COLETTE BROWNE: Rabbitte shooting messenger with attack on political media

THE hubris of Communication Minister Pat Rabbitte, who recently lambasted the quality of political journalism in this country, would be a lot easier to take seriously if the nation hadn’t been lumbered with such a headline-grabbing array of greedy and grasping incompetents in Leinster House for at least the last 30 years.

Displaying an impressive aversion to irony, the hoity-toity minister said coverage of politicians’ exploits in national newspapers amounted to an indecorous “race to the bottom”, and said the “impression is abroad” that any intrepid reporter who wanted to write a story that surpassed the level of banal “tittle-tattle” would immediately be handed their P45.

“Nowhere has the standard dropped so much as in the coverage of politics,” he sniffed, in case there was any lingering doubt about the import of his comments among the idiot political journalists tasked with covering his speech.

Of course, by “impression is abroad” what the minister probably meant to say is that’s the impression of his political colleagues in the Dáil who, presumably, don’t like being taken to task by the country’s political reporters in the pages of our national newspapers every day.

It can hardly be a coincidence that at a time of rapidly sinking confidence in the Government, with opinion polls showing satisfaction ratings among the electorate taking a precipitous nosedive in recent months, the minister decides to shoot the messenger in such a spectacular fashion.

According to Rabbitte, the media is not in the business of reporting legitimate stories that raise serious concerns about politicians or their policies, but is engaged in some kind of snide and scornful attempt to smear our long-suffering and hard-working TDs and senators.

Asked to provide an example for this alleged decline in journalistic standards and the minister suddenly came over all coy, saying: “I don’t wish to elaborate on it. If you all read your newspapers in Ireland you’ll know that the quality attaching to political coverage is little above the level of tittle-tattle.”

So, having denigrated the professional ability of an entire cohort of journalists, he didn’t feel the need to support any of his ill-tempered complaints with any actual evidence of this alarming drop in standards.

Perhaps a clue can be gleaned from comments made by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore last year when he used the same term, “tittle tattle”, to describe reports that some of his cabinet colleagues were concerned about his lacklustre performance as minister.

Gilmore would undoubtedly prefer if other ministers were not whispering sweet nothings to journalists about his “indecisive dithering”, but that does not reduce the reporting of these comments to inconsequential “tittle tattle” — after all, who better to shine a light on his performance at the cabinet table than those who sit there with him? Clearly the Tánaiste would rather the unflattering appraisal never saw the light of day but, unfortunately for him, we don’t live in an autocracy, not yet anyway, and negative stories about ministers, especially when the arbiters are their cabinet colleagues, will always be news, no matter who happens to be in government.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan tried the same tired wheeze over the weekend when faced with the backlash over his inane “feta cheese” comment regarding the extent of Ireland’s trade links with Greece.

Speaking at a Bloomberg conference last week the minister reduced our sole exposure to a Greek exit from the eurozone to feta — saying cheese was the only connection to that country in Ireland.

Underscoring the idiocy of his comments, the next day Ireland’s bond yields began climbing sharply as fears spread through markets about an imminent Greek withdrawal from the eurozone and The Guardian newspaper ran a front page story that stated a Greek exit could cost a cool €1,000,000,000,000 — which, in any currency, would buy an awful lot of feta.

Former Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, when Noonan’s ill-judged remarks were put to him by RTE’s This Week, said they were “simplistic” and “flippant”. A bullish Noonan reverted to political type and blamed the media, saying his comments would only have seemed absurd and stupid if that was they way Papandreou had been briefed by RTE.

Determined to continue digging, the minister said he had been addressing a large online audience at a Bloomberg conference and thought it was “better communication” to aver to feta in a shopping basket rather than “running a bunch of statistics” to explain the likely impact of a Greek exit on this country’s parlous economy.

Perhaps Noonan’s approach would have been the correct one if he was addressing a bunch of economically illiterate schoolchildren, but the audience for Bloomberg, a media outlet that specialises in business and finance news, is more discerning than that.

Economist Karl Whelan summed up the incredulous reaction when he tweeted, “someone, make him stop — please”.

Elsewhere in the last couple of weeks we have had reports that a former Fianna Fáil politician is being investigated by gardaí for allegedly attempting to extort €100,000 from a civil servant; Government TD, Aine Collins, channeled Pee Flynn when she bellyached to constituents that her €140,000 salary was practically impossible to subsist on; news that a junior minister, John Perry, managed to run up mileage expenses of €30,000 in just 11 months; the revelation that not one single house has been constructed as part of the Limerick Regeneration project despite the €116m that’s been spent on it to date; and reports that disgraced former Senator, Ivor Callely, has refused to repay the State €6,000 he was overpaid in expenses.

MEANWHILE, as the country’s economy continues to go to hell in a handcart, the Government is so impotent that it is unable to even face down a small collection of zealots who think they’ve a god-given right to continue destroying 53 bogs around the country — despite the mammoth EU fines the country will be subjected to if they continue.

No doubt Rabbitte would traduce most of these stories as mere “tittle tattle” too, but that doesn’t dilute their ability to horrify the people who actually elect him, and other TDs, to do more than gripe and moan during their term in office.

If the communication minister is really serious about trying to help journalism to flourish in this country then, instead of taking potshots at those unfortunates who have to listen to him and his colleagues drone on in the Dáil every day, maybe he could do something constructive like amend our draconian Freedom of Information legislation, which requires impecunious newspapers to expend a small fortune on every request they submit to a public body, or, if he was feeling really helpful, he could even recommend that the minister for justice do something to ameliorate the harshness of our defamation laws, which make it almost impossible for newspapers to print stories in the public interest unless whistleblowers are willing to eschew anonymity and be publicly identified.

But no, he’ll likely just persist with his intemperate barbs about stories that show the Government in a less than flattering light.


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