Wednesday 22 May 2019

It's not news that Leo's foot is in his mouth again

The Taoiseach's comments in New York on fake news were clumsy - but journalists shouldn't get too precious about their trade, writes Frank Coughlan

'Leo Varadkar dumped on our valiant fourth estate at a private lunch in New York by telling bemused guests that he was on Team Trump when it came to fake news. Or some such.' Photo: PA
'Leo Varadkar dumped on our valiant fourth estate at a private lunch in New York by telling bemused guests that he was on Team Trump when it came to fake news. Or some such.' Photo: PA
Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan

I tuned into The Tonight Show last Wednesday because I felt the need to engage more fully in a story that was gripping the nation, or at least that part of it that lives in a self-regarding bubble.

That, of course, was of how Leo Varadkar had dumped on our valiant fourth estate at a private lunch in New York by telling bemused guests that he was on Team Trump when it came to fake news. Or some such.

TV3 hosts Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates had gathered a stellar cast. It included Eamon Dunphy (well, there was no football on), Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty and journalists Sinead Ryan and Ellen Coyne.

They were suitably outraged. Especially about the Trump bits. Being constantly offended by POTUS is now part of what we are.

Fine Gael's sacrificial lamb Noel Rock was there too, looking like a goalkeeper whose captain had just given away a daft penalty that he was now expected to save.

After a few preachy intonations and a lot of brow furrowing, I aimed the remote at the telly and blanked the whole lot of them.

Really. Enough cant, hypocrisy and pontification for one Wednesday.

From Twitter early doors, through to radio and then television, journalists had been forming impatient queues to tell a largely indifferent Sean Citizen how incandescent with rage they were.

Being sanctimonious is not something I came across too often during 40 years in the newspaper game. Sad to see it being paraded as a virtue now.

Could they have been any more outraged if Varadkar had signed a decree banning a free press from midnight and instructing RTE to run images of His Coolness in silly socks instead of the Angelus twice a day?

This is not to excuse Varadkar, who seems to be plugged into a very dodgy aerial that picks up only Leo FM with all other signals coming to him fuzzy and garbled. But he has plenty of form in this regard, as every reporter on the political treadmill knows only too well.

That cringe moment at No 10, where he swooned recalling the stairway scene in Love Actually, was a bad start to a relationship with Theresa May that never really recovered. That wasn't scripted. Instead it was a notion that just happened to whisper in his ear at the most inappropriate time.

Perhaps it was his other ear that gifted him his infamous tell-tale about Doonbeg which confused a DC audience last March but seemed to leave no impression on a bored Donald Trump who didn't even bother to tweet about it.

But those who have watched his meteoric rise from Dublin councillor to Taoiseach are well aware of his talent for self-advancement, his savvy feel for social media, his nose for a photo op and his ability to play the media pack like a banjo.

This week Micheal Martin recalled that Enda Kenny was often furious at how Varadkar would strategically spread political tittle-tattle like slurry for Leinster House journalists to sniff out. Which they invariably did.

And Brendan Howlin reminded listeners to Miriam O'Callaghan of when Varadkar's loose talk about the possibility of a second bail-out in May 2011, caused consternation in Government Buildings.

And so on and so forth.

His words in New York this week, taken out of context or not, were dumb. That's a given. His reference to Trump and how he sympathised with him on this one issue was a whole new sort of stupid he could patent uncontested.

But speaking out of his rear-end while his mouth is at lunch is what this Taoiseach does on occasion. So given that context, his form and history, why the moral outrage from journalists in general and political correspondents in particular?

This sort of snowflakery in the middle of a heatwave is not what you'd expect from hardened newspaper journalists. It is a knock-about business, recognised as not being a trade for the faint-hearted, those of delicate dispositions or weak bladders.

Journalists, after all, know how to dish it out, especially to politicians. A minister having a bad week expects reporters to shadow his or her every move, knows there will be countless negative news stories, along with preachy editorials, hand-wringing opinion pieces and, to round it all off, a leader page cartoon which will most likely be unflattering and perhaps even cruel.

That is how it is, how it has always been and has to be.

So where did this notion come from that while everyone else is fair game in the pursuit of a story, journalists are somehow above criticism?

If Varadkar had used that lunch as a premeditated opening salvo in a controversial debate about draconian media reforms around defamation or confidentiality, that would indeed have been a story with long legs.

But these were throwaway comments of no import from a word-clumsy Taoiseach who is still finding his feet. If he cared to look he'd find them in his mouth much of the time.

Journalists, meanwhile, should concentrate on what they're good at. That is getting exercised about stuff that matters.

Sunday Independent

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