Thursday 24 January 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'It's time to fight this hideous development'

How to wag your finger, and how to spin the truth - Gene Kerrigan on why modern journalism is losing out to spin

On one side, there are the people. They want to know what's going on. The quality of their lives, and the decisions they make - their jobs, their homes, their future, and that of their children - depends on knowing the truth.

On the other side, corporate and political institutions, full of strivers and hustlers seeking to put forward the best image they can buy.

It's in the public interest to know the unvarnished truth about the political and corporate forces that decide so much about how we live.

But, it's often in the interests of a corporate or political body to polish facts that are insufficiently shiny, and to omit unhelpful truths.

In between these two stands the media.

In theory, we depict the reality we see around us, and we report the demands of the people, and the responses of the corporate and political institutions.

However, there's someone else in the game. Between us and the institutions is the 'Public Relations' business.

And that business helps the institutions to create the image most useful in selling their version of the truth.

PR outfits help the institutions present a concocted image as though it's reality.

In theory, journalism scrapes away the concocted image, to reveal the underlying truth.

In practice, evidence suggests that the journalism trade is being severely thrashed in the conflict between the public's need to know the truth and the corporate/political world's need to spin that truth.

In his inquiry into the smearing of Maurice McCabe, Judge Peter Charleton heard evidence of some PR work done for Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald - helping her protect and polish her image.

It seems the judge expected politicians to answer questions in their own words, as best they could, in line with what they knew, and to be accountable for their words - which is what any of us might expect.

Charleton's comments in his report summed up the distance between this and the reality of PR.

"It seems that our public life is now to be dominated by spin and that plain speaking is elided in favour of meaningless public relations speak. This is a hideous development in Irish public life. Plain speaking by those who know what they are talking about is the only acceptable way to address the Irish people."

Fitzgerald's speeches were given to Terry Prone, head of a leading PR outfit, the Communications Clinic, who rewrote them. She included precise instructions on delivery.

To illustrate the kind of detail involved, the micro-managing of image, we have the benefit of material acquired by journalist Ken Foxe after a lengthy Freedom of Information struggle.

Prone advised Fitzgerald not just on what to say, but precisely how to say it. One speech came with a note to the minister, telling her, "the two asterisks indicate a gesture of index finger wagged from side to side".

In what mad world do these people exist?

Here's what to say, here's the gesture to make as you say it. And this is the finger to use to make the gesture.

How did we get to this: from a theory of representative government to a practice of ministers being told when and how to wag their fingers?

(Not up and down - good God, no, don't wag it up and down. Use the index finger and wag it from side to side, okay?)

There are two elements to this. There are PR triumphs, and there are journalistic failures.

The recent Presidential election campaign revealed the weakness of the media. The broadcast stuff was awful - as it was during the Repeal debates.

Broadcasters have grown used to certain formats, and they seem to be still popular with numbers of punters, so no one seems to check if they do what they're supposed to.

Primed by PR experts, TV and radio interviewees answer questions they haven't been asked, and they get away with it, again and again.

It's time to start ending interviews abruptly. "That's fine, but since you've repeatedly refused to answer the question, there's no point in continuing. Thanks for coming, maybe we'll do this again sometime."

Stick on some music.

In political debates, the emphasis is on ratings. And to get the ratings you need drama, and the essence of drama is conflict.

Years ago on RTE, Pat Kenny pioneered the gimmick of rapid-fire "debate", in which the guests made a few remarks, then Kenny moved from one member of the audience to another, lingering just long enough for the speaker to convey half a thought. Claire Byrne now has that franchise on RTE.

In the election and referendum debates, speakers score points and the specially selected audience applauds. It's not only what you say that matters, it's bringing in supporters with flinty palms that will make the most noise.

Even the title of Kenny's original show, Frontline, suggested battle. And this is the dominant format.

Get rid of the audience. Debates are not talent shows.

Untruths and soft interviews abounded during the Presidential debates. You could say what you like, and the best the other side could do was deny, deny, deny - which in itself creates an image of having something to hide.

Live debates encourage lies.

Record the debates. Leave sufficient time between the debate and the broadcast for journalists to fact-check the claims of the speakers.

Then, at the end of the broadcast, spell out the programme's researched conclusions about contentious assertions. That would stop the spoofing. And it would relieve the programmes of the burden - which doesn't seem to worry them - of being a transmission belt for lies.

During the Presidential campaign, the attack on Travellers generated a lot of votes. The Travellers who demanded stables - ah, sure it's a great yarn, or it would be if it was true. There's evidence that nothing of the sort happened, but that didn't seem to matter.

Great care is quite properly taken, most journalists know, when discussing the activities of wealthy, litigious people. Travellers are not on that list.

Over on Virgin Media, sure, there's nothing like a bit of oul' crack, like, y'know, haha.

The Tonight Show, with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates, sometimes elicits interesting answers, but it's never far from a tolerant smile from Matt, as Ivan goes on one of his lame rants.

They had an interview with a Traveller who convincingly explained that the stable claim was nonsense. A minute later, Yates repeated the claim, without qualification. The woman might as well not have spoken.

We deserve better than this.

Corporate and political bodies have expensive help in bolstering their credibility. The marketing of the current Government is directed by the man who marketed Magnum ice cream.

In response, we report politics as a game between FF and FG, rather than an analysis of a clash of social forces, with winners and losers. And we accept deceptive terms, such as "new politics".

This results in, for instance, endless inside stories on the arrival of Renua - a puff of wind quickly lost in a storm.

And, at the same time, precisely, no reporting at all of the real political forces that created the water charge protests, which had a serious influence on events.

We - the people, and the media charged with informing the people - seem remarkably complacent about the ways in which images concocted by hardened professionals, and tired old broadcast formats, are outflanking the truth.

Sunday Independent

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