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VOICES

Elections 2024 We know how the candidates fared but how did the media do?

Democracy dies in dullness, writes Steve Dempsey.

BAR THE FINAL European seats, we know how the parties and the candidates fared in the local and European elections.

But how did the media do?

Here are eight things we learned about how the Irish media handles modern elections, politicians and political coverage.

Debates suck

Whether on radio or TV, set piece debates where candidates face off and try to score points against each other are anachronistic, unenlightening, and poor entertainment. Of course, the situation isn’t helped by vast European constituencies, large numbers of candidates, many of whom had a tenuous understanding of what an MEP actually does.

Most of the MEP debates saw candidates trade focus-group-tested talking points, with the occasional incomprehensible squabble over agricultural policies.

The only memorable quote from any European debate was Barry Andrew’s line that Clare Daly should pay more attention to Crumlin and not the Kremlin. But such zingers were few and far between.

I had the misfortune to listen to back-to-back radio debates on RTÉ’s Drive Time one afternoon a week before polling. By the end of the ordeal the only person who sounded credible, likeable and well-informed was RTÉ’s Sarah McInerney.

What’s the point of these debates? Some candidates are excluded. The ones that do make it into studio, often come across as shrill, dull and unlikeable. Sometimes all three.

Surely a more informative or more entertaining format is possible? At least in America there’s a financial windfall for this sort of thing – the networks take in good advertising money. And lots of it. Here, no one wins. Democracy dies in dullness. 

RTÉ doesn’t suck

Whatever you think of Kevin Bakhurst, barter accounts and hushed up payments to Ryan Tubridy, RTÉ is a damn fine public service broadcaster when it comes to elections. This should not be taken for granted.

There was constant rolling coverage from Saturday morning onwards on screen, over the airwaves and online. It’s a massive logistical feat to place reporters at almost all count centres, produce hours of TV and radio and bring it all together without technical glitches or dead air. Sure, at times it was repetitive and slow. But that’s down to the complexity of the count, not the professionalism of the broadcaster.

All media outlets did a good job, but RTÉ deserves credit for the depth and breadth of its output. Only the fake news media brigade can complain that their TV license money was wasted.

For the rest of us, RTÉ’s biggest failing was that their ‘elections hub’ looked a little ramshackle on TV. There were wires on the floor, phones ringing in the background, cheap perspex lecterns and the the big touch screen that was occasionally unresponsive to Katie Hannon’s prods and jabs. But hey, this is kind of what count centres are like too: I’ll take verisimilitude over glossiness any day.

 

The broadcast moratorium’s time is up

The broadcast moratorium kicks in from 2pm the day before polling. It’s supposed to give us time to think and reflect before casting our votes. This sort of thinking dates from a bygone era when radio and television were powerful media. But in an era when online news is freely available and misinformation can spread while the responsible media is gagged, the moratorium isn’t just outdated, it’s dangerous. 

Thankfully, Coimisiún na Meán has indicated it will review the moratorium before the end of the year. Given that there may be a general election soon after the budget, they may want to get their skates on. 

Radio shines

If politics is showbiz for ugly people, then it belongs on a medium where we don’t have to see any faces. 

National and local radio can accommodate a plethora of different voices that TV can’t match, and a conversational immediacy that the written word can’t capture. This was very evident over the weekend after the election. Sure, there were a few strange scheduling quirks, both Newstalk and RTÉ had to fill a few hours of commentary on Saturday morning before there were any tallies in the local elections. But things got going later in the day.

On Newstalk, for example, Andrea Gilligan helmed a dynamic show with a great panel – including a very relaxed sounding Leo Varadkar – and party leaders dialling in from count centres. It was great radio. Unvarnished and immediate. 

Twitter still has something to offer

Twitter has gone to hell. But when it comes to political set pieces, it’s still got it. Since the voting stopped it’s been a reliable source of breaking news, screenshots of tallies, videos of line dancing in count centres and hot takes from the literati and the twitterati. Political news still breaks on Twitter and then migrates to radio and news sites.

We have some great voices

There is no shortage of great commentators in Irish political journalism. And an election brings these voices to the fore. There’s Fionnan Sheehan’s encyclopaedic knowledge, coupled with the wit to come up with ideas like ‘Shinnerfreude’: the pleasure derived by every other party from Sinn Féin’s misfortune.

There’s Virgin Media’s Gavan Reilly’s smart sharing of data and tallies on Twitter and ability to explain proportional representation and the single transferable vote using a pack of Smarties.

There’s Miriam Lord’s sketches in the Irish Times, which recently included quips about a potential Labour/Social Democrats merger being called LSD, and wondering if it were done tastefully would Richard Bruton leave his shirt on for an election.

And for the purest of political wonks, who revel in grassroots skullduggery, insider information and shit-stirring, Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates’ Path to Power podcast is a great listen. They are the Waldorf and Stadler of Irish Political commentary. 

We have some lazy rhetoric

For all the wit and insightful commentary, almost all media outlets are one step away from clichés and lazy thinking. Independent’s Day, please! The bad puns on America’s national holiday – and Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi flick – have been invoked in every election since 2011.

The media still hasn’t got its head around the fact that political parties are not the behemoths they once were and independent representatives are here for the long haul. Independents are still often viewed as some sort of alien invasion by the media.

Similarly, ‘the centre is holding’ is a lazy line that only serves the larger political parties. The truth is that the centre is eroding, but slowly. And as Gerard Howlin pointed out earlier this week, ‘the centre’ is far more left of centre than it once was if you look at how social transfers and state spending has evolved in the past 20 years. 

As a final point, any political or media outlet that uses the phrase ‘Harris Hop’ should be fined. Stop that. 

The media struggles with voter apathy

Turnout is a problem for democracy. And it’s a problem for the media too. Half of the population responded to the campaigning and wall-to-wall postering with a shrug. Turnout in Dublin for the local and European elections averaged at 38%.

This means there’s a disconnect between the around-the-clock political output of our media and the interests many citizens. No doubt, more viewers were annoyed that RTÉ didn’t broadcast the European Championships on Friday night than the small number who bemoaned the lack of exit polls.

There is a challenge for media to make politics relevant and interesting – without degenerating to a Punch and Judy show. Not an easy ask for local and European elections. The good news is that it’s likely that the media will have another chance to do it all again before the end of the year.

Steve Dempsey is a media expert and commentator. He is Director of Advocacy and Communications with the Irish Cancer Society.  

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