IT is a haphazard experience appearing before one of the many committees of TDs and senators, as I did last week. Oireachtas committees are meant to ensure better governance. But members are frequently missing from them.
And deputies and senators who are present can raise almost anything.
Fine Gael's Jim O'Keeffe TD wanted to know last week what I would say to a man on a doorstep who had asked Deputy O'Keeffe not to confuse him with "the facts"!
To call these committees just another form of sham consultation would be unfair on deputies who take them seriously. But it is hard to see the process as amounting to much more than going through the motions.
The Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution invited me to meet it to share my views on the role of the media during the recent Lisbon Treaty referendum. Yet most members of the committee were absent last Tuesday.
Also invited to give his opinion at the same two-hour-long session was Maurice Hayes, chairman of the National Forum on Europe. Six out of 15 members of the committee appeared, and not all remained throughout.
Labour's Brendan Howlin and Senator Alex White, Fine Gael's Denis Naughten, Jim O'Keeffe and Senator Eugene Regan and Fianna Fail's Michael Kennedy, attended.
Committee chairman Sean Ardagh, of Fianna Fail, who like all chairmen of the many Oireachtas committees is paid almost €20,000 extra just to take the chair, was absent for "personal reasons". So Mr O'Keeffe, paid almost €10,000 extra each year as a vice-chair, presided.
Only one out of seven Fianna Fail members was present for the discussion. Absent were deputies Sean Ardagh, Thomas Byrne, Ned O'Keeffe, Mary O'Rourke and (because he was chairing another committee) Michael Woods, as well as Senator Denis O'Donovan. The record of the meeting shows that another Fianna Fail TD (Timmy Dooley) sat in briefly before the discussion began, to make up a quorum.
Fianna Fail ran a poor campaign on the Lisbon Treaty and politicians have much to learn about why the Yes side lost. But some of them have trouble admitting that they got it wrong on Lisbon. They seem to want to blame the media. I gave them little consolation on that score.
The only Green Party member of the committee, Dan Boyle, was also absent. Perhaps the Greens are putting their trust in opinion polls that indicate their support is holding up. Don't bet on it, Dan.
Absent too were deputies Michael D'Arcy and Tom Hayes of Fine Gael.
Members of the Oireachats are paid daily allowances of between €60 and €140 when attending the houses of the Oireachtas.
As a citizen invited to talk to them, I was told that they would not even reimburse my taxi fares, necessary on the day because of a tight schedule. So I funded myself to the tune of €60. Who, besides deputies or senators, get paid to go to work (as well as being paid to work), and on top of that get paid extra to chair or vice-chair committees (and even sub-committees)?
The Committee on the Constitution seems to be angling to find a way to discourage broadcasters from giving equal time to both sides during referendum campaigns.
Some TDs would prefer special access to the airwaves for elected politicians, and are peeved at the way in which they found themselves facing so many unelected campaigners during the Lisbon Treaty debate.
I told the committee that I disagree with the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, which appears to support changes that might permit broadcasters to interpret fairness and balance in more subjective ways. That could lead to a deterioration of broadcasting standards such as followed the erosion of the 'Fairness Doctrine' in the United States.
But, in any event, symbolical communication from leading public figures can outweigh much media debate. When the Taoiseach and the Irish EU commissioner both indicated that they had not fully read the Lisbon Treaty, they sent a symbolic signal of immense force to the electorate. Few voters would expect every politician to be able to cite that treaty chapter and verse, but voters were immediately freed to reject the document when even two highly-paid and highly-placed public figures -- who have access to highly qualified advisors -- appeared to find it incomprehensible.
Meanwhile, on the ground, on the doorstep, voters got too few clear messages from too few politicians about the benefits of Lisbon.
Politicians have to do this and cannot depend on spin-doctors or PR consultants.
This failure to communicate future benefits, together with strong symbolical signals of contempt from on high, took place in a continuing context in which national politicians in Ireland and abroad blame Brussels for unpopular measures but give little or no credit for progressive or beneficial ones.
The extent to which the legislative agenda of national parliaments is now largely set by EU initiatives and directives is not generally acknowledged by politicians. Voters might treat EU proposals with greater interest and respect if it were.
For its part, the media could do more to explain European measures and relate these to the ordinary lives of citizens. But strained budgets for sustained analytical journalism of many kinds are a problem.
Limitations are due partly to market pressures and partly to profiteering. Either way, society suffers from some low quality media coverage.
At the European Communications Research conference in Barcelona last week, one German speaker singled out Ireland as being the country which lost the highest percentage of editorial and journalism positions in national newspapers between 2002 and 2007 (compared to France, Germany, Poland, Portugal and the UK). If you want good journalism, you have to pay for it.
Members of the Oireachtas, who have facilitated the development of ideological policies within the European audiovisual sphere, must share responsibility for media shortcomings.
When they opted for neo- liberal models of the broadcasting market then they facilitated rampant market forces throughout all media, and politics in that context is just one more market to be exploited.
While some deregulation was a good thing, we now see chickens coming home to roost as politicians who airily mouthed the 'light-touch' regulation mantra get lightweight media in spades.
Politicians must accept their own failure to engage the public in dialogue about the future benefits of EU membership under the Lisbon Treaty, and must decentralise EU communications policy more effectively.
Crucial in effective dialogue are not public consultations and elaborate forums (about which many citizens are understandably sceptical) or the incentivising of media organisations to send more journalists to Brussels; and certainly not (in terms of reaching the average voter) the creation of a dedicated digital television channel dealing with EU affairs as another Oireachtas sub committee has also proposed should be examined.
What is crucial from a communications perspective is a commitment by elected representatives to earn their considerable incomes and perks by working harder to convince the public of the benefits of Lisbon and the relevance of the EU. Don't blame the media, please, for a political failure.
Prof Colum Kenny teaches media policy and practice at Dublin City University