Media fulfils its appointed role in an election of more winners than losers

WATCHING the elections and referenda from Sweden, where I’ve been working for the last week, I’ve been struck by the emerging myths around the presidential election, the first of which was that “there were no winners”.

This was said by a number of observers, some of whom went on to criticise the unprecedented viciousness of the campaigns and the performance of media throughout as having in some way diminished us all.

None of this is true.

First of all, of course we have a winner. Michael D Higgins is a clear winner and was in that position long before the votes were officially counted. The tallymen had him in the Park while the papers were only coming out of the boxes.

The fact that the previous week the opinion polls had him losing the race should not be conflated into some kind of criticism of the man. He has been selected and will do everything in his power to live up to the slogans on his posters and the promises made. That’s what Michael D does, and it ill becomes us to promote our own sophistication by behaving as if our new President was an embarrassing uncle wanting to sing the Fields of Athenry at every family birthday party. He is not diminished in his victory by having been briefly outpaced by Sean Gallagher.

Nor is the presidency in any way diminished by the vividness of the contest leading to that victory. This notion that a newspaper finding out public domain details about a singularly icky squabble within the family of a candidate is somehow going a step too far seems to derive from an assumption that candidates vying for the presidency are a better kind of human than candidates vying for entry into the Dáil or Seanad. That they’re not really politicians going for a political job. They’re higher beings on a mission.

The fact is that the minute a person, be they secular hero (like Mary Davis) licensed intellectual eccentric (like David Norris) or TV celeb (Sean Gallagher and Dana) steps up for election to the presidency, they change the category under which we view them for one which is much more harsh.

The problem is that once you’ve got used to the level of acceptance and popularity that came with the previous role, once you’re accustomed to walking around as one of the guys in the white hats, you may find it difficult to accept that you’re now sitting in the stocks with your hands poking out through the holes, ready to receive incoming tomatoes. You’re now one of the guys in the black hats and what worked for you in the past will now work against you.

This notion that the presidency is a higher calling leads to a skewed view of the role of media during the campaign. Candidates themselves start telling media what they should be doing. Remember the old advice about not trying to teach a pig to sing, on the basis that it will be a bit frustrating for you while irritating the hell out of the pig?

It applies to politicians and media. It has always applied and will always apply. Just as trying to drill Va Pensiero into a porcine pal is calculated to leave you and Miss Piggy loving each other markedly less, so telling Vincent or Pat or Ryan or Miriam or any other media interrogator that they’re asking the wrong questions and concentrating their efforts on the wrong area is going to be unproductive.

ONE of the first media lessons any politician should learn is to stay in their own area of expertise and not assume it gives them the right to order other professionals about. William Buckley Jr, a man of strong opinions and unmatched capacity to articulate those opinions, indicated the line not to be crossed when he went to hear an African American jazz pianist play.

“The word had trickled out that here was something really cool and ear-catching,” Buckley wrote. “Besides which his name rolled about the tongue releasing intrigue and wry amusement, and so I heard Thelonious Monk. He struck some really sure- enough bizarre chords, but you know, it would never have occurred to me to walk over and say, ‘Thelonious, I am not familiar with that chord you just played. So cut it out please.’”

Precisely the same rule and the same respectful sense of boundary applies to presidential aspirants. Just because the question asked sounds “sure-enough bizarre” to you does not put you in a position to prescribe the questions the professional on the other side of the microphone is permitted to ask.

It doesn’t work like that. You can refuse to answer. You can explain why you’re refusing to answer. You can walk out. You can even do what Dana did and produce a statement cunningly crafted to refuse to answer a question that might be put to her in the future if the wind was in the wrong direction. But dislike of an incoming question does not promote you to programme producer and allow you to tell a professional in a different line of business how to do their work.

This time around, most of the candidates realised too late that what media were doing was an extended recruitment interview, establishing if they, the candidates, were qualified for the job. Simple, obvious, legitimate and above all, predictable, yet it shocked some candidates.

Why were we talking about the past, they demanded. (Because what you are now is the sum total of what you’ve done or failed to do in the past). Why were we asking these horrible questions about the private lives of candidates? (Because they help the public judge your character, on which, ultimately, they’re going to vote). Why were we not concentrating on the future? (Because anybody can tell us they’re going to win the Grand National, but if their only previous equine experience was falling off the wooden horse on a carnival carousel, we might have a few minor doubts). Some of them moaned about negative campaigning, their moans motivated by a myth. The myth says we hate negative campaigning. The myth is based on focus group research (that sound you hear is my teeth grinding) revealing that participants in focus groups do not like negative campaigning. Of course they don’t. They’re being asked their opinion in the middle of a group of strangers. You think they’re going to say “Hell, I love hearing the dirt about other people’s lives”? Instead, they virtuously say they hate negative campaigning.

Negative campaigning is where your competition suggests bad stuff about you.

If the bad stuff is untrue, you prove it. If it’s true, you may sink beneath it. Negative questioning by media does the same thing.

This election showed media doing what media is supposed to do, and doing it superbly. But most of all, it showed a clever, committed electorate making sophisticated, informed decisions, not just on who should be President, but on the referenda and by-election, too. More winners than losers emerged from Thursday’s vote.

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