From the point of view of the media, one of February’s biggest stories almost got lost in the election chaos. On Friday, February 19th, one week before polling day, the newspaper circulation figures for the second half of last year were published.
In one sense, the story was a bit of a non-story: newspapers continue to sell fewer and fewer copies – the roughly 40 per cent collapse of sales that we’ve seen over the last decade or so was certainly accelerated by Ireland’s economic implosion; but whatever recovery somebody out there is enjoying, it’s not bringing newspapers back into our lives – they were down a few more per cent.
That should be the starting point of any discussion about how newspapers covered the general election. This may indeed have been, as several commentators such as Oliver Callan have suggested, the most sensationalist, the most biased, the most trivial newspaper coverage of an election in the history of the State. Maybe. Whatever. There can be little doubt, though, that it was the most irrelevant.
You can shout all you like about how much the journalism of the Irish daily press gets read online. “We’ve got more readers than ever (now if we could only get them to pay)” is a common refrain in the shrunken corridors of the press. The fact is that most of those readers are no longer committed to getting their news and views from any given paper, but rather they dip in and out, often critically.
I suspect that on the day those circulation figures were published, more people saw a social-media post full of mockery, outrage or bemusement at the Irish Independent’s latest front-page denunciation of Sinn Féin than actually paid for a physical copy of that page. Since I merely saw an image on my phone, I still have no idea what Gerry Adams was planning to do with my pension.
Is there a connection between the press’s hysteria this time around and the steady withering away of its relevance? I suspect as much. Like troubled children, the less attention we pay them, the louder they scream.
Election seasons have always seen journalists at their most pompous and self-important: in the better class of newspaper the consequence is an obsessive-compulsive commitment to ‘fairness’. I can remember, back in the 1990s, a team in the Irish Times newsroom dedicated to measuring (literally, like with rulers) the coverage given to each party in a general election, with various formulae to adjust for the unfortunate fact that all column inches are not created equal.
Other papers, of course, take a different approach. If there’s one thing we can say for certain about, say, the Indo’s notorious treatment of this election, it’s that they got us to notice how important they are.
Once you understand the desperation of the press’s attention-seeking in its much-reduced state of health, it’s easier to understand why, for example, the Regency Hotel shooting managed to displace the election from page-ones for most of a week. If there’s one thing that the press does even more self-importantly than elections, it’s crime. This has little to do with the wonderful, generous resources gifted by Denis O’Brien and Rupert Murdoch to the investigation of wrong-doing and a lot to do with the impotence of convicted criminals to use the defamation laws to protect themselves. (No reputation to protect, no case, scumbag.)
The hotel shootings showed definitively that crime journalism in Ireland is RELEVANT – more so even than the gardaí, who were absent while the crime-hacks and -snappers were very much on the scene. And when it came time to segue from “Hey, remember us! We’re newspapers! We cover crime!” to “Hey… elections!”, there was the lovely little link of Sinn Féin’s position on the Special Criminal Court.
It seemed remarkably difficult to get anyone to recall a principled, non-Republican reason to oppose no-jury trials.
So, even short of a major definitive research project, we can pretty safely say, that compared to times past, (1) newspapers are less relevant and (2) people are more inclined to see through media bias. (Check out Dr Rory Hearne’s research with water protesters to confirm the latter point.) However, this is not the same as saying (1) the media are irrelevant and (2) media bias doesn’t matter.
When RTÉ – which unlike newspapers has a statutory obligation to be fair, to which it pays often hilarious lip-service – allowed crime-hack Paul Williams on the Late Late Show to use the issue of the Special Criminal Court to denounce Sinn Féin and its voters, on the very same day that he and we learned of his shrinking circulation relevance, it was not only a disgrace, it was most probably consequential for the election outcome.
With the best will in the world – and even a half-decent will is a rarity – Sinn Féin and its voters remain another country for the vast majority of the established professionals in the Irish media. On his last NewsTalk broadcast before the election moratorium, George Hook recalled covering Mary-Lou McDonald on a canvas in Cabra: he scraped the phrase “work-ing-claaaass peeeople” over his tonsils as if he were describing a particularly dangerous safari.
When the diverse regional accents of the various returning officers are a source of novelty and excitement on election-count days, you know the media have got a problem of uniformity. John Bowman turned up on RTE radio before the election with what academic Dr Conor McCabe described aptly as “the most Irish middle-class statement ever”. Bowman said: “I caught the election bug back in school when I was on the number 10 bus from Ballsbridge to Belvedere College, and the bus would pass by a sign outside the offices of the Irish Times…”. The problem is not Bowman personally, of course, but the fact that his background remains highly representative of the media.
That ignorance partly accounts for the strange yet popular notion that the Labour Party has something to do with working-class voters, something that has rarely been the case in Dublin even when the party was going well. (In fairness it did collect a few more of them than usual in 2011.) I especially enjoyed the huge poster with an image of Joan Burton just off Mountjoy Square, with the slogan: “I will stand up for working people”. If she was questioned about the bizarre use of the future tense beside a photo of the outgoing deputy prime minister, I didn’t hear it.
That omission was probably because interviewers were too busy before and after the election asking her, and every other Labour politician: “To what do you attribute the people’s ingratitude for your great achievements?” (The answers generally admitted to “some short-comings communicating to voters about our great achievements, perhaps because of our extraordinary dedication to achieving them”.)
This tough line of questioning also found its way, in the aftermath of the election carnage, to a few of the Fine Gael wounded. But the perfect posture of injured innocence, a pose Zoolander himself might envy, was the special preserve of Labour pols, generally untroubled by their media interlocutors. Even the Greens themselves, generally the paragons of wounded virtue since their own 2011 wipe-out, and the consequent perfectly reasonable exclusion of Eamon Ryan from the RTÉ debate, could scarcely have struck the pose better. (The return of the Greens as the party that wealthy south Dubliners can vote for in order to feel better about themselves was among the most inspiring election narratives: Vote Planet No. 1.)
The Labour casualties (“good comrades”, Derek McDowell called them, to audible tittering from the political class at the sudden post-election rhetoric of solidarity) were abetted in their soft treatment by journalists’ awful sentimentality on the occasion of elections. Régime apologists such as Stephen Collins and David Davin-Power are almost overcome with emotion about the sacrifices politicians make. When Lucinda Creighton was booed at the count centre, pundits on Twitter, including Dearbhail McDonald, lined up to scold the noisy rabble about the great courage it takes to stand for election. The way I figure it, if the only point of principle Creighton could find on which to abandon the last government was her desire to ensure total State control over women’s reproductive apparatus, then she deserves every raspberry she gets, and many more.
Collins, meanwhile, descended below self-parody: “There were times in recent years when the complaining and negativity almost got out of hand and overwhelmed the efforts of those trying to put the country back on a sound footing. In the end the optimists won out and recovery began, mainly due to the mature response of a majority of people to the plight the State found itself in, but it took leadership and courage from politicians of various parties to get consensus about what needed to be done”.
Probably the greatest lines ever written about imperial, imperious government were those of Tacitus, speaking of the mighty Romans: “They made a desert, and called it peace”. The rather lesser species of Fine Gael and Labour gazed out over a wasteland they helped create, a desert of suicide, emigration, homelessness, overcrowded hospitals and regressive taxation to pay for it all, and they called it “stability”.
Even as it became apparent that the electorate would decisively reject the government and its insatiable appetite for neoliberal stability, its devotion to a recovery that most of us don’t recognise, the régime apologists clung to the notion. After one of the last pre-election polls, Davin-Power worried that the likely result – a clear repudiation of the government – would be “indecisive and messy”. As paradoxes go, it was almost as good as when RTÉ’s Martina Fitzgerald lamented that the campaign risked getting “bogged down” in discussion of the issues.
Even as the boxes opened on February 27th, and the voters’ disruptive message was loud and clear, there was Davin-Power again, his needle stuck in that same old groove: “What ordinary people want”, he said, “is stable government”.
Not this stable government, they don’t. It would be nice to think, with Fintan O’Toole, that what ‘ordinary people’ do want, and what they can conceivably get, is some return to the best of 20th-century social democracy, “with efficient and effective public services, housing redefined as a social good rather than a commodity and shrinking rather than rising equality”. The incoherence of the left, the political promiscuity of Fianna Fáil, and the entrenchment of neoliberalism in the EU institutions and beyond makes it difficult to foresee such an outcome, however.
O’Toole, at least, sees what hardly any other popular pundit is willing to see: that pretty much everyone who won election this time, other than the returned Fine Gael TDs, ran to the left of Labour. Hell, even Labour ran to the left of Labour. (Cf. “I will stand up for working people”.) Presuming, as everyone is doing at the time of writing in early March, that we will nonetheless get a centre-right government, it’s vital that Sinn Féin can effectively lead a genuinely left-wing opposition that will fight an effective war of position, one that will help shift the political horizon here in Ireland and in the wider world.
Sinn Féin and the real left should assume that it will get absolutely no help in that project from the billionaire-controlled media, or the loyal State broadcaster. We continue to await an Irish Times columnist who supports the party. Although I admit to getting a little excited at election time, I normally favour, like Antonio Gramsci, ‘good comrades’ who “do not despair in the face of the worst horrors and… do not become exuberant with every silliness”. I think we’re in for a continuing slog, but there are rea-sons to be cheerful. Among them is that Denis O’Brien, the Irish Times and even RTÉ are getting ever less relevant to how we perceive our politics.