Liz O’Donnell: Media mauling of politicians truly appalling when so much is at stake
CAN I gird my loins and wade in here to support recent comments by Minister Pat Rabbitte, when he accused the media of "damaging democracy by denigrating politics"? I may be biased but the minister makes a fair point. When is the last time you read or heard a positive comment about a living politician? Obituaries are all very well and welcome after the event. But frankly, a word of praise for a living politician is as rare as a unicorn.
How has politics come to such a low ebb when it comes to public trust and media commentary? I never met Charles J Haughey, but all modern politicians now live in the dust thrown up by his reign. That era bequeathed a legacy of stroke politics, corruption and bad governance. It also grounded a deep distrust in politicians by journalists. When some of the next generation behaved just as badly, the die was cast. But this generalised distrust of all politicians is not only unfair, it is dangerous.
There were many politicians who stood up to bad governance and corruption over the decades, Des O'Malley, Dick Spring, Garret FitzGerald and others. Indeed political careers were defined by their opposition to that venal culture.
That era was a time too of violence, intimidation and fear if you were in the wrong camp.
During the dramatic fall of the Spring Reynolds Government in 1994, I was in the Dail restaurant with Des O'Malley. This was my first experience of the real-time collapse of a government; the atmosphere was poisonous. When I shared my discomfort with Des he looked at me wryly noting this was nothing compared with the Haughey heaves when he needed security to get him from the restaurant to the front gate. Fianna Fail bully boys would be roaming around corridors looking for trouble and a fellow could get a dig or worse.
I mention this only to highlight where we have come from in politics. But there are sinister and thuggish similarities emerging of late. We have violent anti-austerity protests and vicious social media fomenting hate.
Some elected politicians advocate non-payment of property tax. It would be wrong to take our democracy and its stability for granted.
Our country has progressed over 91 years from achieving our independence and a civil war to become a respected member of the international community.
Through constitutional politics, we have finally settled the vexed quarrel with our nearest neighbour in relation to Northern Ireland. In doing so, we have overcome subversion and terrorism on the island of Ireland. Successive governments have developed our trade and influence in the wider world through the European Union.
We continue to attract large amounts of foreign direct investment and to export much of what we produce to willing and expanding markets worldwide. We are currently, with a new democratically elected government, navigating our way through unprecedented economic challenges and austerity budgets required to repay bank and national debt caused by bad governance and reckless lending. It is a time of national crisis akin to a war. Yet there is no sign of national solidarity in the media.
Each government proposal is rubbished almost at source. And the media, moving in a pack, very quickly takes a negative view and then romps off baying for blood. It starts with the early morning radio programmes. Then the bone is picked up and gnawed all day until night falls.
The media pack bays for "Leadership" like a mantra. Yet when demonstrated by ministers, taking hard decisions to cut spending so as to ensure our fiscal survival, they are savaged.
The overall tide of commentary is unrelentingly negative, cynical and anti-intellectual. It panders to the anger agenda. Talk-radio shows are the biggest offenders, by any measure. Just open the airwaves and unleash the anger.
One rarely hears a broadcaster defend the integrity of a politician when maligned. Base motives are attributed to politicians as a class; good people are on the back foot before they open their mouth. The last presidential election campaign was a disgraceful example of media misbehaviour with all of the candidates being treated with disrespect and suspicion.
Politicians too appear hardened to these assaults, deftly sidestepping the insult in order to answer the question. This is the wrong response. Politicians should not turn the other cheek in this way. They need to stand up passionately for their political values and for democracy itself as Pat Rabbitte has done.
Denigrating politics and those who practice it is not in the public interest.
With a few honourable exceptions, journalism these days is no longer about news analysis and democratic accountability. Increasingly, it is about mauling and maligning politicians. Few journalists run for elected office. It's easier and often better paid to be the hurler on the ditch.