Gene Kerrigan: Negative? Give us some good news, Pat
The real threat to our democracy comes not from newspapers but political opportunism
Published 06/01/2013 | 05:00
We, the people, are in "distress and difficulty". This is according to Pat Rabbitte, Minister With Responsibility for Vicious Slagging. And the "all-pervasive negativity in the media" is making things worse. He thinks the media is irresponsible. In fact, he fears that the media might be taking us towards some sort of fascist nightmare.
Mr Rabbitte says the people are afflicted with "a very cranky media" that engages in "the constant denigration of politics". And we do so carelessly. "I don't think the media give a damn about where this is going to bring politics," he says.
"What is the alternative to politics?" he asks. "Hand over the running of the country and the economy to some kind of dictatorship?"
So, we're cranky, irrationally negative, without a sense of responsibility. What if he's right?
After all, there's no doubt there's a lot of negativity around. This column, for instance. Hard as I try, I can't find a good word to say about picking the pockets of the blind, docking money from carers – and – well, leave aside the effects of the past four years and just look at last week's headlines.
Motor tax up, just to balance out that 18 per cent increase in public transport fares. The 10 quid cut in child benefit came into effect last week. A 120 per cent rise in the cost of renewing a 10-year driving licence. Health insurance costs up almost 50 per cent from next year. One fears to scratch ones arse, for fear that some ministerial zealot slaps a tax on that. In the Indo, Charlie Weston reckoned the latest raft of charges will cost families up to a thousand extra euro a year.
Spend and they hit you, save and – well, taxes on savings interest go up by three per cent. They take another fiver a week off us by tweaking the PRSI allowance.
The services we get for our taxes are sliced ever-thinner. Funds of about €35m have been diverted from suicide prevention (this emerged days after the funeral of a government minister who took his own life).
And on and on and on. In such circumstances, it's hard to avoid a certain level of crankiness.
The current Government seems to see themselves as patriots. Making "tough decisions", and suffering the pain of having to deliberately, knowingly hurt their most vulnerable fellow citizens. And doing so to achieve a greater good – the return of economic sovereignty and the recovery of the economy.
Meanwhile, the Government publicly grovels to its EU betters. We'll continue to pay the banking debts of Irish and German bankers and bondholders, and we'll asset-strip our citizens and force our kids to emigrate – but any chance you might reduce the burden a wee bit, please Frau Merkel? And, if you won't cut it, will you a least spread it out over 40 years? And God be good to you.
Mr Rabbitte's Government believes – with justification – that most of the media support this strategy. And he finds it hard to understand why the media don't shower them with hugs and kisses.
Perhaps we can enlighten him.
The media bit is easily understood. The media shares with bankers, bondholders and politicians
the hope that normality can be resumed, with all the old hierarchies and inequalities in place. This requires the cost of the crisis to be shifted to the usual mugs.
But the media has to maintain credibility with its customers – and to that end, it can hardly ignore the dreadful damage being done to the citizens. Neither can it ignore the fact that, for instance, Mr Kenny is on €200,000 a year, while the French prime minister is on €177,000 and the UK prime minister is on €172,000. Nor the fact that Pat Rabbitte is on €169,000, while a French minister is on about €119,000.
Mostly, though, the media batters nurses and teachers and other public sector monsters of its vivid imagination.
Beyond government delusions and media cynicism, there lies reality. As one authority summed it up, the Minister for Finance "reduced social welfare payments, punished the blind, disabled, widows, carers and the unemployed and he taxed the poorest at work". And why?
"It was so that the taxpayer can take on liability for debts the country never incurred, and arose from private arrangements between private institutions. What a disaster and an obscenity."
This authority was, of course, Michael Noonan, three months before he became the Minister for Finance and began inflicting on citizens policies that he knows are "a disaster and an obscenity".
We know this reality – of an economy ransacked to help pay the debts of others; of politicians who knowingly take on policies they have stated to be a disaster for the country; who knowingly engage in activities they believe to be obscene.
And no amount of pious patriotic posing can obscure this reality. Exceedingly well-paid individuals, who can look forward to astonishingly generous pensions, are inflicting years of pain on people innocent of reckless or dangerous actions – and who are being forced to endure hardship in order to pay the debts of others.
The danger to democracy lies not in dissident views expressed in the media – or even in the cynical views of those in the media who support the policies but affect to find the consequences unacceptable. The danger to democracy lies in the clear, deliberate demonstration, by Fine Gael and Labour, that voting changes nothing.
Politicians always played fast and loose with election promises – but before the 2011 election, those currently in office severely condemned the policies being followed. And immediately took up those policies once elected. Never in the history of ditched election promises has there been such a blatant and unmistakable rejection of the principle of representational democracy.
For Mr Rabbitte to now cast aspersions on others' commitment to democracy is amusing.
Mr Rabbitte has achieved a certain reputation for witty banter, one that makes him an odd person to protest against robust media criticism. He is no stranger to personal taunts. The most obvious being his Prime Time verbal assault on Fianna Fail's Pat Carey. Rabbitte shouted down Carey, for coming on TV with "your oul' palaver about this and that", his voice rising, "you ought to be ashamed", "that's the problem with you, you don't have any shame", and so on.
When Labour TD Colm Keaveney voted against social welfare cuts last month, he had previously voted for austerity and had reached a line he couldn't cross, for whatever reason. Rabbitte might have taken this as a regrettable fraternal disagreement. Instead, he launched into a highly personal attack on "political narcissism", and "selfish acts of departure". He spoke of those "pirouetting on the plinth, parading their struggle with their conscience".
Anyone who follows Keaveney, Shortall, Broughan and Nulty beyond the pale can presumably expect similar personal taunts from Mr Witty Banter.
However, macho boasts about the "courage" of those who hang on when the "going gets tough", would be more impressive if not coming from a politician who will retire on a pension as large as his neck is hard.