Monday 22 July 2019

From storms to Stormont, it's all spin to Leo

It seems there are now no issues that are off-limits to the PR image-makers, but we live in perilous times, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

There are good things and bad things about the Belfast Agreement, but anyone treating it as a political poker chip is gambling with other people's blood. And that seems to be what went on last week.

It's now commonplace but unquestionably accurate to say that the Varadkar Government is obsessed with spinning positive images. Whatever the problem, platoons of highly paid advisers work hard at finding ways to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

Up to now, some of us assumed the settlement - and all its problems and opportunities - was off-limits to the game of spin our government is playing.

However, as they treat the most routine political problem, it now seems they also treat the complex strands of the breakdown of the Stormont Executive and the backroom negotiations to restore it.

It's habitual. Whatever the problem, this Government's first thought seems to be how does it construct the image of itself it wants us to see.

For instance, it turns out the banks have been systematically stealing money from their customers - one estimate is half a billion euro - in the course of the tracker mortgage scandal.

Successive governments left the bankers in no doubt that compliance is a matter for themselves.

This Government, once aware of the fraud, need only have quietly demanded compensation and sincerely threatened reprisal. Instead, it maintained the tradition of toadying to the bankers.

Then, as the public mood darkened, the Government erupted into a sudden, noisy attack, through the spin machine, announcing it's "losing patience", and promising that the banks will be "hauled in" next week and will be "admonished".

Just words, no solidity. They know it, we know it - most of all, the bankers know it.

The crime, for the Government, is not the fraud carried out on tens of thousands of customers, it's that the banks were caught and the Government was shown to be impotent.

When the bankers shrugged and proceeded to do as they wished, at their own pace, spin was substituted for action.

The "losing patience" statement was code for, "For Christ's sake, lads, give us a fig leaf, here".

A huge effort went into dealing with Storm Ophelia. The meteorologists and the repair crews dealt with the actual weather, but a squad of spinners worked even harder at protecting the Government's image.

Leo was anywhere there was a camera - and Harry McGee in The Irish Times had a lovely description of ministers casually but determinedly pushing their way into camera shot beside Varadkar.

Leo turned up in hard hat and high-vis jacket, climbing over a ditch for the cameras. "People," according to a spinner explaining things to McGee, "want to see a government doing everything possible."

No - politicians want to be seen to appear to be doing things.

McGee quotes a leading spinner: "There were many ministers doing interviews and all of their information was coordinated. It worked really well."

McGee summed up: "From a communications perspective, it was a good day for the Government." ("Communications" is the word the spinners prefer to use, rather than "spin".)

Today, with the improvements in tracking and prediction, this storm still killed three of us. In 1961, a similar storm killed 11. Science did the job, politicians posed for the pictures.

We don't want to see Varadkar play-acting in costume, we want the State to provide the professionals with all the tools they need to keep us safe.

The same spin techniques were applied where much greater sensitivity was required.

The British and Irish governments need the Stormont Executive to get back in business. Telling the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders to just do it, despite the political problems each has, is pointless, but that's the strategy.

This is complicated by the long-term strategy Mr Varadkar has for dealing with Sinn Fein, which is mockery. In the Dail, he trolls them incessantly and Sinn Fein usually responds in kind, which is what he's looking for.

Sometimes this works. Last week, Gerry Adams raised the issue of the government's theft from pensioners. He was making the point that €30 a week is a lot to a pensioner, but to a government minister, it's no more than the price of a bottle of wine.

As he spoke, FG chose to take this as Adams - for some reason - talking about his own wine preference, and they taunted him.

It was a spontaneous and very successful spinning of the argument - killing the issue of the government stealing money from us, changing it to Gerry Adams's imaginary addiction to pricey wines.

The media picked it up and began advising Adams on cheaper wines.

That's just playtime, what passes for politics.

Applying similar taunting tactics to larger issues is dangerous and irresponsible.

To put pressure on SF and the DUP, rumours were spread that agreement on a restored Stormont Executive was "imminent".

The DUP denied this, so did Sinn Fein.

In a playful move, spinners were sent out to tell The Irish Times that Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill had been about to reach agreement with the DUP, "but was blocked by senior party figures".

We don't know what of this, if anything, might be true. It was a story planted by anonymous government "sources".

Its effect was to taunt Adams as wrecking a settlement - as the Government might taunt him in the Dail.

Sources are guaranteed anonymity when they pass the media information which the public should know. They need anonymity to prevent those in power from wreaking vengeance.

There is no reason to give anonymity to people paid with public money to speak on behalf of the government. The only function of this anonymity is to encourage them to lie, knowing there will be no comeback and they will have full protection as "sources".

Such people are not sources, they are propagandists, seeking to anonymously use the media to manipulate public knowledge and opinion.

Adams denounced the spin story as "reckless". His serious tone perhaps prodded the spinners to back off.

Speaking carefully, RTE's Tommie Gorman suggested government spinners had been at work, but their claim now was that The Irish Times story didn't have "sanction from the very top" and wasn't motivated "by malicious intent".

That seemed to be Varadkar backing off, leaving the blame with the anonymous "sources".

The issue is too serious for this kind of carry-on.

To make matters worse, BBC's Spotlight programme had a lengthy interview with Varadkar.

"It's very hard for us as European prime ministers..." The look-at-me-and-my-mates" tone is juvenile. "That's something I am going to talk to President Juncker about..."

One answer was for no discernible reason prefaced by: "When I travel across Europe, when I'm in Berlin, when I'm in Brussels, when I'm visiting Macron, Merkel, prime ministers and presidents..."

Had he whipped out some selfies - Me With Famous People - it would have been appropriate to his smug tone. This sounds like a happy man who has already achieved all he desires, simply in reaching office.

When asked a detailed question about Brexit he seemed surprised. He doesn't do detail, he speaks in grand sentences, full of important people. "That's one of the many complicated details we're going to have to work out over the next couple of years."

These are perilous times, with major problems. We can't afford smug. We can't afford playful spinners.

Sunday Independent

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