Sunday 25 February 2018

Beware the curse of bored broadcasters

Sean O'Rourke: Lively debate on election campaign
Sean O'Rourke: Lively debate on election campaign

Eilis O'Hanlon

The chuckle is the sound that broadcasters make on hearing something that is meant to be, and is treated as if it is, funny, but isn't really. It''s been heard frequently during the election.

Take the trailer for Today With Sean O'Rourke in which Sean reads out a text from a listener whose son tried to watch the first leaders' debate on TV3 but gave up because of all the shouting, and who suggested that politicians be sent back to primary school to learn how to behave. There was much chuckling at that.

Similarly, when a guest on Marian Finucane declared: "I'd rather stick my head in a bucket of treacle than listen to the leaders' debate." How they all chuckled at that one too.

In this campaign, the main function of the approving chuckle has been to express a high-handed disdain for Irish politics, as if it's all rather beneath those with higher minds. This "plague on all their houses" mentality ran through Marian's show.

Another guest was soon opining that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail should merge because there's "no difference" between the two parties and they "stand for nothing". Another that the older generation should stand aside for younger candidates so that we could have "a female Taoiseach... a gay Taoiseach".

These are cliches as old as the hills, presented as if they were insights. They seem to be saying something, but in fact are saying nothing meaningful. It's important in the context of this election because one theme echoed repeatedly by broadcasters since the start of the campaign has been that the election has failed to engage voters.

Both The Ryan Tubridy Show and The Ray D'Arcy Show began their programmes on Tuesday by affecting the same boredom. Ray announced that he'd switched over halfway through RTE's own leaders' debate; Ryan's take was: "We're all debated out, aren't we?" An election is a media event as much as a political one. It's in their hands to make it more interesting.

Instead it's as if broadcasters are passive consumers of it, which in turn reinforces the idea that the election is boring. Before long it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The usual preview of Today With Sean O'Rourke heard during Tuesday's Morning Ireland didn't even mention the fact that the show would be discussing the previous night's debate at all, only promising items on Juno and the Paycock and obsessive compulsive disorder.

In the event, of course, O'Rourke did begin with what turned out to be a lively panel discussion of the debate; so why be so coy about it? This apologetic air whenever the election comes up only fuels lazy, anti-politics populism.

On RTE, Drivetime has been most engaging because it has, like Newstalk Breakfast, thrown itself wholeheartedly into the election without hesitation. Enthusiasm and a sound grasp of the details and personalities always makes for good radio, whatever the subject. That includes the election campaign. Stop apologising and just get on with it.

Sunday Independent

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