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Column: Why Norris had to jump – and who pushed him

Blogger Sinéad Keogh questions if David Norris was the subject of a ‘witch hunt’, the architect of his own downfall or a combination of inexperience, an inconsistent public and all of the above.

David v Goliath? Was the downfall of Norris really a result of trial-by-media?
David v Goliath? Was the downfall of Norris really a result of trial-by-media?
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

AS JOYCEAN SCHOLAR David Norris would know, the old Ulysses quote goes that “Sufficient for the day is the newspaper thereof”. With the presidential candidate having dropped out of the race, Sinéad Keogh asks if our newspapers have been sufficient in the weekend that saw Norris fall spectacularly in the polls, and who is really to blame for the so called ‘witch hunt’?

On Saturday morning while still in bed, (you see, you can be an authority from anywhere on the internet), I watched the David Norris saga begin to unfold on Twitter and said the following: “All this mystery from the #Norris campaign team resigning on twitter smacks of immaturity and inexperience. State your case or shut up.” Retweets, rebuttals and a wound-up campaign later, I stand over every word.

My knowledge of David Norris and his career, like Eily Kilbride’s knowledge of breakfast, is coldly limited. I know that he’s a Joycean scholar because you always hear him on the radio around Bloomsday. I know that he supports the Privacy Bill because I had to write a media law essay once. I know that he’s witty and affable because I’ve seen him on the telly. I know that he was on Operation Transformation because it was a quiz question in the Children’s Books Ireland table quiz once – the clue being that the participant in question lived across the street from their offices and my brain somehow marrying the fact that they were based on North Great Georges Street with the knowledge gleaned from somewhere that that was also his address.

I know that he has done great work in the area of human rights because it’s the go-to positive Norris fact when comment is required. I know that he is gay because the defining fact of his life seems to be, as regards how the public view it, that he is gay.

I suspect that outside of those who work in or have a large interest in politics, the general public’s knowledge of David Norris’ life isn’t any greater than mine, and that’s alright. We don’t seek out information that we don’t need. Those tidbits that we pick up in the media fall into a self-styled hierarchy in our brains of what’s important and to be held onto and what can fall away without consequence.

Up until now, most people have never been required to make a decision on their opinion of whether they would like David Norris to occupy a position in public life unless they were an alumnus of Trinity College, his Seanad electorate, so up until now we haven’t needed to hold onto all of the pertinent facts that we might need to make such a judgement.

You can’t shoot a man without ammunition and Norris provided his own

Online at least, which is predominantly where I read my news and the only place I can really make comment, the unfolding Norris story, from back when it was the Helen Lucy Burke interview to now when it is the Ezra Yizhak Nawi letters, has been referred to as a gay witch hunt, a smear campaign and the battering ram of homophobes looking for a more palatable excuse to debar his presidential run. Perhaps from some corners that is the intent, but you can’t shoot a man without ammunition and Norris provided his own.

Undoubtedly, political news provides endless opportunities for spin, as was easy to watch play out in the case of the Helen Lucy Burke interview as war waged between pro-Norris and anti-Norris camps with regard to what was really said and how it should be interpreted. As to the fact that these stories surfaced and re-surfaced years after the fact, does that make it a witch hunt? The Burke interview was published and forgotten and we were reminded. The Nawi letters, without knowing how they came to light, are pertinent to our making up our minds on voting for Norris irrespective of the intent of those who discovered them. The media are the intermediary for when we need to know the facts but can’t do our own digging.

So has Norris been treated unfairly? No he has not. A thorough digging is to be expected when you put yourself forward to hold a position that must be beyond reproach.

You might say the electorate has been treated unfairly

But have the electorate been treated unfairly? You might say we have. Unless there is nothing to know about Mary Davis, Michael D Higgins, Gay Mitchell or Seán Gallagher then reporting has been unduly weighted. Indeed, maybe there is nothing as sensational as comments on pedastry or writing letters of appeal for clemency, but if one political career can yield unpleasant finds with a bit of digging then they all must. It’s true that it’s certainly the time for such a story. Between the recent publishing of the Cloyne Report and Enda’s speech in response, the nation is feeling particularly sensitive about and protective toward its children.

However, it remains the duty of the media to inform its public, not just to throw us the juiciest bone and wait until we’ve gnawed it away before giving us anything else. You could say that we’ll always be hungry dogs if the keeper of the key to the food press isn’t benevolent but we ought remember that the relationship isn’t quite a simple as all that. We’re hungry dogs that pay for our food and we’ve taught our media that we’ll pay for sensationalism. We bay for blood.

So what of the original comment? “All this mystery from the #Norris campaign team resigning on twitter smacks of immaturity and inexperience. State your case or shut up.” A keen observation of how political players ought to conduct themselves? Hardly. I was enjoying watching it play out as much as the next person. I wanted more information. The internet is a shooting gallery where the crowd clap at the smallest hit and it’s made us all commentators who feel our opinions matter more and more. But it wasn’t just a volley at those who were saying just enough to whet our appetites but denying us the big reveal, it was a genuine observation regarding what the campaign team were doing to the campaign itself.

Who are Norris’ supporters, or, who were they? Are they human rights activists? Are they privacy bill supports? Are they otherwise politically active? Do they have to be? It’s a theory with nothing substantial behind it, but I put forward that they were people who wanted Ireland to have the first gay president. Young, forward-thinking, progressive and well-meaning. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no need for the presidential candidate to be steeped in politics, indeed better if they’re not. However, a platform president seems just as bad as a political one.

The Twitter resignations of other members of the campaign kept the commentary flowing

Norris himself wasn’t running on a gay ticket, but it seems that’s why his supports wanted him to win, and it’s a nice idea. He’s affable, he’s witty, he’d hit the headlines for being first at something and shine a spotlight on us and our progressive actions. When your supporters and campaign team are made up of the Nice Idea Society, though, maybe they haven’t got the political savvy to carry you through.

Obviously, the big name resignations of Norris’ Director of Communications and Director of Elections would have sounded warning bells anyway, but the Twitter resignations of other members of the campaign kept the commentary flowing. Those who did resign online have been defended with comments regarding the likelihood of a confidentiality agreement or how understandable it was to want to distance themselves from what was coming. It’s been said that they’re deserving of sympathy because they were let down by Norris more than any of us – they had worked for him and he hadn’t been completely honest with them.

While all of that stands true, and it can equally be said that they had no more chance of knowing about the Nawi letters than the rest of us, that only means there was no cause or gain to be had from publicly disassociating themselves from the campaign via social media. If you can’t give full facts, stand back and speak when you can speak with authority. The public can’t judge you with regard to information you didn’t have and if they’re going to, they’ll do it irrespective of when you quit.

The reality is that Norris seems just as lacking in media savvy as his former and current team. He should have reacted much sooner, he should have expected the digging. He should have fully informed his team and had a tighter rein on his communications so that his team didn’t speak before he did. Had he carried on through without this revelation, would we only have discovered down the line that his presidency was supported by a haphazard and amateur support network? Maybe it’s a naïve interpretation of politics based entirely on The West Wing talking, but it seems true that your campaign team become your team when in office, and I don’t want my president or his team to be elected on the platform of a Nice Idea and turn out to be poorly able to handle their role when it comes down to what the office of president really is in this country – an ambassador to the world and a person beyond reproach who doesn’t have faux pas.

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While the media have clamped their jaw around the story, there’s no doubt that we’ve supported their effort and if we’re to suggest that they’re on a witch hunt then we have to acknowledge that we’re all gathered around the village noose waiting for the hanging to commence. Leaving aside the spin, the reaction, the media, the social media, examine your view of David Norris’ actions, which are all that really matter in your decision about whether or not he should be president or whether or not he should even run.

Oh yeah, we really care about the children

If we accept, and you might not, that he doesn’t believe in pedastry and that what he did wrong was jump to the defence of someone that he loved, then I believe that his actions, while understandable, were still wrong. He abused his position, and it’s not like it hasn’t been done by politicians before but that doesn’t mean calling him on it is a witch hunt, it just means we’ve been too lenient on every other occasion. No, you should not defend anyone who abuses a child, no matter your reason or position, no matter if you’re a TD scrounging votes in your locality or a senator defending someone that you love. The state does not approve of the action, your representations on behalf of the state your work for should not imply that it does.

Secondary to that, his ability to handle the reaction has been poor and we don’t need a president about whom there is whispering and uncertainty and a marked inability to exercise good judgement in matters private or public. David Norris, like the schoolbooks say about Charles Stewart Parnell and the last relationship we didn’t approve of, is the architect of his own demise.

But all that said, the fact is that there are two stories above the fold today (Tuesday, 2 August), in the Irish Times at least. Firstly, the Norris campaign and secondly a story about social services cuts putting children at risk. Two stories, which, if weekend commentary is be believed, are about the necessity to put our children first.

At nine o’clock this morning Radio One were discussing addiction to the internet and how we’re all out for instant gratification and celebrity with our constant publication of opinions via social networks. Ryan Tubridy on 2FM was discussing whether or not Norris could or should still run. Nobody was discussing social services cuts which affect hundreds of children every day. On TheJournal.ie, the Norris update has over 800 views at time of writing while the social services story had just over 100. Oh yeah, we really care about the children.

The Norris saga hasn’t just highlighted wrongdoing by a potential presidential candidate, it’s highlighted a deep inconsistency within our society. Unless we acknowledge the true reasoning behind our opinions, unless we scrutinise all of our presidential candidates, unless we act of belief aside from being populist then today isn’t just a bad day to be gay or a bad day to be a Norris supporter, it’s a bad day for all of us because we’ve become conditioned to be outraged without even being consistent enough to elicit any kind of change. No, we can’t lay this at the media’s door and call it a witch hunt. Norris wasn’t hanged for something he didn’t do – it was something he did. His trial wasn’t by media alone, it was by a vocal public, and the threads of an inexperienced campaign just couldn’t hang together in the face of it all.

Sinéad Keogh is commander-in-chief of Irish pop culture blog Culch.ie, and edits books in real life.
This post first appeared on Lisa McInerney’s Scribble A Bit! blog and is reproduced with her permission.

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