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On Thursday night RTE Primetime presented what many have described as a 'regime broadcast', an utterly transparent hatchet job of the anti-Water Charges campaign. This featured, supposedly, an anonymous water meter installer describing being accosted by knife, hatchet, baseball bat, and golf club wielding maniacal protesters – the sinister fringe. The core message transmitted in the program was 'you can protest, but don't protest effectively'. If you watched it (link below), what did you think?
It was a 'Greatest Hits' compilation of government talking points. The issue which defined and dominated the program is captured in a framing question the RTE narrator posed at the beginning: 'Will it remain a broad based campaign, or will the hardline elements [the sinister fringe] come to the fore?' This divisive narrative will be familiar to anyone who has even cursorily been following the anti-Water Charges campaign. The mainstream media, in line with the government, has obsessively focused on the question of whether or not any particular protest action is 'peaceful', continuously querying if the campaign has erupted into chaos yet.
Central to this narrative is the division of protesters into good and bad ones, 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate', 'peaceful' and 'non-peaceful'. This serves to turn protesters against each other, to make protesters fixate on appearing 'legitimate' (and hence become more biddable), to draw attention away from the real issues, and to foster anti-protester hostility among non-protesters and the undecided.
Instead of discussing privatisation, the bank debt, Garda brutality, or austerity, we're supposed to endlessly contend that our protest, and our campaign, is 'legitimate'. As the narrator noted about the December 10th rally, 'the vast majority ... were polite and engaged in legitimate protest. But a small concentrated group of people are targeting water meter installations, but they are a very small element, of what is for the most part a group of people genuinely frustrated at the charges, and the way the government and Irish Water have handled things'. Could it be more obvious? As William Hederman wrote in his opinion piece in today's Irish Times: 'the water-charge demonstrations have worked because of civil disobedience. When people break the rules of protest they force governments to act '.
RTE secretly filmed a protest preventing the installation of water meters, but found none of the violence described by the silhouette in the picture. However, they made sure to remind us that it was illegal, in breach of an injunction's 20 metre exclusion zone, and later that Water Meter Fairies were committing 'Criminal Damage'. It's not surprising in the slightest that they are so keen to deter people from taking direct action, as it has been the backbone of this campaign and is the greatest assurance of our rights in general. It's well known that the prevention of water meter installations has been a crucial rallying and organising point for the movement.
As if it weren't parodical enough already, the program aired Kevin McSherry, the Irish Water executive who leads the water installation program, who after recounting an oh-so-rabid pack of youths shouting 'Irish Water scum' and slashing his tyres implored the viewer: 'don't attack the working man who's there to do their daily job'. This regular working class hero added 'I can't understand why anyone would protest against the working man. If someone wants to protest then you're welcome to walk to the Dáil or walk on O'Connell street' (even though, ironically, people were not free to walk to the Dáil on December 10th). Again the subtext here is that we should walk around with placards, but should not take direct action, especially not prevent the installation of meters.
A debate between Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy and Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty concluded the show, with the latter pontificating about legality despite the fact that, as Goldhawk notes, 'Doherty has broken company law by taking out a director’s loan from her company, Enhanced Solutions Ltd' (link below).
This vigorous muddying of the waters reveals a vital point of clarity: the establishment is deeply troubled by the anti-Water Charges campaign, that it is a mighty platform for general opposition to this government and what it represents, its widespread adoption of direct action, and its de-centralised character. In the particular case of RTE, the water charges campaign has been the greatest generator of distrust for Radio Telefis Eireann in recent times.
Obvious attacks like this, and there are plenty (see below for a recent example), should spur us on to be more bold, more persistent, and to demand greater justice.
RTE Primetime 'On the frontlines of the water protests'