Pulp Fiction

Sensationalist reporting in the media does little to inform voters or stimulate real debate, argues Eoghan McMahon.

Politics has never been particularly sexy. There, I’ve said it. It doesn’t often entertain, except to the infatuated few, and 99% of the time it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry. The actual functioning of the political process only becomes interesting when something goes wrong, when there’s a crisis or an incident relating to something negative. These instances aside, politics can be mind-numbingly boring and excessively time consuming. Politics shouldn’t make for good TV, or good newspaper copy. Entertainment should stay within the entertainment sections.

Unfortunately, a narrative of fear and crisis in the Irish media has turned politics into an activity which seems less like the process of governance and more like a horse race. Take the biggest story of the past month, which was the idea, mooted by Green Party Big Cheese John Gormley, of National or ‘Consensual’ Government. National Government would involve the uprooting of the democratic process. Our rights as citizens to know how policy is being formulated, for example, could be stripped, as politics would be negotiated behind closed doors like the social partnership model rather than in the Dáil.

Forcing consensus would cause comprise on policies, leading to incoherence and a collage-like mish-mash of everyone’s ideas boxed into one. That’s unless the government maintain their power to throw out ideas they don’t like, in which case the process would simply have muted any form of opposition. (We already have ample evidence of what such unequal power relations in consensus-building negotiations inevitably lead to: just look at the Community and Voluntary pillar of Social Partners, established to tackle poverty and inequality).

However, the bulk of media coverage has surrounded whether or not Gormley did the dirty on Cowen, publicly railing against what the Taoiseach had previously declared on this issue. Attention centred on whether or not there had been any consultation between the two. For weeks, speculation was rife about whether or not the pair were getting on as well as they’d like to suggest, rather than about whether the idea itself was a good one. So, the talking point was not the fundamental principle of Ireland’s democracy, but whether or not Brian Cowen had done a u-turn on the matter.

“Ha! Caught out, his reputation in tatters!” Mildly entertaining stuff in a schadenfreude-esque, Perez Hilton sort of way. But almost nowhere to be seen was an analysis of the actual effects these changes could have on the democratic process. Sarah Carey’s opinion piece in the Irish Times (22-10-10) was an impressive departure, but even still came nearly three weeks after the event. That was three full weeks before the truly substantive issue raised by this whole saga got any analysis in mainstream media.

This insatiable media hunger for dramatisation fuels a news cycle in which the feeling of totalcrisis doesn’t drop, and the crescendo of a fear-driven narrative doesn’t level off. Analysis is marginalised by it. That’s not to say that hype is always a bad thing, or that individuals shouldn’t be held to public account. The negotiations of the Bank Guarantee Scheme in September 2008 provide a neat example of how this form of reporting can be legitimately employed to focus attention and pressurise incumbents. In general, however, it does precious few favours for our society as we attempt to get out of our current mess – or any mess – intact.

When it comes to matters political, the role of the media in any healthy society should be to report to the electorate information they need to fulfil their rights, and to stay informed about the actions of their leaders. In this way, the public can understand who and what they are voting for, and what exactly is being done in their name. The whole thing certainly should not be a zero-sum horse race between politicians, and the media doesn’t need to get caught up in this facade. We as citizens of a democracy should not let it.

Originally appeared in the November 2010 edition of Motley

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