Terry Prone on Cop-on for politicians and voters

Election debate hype is about sales and ratings, not the national interest
By Terry Prone
Monday, January 31, 2011
IF you have loins, prepare to gird them now.
Roll up, roll up for a brand new Reality Election. The Chaos Election. The Visual Ambush Election.

The Media Ratings Election. The election where Fianna Fáil has two top guys and no money and where Sinn Féin has loads of money and one top guy who knows nothing. The election where the voting public may decide to undercut democracy by giving Independents the disproportionate personal power demonstrated last week by Jackie Healy Rae and Michael Lowry.

Let’s start with the Media Ratings Election.

You saw the full page ads in yesterday’s papers. Each media outlet trumpeting the strength of its interrogation and commentary team. This may be the first time that media’s primary interest in a General Election was its own coverage and ratings, rather than the interests of the people.

Think about it. Last week, right around this country, those who still have jobs opened their pay packets.

Most of them had already suffered one, two or three cuts to those pay packets. They’d made the lifestyle changes enforced by earlier cuts. This latest one was of a scale they had never imagined: the generalities of budget coverage hadn’t begun to hammer home the impending personal and familial blow. When they saw their payslip, they were hit by that blow and it creased them.

Now, if you’d been learning about Ireland through media coverage in the last six days, you’d have believed the most important issue was the ‘Big Debate’. Who would get to broadcast it. How many leaders would be on it. How many debates there would be. This was because media was expressing media’s concerns.

Meanwhile, out on the hustings, a profoundly different story was emerging as canvassers walked into a mood change of seismic proportions. Voters answering their doors weren’t just angry. They were deeply, bitterly and indiscriminately angry. They had no faith in any party to rescue them and they couldn’t have cared less if Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny debated naked in Swahili on the side of Croagh Patrick, mediated by Twink.

The firm earnestness of media about the Big Debate(s) is based on wilful refusal to recognise the realities, key among which is that being good in one of these set pieces doesn’t mean that you’d make a good Taoiseach. Nick Clegg was spectacularly good on the British Big Debate.

Thereafter, he faded into disorganised inefficacy, while David Cameron, who did less well in the Big Debate context, has proven to own a reasonably safe pair of hands.

But because this election is a marketing tool for media, the Big Debate is presented as an exam that will decide everything and define all competencies.

This, despite the fact that the post-debate commentary will major on the lack of a killer blow (it always does) and on body language (which will prove that nervous people look nervous). Media, awash in unearned righteousness, will put a startling set of unpredictable points to each of the political leaders.

To Micheál Martin: “Admit you caused everything and say sorry for it. Admit your friendships with Seanie and others dropped the nation into bankruptcy and say sorry for that. Admit it wouldn’t have happened unless you were fundamentally evil, and grovel for that, too. Oh, and you think an apology is enough?”

To Enda Kenny: “Admit the public don’t like you. Don’t claim to be Ireland’s most successful political leader just cause you’ve seen off Bertie, Brian, Pat, Mary and Trevor. It was an accident you won 20 extra seats last time and should win more this time. Admit you weren’t good on the Late Late Show. Agree this proves you couldn’t rescue a political party or run a country.”

To Eamonn Gilmore: “We’ve heard all the guff about the last government. Tell us where the jobs would come from, if you were in power? What would be the scale of the new taxes? Why are you scaring the hell out of the new middle-class poor you’ve been flirting with, by throwing shapes at Fine Gael, your only prospective partners in government?”

Media is going to treat John Gormley with a mixture of boredom and impatience, while, for Gerry Adams, this will be the election of the Gotcha question. Gotcha questions are great fun, although they are of no proven value at the ballot box.

People who want to vote for Gerry Adams are turned on by his (gradually diminishing) smell of sulphur, and won’t be shocked that he doesn’t know the current VAT rates. Last time around, he knew as much about the Irish economy as the average budgie, but then, Bertie, who seemed, in the Big Debate, to know all about the economy, presided over it getting bent it out of recognisable shape, so disaffected voters may feel there’s no great advantage in knowing about GDP and mezzanine borrowings.

That said, it was nonetheless intriguing to learn, yesterday, courtesy of RTÉ 1’s major lunchtime news programme, that Gerry Adams, having had four years to study it up, now knows less about the Irish economy than the average budgie.

Even in a distant studio, all on his own, with a desk full of prompt notes, Adams visited coherence only occasionally. Although, when he did, his Beano approach to economics did have a certain comic charm. As did his promises to postpone the pain.

Other than from Sinn Féin, promises will be thin, this time around. In the past, when people complained to candidates or canvassers about their personal circumstances, it was always possible to make a promise to them.

This may actually be a promise-free election, because only the deluded believe a cunning innovative approach could be taken which would lessen the pain for the new poor. The majority have seen the future and know it’s going to be grim.

All of which will reinforce the Fianna Fáil trend towards canvassing at shopping malls, rather than door to door. In a stinker election, absent the protection of a good promise, you’re safer in a crowd. People who shrug off your leaflets in a shopping mall will behave very differently when you proffer the same leaflet on their own door- step. The rattier among them may even tell you where you might stick those leaflets.

They may not be so vivid when it comes to being offered policies, but Fine Gael, in particular, had better rein in their policy fixation. Nobody out there among the electorate is quietly lusting for a killer policy document. The candidates who win will be the ones who sell their capacity to make a nation out of a mountain of assorted wreckage, not the ones giving mini lectures on new policies.

The Labour Party’s single biggest communication problem, in person and on media, is talking too long and too passionately about points we’ve already grasped. Some of Labour’s best people need a training course.

A very simple training course in how to recognise an oncoming full stop.

This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Monday, January 31, 2011

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