Friday 23 August 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Politics needs more than staged TV brawls'

Broadcasters and politicians play a dangerous game by encouraging play-acting instead of debate

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Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

These days, they don't even pretend. Ivan Yates is frank. Roll on chaos, let fly with the abuse.

When they carried their ancient rifles into the GPO, to take on a mighty empire, the ragged Volunteers were conservative, traditionalist, many of them literally wore their rosary beads around their necks. But they were also ahead of their time.

In a period of kings and emperors, when the concept of parliamentary democracy and the people's vote was a fledgling thing, the revolutionaries envisioned the Irish people engaging in democratic choice. Should we go in this direction or in that direction?

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In the decades that followed, the political parties tightened their grip.

In my day, if you were a journalist on the campaign trail in Knockcroghery or Borrisoleigh, the party pros would occasionally wink at you.

You're part of our game, the wink suggested. Isn't it great fun we're having, play-acting for the skulls, like we're all serious people in the governance of this great republic.

Today, elections are a marketing exercise run by the twin parties, almost entirely divorced from meaningful choice.

And, today, the media aristocrats don't even go off the record when they speak of how they manipulate the punters.

Listen to Ivan Yates, former politician, and now a leading performer in the "politics" end of show business.

He's on national television four nights a week, he has a daytime radio programme.

Ivan was promoting his Virgin TV debates for the euro and local elections - a rehearsal for the coming general election. He explained that his show gets better ratings, "when there's a knock-down, drag-out fight among the panellists".

So, he promises, "a chaos of abuse".

While some are alarmed by the coarsening of politics, Virgin TV sees abuse and chaos as a selling point.

I assume Virgin knows it'll get away with saying this bluntly because the people who are supposed to regulate the media are gutless.

"So," according to Ivan, quoted on Independent.ie, "we try to engineer as much mayhem and bloodshed as possible."

Then he hastened to emphasise, "political bloodshed". I suppose that's in case some particularly thick party hopeful decides to arrive at the studio with a hatchet.

The alleged democratic process is now a head-butting contest, bloodied-up and sold to the viewers as entertainment, just as the media sells celebrities dancing or shouty singers desperate to be stars.

It's been headed that way for a long time, and Ivan, with his brutal honesty, doesn't pretend it's anything more than a televised game of Shrieking With The Political Stars.

On air, he goads the politicians, jabbing his forefinger at them, stirring the mayhem. Give us a bit more bloodshed, folks, the Twitter feed isn't as lively as it was last night - go for it, go for it! And they do.

And Ivan and his co-host Matt Cooper sit back, smiling, as the politicians try to out-shout one another.

Even politicians who despise this abuse of democracy dare not stay out of the Virgin TV bear pit. Their opponents will go on screen and boost their name recognition. And that counts when people are standing in a voting booth with a pencil poised above a ballot paper.

Matt Cooper, with a well-deserved record as a painstaking journalist, increasingly these days wears a tight smile, as his partner prods the political cattle, to make them bellow. Cooper seems not entirely at ease shouting over his guests, but Ivan thrives on it.

Matt and Ivan are not alone, but they're best at the scream and shout game. Pat Kenny's working on his chaos factor.

"Bland political declarations," Pat announces, aren't enough. "You've got to get the blood up a bit." Welcome to Scream-time With Pat.

RTE takes a different tack. It loves a partisan audience in the studio at its debates, to applaud, to cheer and to boo. Like at a panto.

These are entertainment shows, little more than comedy slots. The politicians are not debating, they're auditioning.

They throw verbal punches, slip in scripted put-downs. They confidently state blatant untruths they know can't be fact-checked in a live debate.

Get in the faces of the other guys, get bloody, open a metaphorical cut above the opponent's eye.

After the debate, the question isn't, What did we learn about the political choices? It's, Who won?

The notion of providing public service to an electorate that needs information is almost extinct, because bad broadcasting drives out good broadcasting.

And the media aristocrats have been given a platform, with a brief: do something that will get people watching/listening. Do whatever it takes.

Or we'll get someone who will.

And this neatly serves the marketing needs of the parties. The parties have never been more under the influence of professional image makers - not just at election time, but all the time.

Nothing is done without pre-checking how the voters will respond. They use secret polls. These are more complex and sophisticated than the polls we read about in newspapers, and they cost the parties a fortune.

They use focus groups to find out how voters will respond to election slogans and concepts. They do in-depth research into voter fears and expectations.

Then, they throw slogans at us, using the wording the research tells them we want to hear. The result is "policies" with snappy titles, and generalities calculated to echo the fears and hopes they've researched.

The "chaos of abuse" that Ivan Yates promises is precisely suited to the blitz of slogans, snappy titles, catchlines, buzzwords and soundbites that the marketing experts concoct.

Meaningful debate would be dangerous for today's FG and FF politicians.

Much better to arrive at the studio with your talking points (provided by the marketing folk) memorised and rehearsed.

The task is to score cheap points, to jab and jibe and come off as more punchy than your opponent.

The broadcasters provide the cameras and studio, and the feisty presenter to ensure the show never runs short of either abuse or chaos.

The parties provide the Punch and Judy politics.

Everyone's a winner.

Except... us.

There's a reason the parties are hopeless in the face of the housing crisis.

There's a reason why the trolley culture is as bad as ever, 12 years after they declared a national emergency.

FG pursues a conservative line, and its main opposition - FF - shares the same conservative politics. FF can't really argue against government policy without hurting itself.

And without genuine analysis and debate there is no change.

The media aristocrats have hijacked a central element of all modern elections, the televised debate, and they've monetised it for their own commercial purposes.

I don't think this is what those ragged Volunteers had in mind, as they entered the GPO.

We should take politics back from the entertainment department, but they and the parties prefer things as they are.

Does this mean things will never change?

No.

When socially destructive problems linger, year after year, they generate discontent. And that comes out, one way or the other.

You want chaos and abuse? The real thing, not the play-acting kind you get from Ivan? Well, the political parties and their media fellow-travellers are working on it.

Sunday Independent

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