GERARD HOWLIN: Voters are incorrigible in making up their own minds

Harrumphing about lapsed standards is only a whinge away from bemoaning the youth of today, writes Gerard Howlin

THE relationship between media and politics resembles a dysfunctional couple whose remaining connection is mutual abuse but who cannot leave one another alone. Self-obsessed, self-referential prickliness intensifies parasitical co-dependency. Yet nearly every societal trend indicates politicians and media occupy significantly diminished roles. Pillars of an interdependent establishment, both are unsettled by a dispersal of authority and the arrival of new technology. Part of the force field of social media is its acceleration of entrenched patterns of disruption. Not only does it allow you receive information in myriad ways, alarmingly it allows almost anyone offer an opinion, in public.

Offering opinion was always the prerogative of anyone on a bar stool. The disruptive, democratisation of social media is that it allows everyone into the conversation. The plaintive wailing last weekend from political grandees about falling standards and an insatiable lust for negativity in the media was unintended comedy. That newspaper columns were the stage for this merriment, only exposed their lack of self-awareness.

The prompt for the latest outrage was the going-on-and-on about Minister Dara Murphy’s hitching of a lift from a Garda squad car from the side of the motorway in Cork, in the middle of the night, to Dublin Airport. The red tops were given a fool’s pardon by disgruntled former ministers turned columnists, but they said RTÉ, to which much is given and much is expected, seriously let itself down.

Perhaps more particularly it let the side down. Murphy probably got more than his share of comment. It wasn’t a matter of much substance. But it did make a point. One party in government enjoys an inherited sense of entitlement. The other an acquired air of moral superiority. The combination of the two — self-regard — is an irresistible target for deprecation.

Neither politics nor traditional media are redundant. To the contrary, they have an essential role. But the unchallenged monopoly of both over the public conversation is over. The Government is obsessed about how unrequited its own regard is by RTÉ. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are out of sorts too with the broadcaster. But that is not the point. The toxin in the Government’s bile is not only that it is unfair, it is letting the side down. In their view there are people who know better and the essential purpose of RTÉ is to be part of a movement for the moral improvement of the masses. Tabloidisation, a la the Murphy story — a shouty, interrupting style of interviewing and deprecation of government achievement are exampled as evidence of a national broadcaster becoming degenerated, déclassé. It is almost a case of class betrayal.

Media is noisy and irritating but it is less important than its practitioners imagine. Unpredictably some stories break through the ether and really make a difference. Most do not and fade, forgotten in an increasingly frenetic news cycle. Usually governments get the effluent-smeared end of the stick from the media but most voters don’t pay much heed. They are disturbingly inclined to make up their own minds. Voters have an endless capacity to disappoint the expectations of their betters and are happily immune to moral enlightenment.

What neither politics nor traditional media has adjusted to be, is the permanent redistribution of authority. It is ironic that what we now call politics was at its emergence, little more than 100 years ago, called a rabble. The shift in power from a landed elite to democratisation was not just disruptive, it was shocking. The notion of the unwashed and unlanded meddling in government was akin to chaos. “Chaos”, incidentally is the Government’s preferred and, I predict, possibly effective dog whistle to voters who have perfected the art of buttering their own parsnips, above all other survival skills.

The chaotic emergence of democratic politics, for such it seemed then to those who tut tutted about a lack of due deference, was accompanied by the emergence of mass circulation newspapers. Print and Grub Street went back hundreds of years. But the extension of the franchise and arrival of industrialised mass circulation newspapers coincided. Not until social media would there be such a profound, unwelcome disruption to established sources of information and power. Reading bleating protestations about a race to the bottom in the media, or prominent parts of it by former ministers, reminded me of Geoffrey Fisher. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury who opposed allowing the BBC film the coronation, lest it be viewed by people in pubs with drink taken. There is always an establishment, there is always change and there is always their appalled reaction to it. There is little more self-serving than the sight of the recently arrived pulling the drawbridge up behind them.

Change, substantive change that is, comes from the outside in, not the inside out. On Monday Renua proposed a flat rate of tax, which shockingly implies everyone should pay something to the State. Part of their programme is that corporate welfare for RTÉ, the TV licence fee, should be a genuine public service broadcasting levy. That would allow all broadcasters, regardless of whether they are the state-owned national broadcaster, apply on equal terms for funding for their public service broadcasting output. The odd thing is that those who most deplore RTÉ’s enthrallment to the mores of social media are also its main political mudguard against encroachment of its largesse. And if RTÉ enjoys the overwhelming share of the licence fee, An Post inexplicably is cross-subsidised by it as well. Despite its incompetent enforcement of payment on reticent TV owners, it has the contract for collecting the licence fee. It is a classic case of the public service colonising the public interest.

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Mutually self-absorbing obsessions leads to fixation on detail at the expense of substance. The date of the election may be of some tactical importance but, we will only know that in hindsight. More worrying is the regrouping of unreformed political structures behind patterns of behaviour that only recently were forever forsworn. In the scheme of things the monopoly of the State-owned broadcaster of a national TV licence, like Dara Murphy’s lift in the squad car, is trivial. But obsession with the trivial, at the expense of broader analysis, is as much a feature of politics as it is of the media itself.

Harrumphing about lapsed standards is only a whinge away from bemoaning the youth of today. It is the preserve of the past-it. If you are in power and unhappy with RTÉ, cut it off at the knees. No fear, it won’t happy. Bleating about nonsense is the preferred placebo. As for social media, it is increasingly prevalent and influential. But it suffers from the embedded weakness of all media; what frequently flies is what is unusual, not what is important. People are as entertained as informed by it. But they are incorrigible in insisting in making up their own minds for themselves. What wins is clarity and conviction, not humbug.


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