Paddy Cosgrave isn’t guilty of facilitating fascist views – it was just naivety

Backlash to Web Summit founder’s invitation to Le Pen was predictable

It is almost too easy to pillory the occasionally hubristic Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave for his epic miscalculation over the rescinded invitation to French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, to speak at November's event in Lisbon. That lad is a magnet for controversy wherever he goes and a poster boy for schadenfreude at home.

Less than 18 hours after seemingly stoutly defending Le Pen’s invite under the banner of free expression, on Wednesday Cosgrave folded like a cheap suit in the face of a ferocious online backlash for inviting the “fascist” leader of the National Rally party. She was promptly disinvited as Cosgrave, presumably clad in sackcloth with a layer of ashes on top of his head, conceded that her presence at the tech conference would be “disrespectful” to Portugal and “some” of the event’s attendees.

The whole mess played out to such a familiar tune: a naive mis-step, an initially principled but ultimately hollow defence, the hysterical and performative public backlash and the ubiquitous petition, the humiliating climbdown just to make it all stop, and the self-congratulation of some of the protestors.

That arc of predictability probably says more about modern society than it does about Cosgrave. This sort of clobbering happens every other day now – to people, to businesses, to anybody who is careless in these matters. This was just Cosgrave’s turn, because he was the one who messed up.

But the episode also says much about the mortal dangers facing businesses that blithely wade into debates over social and political principles, especially ones that touch on nationalism and xenophobia, identity, freedoms and authoritarianism. For commercial enterprises looking to push the boundaries on these issues, this is dicey territory.

Cosgrave’s critics were mainly in Portugal, where they know a bit about far-right politics, and in Ireland, where we know a little bit about Cosgrave.

The businessman has evolved into quite an accomplished manipulator of publicity for commercial ends. He is also often decried for his arrogance, although he is hardly unique among successful people in having that “difficult” gene. It helps them achieve things by drowning out the stultifying noise of negative people who tell them they can’t succeed. Either way, some people were delighted he was humiliated. That’s on them.

The initial presumption was that Cosgrave was creating a mini firestorm to garner some free publicity for the Web Summit. He has pulled publicity stunts before. But as the criticism mounted, and Cosgrave doubled down with a free-speech defence that he wasn’t prepared to back up, the situation became more serious. One can only imagine the conversations he was preparing to have with the event’s sponsors.

Cosgrave was naive to think he could bring a far-right leader to the country of Salazar and get away with it without causing severe damage to his business and reputation. It shouldn’t matter that there was an element of logic to parts of his initial defence. He should have seen the backlash coming.

Cosgrave was correct to suggest that in order to fully understand how far-right politics has harnessed technology to fuel its comeback, we need to ask far-right politicians for their views on it. I don’t think Cosgrave had invited Le Pen to stand up on stage and read the National Rally’s manifesto and say mean things about minorities. He was trying, however hamfistedly, to address the issue of managing “hate speech” online.

And although this is only of minor significance, it is also probably inaccurate to call Le Pen a “fascist”. Words have meaning. A fascist is someone who adheres to the political ideology of fascism, which is well defined and partially based on a desire to violently overthrow the state for a new order. Le Pen’s ideas on race and identity are repugnant. She’s a typical small-minded ultra-nationalist – a far-right crank with left-wing economics – who would be an all-round disaster if she ever got her hands on power. But if she’s a fascist, she’s a watered-down, tasteless, orange cordial version.

Still, she’s unpleasant and possibly dangerous if she had power. That should have been enough to set off warning lights for Cosgrave.

Le Pen’s ideas are pathetic, and public exposure renders them even more openly pathetic. When Cosgrave cited the defence of allowing her speak on the grounds of free expression, he must have known that many people passionately disagree with such a classic liberal viewpoint.

It is one of the defining debates of our age. If he was planning to address the issue at the summit, he should have done so with more care.

As an aside, even in the free-speech sphere, the issue of whether or not Le Pen’s freedom to speak was curtailed is also incidental. Many free-speech advocates probably don’t care much about upholding her individual freedoms. For society, there is a bigger issue around who gets to decide who speaks and who doesn’t. The apparent ease with which people can now join forces online and effectively wield that power over the speech of others is a much more interesting phenomenon to observe.

Still, private businesses are safer leaving hot-button social and political issues to civil society. That ground is a field laden with mines, surrounded by an electric fence, protected by the hounds of hell. Don’t go there unless you’re fully prepared to die on that hill, along with your company’s reputation and, potentially, its profits.

You won’t win, even if you’re right.


Bord Gáis Energy theatre goes dark

The award for most embarrassing corporate tweet of the week goes to... Bord Gáis Energy. The power company tweeted an apology on Wednesday to customers of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, whose afternoon and evening schedule was mangled because of a power outage.

Customers tweeted at the energy company in frustration, after children and elderly people were left queuing for a matinee show in the dark when the lights went out.

“Unfortunately, the @BGETheatre is experiencing some power issues. We and the team there are working to try resolve the situation . . . We apologise for any inconvenience caused,” replied BGE. This tweet was copied and pasted to everyone who complained.

A theatre sponsored by an energy company, with no energy. And the matinee show that was delayed by the power cut? Wicked, the prequel to the Wizard of Oz. It can only have been sorcery that landed Bórd Gáis Energy in such a PR pickle.

Guaranteed century for Irish cricket

Cricket Ireland this week opened phase one of its new €700,000 high-performance centre, located at the Sport Ireland National Sports Campus. It includes more than 20 grass and artificial pitches, as well as an enormous practice area.

Financial backing came from the International Cricket Council development fund, as well as in the form of cheap rent from Sport Ireland.

There was also, according to a report in the Times, a "good contribution" from Denis O'Brien. Even though his Digicel telco is pulling back on its sponsorship of the sport in the Caribbean, O'Brien appears to be maintaining his support for cricket in Ireland.

The best bit is that the cheap rent comes with a 100-year lease. A guaranteed century for Irish cricket.