A great leader departs, a dear leader arrives

Irish media coverage of the period between 2 April, when Bertie Ahern announced his intention to resign, and 10 May, when his successor, Brian Cowen, returned to his home town of Clara to greet his supporters, had more than a little of the North Korea about it.


Discussion of the less than glorious reasons for Bertie's resignation was quickly buried under an avalanche of odes to the departing leader's achievements and ringing endorsements of the new leader's character from the ranks of political apparatchiks.

The trend towards the hagiographic started as soon as Ahern made his announcement. The Associated Press report of the resignation, carried by much of the international media, was headlined: “Irish prime minister resigns over cash-payment scandal.” The Irish Independent offered us “Goodbye Bertie” accompanied by a story which made no reference to any reasons for his resignation at all, other than a non-specific claim by Enda Kenny that he had been forced into it.

The Irish Times has been repeatedly accused of leading a witch-hunt against Ahern by his more loyal media supporters; but they too banished any mention of the scandal from their headline and the only allusion to a reason for the resignation was a denial of any impropriety by Ahern.

Their editorial proffered fulsome praise and predicted that “he will have a well-deserved month-long lap of honour”; a prophesy they enthusiastically helped to fulfill by providing space for a long list of political grandees to publish tributes, accompanied by a flow of opinion pieces with headlines such as: “Bertie was big star of both politics and show business.”

The acclaim reached a crescendo with Bertie's address to the US houses of Congress on 30 April. The Irish Times published front page photo portraits of Ahern on successive days, amid imagery dripping with the symbols of power, in dramatic poses worthy of a modern day Napoleon. Their story reporting the speech was headlined: “Ahern applauded as he tells Congress Ireland is at peace” and repeatedly highlighted the honour of receiving a standing ovation.
Bertie's personality cult found its most fervent believer in the Sunday Independent where Gayle Killilea described the trip as “one of the most inspirational occasions of my life” but demanded that the rest of the “Irish media must learn manners”.

Their crime? It wasn't failing to shower Ahern with praise: she accepted that “coverage of Bertie's momentous week in America was extremely positive”. The problem was that the “glum, sour-faced hacks” failed to join in with the applause.

This is where the important difference with North Korea comes in. While the North Korean regime might march journalists off for a spot of re-education if they show insufficient enthusiasm in producing state propaganda, our glum sour-faced hacks are free to ignore Killilea's entreaties. They may have to fit their stories into the overall political narrative decided upon by senior editors, but they can provide detail undermining that narrative. For example, Denis Staunton's observation in the Irish Times that “ushers were patrolling the aisles, frantically directing congressional pages and visitors to empty seats in the chamber” while “most members stayed away” suggested that the event was far less politically significant than the paper's front page coverage – along with the vast majority of media coverage – would have us believe. A follow up article by Staunton revealing the almost total lack of coverage of the speech in the US media served to underline the point.

Addresses to congress typically serve as rewards to political leaders who are deemed to have been especially accommodating to the needs of US power. They provide foreign leaders with a uniquely powerful backdrop on which to project a global statesman-like image to their domestic audiences. Applause from a cast featuring a few dignitaries is part of the package. The content of such speeches is typically dominated by emotionally potent simplifications heavily laced with rhetorical devices. They serve to do little more than express support for abstractions such as “co-operation” and “friendship” with the US super-power. Bertie's speech diverged little from this pattern and his first two standing ovations were received before his speech had started, while the next ovation broke out when he mentioned 9/11, preventing him from even finishing his sentence or making his point.

Bertie's “lap of honour” was accompanied by a steady stream of plaudits for Brian Cowen. The Irish Times set the tone on the day of Bertie's announcement with a profile entitled: “a shrewd and measured man who sees all the angles.” Their praise was mild in comparison to many of their competitors. The overwhelmingly favourable coverage reached its peak a few days after his accession to power when he prepared to visit his constituency. The Irish Times reported “a huge public celebration in Brian's home town of Clara”, while the Irish Independent ran a story with the headline: “30,000 on streets to welcome back their local hero.” Both stories were written before the homecoming had actually taken place and the crowds failed to show up, although this trifling detail was entirely absent from most of the coverage.