Fergus Finlay on how the Indo did in Mary Davis

Any inquiry into presidency vote should cover all media coverage

By Fergus Finlay

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

SHOULD that infamous tweet have been used on the Frontline programme
at the end of the presidential debate? No, not without its origin
being checked first.

Was it a mistake? Yes, a serious one.

Should there now be a public enquiry into Tweetgate?

Absolutely not.

Does anyone seriously believe that the entire thing happened as a
result of a conspiracy, or that it wasn’t a mistake at all but
actually a plot? Surely not. What we do know is that Sean Gallagher
had constructed an elaborate wall around his association with Fianna
Fáil, and the wall crumbled on the programme. As a result, thousands
of voters changed their minds about him.

He may now feel that he lost the presidency as a result of that
misplaced tweet. But surely, if he had been elected, it would have
been on the basis of a false pretence.

I’ll develop that point in a minute. But I’ve just realised that there
appears to be some people (apart from Mr Gallagher himself) who regard
his downfall as the result of a conspiracy.

Consider these two sentences, for example: “All victims of abuse know
that the damage is compounded a hundredfold by a lack of
acknowledgement. X was grossly abused by those vested with a
responsibility to be fair and impartial.”

Those two sentences are taken from a column on the front page of the
Sunday Independent newspaper. No, they are not a reference to
survivors of institutional abuse, nor to the victims of some terrible
crime. Those two astonishingly loaded sentences are about Sean
Gallagher. The writer of that piece, Ms Anne Harris, appears to
believe that RTÉ’s treatment of Sean Gallagher was “foul”, and that it
corrupted the debate. And she clearly doesn’t believe it was an
accident, but rather that it was motivated by RTÉ’s hatred of Fianna
Fáil.

An editorial in the same newspaper last Sunday called for a public
enquiry into the whole affair. And it went on to say that there are
“elements” in RTÉ, from the top to the bottom, (who) “apparently
believed that they could get away with influencing the election of the
First Citizen of the State with bogus documentation”.
If there is the slightest shred of evidence for this assertion then of
course there must be a public enquiry. Mind you, if there was the
slightest shred of evidence you’d imagine it might appear in the eight
or nine articles the Indo devoted to the subject last Sunday. The best
they could come up with was an assertion by an audience member on the
programme (described as a whistleblower!) that he was persuaded to ask
a tougher question than he originally intended to ask. Some
conspiracy! Back in September, as the presidential election was
beginning to heat up — in fact on the weekend that Martin McGuinness
joined the race — I wrote here that it was “finely balanced between
the political parties and the independents. Fine Gael and Labour have
about half of all the votes available … On the other hand, the three
independents accounted for in the poll also have half the votes …
There is still, clearly, a mood amongst a significant proportion of
the electorate that doesn’t favour the candidates from “the
establishment” …” At the time, I thought that Mary Davis might emerge
as the leading independent, and I hadn’t a clue what effect Martin
McGuinness might have (apart from rendering Fianna Fáil even more
irrelevant).

But I sure as hell had no monopoly of wisdom back then. Most
commentators could see that the “last man standing” among the
independents would battle it out with the “last man standing” among
the political candidates. And so it proved to be — until, at the last
minute, Sean Gallagher turned out not to be nearly as independent as
he had pretended.

But if we’re going to have a public enquiry, maybe we should have a
public enquiry into how Gallagher got into a winning position in the
first place. It certainly didn’t seem at the beginning — when he
suggested opening a coffee shop in the Aras, for instance, that he was
a serious candidate. He only started to grow in popularity as other
independents fell by the wayside.

So if we’re really so concerned about foul treatment of candidates,
and stories and events that corrupted the whole process, maybe we
should look at the big picture. Maybe we should try to figure out how
some people were really damaged by the process while others were
strengthened.

Suppose, for example, we did establish a public enquiry into the
political effect of a single tweet, of all things. Should we not
expand its terms of reference (in the interests of fairness and
balance, of course) to enquire into headlines like these: “Quango
queen eyes the Park” (a long and no doubt hilariously witty article by
“independent” Senator Shane Ross in the Sunday Independent of Sep 25
last year.

“Mary Davis got €190,000 in Fianna Fáil quango cash” (a story in the
Irish Independent of Oct 1 last year, which totted up fees over 6 or 7
years) “Davis, the quango queen” (an editorial in the same newspaper
on the same day) “Quango queen and golden circle in Irish boardrooms”
(a long article in the same newspaper’s Sunday edition, a week later,
which carried the subheadline “Mary Davis’ plum jobs only highlight
the vast extent of inter-connectedness in the corporate world”) One
could go on. Over a short and sustained period, Mary Davis’s campaign
was destroyed, in its entirety, by headlines like these, and by the
inability of her campaign to deal with them. Other newspapers, and the
electronic media, all followed the lead given by Independent
Newspapers in its utterly destructive characterisation of the Davis
campaign.

AND David Norris got the same treatment. “Norris is limp as he’s
caught in lawyer and disability row”, was just one of the headlines,
back on Oct 5 last.

The funny thing about all this is this. It was the destruction of
other candidates that allowed Sean Gallagher to emerge as the leading
independent. Until others started to be damaged, nobody would have
predicted that outcome.

Wouldn’t I be rightly accused of a mad conspiracy theory though if I
were to suggest that the reason the Indo is so angry with RTÉ is
because they had built Sean Gallagher into the “last man standing” by
their attacks on the other independent candidates. It would be really
irresponsible to suggest that for whatever reason, Independent
Newspapers were really quite keen on a hidden Fianna Fáil candidate.
That would be one explanation — probably an entirely implausible one,
no doubt — for the personalised and vicious nature of the attacks on
some of the independent candidates.

I do realise it’s crazy to suggest that the Independent would ever
have an agenda — perish the thought. Still, if a public enquiry is
necessary into one corner of the coverage of the presidential
election, maybe it would be healthy if the motivation and methods of
the entire coverage was explored under oath by an eminent judge. You’d
never know what we might discover — and wouldn’t it be great craic
while it lasted?