The unashamed ogling of the Canadian PM masks the real craze of our times — political fidget-spinning. We need to learn the art of media literacy so that we know when we are being spun, writes Clodagh Finn.
Ah, reverse sexism and bare-faced hypocrisy — what perfect companions to fuel the hot air and puffery of the silly season.
A mere week ago, the knives were out for the uncouth leader of the free world, Donald Trump, for apparently saying RTÉ’s Washington correspondent Caitriona Perry had a nice smile.
In fact, Mr Trump said she had a nice smile on her face, which isn’t exactly the same thing, although he did go on to interpret her facial expression as a sign that she treated our prime minister Leo Varadkar well.
Yes, it was bizarre, creepy, and inappropriate, but that was nothing compared to this week’s shocking objectification of the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at the hands of our own press commentators.
You could say it was fun to turn the tables and, for once, unleash a torrent of inane commentary on the young man’s physique, progressive policies, and… em, did we mention his physique?
The ‘young’ bit was interesting, too. He’s 45, which, in world-leader terms, is certainly young, but would a woman of 45 be considered young? Just asking.
My apologies. For a moment there I was getting distracted from the real business which was one of the most impressive displays of political image management we’ve seen in a while.
It was clear Mr Varadkar and Mr Trudeau got on well — a series of pictures of them various settings, laughing and emoting, was interpreted as the blossoming of a bromance between leaders of great integrity.
Mr Trudeau made a great speech about gender equality and… actually, I can’t recall what else was said because all that youth and male vigour was utterly distracting. There was something about the controversial Ceta free-trade deal between Canada and the EU, but who wants to talk about that when we can ogle two fit men running in the Phoenix Park?
Somebody mentioned the cool sunglasses, somebody else talked about the toned and tanned figures in the frame. There was even a mention of the themed socks.
Nobody, however, mentioned the perfume bottle with its elaborate atomising squeeze ball and tassel. It was there too, but few of us realised that we were being sprayed with a heady squirt of its image-manipulating scent, blinding us to all else.
That’s what it feels like to be spun; you don’t realise you are being swept along on a wave of bonhomie and banter. The show is so intoxicating and engaging that it obscures all else. Who wants to discuss the ins and outs of a trade deal, or the implications of the Charleton tribunal, when le beau Justin is hitting a sliotar with a hurley?
Meanwhile, in France, the third member of the handsome triumvirate, Emmanuel Macron, was putting on his own spectacular show in Versailles, the sumptuous palace built by Louis XIV, the Sun King.
His state-of-the-nation address to both houses of the French parliament drew much criticism and, inevitably, a comparison to the Sun King himself.
If, as it has been suggested, Mr Varadkar is somehow in the same mould as the French head of state, it must be pointed out that Mr Macron seems to be building a presidency that will take power further away from the people.
Mr Macron has spoken of his desire to restore dignity to the office, as well as accountability and transparency, but, so far, he seems to have elevated himself on to an opaque higher ground, surrounding himself with pomp and ceremony.
There’s that perfume bottle again, emitting its dizzying scent around a president who is eloquent and philosophical. You could almost miss the mention of his plan to cut the number of elected deputies by a third.
Yes, the number of women in the French parliament is up significantly but soon that figure could be slashed by a third if his reform goes ahead. At least there will be gender balance, as the number of male deputies representing ordinary French citizens will also be cut by a third.
That is an issue for the French to work out, but it is time to stop comparing an Irish leader to a French one just because they are both under 40 and — yes, let’s say it — easy on the eye.
Of course, political spin and image management are nothing new, but the rise of social media has made them much more potent. That’s why it is more important than ever to call out manipulation of all kinds.
The first meeting of the Irish Media Literacy Network, which took place this week, could not have come at a better time.
Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Broadcast Authority of Ireland, said the network hopes to come up with a number of initiatives to help the public analyse and evaluate media messages. It has never been harder — or more important — to critically assess the news that comes to us in a constant stream.
Mr Trump might well have done the world a favour by making the term ‘fake news’ a household phrase, as now everyone is aware of the need to be more critical of what we read.
In one way, we have him to thank for putting the spotlight on the need to be media literate. It is arguably the single most important subject in a world that is constantly connected, so why isn’t it yet formally taught in schools?
Last month, the Reuters Institute found that just 47% of Irish people trusted traditional news media, although that was higher than the average of 41% reported in other countries.
When it came to social media, the Irish were also more trusting. Some 28% of Irish people, as against 24% internationally, said they thought social media did a good job of separating fact from fiction.
At best, that means more than half of Irish people (53%) don’t believe what they read. In a week when the headlines reflected a collective crush on Mr Trudeau, that is probably no bad thing.
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