THE one statement constantly made about the fiscal treaty is that we should have more debates about it.
We should have debates involving the Taoiseach on Vincent Browne’s programme. We should have debates between Gerry Adams and the yes side. We should have debates involving anybody from overseas, on either side, who wants to influence the vote. We should have debates with live audiences, tweets, and text messages.
To beg to differ is to be seen as trying to prevent the public getting the information it badly needs in order to make a crucial decision for the future of the nation. To beg to differ is to be seen as standing between Joe and Josephine Public and their hunger for data about the treaty.
Joe and Josephine Public have already had more debates on this referendum than even the most hooked debate addict could want, and if the most recent opinion poll can be trusted, all it’s done is confuse some of those who had decided to vote yes into the unsure camp. Not into the no camp, which would indicate clear information had led to an informed change of mind. Into the “don’t know” camp, meaning the debates thus far have befuddled, addled and nonplussed at least some floating voters.
In addition, the single most interesting thing to emerge from any debate, thus far, has not been the elucidation of some hitherto obscure point, so that the nation claps a hand to its forehead and goes “Now, I get it.” Nope. The single most interesting event was Richard Bruton having a brain-blip.
That was on Matt Cooper’s programme, and drew its perceived value, depending on your standpoint, either from wonder about a genius economist having the capacity to make a public mistake, or from the pleasing conspiracy theory that he’d had a Freudian lapse into The Real Truth of Government intentions. Since the minister himself (within 20 minutes), the Taoiseach, the minister for agriculture, and the minister for health (within an hour) all swore blind that another referendum was not now and never had been possible, the conspiracy theory didn’t have much support. But it did give the no side a new line in accusation, and filled the news pages the following day.
Gaffes always have greater currency in debates than solid content. Nobody has ever produced substantive research establishing that voters emerge from watching TV debates with a better understanding of the issues. The reason the media campaigns for TV debates is that they’re great for media. TV3 gained from staging the first debate. TV3 even gained from Enda Kenny’s refusal to participate in any later TV3 debate, as the refusal gave the station loads of coverage.
Each TV or radio programme staging a debate creates coverage of itself, which is deeply pleasing, given the increasing love affair of media with media. As the colour writers line up to be funny about what happens in the studio, as the panelists on the later programmes note the body language “tells” of participants, (“he folded his arms in a defensive way”) everybody convinces themselves that what’s going on is an essential educative process aimed at the general public, who, absent such input, would either fail to vote at all (as huge numbers will do anyway) or would vote in ignorance of the real truth of the treaty.
Now, if the general public cares, they can read, in Irish or English, the booklet delivered to their home which explains every aspect of a relatively uncomplicated treaty.
This leaflet is another aspect of the costly civic do-goodery that surrounds referenda.
Nobody ever checks what percentage of these booklets are actually read by the recipients. Nobody measures the increase in awareness, if any, generated by a booklet against its cost. It’s considered a virtue to spend a fortune on something the efficacy of which is never tested.
It’s the same with debates. The media takes the position that debates enlighten and inform the public so that they vote based on the data presented.
THE reality is that — if the wind is in the right direction — TV debates provide a series of compelling dramatic moments which allow a Twitter frenzy and present newspapers and talk radio with material that’s much more interesting than any of the substantive points made. Think back to the presidential debates to what was most commented upon and most remembered. The key memory from one of the TV3 debates was of Vincent Browne pulling one book after another from under his desk to prove to Martin McGuinness that several prestigious writers believe him to have been a member of the IRA. The key memory from Frontline is Sean Gallagher floundering in the face of a fictive tweet.
It may be suggested that key moments crystallise the essence of an argument or of a candidate and accordingly have a major and proper role in deciding whether someone should or should not be president or whether the nation should or should not ratify a treaty. This argument is constantly applied to Gallagher by commentators who believe that it wasn’t the tweet that brought him down, but rather his reaction to it.
In examining that reaction, it should be remembered that Gallagher was suddenly faced with apparent evidence that he was lying. Live on air, in the middle of a TV debate. It’s the sort of situation where any candidate would suffer cognitive dissonance: The contradiction, inside their head, between what they remember and what is being presented to them as the disproof of their own memory. In his effort to make sense of that contradiction, Gallagher fumbled his way into a deadly phrase that turned the audience against him. The alternative was to stick to his original story, which, in view of the threat of a press conference the following day with evidence to be produced, might have looked worse.
But how often does our President ever have to deal live on TV with apparent lies about his past? It’s not in the job spec.
Calm under attack is a worthwhile presidential trait, but Gallagher wasn’t the only candidate in deficit on that score.
Even the man who won was jumpstarted into profanity on one memorable media occasion — the difference being that it wasn’t in a televised debate, so nobody got to view and review it on YouTube or, the next morning, see it portrayed in print media as emblematic of wider character flaws in Michael D Higgins.
Research by Drew Weston established that virtually no voters watch TV debates with an open, information-seeking mind. Instead, he found, the viewer’s pre-debate “feelings toward the candidates strongly predicted not only who they thought had won the debate but their judgements of the quality of each candidate’s arguments”.
This undoubtedly is the case in referendum debates. Which will not reduce media demand for them one iota. Because that demand is based on a constant imperative: The need for ratings.
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