Direct rulers seem awfully camera shy

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

Sunday week ago on Diarmaid Ferriter’s RTE radio programme What If?, journalists Fintan O’Toole and John Waters discussed the question, what if there had been no Magill magazine?


Very quickly the discussion came to focus on Vincent Browne, the brains and driving force behind Magill in the eighties and the role he has played and continues to play in Irish journalism.

The participants came to the conclusion that the Irish media ‘grew up’ in the eighties.

Their evidence for their conclusion was that the eighties were the time when journalists stopped being deferential to politicians and it was Browne who played a major part in ending deference and obsequiousness.

Browne’s refusal to give politicians an easy ride did not enjoy universal support. The example was cited of an election press conference called by Charlie Haughey where Browne repeatedly asked, “Where do you get your money from Mr Haughey? What is the source of your money?” Eventually other journalists present shouted at him to shut up. For them Haughey’s suspected corruption was not an issue.

They were happy to let Haughey control the press conference.

Browne wasn’t alone, however. Others were mentioned on the programme, like John Bowman who reminded a politician at a press conference that he was there to answer questions, indeed that as a politician he was obliged to answer questions - that was why he had put himself in front of the media.

What a contrast with here. When was the last time you saw our proconsul on UTV Live or BBC Newsline? Not on a video clip burbling from behind a lectern after some meeting with the Taoiseach or Dermot Ahern, or in a pre-recorded interview but in the studio, live, defending his lack of strategy, his pointless, hand-to-mouth stunts like meeting the UDA, his child-like trust in his officials’ belief that he can substitute activity for action.

Evidently he can and get away with it too, for no one can get him into a studio to explain himself.

Normally you couldn’t beat politicians out of a TV studio but not our direct rulers. It’s true there are no votes here for them and that, apart from the dreadful Spellar, they would be worried to parade their ignorance of local matters, perhaps name the wrong town, perhaps be unable to pronounce the right town.

Even so, as politicians they are obliged to explain themselves to people here. They don’t and are allowed a free ride.

Don’t let’s hear any nonsense about Norn Irn question time in the House of Commons either.

Oral questions on any topic in the British or Irish parliamentary system are a conspiracy by civil servants and ministers not to answer any questions. Besides, unionist MPs - and apart from Eddie McGrady it’s they who mainly ask questions - are more concerned with scoring points against each other than extracting straight answers from direct rulers.

The absurd position we’ve reached is that if BBCNI or UTV want to present information about the current state of play they have to interview Barney Rowan or Ken Reid to tell the viewers/listeners what’s going on and they do a better job of explaining than our proconsul. When was the last time you heard the anchor person say, as you hear on the Today Programme or Newsnight, “We asked for a minister to come on to respond to these points but the NIO would not put one up”?

Our present political impasse is a case in point. The NIO keeps setting so-called deadlines which the parties correctly and blithely ignore. Halloween was the last one. Now it’s November 25. How do we know? The Taoiseach told journalists in Rome last week.

Why November 25? It’s the anniversary of last year’s assembly elections. It is not: that’s November 26. Have you any idea why there should be a deal on or before November 25 rather than say November 30 or December 1? Who picked the date? Why? Why does no one ask our proconsul?

Too cosy with him, that’s why. The fantasy that our proconsul is a friend. Too many matey nods and winks instead of hard questions and sharp criticism of his obvious shortcomings, his complete failure as minister responsible, to make political progress in the last year. Worry that the next time they ask, the NIO will refuse to cooperate with a press conference or a briefing. Who cares when the press conferences and briefings are useless anyway?

The truth is the media, and therefore the public, have been excluded from inter-party negotiations for the last year.

It’s our proconsul’s fault for keeping everything under wraps and of our local parties for complying with his secrecy but it’s the fault of the media for letting them. Too much deference you see. Time to grow up.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News