Towards a Literate Land Fit For Erotic Turkeys


First things first (a quite unnecessary introduction). I am worried by the disturbing extent of illiteracy in Ireland. Beg pardon: alleged extent of alleged illiteracy. The recent report by the organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which concluded that one in four Irish people cannot read, has been criticised by Senator Joe O'Toole, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation: "The INTO rejects this out of hand. We challenge anyone to consider their circle of acquaintances and to conclude as the OECD does that one in four of them has a reading difficulty."

Considering my own circle of acquaintances, Joe seems instantly vindicated, because to the best of my knowledge none of them has any reading difficulty. However, the niggling worry arises that there just might be other people, with other circles of acquaintances - say people who are not teachers or journalists - who may well have reading difficulties.

If, for example, a member of the travelling community were to throw down Joe's challenge among a circle of acquaintances, it might not elicit the result he suggests. Even among more privileged circles the test might not necessarily succeed.

But this is all surmise. And of course people who can't read won't be buying newspapers to learn what the INTO has to say about illiteracy, and won't have been able to read about the OECD report in the first place.

For those of us in the newspaper trade, literacy has a special relevance. Newspaper circulation is under threat in this country and in the UK - but buoyant in the US. As the Guardian reported the other day, the Newspaper Association of America is naturally keen on maintaining this buoyancy, and to that end has mounted an aggressive promotion of the written word, enlisting a whole crew of celebrities to support the cause. The idea is to encourage literacy among young Americans, using newspapers to promote community activities and through this to build the newspaper audiences of the future.

So we watch the literacy debate closely in this office.

Meanwhile, Senator O'Toole also alludes to what he sees as the difficulty of "defining what exactly constitutes a literacy problem."

The whole problem of definition of any kind must exercise all our minds. I read the other day about a new magazine launched in England called the Erotic Print Society Review.

More filth, you will surmise. Not so, according to the publishers. The masthead statement makes a fine distinction: "The definition of the erotic as opposed to the perverse: `erotic' is what you do with a feather, `perverse' involves the whole bird."

This should not stop anyone enjoying the Christmas turkey.

But perhaps following the annual report of the EU's Court of Auditors we should be less concerned about literacy than about numeracy. Leaving aside the billions of pounds in EU overpayments to European farmers and cereal growers who appear to have done their sums twice over, happily adding the results and multiplying by five, Irish accounting for structural funds came in for severe criticism from the Court of Auditors.

All kinds of black marks (detailed in Tuesday's paper) were placed against the Irish performance, which no doubt involved small armies of accountants and financial controllers toiling night and day. For example, in spending EU Social Fund money, the Government was not able to demonstrate to the court's satisfaction that it complied with the principle of "additionality", whereby EU cash is supposed to supplement member-state spending, rather than replace it.

However, since the accounting mess appear to have benefited this country substantially in money terms (and what other terms matter?), and since the EU Court of Auditors accepts assertions even though they are not "demonstrated to its satisfaction", and its idea of punishment appears to be a light slap on the wrist accompanied by a "naughty, naughty" admonishment; then perhaps we need not be too fussy about accounting deficiencies and all those dreary time-consuming cross-check systems. Mild public embarrassment is surely a small price to pay for financial advantage.