Sunday 4 December 2016

Television review: The 'unknown unknowns' may be just the 'unknown'

* David Davin-Power (RTE1)
* Laura Kuenssberg (BBC1)

Published 18/04/2016 | 02:30

RTE political correspondent David Davin-Power
RTE political correspondent David Davin-Power

Nobody knows what attracts the political correspondents to a particular cliche - if we knew the formula for that we'd be rich. Which is itself a cliche, and in this case one that doesn't even have some vague truth buried in it.

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But we do know where the "known knowns" and the "known unknowns" and the "unknown unknowns" started. Let us quote the original line from Donald Rumsfeld: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and of other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."

It was 2002 and he was talking about the difficulty of ascertaining whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In truth, there was no real difficulty - I knew they didn't have them and so did my wife. And so did most of my friends and their wives and even their children.

You could say it was a known known. Or you could just say it was known.

But as Rumsfeld put out those most elegantly crafted lines of bullshit, he could not have known that many years later they would still be quoting it on the RTE News and in most of the free countries where they have political corr- espondents; that they would be used in ways that he never intended; and that they would be wrongly used, a bit like those non-existent weapons themselves.

Ah, but they love their "known unknowns" and they especially love the "unknown unknowns". Watching David Davin-Power reporting from the Leinster House studio, I even had a kind of premonition that he was building up for one, that there was so much doubt in the atmosphere there was almost a statutory obligation to bring a bit of Rumsfeld into it.

And so he stated that the Independents want some sort of agreement that will see them through three Budgets, but that many would regard this as a tall order politically, "given that unknown unknowns, if you will, can come out of left of field and topple a government".

Now, I would normally never challenge a political corr- espondent on such an essential aspect of his ancient craft, but these things that can "come out of left field" - would they not be the "known unknowns"?

I mean, we know that these things might happen, we just don't know exactly what they might be - thus we know that there are unknowns. We even know the consequences, that they might "topple a government".

I realise that the pol corrs are busy these days, predicting things that aren't going to happen, but I feel they really need to get on top of this one, given its stature in their industry. The Rumsfeld formula is now deeply embedded as one of the Big Five cliches, so it behoves them to clear up any inaccuracies or misunderstandings that may arise or they will come under increasing pressure to "retire" the cliche, as it were. I'm not sure who will be putting them under this increasing pressure, but neither are they.

Crazy as it seems, might they not consider just retiring old Rumsfeld anyway? Would it not be quite original for a pol corr to just leave out the CIA sophistry and talk about that which is "known" and that which is "unknown"? Can we ever get back to such simple times?

Instead of instigating this "root and branch reform", I fear they will just "do a Kuenssberg" on it. This refers to Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of the BBC, who reports largely with her face.

Hers is an extraordinary face, which seems at times to be made of plasticine. She is giving out so much "expression" that you'd hardly notice she's only telling you a week is a long time in politics. And other things that we know already and that we know we know.

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