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Fintan O’Toole: The ancient art of slander has been reborn

Local paper liable for every claim it publishes, but social media liable for nothing

There is nothing new about disinformation. It used to be called gossip or rumour or the cognitive capacity of the dogs in the street.

In 1970, when I was 12, Charles Haughey was minister for finance. He was due to deliver the budget. But it was taoiseach Jack Lynch who stood up in the Dáil instead. He explained: "Before leaving home this morning, the minister for finance met with an accident that resulted in concussion."

This was true. Haughey had fallen off his horse. But of course that was only a cover story. I heard the adults whispering about the alternative facts: he had been beaten up by an aggrieved husband who had caught him in flagrante with his wife.

This was a tremendously interesting and satisfying scenario. And it became the accepted truth. The more detail the newspapers and RTÉ gave about Haughey’s actual equestrian mishap, the more delightful it was to be in the know about what really happened.


The following year, Mary Robinson introduced a Bill in the Seanad to repeal the ban on the importation and sale of contraceptives. She presented this as a question of women's control over their own bodies.

But of course that couldn’t be true. Such an outlandish proposition had to be a front, a disguise for her real motivation.

Back then, and for a long time afterwards, until it was sold to Boots, one of the main chains of pharmacies in Ireland was called Hayes Cunningham Robinson. So here was the “real” story: her husband Nick was one of those Robinsons. (He wasn’t.) They had a deal that, if she got the law changed, she would be paid a penny for every condom and contraceptive pill their shops sold. (They hadn’t.)

‘Everyone knew’

In 1992, there was the notorious X case, in which a 14 year-old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, was prevented from leaving Ireland to have an abortion in England. The girl was not named and neither was her rapist.

But soon “everybody knew” who he was. A well-known man, who was entirely innocent, was supposedly the rapist.

These fictions were merely the apex of a vast pyramid of titillation buried beneath the surface of Irish life. They concerned public figures, but most of the scandal-mongering was deployed against ordinary neighbours, especially women.

It was no accident that in 1976, the late Shay Healy had a big hit in Ireland with Hey C’mere, a parody of Abba’s Mamma Mia: “Hey c’mere, did you hear about the wan in number 47?” It was pure social realism.

These public examples do, however, exemplify the various but timeless functions of slander.

Sometimes, as in the Haughey rumour, it fills a gap between what people reasonably suspect to be true and what they are being told. Haughey presented himself as a paragon of Catholic family values. People sensed that he was anything but. The invention of the “real story” of the husband beating him up was a way of navigating between these states of knowledge.

Cultural shock-absorber

Sometimes, as in the tattle about Mary Robinson, slander acts as a kind of cultural shock-absorber. By daring to raise such a delicate question in parliament, she was challenging a whole belief system, that of Holy Catholic Ireland. It was comforting to “know” that this was not really happening at all, that the whole thing was just about money and self-interest.

What unites these different strains of smear, however, is the buzz of being in on things. Humans dread above all the feeling of exclusion

And sometimes it’s just pure malice. Some swine took a sadistic pleasure in branding a decent man a child rapist and the swinish multitude got a thrill from passing on the slur.

What unites these different strains of smear, however, is the buzz of being in on things. Humans dread above all the feeling of exclusion. The joy of “Have you not heard?” and “Wait till I tell you” is the proof – to yourself and others – that you are well connected enough to have the inside story.

Alternative facts

These social impulses do not change much over time or with technology. It is tempting to think, therefore, that the current anxiety about the ubiquity of “alternative facts” is misplaced.

But one thing really is new. The old rumours were contained within an oral world. They could not escape into print.

The reason is simple: libel laws. No one would print these stories because, without hard evidence, you would end up paying big damages.

What’s changed is that we now have vast global media corporations with immunity from these laws. Put the word “social” before “media” and it dissolves the responsibility of publishers. Gossip, now written down, becomes gospel.

The tiniest local paper is liable for every claim that is made in its pages. Facebook is effectively liable for nothing. The biggest publishers the world has ever seen are built on the fiction that they are not publishers at all.

As a result, the ancient art of slander has been reborn in a new world where it is at once vastly more powerful and much less accountable. That’s a real scandal.