Journalists should remember that it’s part of the job to treat everyone equally in this campaign, writes Alison O’Connor
There is a media bias in favour of Michael D Higgins in this presidential election. It was there seven years ago and it still exists today.
But there are too many journalists out there, a significant rump, who pretend it’s not a thing for them. That is unfair.
I happen to agree with that bias currently. I own that as a fact. I’ve been previously accused of “shocking ageism” in saying I believed Michael D was too old to run for a second term, and that, anyway, a stint of 14 years straight, for anyone, in any office, is ridiculously long time. If he wanted a second term, he had to be challenged for it.
So it is a good thing there is a challenge. The pity is that he is not being challenged by more credible candidates. This is to do with the lineup of those opposing him, but also with the fact that the two main parties — Fine Gael and Fianna Fail — deliberately downgraded this election by not putting forward their own candidate. They have strategically, or selfishly — choose your option — decided to hold on to all their firepower for a general election.
The lacklustre nature of the campaign and the so far uninspiring performances from the other candidates trying to get into Áras an Uachtaráin all play to Michael D’s favour. They also serve as a confirmation bias for the members of the media who want the current president to be re-elected.
Just ask Sean Gallagher. Seven years ago, there were members of my own profession almost spitting at the audacity of the Monaghan man in putting himself forward. They simply could not believe that he appeared to resonate so well with the public and soared ahead in the opinion polls.
I had the added complication — for a political commentator — that my husband was a friend of Gallagher and worked on his campaign. As a result, I knew Gallagher — not very well — but what I did know, I liked, and I believed him to be a sincere, well-intentioned, person.
I could never quite envisage him in the Áras but I worked to understand why it was that people were so taken with him. This was a time when we were collectively traumatised from the economic bust.
That is not to ignore his shortcomings on the campaign trail. From the off in 2011, Gallagher had trouble with his “Fianna Fáilness” when asked about his previous involvement with the party by interviewers.
He couldn’t seem to land on a response that dealt with it (at a time when the party was deemed toxic) yet didn’t alienate the Fianna Fáil voters who seemed very keen to vote for him. But during the campaign he was treated hugely unfairly on RTÉ’s Frontline debate programme.
However, as he has acknowledged himself, he bears responsibility for how poorly he handled himself in that moment on live television.
While I’m at it, I have some sympathy for him now when he’s asked what he was doing for the past seven years. What happened in 2011 was a traumatic life event. He had to work to recover from it, and then to get his life back through work and having a family. He did also stand open to being accused of not accepting Michael D’s victory if he had attempted to maintain a high public profile.
Equally, it is interesting to note that, as far as I can tell, he did not appear on a single RTÉ programme in the seven years since — he was suing the broadcaster until last year, when it paid him an undisclosed settlement for what went on that infamous night. He describes the sum as “substantial”; RTÉ does not.
That election campaign was appalling in a bear-baiting, horror show kind of way which culminated in that Frontline programme, the unfair treatment of Gallagher, and his own subsequent implosion. There can be no doubt but that Michael D escaped the worst of it.
He has always been a media darling, turning in impassioned, bravura performances on significant occasions over the decades.
A benevolent eye was turned when, for instance, he was appointed Minister for Arts, Culture, and the Gaeltacht and acquired a magnificent pomposity. During that first presidential campaign, he benefited from the controversies surrounding the other candidates — such as the late Martin McGuinness’s IRA history, or the nonsense about Mary Davis serving on State boards — and was viewed as a known, trusted, and liked quantity.
These he was, but it did not excuse the easy ride afforded to him, as the firm media choice, which meant that when Gallagher had such a spectacular nose dive, Michael D was left standing there as the automatic choice.
As we know, Michael D was the one elected and has done a really fine job in serving as the President of Ireland for the past seven years. There’s a confirmation bias if ever we saw one, but it doesn’t mean that the initial bias shouldn’t be called out. He has the extra benefit of incumbency and indeed popularity with the public and the media.
You have to wonder, for example, about the relatively muted response to how he intends to handle the unaudited €317,000 Aras fund. He will give details on how it has been spent — but not until after the election!
Imagine if another candidate said something similar on a financial matter?
Now Michael D is running for that office a second time and Gallagher is once again running against him. So far, Gallagher has failed to impress. A significant part of his problem is that people can’t seem to get over the “why” of him having another tilt at the Áras after his previous failure — and he isn’t coming up with the best answers to that question.
His offering is not having the same resonance as it did seven years ago.
He has attempted to pitch himself as the only other credible candidate but so far has failed to really separate himself from the other five candidates, not helped by the absurd fact that there are two others who were once, like him, on Dragons’ Den: Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey.
Personally I’m not too bothered by Michael D changing his mind about running after giving the commitment to only do one term. The beauty of democracy is that if the voters had a problem with that they can show it at the ballot box.
While I do have the issue with age, based on the risk of someone in their 80s being able to endure the rigours of the presidency, especially foreign trips, it’s fading into the background in the absence of a credible alternative.
So at the moment Michael D is well ahead of the field, but journalists should remember that it’s part of the job to treat everyone equally in this campaign.
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