Media nonsense on Enda "plagiarism"

In the rush to report the news as it happens, there's little time for considered comment and analysis. By Colin Murphy.

The Irish media now is hyperactive. No sooner has one of the "establishment" outlets published a story, than The has republished it, more sharply and accessibly. Breaking news is tweeted so quickly, and thoroughly, that the social media effectively becomes the distribution outlet for the story, rather than simply a commentary on it. The only way for professional media outlets to justify themselves (seemingly) is to stay ahead of the game - to be constantly seeking out a new story, or a new angle on the story.

This, I think, helps explain the nonsense that was the “story” that Enda Kenny’s speech welcoming the US president had been plagiarised from one of Obama’s own.

The other thing that explains it is the idea of a prevailing media “narrative” or consensus. This narrative tells us that Enda is a bit thick. It is steeped in the media’s bewilderment that Kenny should reach the position of Taoiseach after a long career in the Dáil during most of which he was largely invisible (to the Dublin media). It was reinforced by comic episodes such as Kenny’s handlers being heard whispering answers to him during a radio interview. Taken together with his repeated demonstrations of his poor grasp of policy, while in opposition, the evidence seemed pretty strong. This narrative fitted with a longer-standing one much loved by elements of the Dublin media: that rural Irish politics is craven and parochial, and inimical to intellectual consideration.

The problem with this narrative of Enda Kenny is that it has been fast crumbling. Kenny may not be a policy heavyweight, but he appears to have the emotional intelligence and intuition that is a critical part of leadership.

Monday, by rights, should have seen the media who still subscribed to this narrative embarrassed by being finally caught out. Except they were too caught up in their own self-importance to notice, or too busy to care.

Kenny was superb. I watched it on the large screen at Christchurch, with a large crowd. I laughed at his playful recitation of Obama’s rhetoric, in front of Obama himself, and cheered to the panache with which he worked the crowd (another nod to Obama).

To echo another’s rhetoric in front of them is a classical conceit, used sometimes to invoke their support, other times to condemn them. Here is Brutus, in the Roman Forum, having slain Caesar, in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’:

Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my

cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me

for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that

you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and

awake your senses, that you may the better judge.

… As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;

as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was

valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I

slew him.

Moments later, in front of Brutus, Mark Antony ascends to the pulpit.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

… The noble Brutus

Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--

For Brutus is an honourable man;

So are they all, all honourable men--

Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me:

But Brutus says he was ambitious;

And Brutus is an honourable man.

Mark Antony takes Brutus’s words – Romans, countrymen, ambition, honour – twists them, and uses them to turn the crowd on him. (Because Shakespeare intends our sympathy to turn with Mark Antony here, Mark Antony has the better speech, more rhythmic and elegantly crafted.) The analogy with Enda Kenny isn’t exact, of course. But the point is simple: to echo another’s words, in front of him, is a well-worn trick of speechmaking, one marked by elegance, potency and irony, whether that irony is the kind used to knife somebody in the back, as in Rome, or the kind used to pat oneself on the back, as at College Green.

To apply Obama’s rhetoric and message unthinkingly to Ireland would be outlandish; as John Waters argues in today’s Irish Times,

to have thought that Obama’s words actually fitted Ireland would have been truly stupid (almost as stupid as thinking that they could be stolen without being spotted). Instead, Kenny deliberately echoed them, knowing (or sensing) that by doing so, he could import the gloriously upbeat message they carried without making any claims that it could be accurately transposed to Ireland. He did so to acknowledge the fact that over 30,000 people, many of them young, had turned out in the centre of Dublin to celebrate the possibilities of politics. He did so at the end of a memorable week, which had seen the death of a political and intellectual leader of great generosity, and the death-knell of an ages-old embitterment through another leader’s act of generosity.

This was a moment that was greater than Enda Kenny; it was a moment for rhetoric; it was a moment for celebration. Kenny saw this, and took it, brilliantly. He told an incredibly simple story of Ireland – one that could be teased apart in moments by a cynic – and, by relating it to the story of Obama and America, reminded us not to be so cynical.

And the media missed it.

Why? Impatience and cynicism are part of it. (So too may be tensions between the government press secretary and the political correspondents.) Still, it surprised me. Did every journalist in the country not watch Obama’s acceptance speech on November 4, 2008? (The speech has flaws, but is nonetheless a classic of its art.) If they did, how come they had forgotten it till they were reminded of it by an expose of “plagiarism”?

This brings us back to media hyperactivity. Nobody in the press watches anything any more, to report it afterwards. They report it as it is happening. Twitter has turned us all into 24/7 live commentators, as well as news consumers. (Even when we’re not tweeting, we’re thinking of possible tweets; or headlines; or angles; or simply looking for those that everybody else is tweeting.) That means we never watch anything as a whole; we watch little bits of it, and then break to report it, or check the other reports.

Tonight with Vincent Browne is at the heart of this - to the extent that I heard somebody recently refer to it as "new journalism". The programme is now built around the expectation of car-crash moments: Joan Burton "haranguing" Joe Higgins, or Vincent backing some guest into a claustrophobic corner. It has a large and active following on Twitter, and the vogue is to watch and tweet. The tweeters are both competitive and consensual, competing for the best lines and quickest observations (which will be widely retweeted), and echoing and reinforcing each other with retweets and replies. It's good fun. And it's entirely inimical to forming measured judgement on the supposed content of the show - current affairs. It's not possible to follow a detailed discussion on banking and follow the Twitterati's comments on that discussion at the same time. The result is an echo-chamber where all everybody hears are the best one-liners, or the worst gaffs. Nobody hears - or evaluates - the arguments.

This isn't new journalism. This is The Panel, or Never Mind the Buzzcocks, where the joke is that one of the guests doesn't get it, and is taking it all seriously.

There’s nothing wrong with this as entertainment, or as an entertaining way of digesting the news (akin to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show). But there is something wrong when this is how as large section of our press corps thinks this is how the news should be reported, or analysed.

(I'll qualify this: Browne's programme on the night of the Queen's arrival, which discussed both the visit, and the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974, was superb. Measured, reflective, fair, and campaigning. Nothing new about that. Just good journalism. The programme is often like this; but more often not.)

These events, from the Queen’s arrival to Obama’s departure, were not the typical events of the news cycle. They were slower. They were less eventful. They were dominated by symbolism and pageantry, and speeches more about ideas than information. But by Tuesday, as the “story” of plagiarism broke, the media was impatient again, and hyperactive, and seeking a new angle. Not enough of them had stood and watched Enda’s speech, quietly, with a crowd; and not enough editors paused to test the strength of the plagiarism story before they broadcast it.

It was nonsense. But it became, briefly, news. That augurs poorly for the media’s ability to respond to the very real stories that, apart from last week, dominate the current agenda.