Eoghan Harris

AT LONG LAST the Sunday Independent has found a good reason to edge Eoghan Harris out the door.

That the columnist was heading for the exit under the new regime will not surprise readers of The Phoenix, that Harris has been exposed as a keyboard warrior behind an anonymous Twitter account perhaps even less so.

Harris’ social media activity has been an open secret for some time. His scarcely veiled presence online was suspected by scores of journalists and likely hundreds of social media users long before his contract at the Sindo was ultimately terminated this week.

Since news broke last night dozens of Twitter user have recounted their exchanges with what Sindo editor, Alan English, described in a statement last night as the “Barbara Pym entity”.

RTÉ broadcaster Audrey Carville points to an encounter last month when Belfast Telegraph reporter Allison Morris tweeted that “Barbara isn’t called Barbara in fact Barbara isn’t even a woman, I’m quite willing to debate his point when he has the balls to use his own name, until then he’s on mute”. Morning Ireland presenter, Carville, separately said that she too had blocked the account.

Morris was far from the only journalist from within even Harris’s own stable of newspapers at INM/Mediahuis to be aware of the account. The columnist is nothing if not one who expects to be heard and in his own hubris, tweets sent from the “entity” routinely tagged a string of other journalists, politicians, ministerial staff and other high profile commentators. Some even interacted with the account in a friendly manner and many followed it.

KRW Solicitors have separately stated that they had in fact already sought information from Twitter for the purposes of litigation. This relates to comments posted by the account users about journalist Paul Larkin, following an article he had written for the Irish Times last month. In a statement today, the firm states that “We note the confirmation of Eoghan Harris as Barbara J Pym and will continue to pursue all available legal remedies in respect of this behaviour, including libel proceedings.” Solicitors for film maker Sean Murray, director of ‘Unquiet Graves’, have issued a similar statement.

One person who heard enough from the “Barbara Pym entity” was Irish Examiner journalist Aoife Moore and eagle-eyed readers of Goldhawk will have seen this particular situation flagged some time ago (see The Phoenix 8/4/21).

At Oireachtas hearings toward the end of March, representatives from Facebook and Twitter delivered the usual grand claims about efforts to clean up their platforms. On that occasion, Moore remarked on the contradiction of, “watching social media companies talk about their content management and how they’re so quick at removing posts, while I’m consistently told an anonymous troll account who routinely calls me a terrorist has not broken any rules.”

The journalist expressed similar frustration at Twitter’s inaction only earlier this week before this morning, when Sindo editor English said that, “I had the pleasure of meeting Aoife Moore this week, when she spoke about her outstanding work on Golfgate. Attacks on her by the Barbara J Pym account were contemptible.”

When Harris was unmasked last night, Moore claimed in a tweet that the users of the account had in the past “sent me sexualised messages about whether Mary Lou McDonald ‘turned me on’, the size of my arse and called me a terrorist from the month I started at the Examiner.”

The “Barbara J Pym entity” continued to attack Moore “as playing the Nordie victim” last night, before Twitter finally took action and suspended the profile. The former socialist maintains that he was “one of a group of people that contributed” to the account. According to the Irish Times, eight other accounts “linked” to the one in question were also suspended by Twitter this morning, he has denied any involvement.

Social media abuse, that directed toward journalists and women in the public eye has been a constant feature of discussion in recent years, most of it emanating from the press itself. Moore as a young female journalist from Derry, was targeted by users of the fake account and her ordeal could put beyond the reach of Harris the posture of martyrdom adopted by other fallen columnists of recent times, who maintain that they were banished simply for their controversial views.

In light of this prevailing discourse, the question does arise regarding the failure of Moore’s peers to stand by their colleague before now. Many of these hacks have expended thousands of words condemning social media activity they deem to emanate from Sinn Féin supporters and other bogeymen. Was Harris too big a beast to question? Or was there even forbearance in some cases, given that the online invective was directed at republican targets, perceived or otherwise?

For English and Mediahuis boss Peter Vandermeersch, the termination of contract comes down to a question of ethics, namely the expectation of transparency and the Sindo editor says that there no tolerance for “hidden agendas.”

It would be a mistake to view his departure as triggered simply by his strident criticism of republicanism; there is no shortage of similar opinion writers remaining at the Sindo and elsewhere. Harris’s once towering influence at the paper was already waning considerably as his own era is replaced by new management and a new editorial strategy (see The Phoenix 6/5/21).

The Harris style that ruled for most of the last three decades is distinctly out of place as the Mediahuis flagship title works toward a digital focus, an emulation of the rival Sunday Times and a return to the northern market.

As for the newspaper column, Harris himself must be acutely aware of the diminishing attention and impact his own words generate with each passing Sunday. If this soapbox still wielded the influence it once did, it would never have been put in jeopardy for the sake of cloak and dagger online antics.