Healy Memes: What not to do as a senator

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, April 2015 edition

If one story last month illustrated how far Irish media has to go in adapting to the speed at which stories develop online, it was the latest gaffe by Galway-based Fine Gael senator Fidelma Healy-Eames.

Fidelma Healy Eames. Creative commons image via Labour Party Flickr account
Fidelma Healy Eames. Creative commons image via Labour Party Flickr account

Healy-Eames does not have a good record when it comes to the internet. So error prone has the Galway senator become, she is known online as Healy-Memes for her ability to reliably generate regular snafus. In January, she reacted to Leo Vardkar’s coming out interview with Miriam O’Callaghan by wishing him well, ending her tweet with a bizarre #sexualorientation hashtag. The choice was mocked for the rest of the day, with tweets such as “Lyons of Barry’s? #sexualorientation” and “Just taking the bins out #sexualorientation”.

On Mother’s Day, Healy-Eames took to twitter to wish a “Happy Mother’s Day to all”, before continuing by noting “Hope we can continue to celebrate it after #SSM (same-sex marriage) passed. In some US states Mothers and Fathers day banned. #pcgonemad”

Online, the tweet was quickly mocked and fact-checked, and “some US states” soon turned out to be isolated incidents in two schools, one in New York, the other in Nova Scotia, a decade apart and, in both cases, pre-dating any same-sex marriage laws.

The Senator didn’t help her case during her climb-down several hours later by posting a link to one of the stories at a website with a noted anti-Semitic bent which also sells, among other things, magic pills which claim to offer protection against ocean-borne Fukushima radiation.

Following the Mother’s Day faux-pas, the Journal already fact-checked the claim, even as several twitter accounts did the same thing. The first fact-checked rebuttal came in their Daily Edge section, 65 minutes after Healy-Eames took to twitter. Later that afternoon, the Journal got an interview with the senator.

In other words, by the time the Monday papers were being put to bed, the story had run its course. A politician had made a wild claim, been challenged on it (and not just by “ordinary” twitter users but also by several TDs, senators, journalists and activists), and clarified her position or backed down, depending on your point of view.

The tweet from the Senator, on a Sunday morning, was the kind of thing an enterprising producer on one of the Sunday morning radio shows might have run with, either offering it to the round table panel to chew over, or even trying to get Healy-Eames on the phone to expand on her position. Granted the Marian Finucane show, which usually reports on Twitter and internet items with the tone of a medieval scribe confronted with a Gutenberg press, were unlikely to make that call, but neither did Newstalk or Today FM.

The first Irish Times report on the story isn’t on their website until 9PM that night, compiled by Michael O’Regan. Only the first three paragraphs of the story concern the tweetstorm, and they are followed by two more on the senator’s relations with Renua, before segueing to an Atheist Ireland statement on the referendum campaign. The Healy-Eames tweet bears all the hallmarks of being shoehorned onto an existing story.

The Irish Examiner didn’t even bother with an update during the day. The website simply uploaded the report with all their stories at 1AM the next morning.

The first newspaper to speak to Healy-Eames, the Independent, quoted her at length on her voting intentions, but while the report did state that there were two school cases, it oddly underplayed the senator’s claim that “some US states” had banned the holiday. The blatant untruth is simply skipped over. The senator was not challenged about it, or offered an opportunity to explain if, for example, it was the result of poor research or a misunderstanding. To the Indo’s credit however, their story was posted two hours after the event, and a full nine hours before the Irish Times.

Stories don’t happen in a vacuum. When the most engaged audience watches a story unfold online, actively investigates and debunks it, and then watches as the “mainstream” media downplays even as it plays catch-up, then credibility suffers.

It probably didn’t help that the Senator took to her twitter on a sleepy Sunday morning, but when statements in the space where most of the potential audience consumes news are treated less seriously than if they were said in the august chambers of Leinster House or the plinth outside, the audience may wonder whether it’s worth bothering with the mainstream. If newspapers really want to be ‘digital first’, then they have to adapt to take digital events seriously, and report them in something close to real time.