Wednesday 21 March 2018

Blaming the media is as pointless as defending it

RTE presenter Gavin Jennings was wrong to take umbrage at the Tanaiste's jibe on radio, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

Eilis O'Hanlon

There is something inherently ridiculous about political parties having a "think in". Fianna Fail and Labour were both at it earlier this week; Fine Gael a few days earlier. Surely those who aspire to lead the country should be thinking all the time, rather than having to set aside special meetings for it?

What they're really thinking about at these think ins is not big ideas, of course, because big ideas scare them, and sometimes little ones too, but about how to get elected.

It's not an inconsequential consideration. One of the most depressing aspects of the comradely giddiness which erupted in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the British Labour leadership contest was his supporters' belief that it doesn't even matter if the veteran left winger is unelectable because he's already changed the political narrative.

That's losers' talk. Politics is about the exercise of power. If you're not interested in winning, you might as well stick to writing pamphlets.

In that respect, Irish Labour seems to have learned one crucial lesson from the UK general election in the spring, when that country's junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, tried to distance themselves from the Government of which they'd been a member for the previous five years, in the belief that this would afford the best chance of avoiding any blame for its mistakes. Instead they were humiliated at the polls.

Irish Labour road tested a similar tactic a while back, seeking to suggest that they were the nice party to Fine Gael's nasty party, the sweet to Enda Kenny's sour. They're still fond of pushing the line that Labour ministers' role in government was to temper the edge of austerity; but with a voting pact now agreed - albeit one that voters may choose to ignore - that's going to be a harder strategy to follow. Running on the record, rather than away from it, is the only option. Whether that record is good or bad is for the electorate to decide next spring, but for now Joan Burton seems to have decided to remain upbeat and constructive about what Labour has achieved in office.

So it was disappointing that the Labour leader so quickly resorted to the classic tactic of blaming the media when put on the spot on Morning Ireland last week. Asked what benefit cuts she wanted to reverse, Burton first tried faux indignation by misrepresenting what interviewer Gavin Jennings had said about child benefit not being a "targeted" measure because it's paid to all families irrespective of income. Next she went on to suggest that the national broadcaster was out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.

"I don't know what world RTE inhabits, perhaps, in Dublin 4," was how she put it, before going on to suggest that Morning Ireland "should be talking the country up not actually trying to talk the country down". And by "country", she presumably meant "the Government", because no one was criticising Ireland itself.

To be fair, Joan is hardly alone in blaming the media when backed into a corner. Every party presents itself as the innocent victim of a hostile, bullying press. Fianna Fail did so relentlessly, and with some justification, because Irish journalists have never, as a rule, been big fans of the Soldiers of Destiny. Sinn Fein and the left wing independents never stop doing likewise.

The aforementioned Corbyn appears to be making this deeply ingrained socialist loathing of the press one of the cornerstones of his leadership. Politicians are obsessed by the media, and the media in turn fuels the paranoia by giving them a daily platform. It's a familiar codependency thing.

What was different this time was Gavin Jennings's apparent sensitivity to the Tanaiste's remark, to the point where he reportedly corrected her after the interview.

He didn't say anything on air. In fact, he was unfailingly polite and patient. Afterwards, sources claim, he told the Tanaiste that she had "overstepped the mark" with her criticism of RTE, whilst adding that he wasn't even from Dublin 4 but from Co Meath.

Jennings had every right to stand up for himself, and even for RTE if he was so minded, though any organisation which extracts money from every household in the country on pain of imprisonment is surely big enough to take some criticism on the chin.

But that still doesn't mean he should have done it.

Enoch Powell's famous adage stated that a politician should no more complain about the press than a ship's captain should complain about the sea. Equally, the sea shoudn't complain when the captain or his passengers grumble. Journalists should get on with the job in hand and not make it about them.

Jennings isn't to blame if his post-broadcast conversation with Burton became public knowledge, but he could have avoided that predictable risk by not saying a word to her in the first place.

The Tanaiste's remark was hardly so shocking as to demand a riposte. It was a stock jibe directed at certain media types, and you don't need to come from Dublin 4 in order to be accused of being part of the "Dublin 4" set. It's about a state of mind that comes from being in a particular privileged bubble that contrasts with the experience of ordinary people around the country. As such, the insult has its uses in delineating certain currents in Irish political discourse, but it's definitely on the milder end of the scale.

Most listeners, had they managed to stay awake at that time of the morning during this 12-minute interview, would have regarded what Burton said as a throwaway remark by a politician who didn't know what else to say. It was the subsequent fuss which made it noteworthy. That's how the media works, as Jennings should know.

The result was that, rather than looking like a dogged journalist who had caught the Tanaiste on the hop, Jennings was made to seem a tad prickly and over-sensitive. Joan Burton was even able to joke in turn about her mistake in not calling qualified doctor Jennings by his full title.

A conspiracy theorist would say RTE released news of this row to make it seem as if Morning Ireland is more interesting than it really is. If so, new listeners are going to be seriously disappointed. The number of exciting moments on the daily news programme can generally be counted on the fingers of a Saudi Arabian habitual pickpocket's hands.

It is also relentlessly negative. Burton was right about that. Listening to it is like being inundated with despatches from Planet Gloom. Glasses are always half empty. Clouds never have silver linings. That's the nature of the news, and long may it continue. It's not journalists' job to talk up the country's leaders. This isn't North Korea. Yet.

Sunday Independent

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