Monday 17 December 2018

Leo's fatal flaw? Pretending to be something he's not

Media indignation aside, the Taoiseach's latest faux pas suggests he needs to work on his judgment a bit, writes Brendan O'Connor

JOKE’S ON YOU: Varadkar, who has expressed sympathy for Trump, raised serious questions about his judgment
JOKE’S ON YOU: Varadkar, who has expressed sympathy for Trump, raised serious questions about his judgment

It has become customary now for journalists to write that all other journalists need to chill out about Leo Varadkar's comments about the media and to stop being so precious.

This came after a few days when it had become customary for journalists to write indignant pieces about how outrageous it was that Leo Varadkar would attack the Irish media for lacking substance, letting the story get in the way of the truth, and being obsessed with gossip.

Without adding to the high dudgeon, you've got to think though that there are a few questions to be asked here about Leo's judgment, and about his need to remember that he is the Taoiseach now, so things he says assume greater importance. People like the fact that Leo is a straight talker, but he probably needs to make sure he means what he says.

Leo Varadkar could not claim to be given an unusually hard time by the media. The media played no small part in drumming his predecessor out of the Taoiseach's office and drumming him into it. And the truth is that he gets away with a lot due to a certain fascination he holds for people.

While it's too early to say how good a Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is, he is certainly interesting, and even slightly mysterious. He is very zeitgeisty too. He is a gay man leading a country that is working hard to redeem itself for the huge pain it inflicted on gay people for so long. He is also at the vanguard of a long-overdue generational change in Irish politics. He is a Taoiseach who seems to live in the same world as the rest of us 30- and 40-somethings. He goes to gigs, and he knows who Arcade Fire are and he has an opinion on them ('Meh').

Whinging about the media is never a good idea anyway. It just seems moany. If you put yourself out there, and there is possibly no job that puts you out there as much as being Taoiseach, then you just need to learn to suck it up and move on. It never seems fair, but a few deep breaths and you'll get over it.

Moaning about the media when you enjoy largely positive press seems even more petulant.

Criticising the media for being obsessed with gossip, and putting stories (which people might be interested in) before the truth (which is usually contained in the stories, you'll find) is a common complaint among people these days. Leo was just giving the usual trendy point of view on the media with that one. What Leo possibly forgot when he made this point was the fact that by virtue of being a more modern Taoiseach, you yourself might contribute to these "stories". For example, if you see a piece of art in IMMA that bears a resemblance to a giant poo, you might share it on Twitter, asking your followers what they think it looks like (a giant poo). You might even share a picture of yourself putting a spoon in a dishwasher. Or you, or your colleagues, might share pictures of yourself at an LCD Soundsystem gig and then get called a tosser by the guitarist. This might all be an attempt to humanise yourself, and show that you are down with the ordinary people, but ultimately it is trivia, it is gossipy, and by doing it, you are acknowledging that people enjoy this kind of thing, that it helps your image. So probably best not to get all high-minded about this kind of thing, when the newspapers, taking their cue from you, highlight it.

It is also probably best not to criticise the media when you recently had to disband a unit you set up whose main aim was to try and control what the media says about your government, a unit that was actually in the business of paying newspapers to say the right things about government policy, disguised, as much as possible, as real editorial. Getting ratty in these circumstances could make you look a little bit controlling, and maybe even a little bit peeved that you can't make the media say what you want them to say. Wanting to control the media is generally seen as a worrying thing in a politician. The precedents in this area are not good. Guys who try to control the media? Usually bad men. And, yes, they are usually men.

It's also not a great idea, in the era of the soundbite, to express any sympathy for Donald Trump. When you're explaining afterwards the semantics of why you are sympathetic to Donald Trump on a particular issue, and highlighting all the issues on which you have no sympathy with Donald Trump, it is fair to say you are losing. Everyone knows that. There are many grey areas around things Donald Trump does, but the general view of him in this part of the world is such that it is not wise for a politician to express sympathy with Donald and his alleged totalitarian impulses.

It is probably a worse idea to do this if you have a recent history of being in trouble for a "joke" about how you interfered in the planning process to get something sorted for The Donald.

It is also probably unwise, too, to suggest that the mainstream media has an agenda against social media and new media because they are eating the mainstream media's lunch. This is probably partially true, but there is no doubt that the lack of regulation of these platforms, who are now more powerful than governments, is becoming hugely problematic. So whatever the mainstream media's motives for asking questions of the digital media, the questions we ask are valid. Indeed, most of them are questions being asked by the pioneers who invented digital media. We just print them.

If you, yourself, have a poor history of being willing to regulate these companies, when the whole world agrees they need to be regulated, then you probably shouldn't draw attention to the whole issue.

To single out Prime Time, which has done so much to shine light on important areas, was obviously just daft.

So all in all, you'd have to admit that Leo's outing in New York, raised serious questions about his judgment.

And it seemed like another example of a kind of rogue impulse he has to try and be cool, an impulse we saw at the aforementioned Donald/planning incident, and indeed, in a bizarre way, at the Downing Street/Love Actually incident. He needs to work on that.

Interestingly, Leo Varadkar was in New York to kick off a two-year campaign to get Ireland a seat on the UN Security Council, a campaign whose key message seemed to be, "We've got U2 tickets for everyone!" He also took the opportunity to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, after which he apparently commented that that was another thing ticked off his bucket list. Apart from wondering what kind of person has that on their bucket list, the other thing you'd think is: "And this bell-ringing, bucketlist-ticking, U2-going guy is accusing us of not taking politics seriously enough?"

The funny thing about it is that Leo Varadkar is fundamentally a pretty serious person.

But something about modern politics has made him think he has to disguise it with socks and stupid comments.

Come to think of it, probably the media's fault.

Sunday Independent

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