Tuesday 18 June 2019

The lessons of Enda's 'Prime Time' car crash

All we learnt from Enda's big set-piece interview is that he shouldn't do TV

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

You can see what the logic might have been in letting Enda Kenny loose on Prime Time. He is supposed to be the leader of the country, so he has to be seen to be able to sit down and talk about politics now and then. Most people in Ireland would run rings around you in a discussion about politics, so it is reasonable for us to expect that the Taoiseach should be able to do so, given that talking, and indeed politics, should be two of his specialist areas.

It has also presumably become clear to Enda and his handlers that he will not win that much-coveted second term if he isn't able to go on radio and TV and mix it up with mere mortals.

So, having tried Enda out on the radio a couple of times recently with no major disasters, Enda and his people clearly got cocky and decided he was ready for a big set-piece TV interview. A whole 20 minutes or so.

And they decided to do it on Prime Time. God help them, in their innocence, maybe they thought Enda would be in safe hands with Miriam. Good old Miriam. Miriam plays by the rules, she wouldn't try and trip anyone up.

Big mistake.

Enda Kenny's appearance on Prime Time on Thursday could be one of those pieces of footage we see again and again in years to come. As Fine Gael headed into their conference this weekend and kicked off a general election campaign that has been effectively going on since before Christmas, Enda Kenny's TV outing could have been a turning point.

With the Government finally managing to get purchase on a new narrative, one of control and recovery, Enda came out and crashed the car into the ditch in slow motion. With the Government having managed to move on from a litany of cock-ups, having managed to stop cocking up by effectively doing nothing, they then did something and there was another cock-up.

And they can't even blame Miriam. She was polite, respectful, measured. She didn't badger. She didn't grandstand. She merely patiently asked Kenny a litany of pertinent questions. The most obstreperous she got was to remind him a few times of what her question actually was, in hope that he might answer it.

Miriam didn't need to utilise any of the tricks of her trade in order to make the Taoiseach look bad. The Taoiseach did that all by himself, with his seeming inability to give a straight, comprehensible answer to even the most basic questions. You may say this is the case with all politicians, but we probably expect some bit of clarity from our leader, and when we see him so rarely, we possibly build up unrealistic expectations.

TV is a curious beast. George Hook says it's like X-ray. And he has a point. Unless you are an extremely talented performer, or a sociopath, there is no hiding place on TV.

The only way for most people to approach TV is to be straight, to be themselves. If you start pretending on TV, it tends to make you very stiff, because you're not very adaptable to the swings and roundabouts of a conversation.

TV can also point up things about people that we may not notice in real life, things that may not even be true or fair. We all know the old one about the camera adding 10 pounds. But the camera can also add a shiftiness sometimes.

Micro-expressions that might not be noticeable in the animation of real life can suddenly be highlighted: smiles that don't reach the eyes, sideways glances, any hint of physical discomfort that might betray actual discomfort.

Unfortunately, the first visual impression we got of the Taoiseach was shifty. His eyes were shifty and he looked furtive. He looked somewhat like a hunted animal. Perhaps he was trying to look serious and grown-up, as an antidote to the high-fiving buck eejit persona he hides behind when he is out among his people. Or perhaps he was just annoyed or drained by the fact that his appearance had been put off for half an hour to facilitate Eastenders.

Whatever it was, he seemed tense and he got tenser as it went on. He even looked slightly sullen and defensive. Indeed, as the interview went on, you started to wonder if he was angry at Miriam for the crime of asking straightforward questions. As if it was her fault that he is above being questioned.

The questions were pointed at times, but reasonable. If there hadn't been any agreement beforehand on the areas to be covered, the Taoiseach's people should have been able to predict the questions and prepare him well anyway. The frightening thing is, maybe they did. Because he did seem to have a few basic mantras downloaded. Stability means investment means jobs means dignity and salvation was one mantra. That was the answer given to many of the questions, even when it wasn't the answer.

Everything is everyone else's fault except ours, was the other central mantra. Apparently, it's been really hard being this Government, the first decent, respectable government in years. They had to make very many difficult decisions because previous governments wrecked the economy and because we all swept things under the carpet for years.

On specifics, the Taoiseach wasn't great. He did not seem to be able to answer the question of whether he or his Government had ever asked for a write-down deal on our banking debt. His line on that was that the last government poured ¤30bn into the banks and it was all money down the drain. But this Government will apparently get back every penny it put into the banks.

How we know which money it is we are getting back was not made clear. But they are sure it is the money they put in, not the money Fianna Fail put in. The Taoiseach also claimed that he did in fact negotiate a ¤50bn write down of Government debt, which was news to a lot of people. He was also unable to answer other very specific questions, like whether he was one of three people called back by the Fennelly Inquiry over inconsistencies in evidence. That, thankfully for Enda, is before the courts/subject to an inquiry/an ecumenical matter.

The thing is, it doesn't really matter what Kenny said on Prime Time the other night. Next week, no one will remember what he said. What they will remember is how he came across. Hunted, sullen, surly, evasive, speaking gobbledegook, in what you might call his posh voice. That was the perception.

And Enda knows perception is important. Indeed, when Miriam O'Callaghan asked him what he was specifically apologising for when he apologised over the McNulty affair, he said he was apologising over a perception. In other words, it was nothing he did, it was just how people interpreted it. It was a bit like his apology at the time: "I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is."

Enda may well wish to apologise to his party colleagues this weekend for the perception people may have formed of him on TV, and for allowing his Prime Time interview to evolve to what people might imagine it was.

If we learnt anything at all from it, apart from the date of the gay marriage referendum, it is that Enda Kenny really shouldn't appear on TV.

Gene Kerrigan is on leave

Sunday Independent

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