Cowen may do to Fianna Fáil what McDowell has done to PDs
Brian Cowen has been ubiquitous during the election campaign. On Questions and Answers before the campaign, on Prime Time repeatedly and on The Week in Politics. Combative, clever, commanding but... There is an aggressiveness about him which is off-putting and which I think may have done damage to his party. That air of contempt for opposing views (occasionally oh-so-consciously repressed), that snarling, bullying, belligerent, demeanour. I know him slightly through El Señor de la Casa (ie the husband), who was at Blackhall Place with him in the 1980s. He is gregarious, funny, an impressive singer (goes on too long!) and slightly domineering in private, always ready to take offence on behalf of Fianna Fáil. But definitely a nicer person than he seems in public. For his party, he is a liability in public fora and should they opt for Brian when Bertie moves on, they would be making a terrible mistake.
Micháel Martin was on Questions and Answers on Monday, 14 May. He was defending Bertie over the house business and did so unconvincingly and meekly. Kathy Sheridan of the Irish Times scored point after point off him. No obvious successor to Bertie there either. Clever but no cigar.
There has been a nervousness in RTÉ over this Bertie-money story. At first they tried almost to ignore it, certainly on that first Sunday of the campaign when the story broke in the Mail on Sunday, there was no mention of it throughout the day. The following day, that abstinence was abandoned but only after the Irish Times repeated a bit of the story that had appeared in the Mail on Sunday. What's going on here?
Overall, RTÉ's news coverage has been all over the place. Charlie Bird popping up here and there, breathlessly saying nothing at all, David Davin-Power being solemn, David McCullough brisk. But no focus, no sense of RTÉ knowing what is important in the election and how to cope with the recurrent issue of Bertie's house and money.
By far the best interview done with Bertie Ahern during the course of the campaign was done by Matt Cooper on The Last Word on Today FM on Monday, 14 May. Matt knows the issues, he is clever, articulate, to-the-point and tough. He is now the best of the drive-time broadcasters and such a contrast to his predecessor on The Last Word, Eamon Dunphy. Dunphy was obsequious, histrionic, self-absorbed, silly, uninformed and intellectually challenged. He did bring a new pace to drive-time broadcasting however, a more leisured and considered pace, which was welcome, and Matt Cooper and George Hook have benefited from that. Unfortunately, the hapless Mary Wilson over on RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime isn't allowed that luxury. All frenetic, packaged radio, which is now old-hat and unsuited to her style anyway.
Sean O'Rourke gave Michael McDowell some pasting on The Week in Politics on Sunday 6 May. McDowell was quite taken aback, the usual cockiness punctured. He got another going-over from Richard Downes on Morning Ireland on Monday 14 May. McDowell has made such a spectacular mess of the PD campaign that one wonders about the customary deference given to his intelligence. What intelligence?
A feature of the campaign has been how the media as a whole, including the broadcast media and especially RTÉ, has followed the same agenda. Stamp duty dominated hours of the early campaign. How did that get to be a major issue since it affects so few people? Traffic was a recurrent theme, along with the crime panic. Nowhere did the media – any of the media – define the issues it thought important, and campaign on those. RTÉ seems to think this is not its function, that it has to be “neutral”, but is it neutral simply to go with the agenda set by the commercial media (not that RTÉ is itself not commercial, although that, apparently, is not how it perceives itself)?
For instance, in 2002, didn't Fianna Fáil hoodwink us about the state of the economy then? George Lee made an issue of it at the time, and subsequently, but why was this not made an issue in this campaign?
For a while, RTÉ News campaigned on the road-deaths issue, which itself was revealing for it seemed to acknowledge RTÉ does not have to be “neutral” on the news agenda. But where was that during the election campaign? About 360 people are killed on the roads here every year, as many as die from some cancers. Over one million are killed on roads worldwide every year and, as usual, the poor are more affected than the rich.
The cost of road accidents is enormous – the fatalities, the injuries, the damage to property, the massive inconveniences. You'd think on that score alone the issue would get more attention. But no, road deaths are, apparently, unavoidable, an unavoidable part of the necessity for swift private transport.
Does it ever occur to anybody that the reason we don't take the issue of road deaths seriously is because of the corporate interests there are involved, notably the car and oil companies? Would that agenda be too much for RTÉ?