GERARD HOWLIN: Our new obsession with spectacle blinds us to politics’ bigger picture

PERFORMING on ever larger ‘small’ screens is increasingly what politics is about. 

It’s odd whom the camera likes, and whom it doesn’t. Vivacious people are bleached by the strobe lights. Others, fundamentally dull, temporarily come to life and sparkle synthetically.

Former US president Ronald Reagan put it disarmingly well, when he asked “how can a president not be an actor?” He knew.

Television is all about making pictures. Words are seldom as important as the images. It’s a sensory experience.

Last Sunday, I was in a friend’s house and the rugby was on. The television screen was ginormous. Not unusually so, just a ‘standard’ very very big screen.

I make do with a 20-inch on brackets in a cupboard. Open the door, pull it out, turn it on, but then, critically, turn it off and close the door again.

If you didn’t know about the cupboard, you might imagine you were in one of those rarefied homes that doesn’t have a television. But that’s a pose.

What I like about my newish television, apart from being able to make it disappear, is that I can get the radio on it, too.

Now, I know this is nothing new. But it’s new to me. Until last year, I had several boxes with wires coming out of them. The television, the CD player, the speakers coming out of the CD player and a radio, which was more of a vintage transistor, without the retro glamour.

Looking at the rugby on Sunday afternoon, on the big screen, I remembered the night before, and watching, on my more modest gizmo, Labour leader Joan Burton delivering her party conference address. That reminded me of how the medium is so intrinsic to the message.

Once, when all televisions were small and black-and-white, politics was extraordinary public theatre. The era of mass public meetings, or at least speeches outside churches on Sunday, was still alive, if fading.

Party conferences were unpredictable and even as the politics became tame, the social side was raucous. Ard Fheiseanna were a cross between Medjugorje and an All-Ireland final.

They were big events, and television has killed them. Ever bigger televisions, ever more ‘production’ and increasingly less action.

It is like watching paint dry. Colour televisions, and ‘colour writers’ — not to mention columnists — have drained the life from them.

The rugby match was made for technicolor on screen. The Aviva Stadium glistened, and you could see every grimace on the players’ faces. It was both real drama and staged performance.

It’s extraordinary that while politics, which is supposed to be our civic responsibility, is fading for most of us, sport as gladiatorial show is coming into its own.

Of course, sport was always huge. But professional sport, or amateur games that are increasingly professionalised, are drawing ever larger followings, fed by television.

The home-spun roots of these sports have become a world apart. At the top level, spectacle, not participation, is the driving force.

Politicians can’t compete, nor should they. But they are caught in a bind. Public performance is increasingly the measure of achievement.

Our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is famously reticent in doing big television interviews. He did one the week before last, with Miriam O’Callaghan, on Prime Time.

That programme was pushed back to allow us look at Lucy Beale’s murder on East Enders.

Kenny’s interview wasn’t a double homicide, but it wasn’t an Oscar-winning performance, either. Examine the text of what he said, and there wasn’t a serious mistake.

It’s a matter of taste and point of view as to what you thought of the narrative, but the ‘performance’ was of a man ill at ease in his surrounds. Avuncular in person, he wasn’t enjoying his ‘prime time’ date with Miriam.

We have a Taoiseach who isn’t an actor.

The following Saturday, he gave a better ‘performance’, delivering his Ard Fheis speech.

In contrast, Joan Burton, last Saturday night, was so over-produced that it was a charade. To her credit, she has given great employment to mimics Mario Rosenstock and Oliver Callan. Behind every great caricature is a true character.

But last Saturday was a dreadful ‘performance’. Apparently afraid of her own entertaining caricature, she morphed into another. It’s a pity — because she had a reasonably good script, and she can mix it easily one-on-one on television.

Next weekend is Sinn Féin’s turn, and seven weeks later it’s Fianna Fáil’s. These won’t be the last.

If the Government goes its full term, and it probably will, they will all be on the television again in early 2016.

Those party conferences won’t be the only set-pieces planned for next year, though. The big one is the centenary celebration of the 1916 rising. All going to plan, it will overlap with the general election campaign in technicolour.

There will be a lot of tut-tutting and crying foul about that. But Enda Kenny hasn’t forgotten that former taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s re-election in 2007 was enormously helped by the formation of the historic power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland on May 8 that year.

On May 11, Ahern welcomed the late Ian Paisley to the Battle of the Boyne site. Days later, on May 15, Ahern delivered his address to the Houses of Parliament, in Westminster. Polling day was on May 24.

That election was like no other, before or since. It was one Kenny was apparently destined to win, and he led in opinion polls from the beginning.

The tide had already begun to turn against him, however, before the single-leader’s debate on May 17. That failure of ‘performance’ sealed his fate. It was also cumulative.

A floundering Fianna Fáil campaign had been resurrected by history in the making. You couldn’t make it up and you couldn’t beat it.

Next year, it is intended that there will be no failure of ‘performance’. Power, persuasion and ‘performance’ have always been linked.

The centenary of the rising will be enacted, if the Government lasts, in parallel with an election campaign. If it’s over-produced or seems forced, the result will likely be a backlash.

But if they get it right, they will unite, if not the country, at least enough of it and the synergy of politics, history and television may come together at the right moment.

Our screens are getting bigger, too big for any one politician to stand within alone and hold the ‘crowds’ beyond through only the force of words.

That US president Barack Obama did so spectacularly on the hustings reminds us how exceptional a feat it is. What works better is the great spectacle, big enough to fill our screens and our imaginations.

Ben Hur, Paul O’Connell; they’re the measure of what we want. Fed on fantasy, we are disappointed by reality.

We are voyeurs in our own rites of passage, extras on the set of our public stage.


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