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Colum Kenny: Who's asking the tough questions?

THE media handed it to Fianna Fail on a plate last week, and the party that wrecked Ireland gobbled it up. Across the country, on local radio, in print or on the national airwaves, FF backbenchers and once unknown candidates got airtime that they couldn't buy. And FF used it to distance itself from its own organisation. It wasn't me, your honour.

On Prime Time last Wednesday, Micheal Martin looked like he was getting a Leader's Debate all to himself. And, while Richard Crowley asked Martin some hard questions, it was ultimately a case of that old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Martin is already seeking to parade his saintly image as much as possible on television during the election. Brand new FF, with the emphasis on brand.

Not that FF will be thanking the media for any bounce that the party now gets in the polls. Those in power seldom complain that the media is too fair when they are gifted free publicity by journalists.

Oh, that media scrum! We love it and hate it. Last weekend Brian Cowen disappeared behind a wall of photographers and interviewers when he stepped down as leader of FF. How can a country as small as Ireland support so much media?

Politicians love it, even when journalists and presenters are strutting their stuff. Bias? If media personnel tend to have liberal-left leanings, they are amply offset by the populism of politicians.

Some in the media now sound downright frustrated by political inanity, as are so many citizens in general. Pat Kenny seemed strained and irritated last week on RTE's Frontline, as party representatives rehearsed their well-worn and predictable lines on his show. Politicians, trade union leaders and business bosses all get trained privately to avoid the hard questions.

Was even TV3's Vincent Browne dumbfounded by the sheer gall of FF as it reinvented its image before our weary eyes last week? He sat uncharacteristically mute in the front row, as Brian Cowen bid farewell to the leadership of FF. Browne left it to Ursula Halligan to hog the limelight, as she conducted a mini-interview while others waited to ask questions.

It was Ursula who tipped the balance of Cowen's fate last year when she broke ranks in Galway and asked him about his drinking. The girl was not one of the boys.

But Irish journalists are seldom harsh. Not for them the aggressive indulgence of right-wing commentators on US television's Fox News. In Ireland and Britain, broadcasters at least are required by law to be balanced. And defamation laws are still a big inhibitor of what can be said.

Not that some sense of responsibility is a bad thing. But we also need journalists who can and will dig deep and ask informed but awkward questions up front. How many journalists or presenters (or indeed politicians) last week dared to respond toughly to the news that yet another tax was to be imposed on the self-employed? This tax was, after all, to pay for a reduction in the burden on people with medical cards. It was a classic populist stroke.

Many in the media have liberal or leftist leanings and do not relish advocating a clear financial reward for private enterprise. But, as FF used to like saying, a rising tide lifts all boats. If we destroy the entrepreneurial middle class, then we will not generate the revenue to sustain that great number of people now on medical cards. We cannot afford to rely forever on fickle multinationals for revenue.

And what about all those people with medial cards? Many need them. But there are many others who struggle to earn enough to pay medical bills and for the extra benefits that come free (paid for by the taxpayer) with a medical card. It is a system that, objectively, may be unjust. But what politician or journalist wants to take on that fight and appear hard-hearted?

The fact is that such battles lie just the other side of this general election, and their coverage in the media may soon reveal more clearly the bias of presenters and columnists.

Attempts to pin down bias in the media tend to be inconclusive. The public often sees what it wants to see, and so any complaints of bias cancel one another out. And having a point of view is not the same as being biased. A good journalist needs to have ideas to function.

Besides, most media organisations wish to appeal to a broad range of consumers and so encourage their personnel to reflect the range of public opinion. They tend to discourage biased crusading.

Yet hard questions are asked in Irish journalism. The Sunday Independent, for example, has long been a platform for a variety of contrarian views, much to the irritation of the politically correct and the complacent.

And RTE also manages, despite being largely publicly funded, to put politicians on the spot. Sean O'Rourke is just one of a number of presenters who lets little past him. TV3, too, despite having to compete with RTE's dominant position and the powerful Sky, has brought its own fresh angle to debates. Newstalk and local radio stations have also helped to build a platform for informed public discourse at a time when the Oireachtas came to be regarded as toothless and inept.

Of course, as Pope Benedict reminded us this month, the emergence of the internet as a network for communication means that many young people get their information in less constrained forms online. But mainstream media, as advertisers recognise, still matter most to most people.

As the general election campaign heats up, citizens who feel aggrieved about the media's performance can do something about it. In the case of print media, they may complain to the Press Council. In the case of broadcasters, there exists the independent Compliance Committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Under the Broadcasting Act 2009, news and current affairs coverage must be objective, impartial and fair.

Colum Kenny is professor of communications at DCU

Sunday Independent