Sunday 25 February 2018

Fairy-tale media's ugly duckling became Bertie the Black Swan

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

ALL swans are white. To disprove this, said John Stuart Mill, you only have to find one black swan. Likewise, to break Enoch Powell's bleak belief that all political careers end in failure, you only have to find one Bertie Ahern.

So to puncture the public belief that the Irish media went insane during this campaign, you only have to produce one newspaper and one hack who kept their heads. The Sunday Independent is that newspaper, and four hacks held tough: Davy Adams in the Irish Times, Kevin Myers in the Irish Independent, and Brendan O'Connor and myself in the Sunday Independent.

This weekend, as the media herd tries to hide its tracks, I want to tell you the three reasons why Bertie Ahern will get a third term. And the first and most fundamental reason is that Bertie Ahern is a politician of astonishing ability, whose greatest gift is to make it all look easy.

The second reason is that Ahern was hugely helped by the part the media played in his plot. As a political strategist I see "plot", with its notion of necessity, as superior to the concept of "story", which PR spindoctors spoof so much about to gullible journalists from the Irish Examiner.

PR people prefer a "story" (which has no notion of necessity) where Happy Hero Bertie has a grand time from start to finish. This is fine if you are freewheeling through the 2002 election, which was not a campaign but a coronation. But not if you are facing a hard fight as in 2007.

This time around, he faced a three-week campaign which demanded a three-act drama. By targeting Ahern the media gave Fianna Fail an authentic hero. After that it only needed a plot which put Battling Bertie under pressure in the first act, so he could fight back bravely in the second act, and triumph against all the odds in the third act.

The three-act theory was tested successfully in the Mary Robinson campaign where I argued that in act one Robinson should literally remove herself from Dublin. John Rogers reinforced that by advising her to start off her campaign in Allihies on the remote Beara Peninsula. This made her a mystery to the media, which, we guessed correctly, would make a myth of the dark horse coming from behind.

Accordingly, at the beginning of Ahern's campaign I was a bit baffled when Harry McGee of the Irish Examiner seemed bowled over by Terry Prone's polished bon mot about "this being the first time a political party had used a starting pistol to shoot itself in the foot". A position still parroted by all the media muppets who have none of Prone's nuances.

In fact someone had to shoot Bertie in the political foot in the first act so he could limp around suffering in the second act and bound free in the last act. It follows that the fusillade of blanks from Frank Connolly, Vincent Browne and their groupie journalists was just what the plot needed to put Bertie back for a third term.

At the start of the Ahern campaign therefore, contrary to received wisdom, the public got both a credible suffering hero, and almost as important, a powerful villain in the shape of the Irish media. And this brings me to the second reason for Ahern's success.

The main factor in making Bertie Ahern a black swan was the mad media campaign conducted against him. And let us have no mealy-mouthed let-outs about "most of the media". Almost all of the media attacked Ahern in Bertiegate 2, aka, the general election campaign.

After Bertiegate 1, you might imagine the media would try to stay in touch with public opinion in Bertiegate 2. Not a bit of it. And you can be certain that most of the media is ready to run after the Connollys and Brownes when the Mahon Tribunal resumes.

Meantime, the media must find a focus for its anger about being wrong about Ahern. And if this anger was aimed accurately the media would have to commit collective suicide. But of course it is more likely to commit collective murder - against anyone who got it right. Such as the Sunday Independent or myself.

The first signs of future smearing - designed to distract attention from the mess the media made of the General Election - came as sniping in the Sunday Times and the blanket of begrudging silence which all political commentators threw over the impact of the Late Late Show at a low point - where all three panelists paid tribute to Ahern if not to Fianna Fail.

So let me get my retaliation in first. The media are mad because they got it wrong, and we got it right. Right about Bertiegate 1. Right about Rabbitte being ready to talk to Bertie. Right about Bertiegate 2. Right about the result.

Let me finish with a

few rhetorical questions to the media begrudgers. How can you read over your comments of the past six months without hot flushes? How many times are you going to follow Connolly and Browne into that cul-de-sac in Drumcondra? After all, to lose one Bertiegate might be a misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness.

A few more. How do you justify the stream of political slurry you poured into the public mind these past three weeks? The puerile predictions that Pat Rabbitte had painted himself into a corner? The panicky predictions that Fianna Fail was finally finished? The gormless predictions about Fianna Fail doing a deal with the Greens? The poisonous predictions about Fianna Fail doing a deal with the Provos?

But just in case there is even one young journalist trying to break out of the junk consensus, and wants to know why they got it wrong, here is my answer. More than any other group, with the exception of the enclosed convents of the Middle Ages, the mass media is prone to collective bouts of mass hysteria - a hysteria that is harder to fight because most of the media, being middle class, suffer from the delusion that they are doing their own thing.

Actually all they are doing is Connolly and Browne's thing. Hence Nick Cohen's phrase "the herd of independent minds". And that was how almost every hack in the Irish media collectively came to the same two false conclusions in the past two weeks: that Ahern had questions to answer and that he was in serious trouble at the polls. To both of which the public said, no way.

Alone among the national newspapers - and this is why we get so much flak from our jealous rivals - the Sunday Independent kept its finger on the public pulse. This may be why we hold the loyalty of our sometimes long-suffering readers. When we make a mistake we admit that mistake.

As Aengus Fanning says, the Sunday Independent does not aspire to the moral high ground. We live where most people morally live, muddling along, making mistakes, doing our best. A bit like Ahern himself. Which is why last week's Sunday Independent rightly recognised Bertie Ahern as a black swan.

It takes one to know one.

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