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Archive for June, 2008

Belfast blogger Alan Murray is facing charges of harassment for writing about public figures on his blog.
His blog is http://www.holylandswarzone.blogspot.com

He campaigns against the privatisation of public housing. One of the only mixed working class areas in Belfast – The Holy Land – was turned into a student ghetto when conversion of houses into homes of multiple occupancy was grant aided by government. So much for a shared future!
He is on a very important issue here and he has been writing about it more eloquently than most – and got beaten up for his trouble.

But the worry for bloggers is that they can be prosecuted for naming public figures whose conduct they question!
And if a blogger can be prosecuted for this, then so can a journalist.

Below is Alan’s account of how he has found himself charged with harassment for writing on an issue of public importance.

A brief synopsis of events is as follows:-

1. An article appeared in the South Belfast News credited to Katrina O’Neill. You can see it here

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2008/05/tonys-fraudulent-article.html

2. I wrote an online criticism of it. You can see it here

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2007/05/short-note-on-banality-of-evil.html

3.A row broke out between Katrina O’Neill and myself at a residents’ meeting. I discuss it here

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2007/05/public-accountability.html

Three police officers were present including Inspector Lewis Brown. She made no complaint to them at the time. It was sixteen days before she made a complaint.

4. Katrina O’Neill and I passed each other in the hoarding outside the Ormeau bakery on the 29th May.

5.On the 2nd June 2007 I was assaulted at 4pm in Agincourt Street. I will supply you with photographs of my injuries. Present during the assault were:-
-Katrina O’Neill
-Tony McGuinness
-Mark O’Neill, brother of Katrina
-A friend of Mark O’Neill
-Bernard O’Neill, father of Katrina and member of Sinn Fein who intimidated witnesses who were filming the incident.

I walked down to Donegall Pass to report the assault on me. The desk assistant called a ambulance. Six officers arrived from the scene and took me into a small room. They proceeded to bully me into not pressing charges. They also cautioned me for criticising Katrina O’Neill at the residents’ meeting and on the internet and for “looking” at her outside the Ormeau Bakery.

6. On the 4th June 2007 Police cautioned me for criticising David Farrell on the internet. An account of their visit can be found here.

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2007/06/stasi-wear-kid-gloves-these-days.html

The officer in question was not a detective, but Constable Robert Steven Kingsman wearing a non uniform jacket. I was also incorrect about the electricity company. Their security guards are allegedly harrassed by local protestors.

7.On Monday 2nd July 2007 I was arrested for criticising David Farrell on the internet. The two articles he cites as harassment can be found here.

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2007/06/stasi-wear-kid-gloves-these-days.html

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2007/06/failure-of-regeneration.html

8. After publishing this

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2007/08/tony-comes-out-of-closet.html

I was cautioned by police for harassment against Tony McGuinness. I don’t recall the date of their visit.

9.After publishing this

http://holylandswarzone.blogspot.com/2007/09/katrina-wakes-up-and-smells-coffee.html

I was arrested and charged with harassment against Katrina O’Neill. The arrest took place on the 27th September 2007.

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Art and the BBC

This is the text of a talk I was invited by the BBC Trust to give to a seminar on arts programming by the BBC. The seminar was held on June 24 at Broadcasting House, Belfast.

We have a range of arts programmes but they divide into two kinds, one which addresses an audience with a strong interest in the arts and another which melds arts into a more magazine type programming.

Examples of the first kind are much of the BBC Four output, Radio Four’s Front Row, Newsnight Review.

Examples of the second kind are The Culture Show, our news programmes, when arts events feature in them, and our own Arts Extra.

The first is programming which is concerned with evaluating the arts; the second is really a form of magazine journalism about the world in which artists move.

There was a time when, had I sought to locate a demarcator between what network programmes do with the arts and what we do regionally, I would have said that networks do the metropolitan and the events of bigger significance from the regions, including our own. We do the local.

Now that demarcator does not apply. The network does everything it likes, within the limited time available and so does the region, or at least this region. There is no programming on the BBC which concerns itself with Irish Art, Irish publishing, Irish anything. You get that on RTE.

Well, perhaps it is provincial and blinkered to concentrate on something we might regard as local culture.

I don’t think so.

I think local broadcasters should be in an integral relationship with local artists and that regional programming should favour local relevance over work that will be reviewed or discussed on Network – not to the exclusion of it, of course, but why should we pretend to offer what Mark Lawson can do better? When Mark Lawson needs to assess Sinead Morrissey or Micky Doherty, he’ll call us.

I imagine that in Scotland and Wales, people think much the same as I do on this.

Where the local is treated as having value in local programming is in stories about the local boy or girl doing well, and it is the doing well that makes the story, not the nature or character of the work they have done.

In short, we are separating life from art and saying that it is life we are more interested in and that art, being something else, a specialism, is a minority interest, held dear by those incomprehensible few who have read Ulysses.

When actor Jim Norton wins a Tony award, the first question he is asked on Arts Extra is, how did you feel? When Leontia Flynn gets the Rooney award she is invited to agree with the proposition: your mother must be proud. We are always asking of ourselves, how much of this story would be intelligible to Uncle Joe, and we are probably always getting that wrong anyway.

Go to the arts festivals and listen to the questions that come from the audience. Often they are those simple human questions — where do your ideas come from? How do you find the time to write?

And they are the people who should be our audience, aren’t they?

They are the demographic we have always had with us.

Look around at those audiences, at the summer schools and arts festivals, the John Hewitt, Aspects, and who do you see? You see people who are mostly over 50 and mostly women. Radio Ulster doesn’t trust that audience but wants a different audience. It wants younger people.

And, in ignorance of the energy and concerns of this generation ,we get a review of Coldplay in Brixton but not of Leonard Cohen playing in Dublin.

And the tension between catering for the audience we have and grasping for an audience we want, creates a strain that shows.

We get young reviewers speaking glib slang: check it out, check it out.

Women of 50 do not ‘check it out’.

On RTE there is a round table arts review programme every Tuesday night, like nothing we have on radio or television.

RTE has run several night time documentary series, including, in the last year, deeply personal profiles of Nuala ni Dhomnail, Paul Durcan and John Banville.

The result was films about the most disturbing experiences and deepest feelings of some of our greatest writers. That is, they met the criterion of great film making in any field.

Compare these with the BBC’s effort to make a documentary about Michael Longley, guided by the principle that no one would know him unless he was authenticated as a sensitive soul by somebody more famous for fine feeling, Feargal Keane. Here we learnt little about Longley, he even came across as tight lipped and obscure.

Taking him on his own terms, as RTE had taken the others, might have been as productive.

The decision that arts programming would not enter an elitist field is defended with the argument that arts coverage pervades our other programming. Not only do we make arts popular, we talk more about the arts in our other popular programming. See what a big story the rebuilding of the Lyric is.

Your new book might not get reviewed on Arts Extra — but it might be discussed on Talkback or Sunday Sequence. This argument sinks because nowhere will the book be seriously evaluated. Sunday Sequence will discuss issues arising from your book, not where you might go next as a developing writer.

On Radio Ulster we have six hours of dedicated book programming – every year. Did anyone seriously think I was going to say every week? No, that would be Radio Five Live you’re thinking about, the station that we nicknamed Radio Bloke. Radio Five Live has shared a discovery with Richard and Judy that audiences talk intelligently about the books they read.

Much of the BBC does not accept that principle and thinks you’d prefer to hear them talk glibly.

I argue that if the station is to be parsimonious with books discussion it must privilege Irish publishing. We can be cosmopolitan when we have the time.

When other broadcasters have upgraded their coverage of books, more books have sold. If it can be shown that Irish publishing is on the floor because of the reduced evaluation of books on Radio Ulster – how would we feel about that?

I think the death of reading would be a bad thing, don’t you?

If we are to have a renewed relationship with our audiences and with the arts world, we can do it by structural changes, improving the programmes we have, but we actually need to consider the underlying ethos governing arts programming across the BBC and particularly here. This ethos was seen, at its inception, as a move away from elitism and therefore a good thing.

The consequence is that we have lost the ability on much programming to distinguish between talking about art and about the people in the arts world. They are famous because they are artists, but we are not interested in the art; we are only interested in the fame.

We need to change three things.

The devaluation of the local. The local is our expertise and our ticket to the wider discussions.

The devaluation of the audience: We have to stop signalling to our most loyal audience that we would really prefer they were young people and a bit more cool.

The devaluation of the arts: knowledge and understanding of motor racing and gardening are still appreciated in the BBC. Why so much less, then, the arts of the artists?

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Waking the Dead

You can’t expect children to know what to do at an Irish wake.

Wee Fergus inched gingerly through the room to the coffin for a look at his grandad, found the waxy corpse interesting for about a minute then went out to play with his ball in the garden.

Katie, being older, comprehended that she had lost someone and was crying.

The discovery of Pat dead in his bed that morning was like an emotional bomb blast. Sons and daughters would hurry home from half a dozen cities.

Delma and her daughters set up a production line for sandwiches. Within hours the house would be full of chatter.

Betty and I, while there was a chance, went to inspect the grave and meet the gravedigger. It was a double grave with room for herself later. ‘What side do you want him in?’

She had no thoughts on that.

‘What side of the bed did he lie in?’ I asked.

‘The left’, she said.

‘Left it is’, said the gravedigger.

Pat, for now, was laid out in his coffin in the living room. Betty ruffled his hair to make him look more like himself.

It is a shock that soon passes, seeing someone dead, formally laid out, the beads entwined in his fingers. The corpse is at the mercy of the artistry of the undertaker. My sister, in her coffin, wore red lipstick for the first time since her teens. My father, in a blue jacket I had lent him to be cremated in, looked like a club doorman.

Pat had looked worse.

Wee Fergus was warned again that this was a solemn occasion. He had the best possible defence: ‘But they are laughing too’ . He was pointing at me and big Damien, receiving visitors at the door.

I noted that these visitors were more sombre than we were and I straightened my face a bit.

There were times you would have to suppress a cackle at someone’s joke and turn to another person saying: ‘Isn’t it an awful business, and wasn’t he such a lovely man’.

Which he was. And you’d try to be as sad as they were, as sad as you had been yourself a moment before.

Pat Boyle, my wife’s father, an old country school master and brass band conductor, had survived heart trouble and two cancers to get within a spit of eighty and he had kept his sense of humour too.

He rose to speak at our wedding with a confidence that he could put on a far better performance than I could any day of the week.

At another wedding, Mel’s, he quoted from the gospel: ‘The Lord said, “It is good that we are here”‘.

But what people said mostly about Pat was, ‘Just think of the stories in that man’s head that are lost now.’

I’m not sure that I can comprehend the Irish wake much better than Fergus does. You really only learn the genius of it from going to many of them. The folk image is of old men drinking porter around the coffin, telling stories that get scarier and bawdier as the house darkens.

Blame Dave Allen with his yarns about a dead hunchback who’d had to be strapped down and then bounced up when the strap broke; about corpses taken out and set on the rocking chair.

Father Oliver Crilly tells me that he doesn’t remember a wake with drink, that it is not in the tradition at all, though a large bowl of cigarettes, until recently, was.

Probably hundreds came to the house that day and the next. Every time a priest called there was a decade of the rosary. One prayer leader’s pronunciation of ‘womb Jesus’ had mourners suppressing giggles. Some priests were good on wee homilies to Pat. Some weren’t.

But the things that go wrong in a wake are part of what makes it work, so long as they aren’t calamitous. The point of it all is to distract a family from grief and help the bereaved absorb the shock. It is good that we were there.

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