Thursday 18 December 2014

Barking back at the Rottweiler

Britain’s top TV attack dog, Jeremy Paxman, is said to be losing his bite. A former Irish government press officer gives an insider’s view of the scene here. By The Spin Doctor

Published 22/04/2012 | 06:00

No-nonsense
presenters
Vincent Browne
No-nonsense presenters Vincent Browne

Pat Rabbitte stalled, door half-open, on the threshold of the late-night studio that contained Vincent Browne. Then he turned to the other 'victims/guests' trailing him in.

"Did none of ye bring a bit of raw meat to distract him?" Rabbitte asked in a stage whisper.

That's excerpt Number 1 from 'Behind The Scenes At The Guff Shows.'

Excerpt Number 2 goes like this:

On a sunny Sunday morning, a small group was reading the Sunday newspapers outside an RTE radio studio.

A veteran Fianna Fail bruiser turned to a fellow panellist-in-waiting, who was there to fly the Fine Gael colours.

"Does this really have to be confrontational?" the FF man asked, surprisingly shyly.

"I won't throw shit -- if you don't," the FG representative replied easily.

Those two quick-fire tales tell us something about this peculiar public parlour game, which can seriously dent a political career, sometimes even hole it below the waterline.

I had an insider's view of the scene for several years when I was a press officer for a government party. And memories of the confrontations come flooding back this week when I read about the number one attack dog across the water -- Jeremy Paxman.

Paxman went down in legend when he barked the same question a record 12 times to a bemused Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard in 1997. And his bite has remained razor-sharp since.

But he has just made headlines of a different kind when it was reported that he had been vanquished twice in the one night, first by far-left MP George Galloway, then by doyen of the PR gurus, Tim Bell. The word is that either he is losing his touch -- or that he has finally been sussed.

Part of my brief was to coach our party's politicians in the art of dealing with Rottweilers like Paxman -- and our own version, Vincent Browne.

Anyway, back to that well-known FF bruiser and his scatological pre-show discussion with the FG man.

Gallows humour calms nerves; it can flatter and humour a host, making it hard to come the hound just minutes later. Such humour can generate fellow-feeling among panellists and shut down other potential sources of on-air hostility.

Even the FF man, who could easily peel paint off a door with one attack phrase, saw the need to limit enemies.

The better class bruisers also have a sense of time and place. Keep 'political war' from the nation's sleepy Sunday morning kitchens.

But some political wars are best avoided altogether. On average twice per month, sometimes more often, a senior minister's office will get a call from Vincent Browne's staff at TV3.

One minister from the 2007-2011 government famously summed up the prevailing attitude: "That's a difficult call for 11 o'clock at night. Option A: go home, maybe open a bottle of wine, unwind. Option B: head out to TV3 and Vincent."

But an ambitious politician can't turn down all radio and television invitations. And that was where I came in.

Much has been made over the years about the black arts of media preparation. Most of it is pretty simple stuff -- if not blindingly obvious. Think school debating or job interview preparation.

The request comes in for what will generally be a one-on-one interview about a current news topic. Everyone expects an extra question or two about the burning political issue of the day. So preparation quickly begins.

The written material for the case is assembled, read and digested. Then the arguments are marshalled. A question and answer list is put together. Holes in the arguments are identified and language is framed to speak to those weaknesses.

Then we enter the realms of educated and often uneducated guesswork. What kind of hobby horses does a particular presenter have? If it's Pat Kenny and it's technical, you have to ladle in a lot of detail.

If it's Miriam O'Callaghan -- the eternal puzzle will be whether we can beat her at her own game. She's polished, glamorous, polite and well-informed. All instincts say you cannot win a row; being in any way patronising belongs back in the 1950s; you have to stick with the subject matter.

Michael Noonan loaded a lead weight on to his fast-sinking 2002 general election campaign during a leaders' debate with Bertie Ahern chaired by Miriam. "None of us are lawyers," Noonan said.

"Well, I am," Miriam replied softly.

For the moment the consensus is: be polite but assertive; good natured but prepared to reveal anger directed, of course, at those cake-and-eat-it critics.

And sometimes it works -- and sometimes it does not.

Miriam O'Callaghan

SHOW

Co-presents Prime Time, RTE 1. Miriam Meets RTE Radio 1.

FAMOUS FOR

Being a great-looking mother of 16 children (well, okay only eight) and top-flight broadcaster.

TECHNIQUE

Polite and friendly, but well-researched and always persists if interviewer is dodging questions.

VICTIMS

Martin McGuinness found an iron fist in her woolly glove during the presidential debate.

WHO'S ABLE FOR HER

Many middle-aged politicians struggle facing her good looks and brainpower. But people with detailed knowledge and plausible manners -- like journalist Brendan Keenan and FG former banker Peter Mathews -- perform well. Ger Colleran castigated RTE's current affairs recently, and poor Miriam felt obliged to repeatedly apologise.

HOW TO DEAL WITH HER

A mastery of the subject and clearly marshalled arguments help -- and that elusive TV chemistry.

Vincent Browne

SHOW

Tonight With Vincent Browne on TV3. Launched late-night RTE politics radio show with huge listenership.

FAMOUS FOR

Long sighs, withering looks and no ground rules.

TECHNIQUE

Hector, hassle, sneer. Sarcasm. Hector, hassle, sneer. And repeat!

VICTIMS

Most memorable are FF's Conor Lenihan in the 2011 election campaign. Labour's Joanna Tuffy, Sinn Fein's Peadar Tobin, FF TD Timmy Dooley and Richard Boyd Barrett. Also confronted Martin McGuinness in presidential TV debate with a pile of books about the IRA. Joan Burton's ''stop haranguing me" meltdown led to T-shirts being printed.

WHO'S ABLE FOR HIM

FF senator Averil Power has quietly made Browne look like a bully. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and Independent Senator Ronan Mullen push him back.

HOW TO DEAL WITH HIM

Avoid him. If you really must go on the show: heckle him right back -- but don't lose your temper.

Marian Finucane

SHOW

The Marian Finucane Show, RTE Radio 1 weekends.

FAMOUS FOR

Flashes of surprise and indignation.

TECHNIQUE

Soft start, then blasts of surprised indignation.

VICTIMS

Former Junior Energy Minister Joe Jacob (and those iodine tablets). Banker Sean FitzPatrick.

WHO'S ABLE FOR HER

Straight talkers who see big picture and don't over-stretch their case. FF's mumsy Mary O'Rourke, folksy economist Colm McCarthy. But caution: sometimes the sting comes after the broadcast. Ask Sean Fitz.

HOW TO DEAL WITH HER

Listen and anticipate. Your problem may well be two questions ahead of the current easy one.

Pat Kenny

SHOW

Today With Pat Kenny, RTE Radio 1. The Frontline, RTE 1 television.

FAMOUS FOR

Strong on technical detail but gets quickly to the popular point.

TECHNIQUE

Long, detailed questions, followed by a swift punter question like: ''Would you let your child eat it?"

VICTIMS

Sean Gallagher. All tweets aside, his presidential hopes, within touching distance, died on Frontline and on the following morning's Kenny radio show.

WHO'S ABLE FOR HIM

Politicians who master detail and hold a strong line of argument. SF's Caoimhghin O Caolain successfully accused him of ''never listening''.

HOW TO DEAL WITH HIM

Remind him he's an engineer. Better again, tee up a chance for him to remind everyone he's an engineer.

George Hook

SHOW

The Right Hook, Newstalk 106-108.

FAMOUS FOR

Being a grumpy, rugby-obsessed host who plays cards face-up on table.

TECHNIQUE

Honesty in dishonesty. (I'm Grumpy Uncle George, an elderly Cork Blueshirt -- but I'm trying to be fair here.)

BIGGEST VICTIM

George wants you to think he doesn't do victims. In 2010, Michael D Higgins lost the rag during a fiery debate on Israel calling American right-winger Michael Graham a "wanker".

WHO'S ABLE FOR HIM

Straight talker who sees big picture. Vincent Browne doubted a 2010 letter George received from a woman in penury: "Why would she spend €2 writing to you if she's only €10 left?"

HOW TO DEAL WITH HIM

Be careful. The warm and friendly glow means he's teeing up a nasty question.

Matt Cooper

SHOW

The Last Word, Today FM. Many sports shows on TV3.

FAMOUS FOR

Having a very wide range of expertise -- from rock music to high finance; from soccer to politics. Does not always carry his knowledge lightly.

TECHNIQUE

I've done all my homework approach. Big on subject details.

VICTIMS

Relentlessly pursued FF 2004 European election boy wonder Royston Brady after he tried to vanish from media. Crime writing legend James Ellroy lost it, decried Cooper's ''bullshit tone'' and walked out.

WHO'S ABLE FOR HIM

Like Pat Kenny, politicians who master detail and hold a strong line of argument. FAI chief John Delaney defended well in a 2006 interview about the big issues affecting Irish soccer.

HOW TO DEAL WITH HIM

Know the fine details of the subject. Check your past statements. He loves the ''U-turn'' and won't agree it's a ''clarification''.

Ryan Tubridy

SHOW

The Late Late Show, RTE 1; Tubridy on 2FM.

FAMOUS FOR

Being RTE's eternal boy wonder.

TECHNIQUE

Very light and airy. In politics, stays very big picture, sometimes personal and dangerous.

BIGGEST VICTIM

Questions to Brian Cowen about drinking did not help the then-Taoiseach.

WHO'S ABLE FOR HIM

Small children on the Late Late toy show usually win. Otherwise it's pot luck. Mia Farrow reacted angrily to stupid questions about whether she still saw Woody Allen. She replied sarcastically, "Every day. What's wrong with you, anyway? Jesus."

HOW TO DEAL WITH HIM

Prepare some one-liners. This is light entertainment. Don't over-do detail. Give it a bit of the simple and sincere.

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