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Fintan O’Toole: Newstalk’s Irish Times ban is a classic case of ‘cancel culture’

Cancel culture isn’t new, just a new term for an old concept of cynical hypocrisy

Is “cancel culture” a real thing or just another way to weaponise the self-pity of powerful men? Donald Trump is banking on it to restore his rapidly dissolving presidency.

His last throw of the dice is to define his opponents as brutal authoritarians: “One of their political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ – driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism.”

The only job he does not want anyone to be driven out of is, of course, his own. But “cancel culture” has a life beyond Trump. It has largely replaced “political correctness” as the enemy of choice for people who are used to having the loudest voices in the room. It is, in many ways, a perfect concept for our times because it has migrated directly from the world of teenage fandom to right-wing political discourse.

Up to last year, it meant gangs of fans getting together online to “drop” some celeb they had previously adored. Now, it stands for the progressive Left’s fascistic annihilation of the brave truth-tellers of the Right.


To test its reality, let’s start close to home. Is there anywhere in official Ireland where one might find an example of whole groups of people being no-platformed because they hurt someone’s feelings?

Blanket ban

Actually, there is a single, very obvious example, one that literally enjoys public licence.

Ireland's only "independent" national talk radio stations, Newstalk and Today FM, both owned by the billionaire Denis O'Brien, have, since September 2017, operated a blanket ban on anyone associated with The Irish Times appearing on any programme on any of O'Brien's Communicorp stable of stations.

This was in retaliation for a column of mine accusing Newstalk of being “systemically sexist” because it had jettisoned the brilliant Sarah McInerney from its drivetime slot, resulting in what was then an all-male chorus line of presenters from dawn to dusk. (I think McInerney’s stellar performance in Sean O’Rourke’s slot on RTÉ these past few months rather vindicates the point.)

Banning me for life from Newstalk was perfectly reasonable and certainly consonant with O’Brien’s public suggestion that my work “needs to be stamped out in Ireland”.

But this ban extends to anyone who writes for The Irish Times and operates across the Communicorp group, including Today FM and the pop music stations 98FM, Spin 1038 and Spin South West. Paul Howard was literally cancelled from appearing on Spin 1038 in character as Ross O’Carroll Kelly – perhaps the only time Ross has been punished for something he didn’t do.

For a while, The Irish Times had company on the enemies list. In September, Communicorp banned anyone and everyone who contributed to the newly-launched digital publication The Currency from all its stations. The fatwa against The Currency was lifted in December, but the one against The Irish Times remains.

And Communicorp has suffered no sanction whatsoever from its regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. O’Brien’s company remains free to impose arbitrary blanket bans on any group of people it does not like.

If “cancel culture” is a phrase with any intrinsic meaning, this would be the outstanding example of it in Ireland.

But this is not what “cancel culture” means to those who use the phrase to suggest the persecution of conservatives by liberals. Nor – to reference a quite different situation – would they use the phrase to describe the attempt by far-right groups to delegitimise new Government Minister Roderic O’Gorman, using a vile smear implicitly equating homosexuality with paedophilia.

If banning journalists and trying to force a man out of office because of his sexuality are not “cancel culture”, it is nothing more than a hollow new phrase.

Let's be clear: there is a very deep well of hysterical intolerance on the Left. Much of it, ironically, has always been directed against others on the Left. The first item on the agenda, as Brendan Behan said, is the split – and those on the other side of whatever micro-fissure has opened up this time are traitors, apostates, renegades, deluded lackeys of imperialism.

If you want to get a taste of how demented this is, just read the flood of comments from Corbynistas on Twitter celebrating the announcement of 180 job losses at the Guardian, which, in its failure to give uncritical support to their martyred leader, revealed itself to be the true enemy.

There’s nothing specifically lefty about this fanaticism, though. Ask any female public figure where the online threats to rape her if she doesn’t shut the f**k up tend to come from, and the answer will probably not point to woke students.

Public shaming

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of religion may have come across a slight tendency to “cancel” infidels, heretics and dissenters by means rather more severe than unfriending them on Facebook.

What’s changed is simply the amplifying power of social media. The 153 writers and intellectuals (including Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Noam Chomsky and JK Rowling) who recently wrote an open letter to express concern at the rise of “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty” are not wrong. When you put profound political polarisation together with the avalanche effects of social media indignation, the resultant cocktail is bitter and toxic.

But an important contextual qualification is needed. Some of the most intolerant people on Earth have learned a new trick: claim to be the victim, not the perpetrator, of intolerance. To take one example, Italy is currently debating legislation to outlaw discrimination against women and LGBTQ people. The Italian Catholic bishops are waging war against it.

Ten years ago, they would have done this by portraying the law as a terrible example of the spread of false doctrines of personal liberty. Now, on the Right, you don’t do that anymore. This time, the bishops have attacked the law as “the death of liberty”. Liberty is a good thing – and it includes the right to discriminate against women and LGBTQ people.

This is a learned technique: if you want to keep abusing people on the basis of their skin colour or sexuality, you don’t say “I hate those inferior people”. You say “You are taking away my liberty to express my views about race and sex. You are practising cancel culture. I am the victim here.”

The sport here is political judo: using your opponents’ weight and strength as weapons against them. The weight and strength of an open democracy are care and consideration for minorities and dissenters. But the enemies of open democracy have learned how to claim that consideration for their own assaults on vulnerable groups.

It is the poor little oligarchs – the Italian Catholic bishops, the US Republican Party, the billionaire media owners – who are the oppressed minorities in need of protection. So, while President Trump is sending paramilitaries out onto the streets to attack peaceful protestors, it is the protestors who are the “cancel culture” authoritarians threatening American freedom.

No one should fall for this trick. Language matters. Intolerance is intolerance. Stupidity is stupidity. Unfairness is unfairness. Hysteria is hysteria. Cancel culture is nothing but a new gift-wrapping on the same old package of cynical hypocrisy.