How to be Sound in a post-Referendum world with Ellen Coyne: Episode 8 transcript
This episode of How to be Sound features Times Ireland senior reporter Ellen Coyne, talking about life post-Repeal; what Simon Harris smells like and what great feminist fight will be coming next. Here follows the transcript of our chat – please do share with any friends with hearing difficulties who may be interested in learning How to be Sound! If you like what I’m doing and you’d like to support it, you can do so at Patreon for as little as $1 per month – and, if you donate at the $6.66 level or higher, you’ll get two exclusive Minisodes per month, as well as the chance to hear me read out your name on every episode!
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Life post-Referendum: who saw this coming?
R: Hello and welcome to How to be Sound, your fortnightly guide to life and more! Presented by me, Rosemary Mac Cabe. I clearly think I’m hilarious. I started this podcast because I was having so many inspiring conversations with inspiring women, and the occasional man, that left me thinking, wow, that person is way sounder than I am. So I thought sharing those conversations might make interesting listening on your way to work, or home from work, or whatever you happen to be doing right now. I hope it’s something fun.
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Now! Back to business. In this episode of HTBS, I am joined by journalist Ellen Coyne who’s a senior reporter at the Times Ireland, to talk about a post-repeal world. Ellen, thank you so much for joining me!
E: No problem at all.
R: I got in touch with Ellen last week to see if she’d come on HTBS and we weren’t quite sure whether we’d be rejoicing or lamenting. Ellen, did you have any idea about how it was going to go?
E: No. Like, the Thursday before the vote on Friday, I was down in Roscommon, Leitrim and Longford, with some campaigners who’d gone down there to help. Because obviously it was still carrying that… almost stigma of being the only constituency that voted no to marriage equality. So they thought the best way to spend their last day campaigning would be down there. And, in hindsight, I feel like an idiot, because I was following them around Boyle, in county Roscommon, and it was an absolute revelation. They went into two housing estates where there had been a woman that travelled - you know, they were getting four or five yesses and a no. It was so obvious that repeal was really strong.
But me and all the campaigners that I was with just kept giving more weight than was appropriate to the one no. So, clinging to that and almost multiplying it by five. And just not really counting… It even got to the point where I was keeping a tally in my notebook, and I could clearly see that the yeses were basically 70/30 to the nos, so, absolutely very close to being representative of the final result. But there was just this kind of incredulousness… that was… among me, other political analysts and also the campaigners themselves. Like, I don’t know why we bought into the idea that this was going to be a 50/50 thing so much. I’m not sure if the broadcast debates fed into that, but I… like… I really believed that, despite what a lot of people would say, nobody really saw this coming.
R: Yeah. I mean, I think the broadcast debates did have a lot to do with it, because… and, you know obviously there’s a huge conversation to be had now about what balance actually means. Because, when you’re watching the debates, you’re going, half of the people in this room and half are for yes, and I think the issue was as well that the people who were for no… often had the more shocking things to say, or were using the more emotive language. So it almost felt like… if people were watching at home and they were undecided, that they would go with the ones who were saying the shocking things. That’s what would jolt them out of being undecided.
E: Yeah. And I think the ironic thing is that the campaign for yes put so much of its language around trusting women, but at the same time we should have just trusted the Irish public to see through… a lot of the stuff that was said on the no side was absolutely misleading, and I have heard a lot of people today saying, you know, where is the place in society now for people like David Quinn and the Iona Institute… They saturate the media, they do have so much access. But I suppose the problem for them… it’s almost like the opposite of being a victim of your success. They benefit from being unsuccessful, because that side is so unrepresentative that there aren’t many organisations who hold those views.
R: So they’re the only one, basically?
E: They’re the only ones people can bring on. I do feel sorry for broadcasters who are restrained by that sort of thing, but when it gets to the point where you have somebody on talking about a new, better sex education programme, and you’re pulling on someone from the Iona Institute beside them… I’m just wondering, who is that serving, other than making the broadcasters feel better? It’s certainly not representative of the Ireland that we’re living in at the moment.
R: And it’s so interesting, because I definitely… I was so worried last week. And I was going, God, I really don’t know if it’s going to be a yes because I think… I think you’re worried, as well, because you know you’re in an echo chamber, so everybody on my Twitter, that I was following and who was following me is saying, yeah, you’re right! We’re going to vote yes! But you’re going, Jesus, where is everyone else? I feel really bad now for being such a bigot, basically, that I was like, “Dublin is so woke but it’s the country we have to worry about.” And I’m from Kildare!
E: [laughing] Yeah, absolutely, and I think… I’ve been thinking about that a lot, as well, and marriage equality, I 100% supported it and I’m absolutely delighted that it passed. But it’s not comparable because marriage equality, you know, there were people in the country who thought they did not know somebody who was gay and wanted to get married. And, I mean, there would be a lot more LGBT people living in Dublin than the rest of the country. But there is no geographical monopoly on crisis pregnancies and everybody knows somebody… Like, I mean, you’re talking about, as one of the campaigners said to me, she was like, “you could almost estimate that every single day, we get 10 more yes voters” because you have women every day…
R: 10 more women travelling.
E: Yeah, or taking the pills. I think that we should have - we should have realised that. I feel especially stupid because I did this twice. I didn’t think that the citizens’ assembly would come out with the result that it had, and I watched people going through more detail… like… who know more about abortion than I do, than a lot of politicians did at the time. And they came out with that result. And I know that people say that I will say that process was a good one just because I got a result that I am happy with, but even if you look at it objectively, it was a conversation about abortion that Ireland has never had. And I’ve never seen a conversation about something as emotive as that play out in that kind of way, in any other country. It was an amazing public policy exercise and it also gave politicians cover to go for what some people would have described as abortion on demand, something that was politically inconceivable from, basically, 2016.
R: Yeah. We were chatting a bit before we came on air, about an event that we were both at around two years ago, when Senator Katherine Zappone was there… I distinctly remember her saying that she was really worried that, if this went to a vote, and if we were asked, or presented with the idea of abortion on demand, that we would get a no. And I found that, kind of, profoundly affecting, for me - especially, once the government came through and said, this is the legislation we’re proposing, and it was much more extreme… you know. I kind of thought we might repeal the 8th amendment and the “hard cases” would be allowed to have terminations in Ireland, and then we’d have to work some more to get it for everyone else. So, when they came through with the legislation, I was going, oh no… Katherine said, now! If they bring this forward, it’s not going to go through! And I was so worried about it.
E: There was, up until now, in Ireland, a conversation which I actually found quite sexist, where you “deserved” an abortion, if you had either fit the traditional role of a woman, in that you wanted to be pregnant and, very sadly, found out about a fatal foetal abnormality, or, the other idea, that women are fragile and can, at any time, be victims of sexual crime. But if you had sex and enjoyed it, there’s absolutely no political appetite for you to be able to access a termination if you need one, if you really cannot continue with that pregnancy. And I think that we really patronised Irish people by allowing that to be the only political conversation that we were having up until now.
Abortion on demand, I keep calling it that, in quote marks, by the way, I realise this is a podcast. But that was always treated as this big bogeyman, that would follow and turn Ireland into this, like, horrible, you know, wife-swapping, sodomites, type place. But, like, we patronised Irish people by assuming they were terrified of that, and after the citizens’ assembly came out with their result, one of the politicians was like, you know, we were always told that rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities would be the thin edge of the wedge. But they’ve just asked for the whole wedge, straight out. The anti-abortion side were really frazzled by that because they didn’t have their core argument any more. They had to defend the 8th amendment, which I didn’t hear anybody successfully do over the course of that Referendum campaign.
R: No. And, I mean, it was so interesting, because I think, once you started to debunk the 8th amendment… or, I mean, any conversation where you went, “if you think that women who have children who will not survive are allowed to have a termination; if you think that women who are raped should be allowed to have a termination; if you think that 12-year-olds should be allowed to have a termination… then you don’t support the 8th amendment.” And I don’t know anybody in the country who is saying, “no, a child who is raped should be forced to give birth.”
Even Peadar Tobin who was kind of trying not to say that, but also trying to say that; he was trying not to deny it. But you could tell that he wasn’t actually saying, “yes, I could force that child.” Do you know what I mean?
E: He was put on a Prime Time debate to back something that he didn’t believe in. The last few days of the Referendum campaign were a disaster in terms of media strategy and communication from the no side. For the first time in the history of the pro-life movement in Ireland, and certainly for the first time in the 8th amendment’s existence, you had anti-abortion people conceding that there was a problem with the 8th amendment; that you do need to look at rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities… Sure, that was the Referendum won, as soon as they conceded that. That is the whole point. Scrabbling like that, in the last few days… That, as well, how didn’t we know at that point?! We should have known!
R: I was just thinking that, because I was watching those debates and going, God I’m still worried, as if I was going, everybody outside Dublin is real thick, now, and they’re not going to get this; I know they’ve lost it now, but still these stupid… It’s awful.
Those Referendum posters
E: I mean, the posters… We put… There was so much time wasted at the start of this campaign with reams and reams of analysis about who had the better posters, and who had more of them up. Thinking about it now, I can’t think of a single human voter I know who would be, like, “well I really enjoyed the posters on one side, but the other ones…” On an issue as important as this… I know it’s so easy to sit here now, in the comfort of the 8th amendment going, looking at the Referendum in hindsight, but there were so many parts of it that were just so silly. I don’t know how it wasn’t clearer to all of us, from the start, that it was going to be a yes.
R: But you know what? I think the fact that we weren’t complacent is what won it, because I think if three or four weeks ago, we’d been going, you know what? This is ridiculous, of course it’s going to go through… I think people wouldn’t have had those important conversations with… like, my mum… my parents, actually, ended up out of the country, which is infuriating, but my mum said to me at one point, “so, are we voting for abortion on demand?” and I had to kind of go, “no… well, I mean… in a way yes, but actually mostly no, because it’s about the 8th amendment, and yes, that is the proposed…” to sit down and talk to people. And I think there were probably a lot of people around the country like that, who ended up having conversations, because they were worried, and ended up changing the minds of people who maybe didn’t know as much about it as they thought they did.
E: I completely agree. And I think it is good to bear in mind as well, of those one point four million people who voted yes, this is probably… sounds like a crass way to say it, and a very unfeminist way to say it, but for some people, that yes vote, to their mind, was almost the lesser of two evils. They were thinking, what is worse? The status quo, where there’s rape victims travelling, fatal foetal abnormality stories that are horrendous, or a country where there’s abortion legislation that I am slightly uncomfortable with? We know that, in practice, having those views… Having anti-abortion views is something that I can be very compassionate with. I was raised very, very Catholic and I would, kind of, almost subscribe to a diluted version of believing that life begins at conception. And, I think, it’s important to realise that, you know, the vote wasn’t about having a national ethos on abortion, where we all decide whether we’re for or against it.
R: Where we all agree, yeah.
E: Yeah. That would just be really cruel to those people. And I know it’s very hard… but you can remain anti-abortion and still live in exactly the same country, because nobody’s explained the moral superiority to having a termination in Liverpool, rather than Limerick. And we know, in practice, this abortion law, when it passes, the sky is not going to fall in. It’s not going to push in or out on anybody.
Ellen's crisis pregnancy agency exposé
R: Exactly. Let’s go back a little bit because, to me, one of the driving moments of this entire campaign - not to blow smoke up your ass - was your expose last year. It was April, wasn’t it, of last year? Can you tell us a little more about that - and explain, for the uninitiated… what am I talking about?
E: [laughs] Yeah. I was surprised at the amount of people who mentioned that on Saturday, because, when I wrote it, I didn’t see it as a repeal the 8th-related article. But basically, up until now in Ireland, there has been no regulation of crisis pregnancy agencies at all. So that means that me or you, in the morning, could set up a crisis pregnancy agency that will deal with women who are in some of their most vulnerable situations, some of whom might not know a lot about the current status quo, so abortion still being banned in Ireland…
For a long time, since at least 1997, very vicious, extremist anti-abortion groups have been setting up fake crisis pregnancy agencies. I mean, they’ll have a receptionist; they’ll have an ultrasound scan machine; they used to all be called words starting with two “as”, so, like the Aadams’ Centre… so they’d be the first ones under crisis pregnancy in the phone book, but now they’re putting rakes of money into Google Adverts, so if you put in “abortion Ireland” they will come up first as one of the first Google ads.
And basically, what they do is, you will come in, they will act very convincing, almost professional, and just tell you that, if you terminate your pregnancy, you will get breast cancer; you will turn into a child abuser; you will lose all of your organs.
R: Is this what they told you?
E: Yeah. We did an undercover investigation in about three of them, all connected with different anti-abortion groups. And they’re very clear, like, the arguments were very similar among all of them. These kind of breast cancer claims are an infamous and incorrect claim by anti-abortion groups all over the world, particularly in the US, where there’s a lot of these rogue crisis pregnancy agencies as well.
But, I think, in Ireland, it’s a bit more… vicious and malevolent, because they use delaying tactics. And by the end of it, it’s too late to get the flight to the UK. The whole point of it is, these people think that they’re saving a life. So they don’t care…
R: They’ll do whatever.
E: They’ll do whatever, to absolutely terrify you and scare you into continuing a pregnancy.
R: And it is kind of scarier here because it’s all shrouded in secrecy.
R: Women going to these agencies, you can pretty much guess that they haven’t told more than a handful of people, if even, and that they’re not getting advices from various different unbiased… They haven’t, probably, talked to their GP, do you know what I mean?
E: Exactly. And we have literally got a law that regulates the amount of information you can get on abortion in this country, since 1995. And they will use the 8th amendment to their advantage. We’ve heard anecdotal stories of girls being told, “you know, if you go over, when you come back there’ll be a Garda waiting for you in the airport.” And that is credible, because the 8th amendment means there is a 14-year prison sentence for illegal abortions, and not a lot of people know that we do have a constitutional right to travel for terminations.
So, for years… I mean, Simon Harris was probably in primary school when these groups were first set up, and they’ve been connected with illegal adoptions - so, compelling somebody to continue with a pregnancy and then passing their baby on illegally to somebody else, like, it’s real horrible, dark stuff.
R: Horrific, yeah.
E: The other concerning thing about them is, some of these groups work in Ireland and the UK, and in their, kind of, UK manifestation, the exact same people that run these rogue crisis pregnancy agencies in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, protest outside abortion clinics and will hand women pink or blue rosary beads to indicate the gender of their baby. They’ll call them “mam”; they’ll give them teddy bears; they’ll harass them and intimidate them. And, if they are the kind of people who are capable of doing something as crazy as setting up a rogue crisis pregnancy agency, I don’t see why they wouldn’t try to do similar things here, if and when we legalise abortion.
R: God, it’s so scary. Were you shocked by what went on when you went in? I mean, obviously we’ve all heard these stories… But were you kind of going in, going, it’s not going to be that bad?
E: I think the worst thing about it was, it almost took watching back the tape two or three times to appreciate the mentalness of what they were saying. Like, when I say to you now, that they told us that abortion causes breast cancer and turns women… That sounds shocking. But the way that it was being said… And, like, we went in there, eyes wide open, knowing that these people are deceitful and they’re not who they say they are. They were still kind of codding us.
So, if you go in there thinking that this is a genuine crisis pregnancy agency, you’re also pregnant and probably don’t want to be… That’s the other thing as well, the only women that they target are women that are thinking about abortions, because it’s a waste of time targeting a woman who will continue anyway, or is considering adoption. They only want to target women who are putting things into Google that indicate that they are looking for information. And most of them are just looking for information on how to get to England.
I think it’s just such an obvious example of, like, really crass exploitation of people at their most vulnerable. And the most shocking thing about the story was, when it came out, the reaction from what we might call mainstream pro-life groups, who I assumed would immediately distance themselves from these groups, and condemn them, but instead chose to attack us and act like this was an act of bias on our part. I can’t really apologise for the fact that there’s nobody on the pro-choice side who’s set up rogue agencies that lie to women. And I think, at that point, again, it’s great, having hindsight; I should have appreciated that there was a real solid nasty streak in the anti-abortion campaign, that we saw elements of in the Referendum as well.
R: That’s so interesting, because my next question was going to be, did anyone actually defend the clinics? So obviously they did…
E: Oh, yeah.
R: So to speak.
E: Well, they never condemned them, and they attacked us, but they never openly defended them. The people who run the clinics defended them staunchly, and are still defending them. As a result of our story, Simon Harris has moved to legislate to regulate crisis pregnancy agencies for the first time. But it’s going to take a long time because they’re going to have to set up a kind of body to oversee crisis pregnancy counsellors… so it’s going to be at least a year.
In the meantime, they’re accessing hundreds, if not thousands, of women in crisis pregnancies. But that was viciously fought by these groups, who maintain that they’re basically doing the Lord’s work. They still claim that abortion causes breast cancer. They claim that the media, for some reason, wants to cover that up, because I want people to have abortions so badly, I would happily let women get breast cancer in the process. That these people are religious extremists, there’s no other word for it. And the fact that the anti-abortion campaign, knowing that a Referendum is coming up, would not seek to distance themselves from that and make themselves voter friendly… I just think, was so silly and so stupid, and just shows the kind of absolutism.
R: And, I mean, a certain short-sightedness, as well.
E: Absolutely, yeah.
R: In hindsight, like, but… how did we think they were going to win?!
E: [laughing] I know!
R: I mean, hashtag, not all pro-lifers, but some of them were ridiculous.
Hashtag not all pro-lifers...
E: Actually, that’s a really good point, because the no voters that I know, I don’t feel like they were represented by the no campaign at all. I feel like the people I know who voted no, you know, you would argue that the vote didn’t represent what they thought it did. They were answering a question they weren’t asked, which is, “do you think abortion is right or wrong?” But those views come from a real sense of compassion and justice for the unborn child, because of those people’s beliefs. And those people are, like, lovely and compassionate and get really, you know, heartbroken about the idea of those so-called hard cases that keep coming up. And I feel like that kind of… that level of compassion and generosity within no voters wasn’t represented by the no campaign at all.
R: No, it wasn’t.
E: And I know a few people who, like, younger women… I don’t think we should underestimate how many younger women were reluctant about voting yes as well. We are still a country where, like, people have been raised very Catholic, where the Catholic Church still has a monopoly on schools in certain parts of the country, and those women were just completely put off by some of the tactics that were used, particularly, I think, the posters outside the maternity hospitals. I think that alienated so many people. And it’s actually pure arrogance to think that your - you having the position you think is right, is enough that you don’t need to bother to try and be compassionate and coax people to see things from your perspective. I think it’s particularly ironic when we’ve all endured at least four years of seeing the pro-choice side consistently being told to watch their tone. And then the no side comes out with a campaign that completely got the tone wrong, completely missed the mark and didn’t connect with normal, Irish people at all.
R: The tone policing thing is mad, and they’re still doing it now.
E: I know, I know! Literally, two hours before the polls closed, Together4Yes was still getting unsolicited advice on how to run a campaign. I think, if I was a campaigner, the first thing I would do, if there was a Referendum, is, canvass the houses of all the most prominent political analysts in the country, so then we would all be saved from three weeks of journalists going, “well I haven’t been canvassed, so I think it’s an absolute failure!” I just think that people had no understanding of what was happening in, like, kitchens in Leitrim and people’s homes in Roscommon, or chats over cups of tea. I mean, you look at those campaigners, the ones I’m thinking of that we met on Thursday in Roscommon… Those girls are, like, slaving away in a constituency where they’re all told that everyone is uber conservative, that they’re never going to win repeal the 8th amendment, these girls, like, their names aren’t known; they’re not the kind of people who show up on media debates; they don’t have a bajillion followers on Twitter.
R: They’re not wearing the jumpers on Pat Kenny.
E: Exactly. But they’ve just been slaving away at this for years and years and years, and just got loads of people to have conversations… and there was no recognition of that at a national level. And I think that we’ve all been talking, over the past few days, over who deserves to be thanked for this…
R: Hashtag repeal hero!
E: Hashtag repeal hero. [laughs] And who deserves recognition. But I think one of the best things about this is that there are so many women who can claim to have helped to have done this that we’ll never be able to measure all the women that did this. And there was just no recognition, in terms of political analysis, of what those young women - and older women, as well - were doing, across the country.
R: And men.
E: And men.
R: To be fair. Hashtag definitely not all men.
E: [laughing] Hashtag definitely not all men!
How did this hackette become a political journo?
R: To change the subject slightly, but also slightly not, I’m really interested in your road to journalism, in your career path, because I feel a bit nowadays, a lot of young women wanting to go into journalism feel that their only way in is features, celebrity or entertainment sites. And maybe a women’s lifestyle magazine, a women’s lifestyle site. And that’s not to demean or denigrate those publications because I’m a big fan of… of some of them. I was going to say a lot of them - some of them - and I think they often get unfairly maligned because they’re like chick lit publications. Have you ever felt as if - because you write a lot about politics, news and current affairs - have you ever felt as if these spheres were male dominated, or is that just a generalisation, like us all thinking it was going to be a no? Is that just me generalising unfairly?
E: I think it is amazing, if you look at the press gallery in Leinster House at the moment, there are so many women on it, and young women as well. The Irish Times, the Examiner, the Independent, us, we all have young women writing political stories. But… If you look at the people who get invited on to Sean O’Rourke, or the equivalent, to just give their opinion on what’s happened, and do some analysis, who aren’t really on to talk about their own story… The people we still recognise as the big political thinkers are men. They’re all male correspondents.
I know that everyone’s been, you know, laying some blame with the media and saying that we missed some things with the Referendum… I think that there is some credibility there in… when you looked at something like the Citizens’ Assembly, where you had loads of journalists covering it all along, and then male analysts and political correspondents, the next morning, after the results, saying this would have to be watered down and it would never pass.
The other issue, as well, being a woman and writing about women’s issues, is you get treated like it’s some sort of pet project…
R: You obviously have a horse in the game.
R: This is very close to you, is it? Tell us your story.
E: Yeah, exactly. That I’m some sort of… I’m eventually going to come out with hashtag my abortion story or something. That it’s inappropriate bias to be a woman and to be writing about things that young women care about, but I’ve never seen anybody accuse all the political correspondents who’ve covered the tracker mortgage scandal, wall to wall, of having inappropriate bias because they own houses. It’s so obvious to everyone that that’s an issue that deserves to be covered; it’s a social justice issue. But when it’s women writing about social justice issues that have to do with women, that same argument just doesn’t seem to apply.
R: I mean, we don’t see male sports writers on the Late Late being asked to tell us about the time they broke their foot and were no longer eligible to be in the Premiership, whereas… I mean, I’m thinking about it now, as we’re talking about it… the Late Late, as an example, often has women on telling their sob stories, and often has men on talking about topics. You know what I mean? That aren’t, like, well here’s what happened me, Ryan. But the women’s stories are… here’s what happened me and why I ended up talking about this, or, you know, why I started talking about the domestic abuse I suffered, or… and, I mean, there’s another argument, as well, that women are victims of domestic abuse more than men are… so that’s why that one, but women get asked to come and tell a first-person story.
E: Because, I think, that women are still not seen as authoritative voices on subjects unless it’s a lived experience. And that seems to be the only point at which we can trust what a woman is saying, when she’s speaking about it from personal experience…
R: That she’s been there.
E: Yeah. Rather than, like, I’ve studied this subject for years, written about it from lots of different angles and spoken to every possible expert, so I am the best voice on this, and I’m speaking to you about it from an objective point of view. It’s also just because it fits the idea of women being soft. Like, tragic creatures, who have to volunteer their own stories before we can convinced that things need to change.
R: ...that things are important, yeah. I was just listening to Ctrl, Alt + Delete, a podcast by Emma Gannon, who is an author in the UK, I think she’s London-based, and she was interviewing Louise O’Neill. And Louise was saying, she’d been at an event with a female author and a male author, and the male author had read a short story, and say his name was John Collins, right? The story was about a short story writer named John Collins, who lived somewhere… and she said that, it was really interesting because, everybody was laughing along and clapping and afterwards, people were going, “that was a great story!” Whereas she will write a story about a girl named Emma, who’s been gang raped in her home town, and people will come up to her and go, “I’m so sorry that happened you.” And she’s going, “no, no, that wasn’t about me.” But people seem to think that almost all of her fiction has to be her story - whereas he told a story about a man with the same name as him, and people somehow believed it was fiction.
E: That is just the perfect example. Louise is an amazing writer and is able to write a book like Asking for It because she’s good at her job. And, again, the same assumption is, she couldn’t possibly be an authority in her field; she couldn’t possibly be just a very good writer, like, she has to drive it from… And I think, I saw the same thing happening when Marian Keyes brought out The Break. People were assuming that something had happened in her marriage, even though, like, she has an incredible track record as being one of the most successful fiction writers the country has ever produced. And I just… As you say it, I never see the same thing happening to male writers.
R: You know what? I really want to look into this now, because I’m thinking about… There are so many different things in life… When I used to write about fashion for The Irish Times, and I would go on Xposé on their fashion panel occasionally. I stopped doing it eventually because I was like, you could not pay me enough money for the mean tweets I get about it. I would get people @-ing me saying, oh God, you do not write about fashion; you’re fat; you look terrible; you have terrible hair. Some of which were true, and not insulting, necessarily, but I found it really upsetting and thought, I’d have to be getting paid €1,000 per week to endure this. But one thing that often struck me was that, when I wrote about fashion, people would often meet me or see a photograph of me, and make a comment about, “oh! You write about fashion!” whereas nobody ever looked at the chubby guy writing about football, and went, “you… you write about soccer?” You know what I mean?
E: That’s such a good point! Yeah.
R: People expect women to be what they’re covering, whereas they don’t expect the same of men.
E: Exactly. And I feel like people often think that I’m some sort of socialist anarchist because I was writing about things… But I’ve never seen anybody say the same things about men who have certain very obvious political leanings that do seep into their work. And the same thing just isn’t said of them.
R: Well, I mean, the Phoenix called you a “hackette”, which I really enjoyed.
E: I know! [laughing] That was particularly bad, but I don’t know if that’s, em, a style decision at the Phoenix or what. But, yeah... That sort of stuff kind of pops up all the time and, in 2015, the Ireland edition of The Times was only set up that year, and we decided, straight off, to have a very obvious focus on women’s issues. And people were acting like we were alienating readers, like we were being too niche and stuff…
A 'niche' issue?
R: [laughing] It’s mad, isn’t it, that women’s issues are niche!
E: I know! Literally one of the biggest political stories of the decade; one of the biggest Referendums we’ve ever had, and, in 2015… I was coming to it pretty late. I’ve only been writing about it a wet week compared to other people. Some people have been writing about it for 30 years. And we were still told, then, that it was too soon; that the writing was too aggressive; that it was alienating people and catering to a minority. And people were saying, “it could be a good paper if it didn’t have so much women’s stuff on the front page”, as if this wasn’t hugely, hugely political.
R: And important to - not just women, but also men, all of whom are born of woman, related to women, and will… may have women. You know what I mean? It’s so mad to think that a woman’s issue isn’t a man’s issue, and vice versa.
E: Exactly. This idea that you can’t have compassion for something until you have some skin in the game, like, I think we’re all, for months and months, just going to have “wives, sisters and daughters”, playing in our heads over and over and over again, from all of the politicians who had to qualify their statements, and couldn’t just be like, “this is actually completely wrong.” Even from a completely unemotional level, “I am a legislator and I just think that the laws that we have should be good. And this one obviously doesn’t work.”
R: Yeah. And they should be for everyone. So what do you think is going to be… like… you’re going to get back on your feminist hobby horse. You’re going to get back to being a hackette.
What cause comes after the Referendum?
R: What’s going to be the next fight?
E: I think that after the 8th amendment, I have been thinking a lot about it… And I think that this is probably a good moment for women in the media particularly to think about which women’s stories make it to the top. And repeal affected a lot of people; it certainly disproportionately affected poor women and women who might not have the right to travel. And, I think that it would be good if we just reassess, you know, why is it that something like the gender pay gap gets so much coverage? Could it possibly be because it affects the rich women writing about it? And, personally, I think that I would like to try and take the time to educate myself a little bit more about issues that don’t affect white, middle-class women. And the obvious one for me would be a focus on direct provision, I think, as the next thing. And, just kind of think about… post-repeal, do we need to look at the fact that we do have more women in the media now, but, are we being intersectional enough? Or are we just focusing on issues in Ireland that affect… well off, feminists, living in Dublin?
R: Well, I mean, I can’t think of… Well… I was going to say, I can’t think of any prominent women of colour in the media. There was, I know Claudia Gocul, who is, I think, either black or mixed-race, and I hope neither of those terms is offensive, but she was working at Xposé magazine, but then that closed down and she went into PR, as so many of us do end up going into as our other publications fold. But I can’t think of many - or any - trans women… I can’t think of… I mean, obviously we have… we do probably have a lot more… LGBTQ-campaigning women in the media, but still white and middle class. Not that I’m like, you have to be, now, at least two boxes on the list…
E: And Ireland is a very small country as well, and we’re not as diverse as other places, so sometimes it can be difficult, particularly when journalism takes so long to get up to the top, so, it will take a while for those women to come through. But at the same time as well, I, thinking about it, don’t even know that many working-class journalists. Like, before you even get into anything else… And, I suppose, the issue with the media, as well, is… I didn’t really come from a very middle-class background, but once you end up in the media, you kind of become middle class anyway, so the things that affect you are not going to be the things that affect other people. We are just human beings and we will just see things through the prism of the things that affect us, and those things will get disproportionate coverage and compassion. Although we do try… like, obviously, some people do amazing work. Like, I mean, Kitty Holland has been really fantastic in focusing on those marginalised people, as a lot of journalists have, but I just think, for me, after repeal, I’m just trying to be extra conscious of it, before we pick, like, the next thing to campaign on.
R: Yeah. So maybe the next thing isn’t, like, why are women’s Gillette Venus razors so much more expensive than men’s Mach III razors? Maybe it’s, like, something else.
The dream assignment
R: Kind of lastly, I’ve been going on about this a lot - I think I’ve talked about it on this podcast a couple of times, but I’ve recently read Tina Browne’s Vanity Fairy Diaries, and I obviously have never read anything else, but I’ve read this one book. One of the things that struck me most was about the time, and the money, that went into journalism in the 1980s. I think she commissioned someone to do, like, Hunter S Thompson’s trip across the US… she commissioned someone to repeat this. People were paid ten thousand dollars for a feature.
E: Oh. My. God.
R: Right. So what I wanted to know was, if you were to be commissioned to do something like this, that would take weeks, or months, and you’re going to get a huge figure… But you can go and do it. It’s almost like your S-Town podcast. Go and take six months and we’re going to pay you to do this incredible piece of investigative journalism… Not to put you on the spot, but what will it be?
E: I can honestly say I’ve never thought about it before…
R: Because it’s not a reality.
E: It’s a fantasy! Obviously. I would never upset myself by thinking about it too much. But I think that the one thing that has been niggling at me for a long time is the fact that it is such a small country but there’s a huge, unreported issue with women in rural Ireland who are being raped and abused by their partners. Like, the one thing that hasn’t recovered since the crash is the funding that we give to the Rape Crisis Centres - and to people like Women’s Aid, who are being forced to do more and more work, because, as society changes, women are identifying as victims and coming forward, which is fantastic, but we’re encouraging them to come forward and we don’t have the resources in place to help them. And it’s very bad in Dublin, where, I think, after everything that happened last year with #metoo and even with the Belfast rape trial, they now have a waiting list of like six months, for… and obviously they can prioritise, I hate saying “urgent cases”, because obviously every case is urgent…
But that’s just the snapshot that we get in Dublin, and when you think about places where you don’t have… There’s a housing crisis so you can’t go anywhere else; you’re in the middle of nowhere. I think that these women, who are also not counted as homeless once they flee their home, there’s a huge issue with that and I would love to have the time and the resources to get out of Dublin and just spend some time building a picture of that. I think that, you know, for all the talk and the fact that, like, it is fantastic now that feminism is populism in Ireland, for the first time…
R: We’re all woke now.
E: We’re all woke now! Simon Harris is apparently the new heartthrob of the country.
E: ...and socialists are being nice to Leo Varadkar. But it would be great if we could focus on the very, very basic things like the second most serious crime in our statute book not being so common and so tied to a woman’s socioeconomic status. Like, just last year, we had a really, really, really long campaign to try to get a second SAVI report - all a SAVI report is, is a piece of research that counts how many victims of sexual crime we have in the country. We have no idea what it is at the moment. The last time we did it was 2002. That was basically ancient history, in terms of how we think about women and sexual crime, and you could say that one of the reasons there was a reluctance for it is, once we find out the scale of it, you’re going to have to fund it better.
So I think, if I was going to pick one thing, that’s actually something that really pisses me off, and I spend a lot of time in smoking rooms bitching about. If I had that amount of money, I’d probably pick that.
R: Two things, on that. Number one: Facebook has recently introduced something where, when you put up a post, and I’m not sure it happens on all posts… or if it selects something that it thinks is political… it will give you an option to donate. I put up Lily Allen’s video for Fuck You, and I said, this is for Cora Sherlock and Maria Steen and John McGuirk and John Waters… this is when my super tone policing did kick in, “I think this is very uncouth…” But it gave me an option to add a donate button.
R: So I added a “donate” button for Women’s Aid, and I think a few people donated and it’s up to €75, so it’s not massive but it’s quite a nice thing, and something to keep an eye out for, if you’re on Facebook and you see something that says, click here to donate, that you can do that. Or, if you are a content creator or an “influencer”, and you have a Facebook, that’s something you can add to some of your posts.
...and as for Simon Harris
And the second thing is… you know when Simon Harris was on the debate last week, and the whole country was going, “he’s brilliant! I love him!” and I was going, “a Fine Gaeler, and he’s great!” my friend sent me his wedding photograph and she had Photoshopped my face into his wife’s face, and it was hilarious, and I tweeted it, going “oh my God, all my dreams come true”... I also sent it to my mother, who said, “I don’t remember his wife looking like that.”
E: [laughing] Oh my God! That’s your child!
R: Yeah. You made me, and that’s my face. But a friend of a friend of mine works in his office and showed him the photograph…
R: … which is kind of gas, I think I’d tagged him in the tweet anyway, so I was thinking, he’d probably see it, or not, he was probably quite busy, but she showed him the photograph and apparently he was like, “did she do this herself?!” He was really freaked out.
E: I think it’s been a scary time for him. People usually hate the health minister. In popularity contests, the health minister always loses.
R: They were holding up signs, saying, I fancy Simon Harris!
E: And actually smooching him on the cheek and stuff… This is a bizarre…
R: It was like those videos you see of The Beatles coming to Japan.
E: Literally. I was standing behind him at one point, when he was standing on the stage, and it was like, he was a rock star…
R: Did he smell amazing?
E: [awkward laugh]
R: I’m only joking, I’m only joking.
E: [thoughtfully] He actually smells quite neutral, I think.
R: Oh! Well that’s healthy.
E: That’s what you want from a health minister, like, sanitised. Like he’s always using the hand gel and stuff. He’s probably in hospitals a lot, I don’t know.
R: On that note - Ellen! Thank you so much for coming on How to be Sound and talking about the scent of Simon Harris. Aside from buying or subscribing to The Times Ireland - and supporting quality journalism to boot - and there’s a current offer running, this is not an ad, where it will cost you a euro a week for the first 12 weeks and five euro a week therafter, so it’s well worth it, how can people keep up with you online?
E: You can follow me on Twitter at ellen m coyne. It’ll either be completely inappropriate or really boring tweets about work. There’s no happy medium.
R: Okay. But I think… Hang around for the boring tweets about work and you’ll be rewarded with the inappropriate.
E: Come for the journalism. Stay for my opinions on makeup.
R: Thank you so much. And thank you all for listening to How to be Sound, which will be back on a podcast app near you in two weeks’ time, I promise. If you’re feeling time-rich, please rate and review HTBS on iTunes, which helps other people find the podcast, and you can even sign up to be a patron of mine, just like a de Medici - at patreon dot com slash how to be sound, you’ll find a host of options. You can donate the price of a cappuccino once a month as a way of saying, “I like what you’re doing”, and it will help me make more podcasts, write more blog posts, and eventually write the book I’m always yammering on about writing.
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Aoibhinn Mc Bride Aoife Bradley Avril Flynn Catie Joy Ciara Norton Hazel O Louise White Niamh Ni Gheabhainn Rory Spellman Sharon Lennon Siobhan O’Rourke Timmy Hennessy And Una
HTBS is recorded, edited and produced by Liam Geraghty, whose own podcast, Meet Your Maker, has been nominated for the 2018 New York Festivals International Radio Awards for the episode, Pulling Out all the Stops. Check it out at meet your maker dot i e.
You can keep up with me and everything that I’m up to be following at rosemary mac cabe with an a in my mac on pretty much all forms of social media, although I’ve given up Snapchat because I finally decided I’m too old. I also have a Facebook page if you search Rosemary Mac Cabe, and I update it pretty regularly with random articles, thoughts, my own blog posts and the odd random, fun affiliate link. Thank you so much for listening, and I will talk to you all online!