Monday 26 September 2016

Rudeness and disrespect are taking the place of robust political debate on our airwaves

Cynicism wins out in the art of the impossible

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Tánaiste Joan Burton
Tánaiste Joan Burton
Minister of State Dara Murphy
Claire Byrne, along with Sean O'Rourke and Brian Dobson, maintains a professional neutrality at the same time as being a forensic interviewer

The Government parties probably hoped for a bounce in popularity in the wake of the launch of the €27bn capital spending programme this week. What a change from the empty coffers of the last six years when budgets were tight and the cupboard was bare as far as spending was concerned. One might have expected that some modicum of welcome would be forthcoming in public discourse and media commentary.

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On the contrary, RTÉ, the State public service broadcaster, served up a steady diet of cynicism about the motivation of the launch of the plan, linking it to the forthcoming General Election. On the day of the launch, each Government minister interviewed was accused of base political motives and "electioneering". Scant attention was given to the content.

Why do so many RTÉ journalists seem to feel they have to assault Government ministers at every opportunity? The politicians don't even get to finish their sentences as these verbal muggings are broadcast to hapless listeners. No consideration is given to the notion that people would actually like to hear what ministers have to say, uninterrupted, particularly when major expenditure is being announced on projects of enormous public importance. We are not particularly interested in hearing forceful and frequently rude assertions of journalists, who have already decided what the public view is.

This cynical stream permeates the broadcaster's news and current affairs programming. From 'Morning Ireland' (Moaning Ireland) to the lunchtime and early evening programmes, the public are presented with an intemperate and suspicious view of most Government policy. Opposition spokespersons are rarely challenged and often given a free run. But who needs the Opposition when there is a ready-made opposition in the studio?

I found myself shouting at the car radio last Saturday at lunchtime when Minister of State Dara Murphy was being savaged. The topic was not Ireland's response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the minister's responsibility for articulating Ireland's response at EU level as Minister for European Affairs. No, it was the totally overegged tale of the alleged waste of Garda time because gardaí drove the minister from Cork to Dublin to catch a flight to Brussels. The unfortunate minister's car had broken down at 3.30am on the motorway en route to Dublin Airport. He tried in vain to get a taxi and to check about other flights, and eventually sought Garda assistance. Not surprisingly, in my view, the gardaí, having sought clearance, drove the minister and his wife to Dublin Airport to catch the flight. The minister was on important Government/EU business. No domestic incident was neglected by the diversion of the gardaí coming to the assistance of the minister.

What is the problem here? It was not an ideal use of Garda resources, which the minister acknowledged, but in my opinion it was a legitimate use of them in the circumstances, which were unusual. RTÉ went to town on this "story", ratcheting it up to the lead item on the 9 o'clock news with endless and unreasonable speculation as to why the minister didn't take a different course of action. A taxi driver gave a long-winded account of his transactions and discussions of the minister's attempts to get a taxi before the gardaí offered assistance. The whole thing was a non-news story, which, in a normal media culture, would have merited a couple of column inches about the gardaí saving the day and getting the minister to the airport to catch the plane.

But RTÉ flogged it to death, squeezing every bit of 'scandal' out of it, pandering to the public appetite for deriding ministerial extravagance. Most people I spoke to saw no scandal in this incident. It was what it was, a curious incident of a car breaking down in the night with a happy ending thanks to the gardaí.

Even in today's multimedia and digital age, radio remains powerful, sustaining its influence and reach. Listenership figures in Ireland prove this: 84pc of adults listen to the radio each day with the amount of time listening averaging at four hours. RTÉ 1 has a 23pc audience share and 'Morning Ireland' remains the number one show. So the tone and conduct of these programmes are important to public attitudes about political issues. Skewed public discourse is not in the public interest; it is corrosive of democracy.

Across on TV3, in the private sector, the 'People's Debate' is another example of a populist denigration of politics. It sometimes degenerates into being almost like a circus. Politicians are positioned in parish halls and ballrooms as though in a coconut shy in front of an irate audience. People tune in to watch the ritual humiliation of elected representatives by the veteran ringmaster.

But those with a public service remit should have higher standards. Sean O'Rourke, Claire Byrne and Bryan Dobson, for example, maintain a professional neutrality at the same time as being forensic. But many of their colleagues take a partisan and negative route. Has some decision been taken in RTÉ News programming to condone this aggressive approach?

As an avid consumer of radio, I believe in its power to influence and inform. When is the last time anyone heard a thoughtful or enlightening interview with a Government representative? And we wonder why the centre of Irish politics is collapsing, to the benefit of radical parties and Independents. Constant negativity on the airwaves propagates discontent and political radicalism.

On the day of the recent Labour Party think-in, Tánaiste and party leader Joan Burton TD was interviewed on 'Morning Ireland'.

The exchange was peppered with challenges, interruptions and dismissive swipes. Again, RTÉ had decided that contradicting the minister was more important than letting the citizens hear what the Labour Party had to say about its priorities on the economy and social policy. Voters, particularly coming up to an election, need to hear this and evaluate it so as to inform voting preferences. We were not allowed.

The Tánaiste, frustrated by the tone of the interview, suggested to presenter Gavin Jennings live on air that he was out of touch. Unused to chastisement, the questioner reportedly took umbrage and the wrangle continued off air.

Robust democratic debate, whether in the Dáil or in the media, is a good thing. Rudeness, disrespect and cynicism do not contribute to democracy. They diminish it.

Irish Independent

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