Your Country Your Call: How bloggers pushed a story into the media limelight

The saga behind Your Country, Your Call (YCYC) a competition to generate “new ideas” to revive the Irish economy, is a case study in the differences between old media and new media. Or perhaps more accurately, the differences between professional old media, and new media bloggers, most of whom are unpaid.

President Mary McAleese and her husband Dr Martin McAleese at the awards night for Your Country, Your Call. The competition was described as the brainchild of Dr Martin McAleese.

Simon McGarr, a solicitor who blogs under the name of Tuppenceworth, first noticed YCYC in the first week of the competition. Mainstream coverage of the contest in that week consisted mostly of glowing reviews for the project and invocations from the organisers to think positive.

McGarr’s first blog about the competition focused on some of the wackier ideas posted to the website by members of the public, including a call on the ECB to print more euros. His second blog criticised the “magical thinking” behind YCYC and the Ideas Campaign, a similar competition from 2009.

Then, being a lawyer, McGarr read the terms and conditions, and started asking awkward questions. Who would own the rights to the winning idea, for example? The terms and conditions didn’t make it clear, and were self-contradictory in places. Who was funding the competition? There appeared to be several private companies who had invested in the programme, including household names. Not only that, but there were contradictory claims about whether the government was committing money to the project, and who had approved giving taxpayer funds to a private company.

McGarr wrote several times about these questions in his blog, and eventually submitted an article which the Irish Times published on 23 April 2010. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the president of Dublin City University, responded to McGarr on the pages of the Paper of Record.

And there, it might have ended. Mainstream commentators showed little interest in asking further questions about the project. The trouble is, bloggers can be persistent. They don’t live by the tyranny of daily deadlines, and can devote as much time as it takes to a story.

So McGarr kept looking at An Smaoineamh Mór, the company behind YCYC, and asked a simple question. Didn’t the stated commitment to lobby for legislative changes needed to implement the winning proposal mean the company should be registered with SIPO, the Standards in Public Office body, as a “Third Party”? He complained to SIPO. There then followed a long correspondence, which McGarr chronicled on his website, along with other questions about the project.

Another solicitor, Rossa McMahon, joined in with five questions to put to ministers and the YCYC organisers in September, shortly before the winner was announced. This reporter travelled to the Green party think-in the following day, intending to put those questions to environment minister John Gormley. SIPO is an independent body, but elections fall under the remit of the department of the environment.

The question was passed by party chairman Dan Boyle to communications minister Eamon Ryan to answer. Ryan didn’t have much to say, and could not state how much, if any, public funds had been committed to YCYC. Less than 24 hours later, Ryan welcomed the news that the two competition winners were proposals to promote Ireland as a “digital data centre” for cloud computing. As communications minister, Ryan is in effect the Irish minister for the internet. Requests from this reporter to the department of communications were referred to the department of enterprise, and languished there.

Meanwhile, Rossa McMahon submitted a Freedom of Information request to the same department. The results, published online, were illuminating.

Elaine Edwards, an Irish Times journalist who had been following the story online and had written several times about it, wrote an article on the FOI documents, again pushing the story into the mainstream. Her story told how Mary Coughlan as minister in charge had made a commitment to contribute €300,000 to the project, at a time when her department had no such funding in its budget. Bloggers have also commented on the tone of the submission from YCYC, which in effect dictates how national resources should be marshalled to promote their campaign, including a multi-week RTÉ programme on winning ideas.

With national media commentators obsessing over the billions poured into Irish banks, €300,000 may seem like small change, and that may go some way to explaining why it has received so little coverage. But as McGarr points out in his blog, the FoI documents McMahon obtained “reveals the relationship between Fianna Fáil’s public, elected, face and its much larger invisible manifestation.”

“That relationship is of key importance when considering what can be done to fix the country’s institutional problems,” McGarr writes. “Fianna Fáil is a patronage machine. It gathers power from being able to deliver jobs, influence and results to its supporters. In turn, they will work to deliver more jobs, influence and results to other supporters.”

“What we see in the Your Country, Your Call document are the promoters of a private company planning to run a (ill-defined) competition for business plans and then to lobby to have those plans adopted.”