Our media balancing act based on parallel lines is heading for a fall

IT snatched defeat from the mouth of apathy, did the no side in the referendum.

It got the votes of only 40% of the people who voted, and it helped a lot of people stay at home.

Before you suggest I have a vested interest here, let me tell you I may be the most uncompromised commentator in this country on this matter. Not only had I no hand — not even a little finger — in the creation of the yes strategy, but I didn’t vote either. They say on the radio that if you don’t have a polling card, you just bring your passport to the polling station along with a utility bill and you’re sorted. It didn’t work for me. So I didn’t help the yes side in any way.

The same, let’s be honest, cannot be said about the no blokes. They got in there from the beginning, promoting the yes side, and they kept it up right to the end, greatly helped by the daft rules applying to broadcasting balance.

The no side was the mouthing-off side. Now, mouthing off is great for media. Radio and television reporters never seek out quietly reflective people. They love the lippy ones. And because they love them, they read more into their mouthing off than it actually merits. Right now, for example, media thinks Sinn Féin is on the pig’s back. In fact, it’s just about on the piglet’s posterior, and the sooner Mary Lou McDonald replaces Gerry Adams, the better.

The professional discipline of Sinn Féin members in dealing with media is admirable. If they agree to be upstanding in front of your camera, they’ll be on time, clean, sober, and ready to make with the arguments. The problem, during this referendum campaign, lay in their arguments.

When Finance Minister Michael Noonan came out and said a no vote would mean an even worse budget than he currently intends to unleash upon us, Sinn Féin members lost their marbles. “He’s using scare tactics. He’s bullying the nation,” they said. “He’s playing on fear.”

This, from apologists for people who used terror tactics for 30-odd years, might have seemed ironic, but Sinn Féin don’t do much irony. What they did — and, indeed, what most of the no side did — was the old amateur device of criticising the communications tactics of the yes side. In any referendum or election, when you end up criticising the communications tactics of the other side, you’re good and goosed.

The objective is votes, not getting credit for running a losing campaign approved of by the winners.

It seems the yes side learned from what happened in previous referenda and the no folk, abhorring a vacuum, moved into the space left unoccupied. The loser’s space.

For the first Lisbon treaty referendum, the yes side was S-L-O-W. This time, , it was so fast it was almost trigger-happy. The minute anybody on the no side said anything, the yes side pulled the trigger. Last time out, the yes side gazed in horrified wonder when Ganley rang Morning Ireland to respond to Dick Roche and got on the air. This time, that pre-emptive speed was on the other side.

Richard Burton, after a mistake on Cooper’s Last Word, found a note planted in front of him within minutes, presumably reading “Minister. Fix. This. Right Now.”

A festival of press releases issued from Fine Gael and within an hour, three other ministers were on the air to correct it. Lights. Camera. Action. Particularly action.

The no side, this time around, was a) slow and b) reactive. Where no campaigns have worked in the past, it’s been when they have forced the yes campaign to argue with assertions made by the no campaign. In this instance, the opposite happened: No campaigners kept chipping away at what the yes side had already said, thereby reinforcing it in the public mind.

THEN came the major coups that weren’t. Like Ganley’s opening gambit of sending a book about poker to Enda Kenny. I’ve had that one explained to me, and even after the explanation, I’m a bit foggy. I just know it’s unwise to launch a campaign with a visually unsatisfactory device a third party has to explain. Anyway, a stunt like that can only work if it links to a theme you keep driving throughout the campaign. Which they didn’t. First time out, Ganley had a media-darling, crest-of-a-new-wave aura. Now he’s the most prominently persistent electoral loser around, still acceptable to media because he can talk, but without traction in the public mind.

The other issue which media love but has no public traction is Enda Kenny refusing to debate on TV. Because media cannot bear the notion that this might have actually worked as planned, there’s now much talk of the “reputation damage” he has supposedly incurred. This does rather ignore the fact that he did much the same in the general election and it didn’t do his personal popularity, as measured by opinion polls, any harm thereafter.

Won’t do his popularity any harm now, either. The people of Ireland are quite good at surviving the trauma of not seeing Enda Kenny on TV debates. His absence allowed the Labour leader and other ministers to get stuck in, and they did well.

Micheál Martin did a super job too, as did businesspeople, in print and on TV. Nonetheless, arguably the most important end result of the campaign, in media terms, is the need for an urgent review of regulations on media balance, which are three notches on the wrong side of crazy.

During this referendum, we had the Referendum Commission being 1950s proper with broadcasting stations: “Careful, now. Careful. Steady.”

Online, on the other hand, on yes and no sides alike, an army of headbangers vomited venom and propaganda and ignored anything to do with balance.

We can’t continue ignoring this dichotomy. We can’t ignore a situation where the biggest and best-funded shouters conduct a completely unbalanced and unregulated online debate. We can’t kid ourselves that it makes democratic sense to have two parallel campaigns: The one that happens on mainstream media with producers clutching stopwatches to ensure everybody gets equal time and the online one where it’s napalm-tossing before breakfast.

The rules apply only to mainstream media, despite the number of media consumers whose first source is Twitter or Facebook. Just as importantly, the rules are based, ridiculously, on the belief that giving each side of an argument equal time adds up to balance. It doesn’t. If, for example, I was a biased media producer who wanted a yes vote, I’d have no problem with equal time. I’d just favour one potential programme guest above all others: Nigel Farage. “Be as British as you can, Nigel, pet,” I’d be thinking but not saying. “Do that extreme Tory thing that gets up everybody’s nose.”

My programmes would keep the Referendum Commission happy. They’d obey all current rules about balance but they’d help the yes side immeasurably. Right now, we’re trying to run a 21st-century democracy using mid-20th century media rules.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

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