Eoghan Harris: Three days gorging on George Lee's red herring
Published 14/02/2010 | 05:00
Last Monday, George Lee announced he was leaving Leinster House for Montrose. A few hours later I was on Today FM with Matt Cooper, rejecting Lee's reasons. Far from believing he had been neglected by Fine Gael, I diagnosed Lee as suffering from the same syndrome as Charlie Bird: Panic Attack at the Prospect of being Permanently Cut Off From Montrose.
I am deadly serious about this diagnosis. Having spent 25 years in Montrose and two years in Leinster House, few people know as much as me about the nexus between politics and media. And I come to comment with clean hands. As an appointee of Bertie Ahern, I have no axe to grind for Enda Kenny.
But I believe that Kenny, not Lee, was wronged. Lee would have left Fine Gael even if Kenny had given him a front-bench job on the first day. I base that belief both on my 25 years in RTE -- where I sometimes saw people resign in the morning and ask for the letter back in the afternoon -- and on what I have learned about the tougher life in Leinster House.
Lee found out that while Leinster House is only a house, Montrose is a home. A luxury home for institutionalised inmates who cannot cope with the real world. And that's not a cheap shot but the cold truth. I have three reasons for saying so.
First, Lee found out that Leinster House is like the most brutal part of the private sector -- you get constant criticism and you can lose your job every four years. By contrast, Montrose is a public sector paradise: you can continually criticise politicians, you never lose your job, and you can even slum it for a short time in Leinster House before going back to Montrose.
Second, Lee got peer support from Montrose before making his move. The reasons he gave last Monday were rehearsed by Olivia O'Leary in her RTE radio column of Tuesday, January 26, which she archly finished with the following advice to Fine Gael: "If you are not going to use him give him back to us."
Lastly, I had been alerted by Aengus Fanning. Last June when I asked him about the exalted mood in Dublin South, he mildly said that both Fine Gael and the southie voters would find out that George Lee had an expanding ego.
Now that the moving statue has returned to RTE I am baffled by new questions. RTE News and Current Affairs has many reasons to mob George Lee. But why did so many private-sector pundits swallow Lee's self-pitying line: that he was a virgin victim of Enda Kenny and Fine Gael?
Looking back over the three days when Lee was rampant, I could not see much difference between the poor deluded devils who saw statues move in the last recession and the Pollyanna pundits who swallowed the Lee line, along with the hook and the lead.
* * *
George Lee says he is leaving Fine Gael. Sean O'Rourke asks him hard questions. But it's the last time anyone in Montrose will ask such questions.
The private-sector pundits provide protective back-up. Fionnan Sheahan, Shane Coleman and Pat Leahy prefer to blame Kenny than ask Lee any awkward questions. Like why did Lee raise impending TD salary cuts with Fine Gael just a few weeks ago? Like why did Lee not produce even one written policy?
So I go on to Matt Cooper to swim against the stream. After that I look at RTE's Six One News with Lee outside Leinster House speaking of "mutterings" against Kenny in Fine Gael. Surely the pol corrs can see this is a red herring?
But no. Not even when he tells Six One that he did not seek any "egotistical position on the front bench". Freud would have found food for thought in his equating "egotistical" with "front-bench position".
Finally to Frontline, still hoping for the hard line. Noel Whelan has some wise words. But Pat Kenny is totally protective of Lee's narrative. He lets Pat Leahy say positive things at length but is less indulgent with the critical Ivan Yates. RTE is returning to its tribal roots.
* * *
Sam Smyth is sceptical in the Irish Independent. But the rest of the reporters seem to believe George should have been given the gold medal before the race was run.
But my blood pressure goes down when I turn to The Irish Times. Stephen Collins is not starry-eyed about Lee. And while the leader leaves some stones unthrown, it does not leave any stone unturned.
Later, on RTE radio, Olivia O'Leary blithely tells us the divide is between insiders (politicians) and outsiders (the rest of society). How can a person as well got as Lee, a person who is part of O'Leary's peer group, a person who is paid to pontificate on public affairs -- how the hell can that person be classed as an outsider?
Actually, the divide is not between politicians and the rest of society, but between people who think like Plato and people who think like Aristotle, people who think things can be perfect like Roy Keane and people who do their best like Mick McCarthy, people from Lee's Dublin South constituency who think he is some kind of messiah, and people from Senator Paschal Donohue's East Wall who think Lee is a spoiled, selfish and self-centred member of the Montrose mafia.
But RTE has the bit between its teeth. The Six One News doesn't even bother to give Enda Kenny a decent camera angle. Bryan Dobson is full face, intensifying his integrity. But Kenny is shot in near profile, making him look evasive.
The careless choice of camera angle, favouring an RTE newscaster over a potential Taoiseach, reveals a lot about RTE's narcissistic regard for its own reporters. And why Lee missed it so much.
* * *
Eamon Keane asks me on his Newstalk show to answer a question. Why did George Lee leave Leinster House for Montrose after only nine months? In answering it I try to inform, instruct and entertain.
The texts show the tide is turning. Most texters seem to agree with me about Lee. You can listen to it on Newstalk's site. Let me warn you that I use the f-word, "fart".
* * *
Lee should have behaved with good grace. He should have said he made a mistake in leaving RTE.
Rather than serving up red herrings about Kenny he should have admitted that, like Charlie Bird, he cannot psychologically survive outside the cage of Montrose.
The Lee saga will lose legs this weekend. But it leaves a nasty taste behind. And three hard truths, which bode ill for Irish democracy.
RTE now has a near monopoly on forming public opinion. It can coerce politicians and private-sector pundits to accept its agendas by freezing out dissidents like me.
It offers public-sector positions to those who wish to criticise rather than create.
No wonder Lee wanted to go back. No wonder I fear for the future of free speech. No wonder I believe reform of the public sector should start with the reform of RTE.