Saturday 19 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Is RTE colour blind to the two different shades of green?'

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Anyone looking for analysis would have to agree Virgin Media had a good election and RTE a bad one.

Good political analysis avoids sexy surface stories with short shelf lives and seeks out structural stories.

Structural stories like local elections are a far better guide to the political future than the far shores of European elections.

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RTE missed the two biggest structural stories: the shafting of Sinn Fein and the closely related recovery of Fianna Fail, particularly among working people on the north side of Dublin.

RTE's failure to mark these watersheds is rooted in a flawed news culture that has been too deferential to Sinn Fein's polemics and too dismissive of Fianna Fail's hard slog.

But you don't have to believe me. Let's look at how the result in the Republic struck a northern observer.

Mick Fealty, who runs the reliable centrist Slugger O'Toole weblog, in an acute account distinguished between the media story and the real political story.

The media story was the rise of the Greens driven by RTE's reliance on an exit poll with a margin of error.

But as Fealty says: "The real story is the sheer scale of the fall of Sinn Fein and, to a much lesser extent, the far left."

He adds: "The number of Sinn Fein party representatives has been cut in half in the Republic. That is brutal." (His italics.)

Fealty believes one of the reasons Sinn Fein did so poorly is because, unlike the soft ride it gets from nationalists in the North, it is subjected to tougher scrutiny in the Republic.

He says: "They are surrounded by political rivals who are not afraid to attack them on every level and a political media which is unafraid to carry and amplify such attacks."

In fairness, Independent Newspapers is in the front line of that coverage.

Not so much RTE, whose impression of softness was reinforced by the contrasting post-mortems on the results carried out by Montrose and Virgin Media.

Instead of probing the decline of SF and the see-saw rise of FF, RTE News and Current Affairs invested excessive energy in trying to explain away why it bigged up its exit poll even though it knew the poll had a built-in margin of error.

Let's look at how this left RTE lagging behind Virgin Media for the three main days of the count.

On Sunday, Lisa Chambers, director of elections for Fianna Fail, was in combative mood.

She emphasised that Fianna Fail was "hugely underestimated in the RTE exit poll" and that it had "dominated the discourse for the weekend".

On Monday's Six One, David McCullagh was wheeled in to explain margins of error. Keelin Shanley looked grateful: "David, if you sum it all up like that, is there a lesson from this?"

Not for RTE judging by McCullagh's somewhat patronising tone and his trademark aura of weariness while telling a nation of electoral grandmothers how to suck eggs.

He was echoed later on Monday by Jon Williams, managing director at RTE News, who tweeted the same margin of error mantra that "health warnings need to be taken seriously".

So why doesn't RTE News do so? If the electorate should be cautious about margins of error, surely RTE editors should be doubly cautious?

Little wonder then that Fianna Fail treated RTE explanations as evasions.

Fianna Fail constantly complains that RTE News treats Sinn Fein as if it were the main opposition.

My own occasional logs show RTE News far too frequently going first to Sinn Fein spokespersons for a reaction before belatedly coming to Fianna Fail - if indeed it includes it at all.

Fianna Fail sources claim that RTE's excessive emphasis on the exit poll was because it conformed with pre-existing prejudices without reporters taking any other electoral soundings.

Last Monday, Claire Byrne Live avoided any analysis of either the collapse of Sinn Fein or the recovery of FF.

But The Tonight Show with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates was much tougher.

Ivan Yates was merciless in exposing the extent of Sinn Fein's huge drop.

He said Sinn Fein's vote had halved and they had lost their grip on "working-class, blue-collar Dublin".

The well-chosen panel was able to probe, too.

Jack Chambers of FF rightly attributed some of SF's fall to its "negativity" and to fomenting "instability" North and South.

The future implications of Fianna Fail's success were also measured properly by an objective observer, Feargal Purcell, former government press secretary under Enda Kenny. Purcell did not damn with faint praise: "Fianna Fail have had a great election."

Unlike the Foolish Faction in FF, he knew who should get the credit.

"Micheal Martin has played Brexit extremely well because it has positioned him as a solid statesman who is going to be responsible."

Purcell was equally fair-minded in refusing to join the Twitter mob in beating up on Maria Bailey.

He correctly criticised her carry-on, but went on to say that he was uncomfortable with social media mobbing.

"The pendulum when it comes back, it's always full of sympathy in this country. That's our nature."

Indeed it is and I am not immune, as we shall see.

On the following night, Tuesday, RTE still had not dug into either the Sinn Fein decline or the connected recovery of Fianna Fail in Dublin working-class areas.

But over on Tonight, David Cullinane of SF, chastened and humbled, got some of my sympathy.

Cullinane is transparently sincere in wanting to change things for working-class people.

My wife, Gwen, visiting home to Waterford, watched him on a march for a cardiology unit a week before the election.

She said: "The heels of Davy's shoes were worn down from canvassing."

Thanks to Cullinane's hard work, Waterford was one of the few cities where Sinn Fein held its vote.

On Tonight he pounds his frail frame: "If I was ever given the chance, I have no doubt I would make a very good minister."

I don't doubt it. But he'll never be a minister unless he faces two truths.

First, the poll showing support for a united Ireland, coupled with the collapse of Sinn Fein, carries a clear dialectical message: the Republic wants a united Ireland - but based on Micheal Martin's pluralism, not on SF's tribal terms.

Second, if Sinn Fein wants a fresh start it must also respond to Martin's recent call on the party to admit the armed struggle was wrong and offer, in the words of the late loyalist leader Gusty Spence, "abject and true remorse".

Finally, Yates and Cooper finished up with the Good Greens. Eamon Ryan, a senior hurler, agreed that while the exit polls had exaggerated its success, it could now get things done.

Ryan rightly rejected the cynics on the ditch who criticised the Greens for going into government with FF between 2007 and 2011.

He cautions Cullinane that it would not be all milk and honey if Sinn Fein were sharing power.

He warned: "It's tough in government. You've got to take the hits."

Just the kind of realistic leader an idealistic party like the Greens needs right now.

Sunday Independent

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