).

The utopian vision of an internet free from censorship and corporate control was articulated in an influential statement ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ by Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) founder John Perry Bardow. Bardow and technologists and hackers like him stood for the vision of an internet free from “legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement”. They sought to “create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace…. more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before” (EFF, 1996). Put another way, ‘information wants to be free’ (Clarke, 2016).

“Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

Stewart Brand, ‘The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at MIT’, 1987

As broadcasters encountered the internet they found in it both a place to promote their content, and an existential risk (Lee & Lee, 2015). The net offered access to a global audience, yet it made the mechanisms of broadcast television all but obsolete. Despite the crude low resolution imagery of early internet video, and the slow speeds of early file transfer programmes over dialup internet, by the late 1990’s it was already apparent that all programming would ultimately be available in some form online (Dowling et al, 1998).

 

All Consuming Platforms

This came to pass first through the free sharing enabled by peer-to-peer platforms like BitTorrent, and later via corporate stores and streaming platforms. Today all major broadcasters and production companies offer their programming for sale or rental online. Surprisingly, broadcast television has not disappeared in the wake of ubiquitous online access and cheap ‘prosumer’ content creation technology. Instead broadcasters have adapted in a wide variety of ways to the inescapable reality of the internet. Streaming TV services both net native (Netflix, Amazon), and ‘old media’ owned (Hulu, BBC iPlayer, RTE Player, HBO Go etc) provide always on access to archives of previously broadcast progammes. Enabling viewers to ‘binge watch’ entire series in a short period (Matrix, 2014). Increasingly these services commission new programming for an online only audience (Carr & Somaiya, 2014). The pressure these platforms (and other forms of ad skipping) have put on traditional advertising has massively increased product placement (Schweidel et al, 2014). Meanwhile broadcast television has balkanized: Bifurcating into a small number of premium channels developing high end scripted productions, and a much larger number of channels producing low budget, often exploitative, reality programming (Serpe, 2013). The turnover of new programming formats is enormously higher than before, creating a multi-billion euro format market for programmes that can be customized and resold in multiple territories (Moran, 2013).

Podcasting, a new medium for the distribution of audio content developed in the early 2000s, initially empowered independent creators to cheaply release spoken word programming. However, as with video, centralised ownership and the ‘discoverability problem’ have led to podcasts charts becoming dominated by traditional broadcasters and new media companies founded by former traditional broadcasters (Bottomley, 2015). In recent weeks facebook have announced the launch of ‘live audio’, an integrated platform for audio streaming, which threatens to take a wall off a significant segment of the field dominated by podcasting (Facebook, 2016). A similar path was followed by blogging which initially promised to give air to a diversity of perspectives. Over time aggregator sites like Reddit, blog-like news organisations such as Gawker and Buzzfeed, and centralised platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Medium leveraged network effects to overwhelm independent sites (Arthur, 2009). While blogs and non-commercial media outlets like Indiemedia still exist, their significance has greatly decreased. Today, the primary outlets for ‘user created content’ are platforms like twitter, facebook and youtube (Brake, 2004). These sites limit what can be posted, disseminated and ‘monitized’; practicing de facto censorship in response to commercial and political imperatives (Heins, 2013). Often prohibiting anonymous or pseudonymous posting (van der Nagel & Frith, 2015). While intended to reduce online abuse, this can endanger writers and creators working in authoritarian regimes (Grönlund & Wakabi, 2015), or in vulnerable domestic circumstances.

The recommendation and filtering engines that keep users returning to these sites have resulted in the creation of ‘filter bubbles’: Wells of inoffensive agreeable opinion, leading to the polarisation of political perspectives and the mistaken impression of uniformity (Bakshy et al, 2015). This trend has culminated in the creation and dissemination of ‘fake news’, wilfully misleading articles with provocative titles that are widely shared within partisan political bubbles (Khaldarova & Pantti, 2016). Allegations persist that such articles – in addition to state sponsored ‘astroturfing’ (fake grassroots campaigning) had a role in influencing the 2016 US elections (Bessi & Ferrara, 2016).

By centralising distribution and identity, the new media sites also enable profoundly invasive surveillance. The widely publicised leaks of Edward Snowdon and Chelsey Manning revealed ubiquitous surveillance of online communication and social media sites (Stoycheff, 2016). Blanket online surveillance is carried out internationally by American intelligence agencies like the NSA, and in the UK and Ireland by British military intelligence GCHQ. As far back as the late eighteenth century Jeremy Bentham predicted the chilling effect constant imperceptible surveillance would have on the surveilled (Sheridan & Foucault, 1977). Experiments by Facebook in manipulating user emotion through subtle variations in the content of their ‘news feed’, point to the additional dangers of affect manipulation (Grimmelmann, 2014).

Worryingly, the analysis of so called ‘big data’ the aggregated and commodified behaviour of citizens online and off, produces only correlations. To employ these correlations predictively requires experimental hypothesis testing (Zuboff, 2015). This creates an enormous incentive for the manipulation of mass audiences online. Zuboff, 2015, refers to the large media platforms as ‘surveillance capitalists’, commodifying the behaviour of their users in ever more invasive and manipulative ways. The authoritarian regime in China has already developed a social network that penalises antisocial behaviour via a ‘social credit score’ (SATPRC, 2014). This formalises the rankings provided by ‘subscriptions’ and ‘likes’, that already accrue to inoffensive and extreme opinions alike across social networks. Chinese officials have stated that this “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust” (BBC News, 2015).

 

Illegal Art

With the advent of file sharing and the online hosting of media, internet users formed a new adversarial relationship with ‘big content’. As the early file trading networks like Gnutella and Napster grew, so did the fear that the unmetered sharing of information would undercut corporate profits. New laws were rapidly drafted which penalised and even criminalised file sharing and thousands – including many college students, found themselves sued for large sums. Non-commercial infringement was no defence against laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Librarians and lecturers could be prosecuted for making ‘infringing copies’ of scholarly texts or articles (Clark, D, 2002).

While these laws had a negligible effect on the popularity of filesharing (and filesharing in turn has had a negligible effect on music sales), they had a distinct impact on the evolutionary direction of the internet (Oberholzer & Strumpf, 2007) (Oberholzer & Strumpf, 2016). The new intellectual property regime meant that broadcasters and programme makers had for the first time control over the kinds of devices and services that could distribute their content. In the 1980’s broadcasters lost the battle to prevent home taping (Madrigal, 2012), creating a new video rental market which ultimately spurred the creation of DVD and Blu-ray. Now however, unapproved use and sale could be legally sanctioned. Where the unsanctioned re-edit and recording of soul & disco gave birth to hip hop, now such innovation was impractical. While various forms of ‘illegal art’ have emerged since the advent of the new international copyright regime – from mashup videos to vaporwave – we’ve also seen the prohibition of work of immense popularity. In 2004, the American artist Danger Mouse produced a critically acclaimed record combining elements of the Beatles White Album with JZ’s Black Album. The Grey album became enormously popular but was rapidly removed from online distribution by the corporations who owned copyrights to both original recordings (Gunderson, 2004). Where two decades before sampling had provided the backbone of a nascent hiphop scene, now one of the most popular and innovative artists in a generation had been censored in the name of profit (McLeod, 2004). Latterly, an uneasy compromise has been arrived at, with record companies largely tolerating the non-commercial release of ‘mixtapes’ – albums containing ‘uncleared’ samples, as hype building exercises that develop anticipation for tours and official releases (Anderson, 2008). However, in the realm of video such tolerance has not come to pass, with ‘DCMA takedown requests’ frequently employed to remove not only ‘infringing’ art, but also political statements, critical product reviews, and other material likely to threaten corporate profits (Loren, 2011). While the modern IP regime originated in the US, the last three decades have seen a concerted effort at ‘copyright harmonisaton’: The export of American intellectual property and trademark law (often accompanied by more severe criminal penalties) internationally (Sell, 2003) (Baker, 2004).

Conclusion

The internet’s impact on culture and communications has been complex, nuanced and multifarious. Inarguably the net has made possible a level of surveillance and manipulation previously undreamt of. The roles of broadcaster and content producer have merged, as countless new distribution opportunities developed and became subsumed by the social networks. Broadcasters and programme makers can today find global audiences more readily and cheaply than ever before. Native speakers can subscribe to programming and channels in their own languages almost anywhere on earth. Minority interest programming can be created exclusively for new platforms without recourse to traditional gatekeepers. At the same time, programme makers must contend with abusive copyright regimes (and conversely piracy), overwhelming competition, less captive audiences and declining advertising revenue. The big winners in this new landscape have been intellectually undemanding entertainment formats, appealing to mass audiences and easily customised to local markets.
Perhaps the greatest threats to critically engaged broadcasting arise from state and corporate censorship. Today censorship can arise algorithmically, from well intentioned efforts to increase user engagement, and with it profits. It can enable the worst elements of authoritarian state surveillance and intervention: The observation and manipulation of the intimate communications of everyday people. Under East Germany’s notorious Stazi regime, the practice of Zersetzung was employed against dissidents (Dennis, 2006). This was the willful distortion of a person’s experience of the world. The secret destruction of their personal and professional relationships. Zersetzung was a form of state gaslighting that isolated and psychologically injured its victims. Today’s online media landscape has the potential to be just as damaging. Internet users, cut off from one another in self referencing echo chambers, can become radically disconnected. These bubbles threaten the very possibility of a shared political and cultural landscape: And with the the stability of society, family and social relationships.

The net has accelerated financial inequality, even as it has led to unparalleled economic growth and access to information. We live in a Golden Age of Television (Thompson, 2013), with the most inventive, high quality drama ever broadcast. And yet enormous audiences prefer to watch and share the most trivial short form videos: Distractions that represent the least informative and edifying forms of escapism. We can publicise our interests and find others who share them. Yet keeping our viewing preferences, our online behavior and our communications private is all but impossible.

The impact of the internet has no valance. It has not been to influence mass communication, but rather to replace it. It has not merely affected existing media, but rather engulfed it. Broadcasting and narrowcasting are classifications of a bygone age. Media and communication are now united in a spectacular, universal panopticon. A place where any may speak, but where it is increasingly difficult to truly listen.

 

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Copyright Bonus Episode – Mad Scientists of Music

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The Instrument of the Law‘ examined how changing technology and copyright laws are impacting music. This bonus episode fills in the blanks, addressing additional issues we didn’t get to talk about in detail, like creative commons, the legality of mashups, copyright as a promotional tool, and alternative business models at a time when music sales are in decline.


Download: Bonus Episode – Copyright

Issues Raised in the Programme

Great article on ‘The Economics of Girl Talk’, the mashup artist whose ostensibly illegal releases have somehow escaped the ire of the recording industry.

David Bowie’s predictions, a decade ago, on the future of the music industry.

More information on the proposed Irish Household Broadcast Charge.

Information on the work of the Irish Copyright Review Committee, including their final report, ‘Modernising copyright‘.

All the information publicly available on the secretive Trans-pacific partnership agreement, the new transnational agreement which will dictate which laws domestic governments can pass or amend to govern copyright.

If you’re interested in releasing or discovering work that uses a Creative Commons licence, here’s a link to the various Creative Commons Licences.

Article on recent Indian legal decisions relating to patents.

Eye opening article about the privatisation of Copyright Enforcement in Brazil.

Credits

Thanks to interviewees – Kieran Dold / Kara Kara, John Leech / Siam Collective, Dr Eoin O’Dell, MarQu VR, Ewan Hennelly, Meljoann, Simon Kenny (Bitwise Operator), Ed Devane, Andrew Edgar.

The Instrument of the Law – Episode 5 – Mad Scientists of Music

This episode looks at how innovative new ways of making and distributing music are coming into conflict with our legal system. Some argue that copyright and patent laws, created to encourage innovation, are no longer in touch with how artists remix and reinterpret our cultural landscape.

Part 1 – Piracy

We learn about copyright law, the ‘copy left’ movement and new licensing schemes like Creative Commons. Eoin O’Dell corrects some common copyright misapprehensions, Ed Devane and Simon Kenny discuss their experiences having their music pirated. Niamh Houston (Chipzel) discusses how small Chiptune artists are challenged by ubiquitous piracy and major label plagiarism alike.

Part 2 – Sampling

Ewan Hennelly and Meljoann talk about the culture of sharing. MarQu and Meljoann describe about how ready access to the internet enabled them to learn techniques and exposed them to niche scenes that would have been unavailable historically; and how our always on, connected society is reshaping music. MarQu VR discusses the endemic and transformative use of samples in VJing and parody.

Part 3 – Illegal Art

Karakara (Kieran Dold) and Siam Collective (John Leech) discuss the idea of remixing as a crime and illegal art as a wilfully provocative act.

Featured Interviewees:

Eoin O’Dell, Colm Olwill (DJ PCP), Seb & Emma of Deathness Injection, Niamh De Barra, Simon Kenny (aka Bitwise Operator), Ed Devane, Meljoann, Ewan Hennelly (also known as HERV / ZPG), MarQu VR, Andrew Edgar, Kieran Dold (Karakara), Niamh Houston (Chipzel), John Leech (Siam Collective).

Download:
Episode 5 – ‘The Instrument of the Law

About the Series

BAI logo mark colourMad Scientists of Music is a six part, BAI funded documentary series on Near FM. The show explores the world of Circuit Bending, Chip Tune, and Electroacoustic music in Ireland. Low cost technology, recycled instruments and a new attitude to tinkering embodied by the ‘maker movement’ are helping to reinvent music. A new generation of Irish musicians raised around computers, the internet and video gaming, see noise as something to be hacked, taken apart, and reconstructed. These artists build their own instruments, whether by recycling toy keyboards, modifying video game consoles, or attaching electronics to traditional stringed instruments. They often share their music online for free, and in doing so challenge our ideas about copyright and ownership. Their playful attitude to technology finds new uses for obsolete devices and brings the collaboration of musicianship to engineering and the arts.

Tracks used

Chipzel – Only Human Foilverb Remix (RoughSketch)
Karakara – Illeagle – Thesis Song
Karakara – Illeagle – You called it that
Karakara – Illeagle – God only knows
Karakara – Illeagle – Really
Karakara – Illeagle – In Light of your misleading

Lobat – my little droid needs a hand
Covox – Sunday – handheld electropop

Siam Collective – Melatronic Mission (unreleased rough mix)
Siam Collective – Meatloaf Madness (unreleased rough mix)
Siam Collective – Simpson Chemical (unreleased rough mix)

‘Mad Scientists of Music’ – April Update

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It’s April and I’m closing in on a final shape for the show. It’s been almost a year since I started preliminary research and interviews for ‘Mad Scientists‘, an enormously self indulgent amount of time to work on a radio documentary series. And yet, I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the Irish experimental music scene. Creativity is a process of continuous curation, in fiction and especially in documentary, where research and footage accretes into a melange of gooey information that threatens to overwhelm you. Several years ago I embarked on an ill fated project to document the experience of Irish refugees at the hands of immigration services. Ultimately I had to abandon the project. I was simply unprepared to deal with the responsibility of capturing the experiences of people who’d been so cruelly treated, made so invisible by our state, by our indifference.

Maybe that’s why I switched to writing comedy. While the stakes are the same – failing or succeeding on the public stage, the consequences are purely personal. I’ve grown up a lot in the years since the documentary film flatlined. I find one of the positive aspects of getting older is an increase in organisational capacity – the ability to plan, to anticipate how long a task will take, to reassess a project as it develops. I’m still a disorganised shambles, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but these days I get the things I start done.

With that in mind, here’s where I’m at with the doc. I’ve got four thirty minute episodes almost finished, with two further episodes about half done. I’ve also pulled together a bunch of bonus content – four additional web only episodes, that will flesh out the musicians featured in the show, and focus on topics (like musical influences, nerd culture and so on), that the series doesn’t have time to fit in.

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Episode 1 ‘Learning How to Listen‘, will take you on a tour of educational music projects. Starting at a circuit bending workshop in the Northside Shopping Centre, we stop by Roger Gregg’s eclectic home studio, before calling in on an instrument building workshop led by Ed Devane. We finish up with a visit to noise duo Deathness Injection’s incredible Culture Night mass collaboration, where hundreds of visitors to Exchange Dublin experienced the thrill of performing together.

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Episode 2, ‘Growing Up Digital‘ will examine the impact of videogames on contemporary electronic music through the childhood anecdotes of a variety of performers. We’ll introduce you to chiptune – music made with retro consoles and home brew software, and take a tutorial in gameboy synthesiser ‘Little Sound DJ‘ in the capable hands of chiptune diva Chipzel (Niamh Houston).

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Episode 3, ‘Taking Toys Apart‘, starts off in Germany, in the home ‘laboratory’ of author and musician Julian Gough (Toasted Heretic). Then we’ll hear about the impact of the geography of consumerism on toy hacking, from Gamepak Collective founder Andrew Edgar. Andrew, MarQu VR, and John Leech will explain the genesis of Dublin’s first chiptune collective. Finally, John demonstrates the dark art of cartridge ripping.

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Episode 4, ‘The Hacker In the Gallery‘, is still a work in progress. This episode will example the relationship between hackers, musicians and the world of fine art audio.

Episode 5, ‘The Instrument of the Law‘, tackles copyright, sampling, and illegal art, introducing two fantastic unauthorised albums from Kieran Dold (Karakara), and John Leech (Siam Collective); and featuring the legal wit and wisdom of Trinity College’s Dr Eoin O’Dell.

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Episode 6, ‘Postcards from the Edge‘, is still to be finalised. This episode will bring listeners some of the latest developments in electronic music, including a geocaching tour of Brighton and the South downs from Ewan Hennelly (HERV, ZPG), and an astonishing new software synthesiser under development from Dublin musician / programmer Bitwise Operator (Simon Kenny).

That’s it for the radio series. For web listeners, four additional interview based episodes will be released during and just after broadcast of the radio series. ‘Beginnings‘ covers the early musical influences and development of musicians like Meljoann, Oswald Green, Kieran Dold and Niamh De Barra. ‘Copyrights & Copywrongs‘ delves deeper into Creative Commons and the much needed reform of Irish copyright law, and touches on the patenting of music technology. ‘Irish Electronic Scenes‘, examines a variety of recent underground music scenes, through the eyes of Colm Olwill (DJ PCP), the Gamepak Collective, and Ewan Hennelly. Finally, ‘Nerds vs Chicks‘, collects two fascinating conversations, around the role of nerd culture and gender respectively, in electronic music. These bonus episodes are pretty rough at the moment, and will likely consist simply of voices, without music or on location recordings, but they include some of the best anecdotes and most fascinating characters of the series.

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I can’t wait to get the show out there, and introduce new listeners to the incredible artists featured. I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the show so far – Ewan Hennelly, Andrew Edgar, John Leech, MarQu VR, Niamh DeBarra, Niamh Houston, Meljoann, Colm Olwill, Simon Kenny, Kieran Dold, Seb & Emma of Deathness Injection, Roger Gregg, Ben Gaulon, Stephen Mcloughlin, Ed Devane an Eoin O’Dell.

Mad Scientists of Music will be out June 2014, on Near FM, and online at this site.

Blasphemy is a Crime in Ireland

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I awake this morning to a more frightening world. Yesterday blasphemy became a crime in Ireland, one element of a bill supposedly focused on defamation. Today in Ireland, certain categories of ideas gain for the first time a special status; a protection normally reserved for human beings.

Yesterday, in the final moments before the hammer fell, facing a Seanad rebellion the government found a Green party TD wandering the halls to swing the vote. They succeeded in enacting the worst and most pernicious piece of legislation in this countries history. This is our response.

[Note: This article is an editorial – if you’d like more information on the legislation itself, and how it will be enforced, please read our original piece, published in June: Proposed Irish Blasphemy Legislation]

When the Founding Fathers of the United States framed the Bill of Rights, drafting their amendments to the American constitution, they made sure to enshrine both the freedom to worship and freedom to critique. Indeed, not only are these rights protected in the foremost amendment to the US constitution, both rights are stated in a single paragraph.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The framers of the American constitution recognised implicitly that freedom of speech and the plurality of religious worship necessitate one another. Despite the many abrogations of individual freedom and privacy that have occurred since, this right has remained effectively inviolate. Opinion, especially factually true opinion, may usually be expressed.

The framers of the second Irish constitution had less noble motivations, in publishing the document which persists (necessitating frequent amendment) to this day. In consultation with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland, they enshrined the ‘special place‘ of that religion, the importance of a woman’s role as home-maker, and the pre-eminent sanctity of monogamous heterosexual marriage.

Dermot Ahern, Ireland’s current minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, claims that this flawed and outdated document compelled him to create legislation prohibiting blasphemy, and further that it would be against the spirit of the constitution for such legislation to be toothless. Thus he has created a bill, passed without debate during a session attended by, on average only six TDs at a time, which foists a €25,000 euro ($34,900 USD, or £21,439 Sterling) fine on anyone who “publishes or utters matter”…

“grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

Perhaps the minister, in claiming to be compelled to legislation is being honest. After all, article 40 of the flawed and outdated Irish constitution states…

“The State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.

The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

So, while the Irish supreme court had ruled that deciding “of what the offence of blasphemy consists” was impossible; and despite recent recommendations from an Oireachtas (parliamentary) committee that references to sedition and blasphemy be removed from the bill, national and international criticism from journalists, and lawyers alike, and frequent suggestions that the constitution as a whole should be replaced, Dermot Ahern may honestly have seen it as his duty to create a heavily penalised crime of blasphemy.

Perhaps this legislation will be struck down at a European level. Perhaps it will prove unenforceable in practice, as the conflicting and competing claims of religious doctrine make prosecution more trouble than it’s worth. These outcomes would be wonderful, and they seem reasonable, but they are in no sense guaranteed. Irish Attorney Generals and Directors of Public Prosecutions have in the past shown little hesitation in bringing manifestly unfair and unnecessary cases to trial, based on bad legislation and the demands of religious special interest groups.

What is less ambiguous is the likely effect of this legislation, whether effectively enforced or not. Without any significant outcry to bolster their indignation, the Irish news media are certain to reduce their coverage of contentious religious issues. Lets take the infamous Muhammad caricature controversy, as an example. Perhaps it was unnecessary for the Irish media to republish the cartoons that were the source of such outrage four years ago, but in today’s new legislative climate, it would be unwise even to report on the debate. Books which take issue with religious convention are this morning more difficult to publish, plays, radio progammes and television shows mocking or challenging the veracity of religious claims more difficult to commission and to broadcast.

Domestic Irish comedy has long been a deceased, decaying creature, lumbering on in blissful disregard of its own death, but we can say goodbye to any hopes of a native broadcaster producing the next Life of Brian, or a foreign broadcaster choosing Ireland as the location for another Father Ted. A friend (who shares my opposition to the blasphemy legislation) has spoken of his distaste in siding with folks like Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, and “Richard bloody Dawkins”. It’s easy to forget that almost every influential post war satirist from Spike Milligan, to Peter Cook, Chris Morris and the Pythons, would have also have faced prosecution under this legislation.

Ireland seems fond of its dead writers, we name bridges after Samuel Beckett and erect statues of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, we build writers museums and interpretive centres, and opine grandiloquently on their literary significance. Dead writers are more likeable. Lest we forget, all of these men were in their day accused of blasphemy. All wrote controversial, critically acclaimed works which could have faced prosecution under this bill. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that had Dermot Ahern been in a position to enact his censorious legislation at the turn of the century, much of our great literature, from Salome, to Waiting for Godot, to Ulysses might not have been published. More recently, the Irish comedian Abie Philbin Bowman performed a critically acclaimed comedy show ‘Jesus the Guantanamo Years‘, reimagining the father of Christianity as an imprisoned Middle Eastern terror suspect. Could such an act get a booking in this country today?

Advocates of civil liberties refer to such ‘soft censorship’ as chilling effects. The chilling effect here may influence more than a few edgy comedies and current affairs pieces. Ireland is inarguably recovering from decades of unhealthy religious influence in public life. We know now that the amount and extent of sexual abuse at the hands of the religious orders – who still by the way control 92% of our primary schools, extended to monstrous proportions. The influence of religious interest groups in delaying the legalisation of contraception, homosexuality, and access to sexual health information – all prohibited until the 1980’s and 1990’s, were and continue to be readily apparent. We are a nation coming to terms with multiculturalism, while at the same time dealing with our liturgical demons. Freedom of speech is not merely important at the current moment, it is vital to the recovery of our society from decades of the abuse of the influence of religion over every aspect of civil life.

Ironically the defamation bill of which the blasphemy amendment is a part, creates new protections for Irish journalists from accusations of libel. Timely protections, as Ireland has historically had some of the most egrigeous slander and libel legislation in the world. Legislation that prevented the reporting in the 1980’s of endemic political corruption which siphoned untold amounts from the nations coffers (see previous article). A culture of institutionalised corruption which continues today. A legislative climate which for example, protects the anonymity of investors personally loaned hundreds of millions of euros by the ‘troubled’ Anglo Irish Bank.

What place then, in this or any defamation bill, for the protection of special categories of belief from offence? Blasphemy is of course, not the same thing as defamation. And neither are accurate definitions of what this new legislation prohibits. What it makes illegal is broadly, intentionally offending religious people. But why, one might ask, is it necessary to intentionally offend? Ignoring for the moment the reversal of the the fundamental legal principle of the Presumption of Innocence (under the new legislation a defendant must prove the “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value” of their speech), and the impact on the great literary and satirical works already referenced: The freedom to reason necessitates the freedom to articulate.

Language is the tool of thought, framing and to some extent delimiting possible conceptualisations. This is why the freedom to criticise and yes intentionally offend, is vital. Tolerance requires not silence but active plurality, the intolerance of intolerance. What Isaiah Berlin called the difference between positive and negative liberty, the distinction between freedom from and the freedom to. Healthy, positive social change of the kind Ireland desperately needs, only ever occurs though reasoned debate – protest alone is rarely sufficient, but the freedom to freely discuss, to complain, to offend and to upset the status quo, is a necessary prerequisite. These are subtle points, but ones with unsubtle practical consequences. This legislation bring religion right into the heart of issues like gay marriage and adoption – areas of law and civil life that demonstably conflict with matters held sacred by all of the Abrahamic religions. Areas of law that appear to conflict too with opinions held by Mr. Ahern himself. During the dail debate on the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, Fine Gael TD Brendan McGahon stated…

“I regard homosexuals as being in a sad category, but I believe homosexuality to be an abnormality, some type of psycho-sexual problem that has defied explanation over the years. I do not believe that the Irish people desire this normalisation of what is clearly an abnormality. . .

Homosexuality is a departure from normality and while homosexuals deserve our compassion they do not deserve our tolerance. That is how the man in the street thinks. I know of no homosexual who has been discriminated against. Such people have a persecution complex because they know they are different from the masses or normal society.”

At the time Ahern, who as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has rejected proposals for Irish Civil Partnership legislation, not only indicated his agreement with McGahon’s bigotry, but added…

“Will we eventually see the day in this country when, as has happened in the USA, homosexuals will seek the right to adopt children? We should think seriously about this possibility.”

We can’t know that Dermot Ahern intends to use his position to do everything in his power to limit the rights of those he believes to be ‘abnormal’ and unworthy of tolerance, but his own statements do imply that he would not be unhappy if that was one side effect of the new legislation.

Not only is this law unnecessary, dangerous and the result of dubious motivations, to call it poorly worded is a mealy understatement. It is possessed of the self evident ‘truthiness‘ of a Jeremy Carkson rant, or a Daily Mail editorial. This new law places the beliefs of Scientologists, preachers the Church of the Subgenius and worshippers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on the same footing as the dogma of major world religions. It provides for the “seizure and removal by any member of the Garda Siochana of all copies of the statement to which the offence related that are in the possession of any person“. In practice this wording could refer to anything from the pulping of magazines to the purloining of computers containing browser caches of pages repeating the offence. That, I need hardly point out, might include your computer, since you are currently reading an unquestionably blasphemous website.

Much as been made of the Mr Aherns ‘generous’ last minute climb down on the original wording of the bill – which provided for imprisonment in addition to a €100,000 euro fine, for spoken or published ‘blasphemy’. No one seems to have mentioned that this aspect of the bill directly contravened the 60 year old United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 12 of which reads…

Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

Good thing they caught that, on the day the bill was passed.

Religion has many uses, notably as a consolation or hermeneutic device. It provides for some a map of our affective world. Its allegories, be they biblical or koranic, may like Aesop’s fables promote ethical behaver and self reflection. As the writer Alan Moore is fond of saying magic becomes really interesting once you realise it’s reality is an internal one. Secular philosophers have all but abandoned the effort to deduce or advocate a poetic ethics, let alone a pragmatic ideology of purpose. In it’s place have arisen life coaches, new religious movements, ala carte Catholicism, and secular humanism. All of which are worthwhile if individuals find them personally meaningful. It is when we begin to mistake religious belief for concrete reality, protecting doctrine as a special category of privileged knowledge, that we find ourselves in trouble. Meaning is non exclusive, it is the domain of the purely relative. Belief can hold no absolute claim on truth. By enshrining dogma into law, we necessarily make ourselves slaves to outdated traditions that like our constitution, were invented by men now dead, to suit conditions that no longer apply.

The response of my peers to this legislation has been characteristically Irish – variations on ‘Isn’t it terrible’, ‘there’s nothing we can do’, ‘ah sure it’ll all blow over’. One friend has already withdrawn a piece written for this website, afraid of its ramifications for his future career. Another seems genuinely scared even to even read articles discussing blasphemy, given “the current climate”.

As for myself, I have no €25,000 to give the criminal justice system. I own no property and am, to be brutally honest the proud possessor of student loans of the type mathematicians refer to as ‘non trivial’. That said, to quote the ever succinct Twenty Major, I shall continue to “blaspheme who I want, you God fearing cunt Ahern“.