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Dodging the question – but not the bullets

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Twenty years ago, you could always spot the politician who had been through the media interview bootcamp known as the Bunny Carr media charm school.

The reference to Bunny Carr (an RTE television personality many moons ago) was to the communications company he founded, Carr Communications.

The particular methods were perfected by the husband and wife team of Tom Savage and Terry Prone when doing media training with politicians.

The style became parodied by a stock response to a tricky or sticky question: “I’m very glad you asked me that question.” Of course, the question would never be answered.

A generation of politicians, many of them in Fianna Fáil, privately swore by the training they received to deal with those clever jumped-up cynical know-it-all presenters.

Over the years, Ministers and their opposition markers have become very adept at not answering question on live television or radio, or using a formula of words prepared by handlers. Any brief for any senior politician will anticipate every difficult issue and question that will come up and will also brief on what the appropriate response will be.

Politicians avoid answering the direct question by answering a completely different question uninvited.

No matter what question they have been asked they will respond with an equally uninvited summary (and not a short one) of all the achievements of the administration since coming into office.

In the fast-moving world we live in politicians know that the clock is their friend not their enemy. The slots allotted to live interviews have shortened. So a canny politicians can give long and convoluted answers (and for some bizarre reason Alan Shatter comes to mind) and effectively run down the clock.

Another thing a politician can rely on is that journalists are human beings and not of the chess grandmaster variety. So they will ask the hard question, mar dhea, and then not really listen to the response given by the politician. So instead of picking up on an inconsistency or flaw or absence, they will blithely move on to the next question having failed to elicit the required information.

And the last I’ll allude to is a relatively new media phenomenon: the doorstep interview.

This has emerged really only in the last 15 years, since the advent of local and independent radio.

They were originally designed to give radio journalists an opportunity to get a short sound-byte from a leading politician that they could use for their hourly bulletins.

But now they have become the main form of interview for politicians, most notably Taoisigh.

They usually take place before or after a formal event and allow journalists to ask questions of the politician. Each journalist is allowed one question. If the answer is not satisfactory, there is no chance of a follow-up. The next journalist will be more interested in their own question than in following up.

The upshot is that it allows a politician to pick and choose. If he or she doesn’t like the question, they can quickly answer it with some platitude and then move onto the next question.

On the face of it, it seems democratic. All the journalists get a chance to ask a question. But in reality it is the exact opposite. A skilled politician can play the crowd and can tell them as little or as much as he or she wants. For a reporter it is a deeply frustrating experience to walk away from such interviews knowing that you haven’t even scratched the surface.

For more from Harry McGee and his insights into the Garda Taping issue see this week’s Connacht Tribune

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Politics and law have been entwined through the ages

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Seamus Woulfe...at the centre of latest storm.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

I remember when I was a kid there was an Irish rugby tour to apartheid South Africa which caused a huge furore, including a (if I remember correctly) a shouty row on The Late Late Show. One of the arguments used by those favouring the tour was: “Sports and politics should not mix.”

It went down well as a sound bite but was a nonsense; the reality is that politics mixes with everything, including sports. Nothing occurs in a vacuum.

Politicians make decisions over how sport is funded, how it is governed and regulated (look at the recent row over John Delaney’s tenure), and sometimes when it can be played.

All sports organisations have their own internal politics which can be more vicious than the stuff that goes on in Leinster House. And political parties have long ago discovered the benefits of putting a high profile former sportsperson up as a candidate.

Which brings us onto the bigger issue: the separation of powers in the State. Our Constitution draws out a relationship between the three arms of State – the Executive (government), Judiciary and Parliament (the Oireachtas). The impression that has been handed down to us is they are three goldfish in different bowls, all swimming, but in different waters.

It just doesn’t work out like that in real life. For one, for most of the history of the State, parliament has essentially been a chattel of government, with no real separate powers of its own.

In recent years, with less stable majorities for government than in the past, that relationship has changed – but parliament is still very much subservient to central Government.

It’s not just lip service when it comes to relationships with the legal establishment. There is an effort to assert that they operate in separate spheres but real life often intrudes – it’s more or less impossible to maintain the divide, unless you do it artificially.

For one, it is politicians who appoint judges, not other judges. Now, of course, judges have a say in it. There is the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) which assesses the merits of lawyers who are not yet judges.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Biden brings normality back to world’s most powerful office

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US President-elect Joe Biden celebrates his victory with his wife Jill and his Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

I did not want to make the same mistake I made four years ago. Then I stayed up until about 1.30am and it looked like it was going okay for Hillary Clinton in Florida. So I said to myself, that big buffoon is done for. When I woke up the next morning Donald Trump was the President of the United States. He had somehow managed to win Florida and dismantled the Blue Wall of Democrat States in the Mid-West by taking Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

This time I stayed up until 4.30 in the morning. And that was a mistake too. For the picture was as unclear then as it was 12 hours later.

It was too close to call but already commentators were talking of a red mirage; most on-the-day voters plumped for Trump but early voters – whose votes were counted last – had steered very sharply towards Joe Biden.

It was historic. It’s really hard to knock out an incumbent president seeking a second term. It had been done only eight times before that in two and a half centuries.

Was it his inept handling of Covid-19? Had people grown sick of his vanity and his self-serving boasts? Did this natural disruption just cause too much turmoil and uncertainty in people’s lives? Did his partisan views, that red-mist madness, repel more than it attracted?

Well, the evidence is in the poll. The answer to all those questions is yes. To me, the outcome was clear. Biden won the popular votes. He also won the electoral colleges.

The majority was small and reflects a very divided society. Trump is the champion of rural, less educated, blue collar white, conservative, Hispanic and white America. Biden is popular among the middle classes, the urbanites, the better educated, and black voters.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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Leo has to take his medicine after debacle over leak to GPs

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Words of comfort...it's a big week for Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and US President Donald Trump.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

It’s the first week in quite a while that Covid-19 has been knocked from the top slot in politics by other events and controversies. For it to happen, it’s taken no less than polling day in a US presidential election (which we will come back to later) and Leo Varadkar getting snared in a trap of his own making. With friends like his who needs enemies?

What has played out over a few days this week in the Dáil is a procession or ritual that has become familiar to anyone who knows how our form of parliamentary politics works.

A political storm erupts involving an office holder.

Government colleagues rush in to defend the Minister.

Opposition TDs rifle the thesaurus entries for ‘scandal’ and ‘outrage’.

The Minister makes a statement in the Dáil.

If it is immediately serious – corruption, a blatant lie, bullying or harassment, a serious breach of a law or code – the Minister is a goner.

If it is less so, the Minister will survive with his or her reputation diminished.

Unless of course, there is more and the Minister can’t just draw a line under it. If they accumulate headlines over a week, that also spells curtains.

We have seen Ministers like Alan Shatter, Frances Fitzgerald, Barry Cowen and Denis Naughten fall on their swords.

At this vantage point ahead of the Dáil debate, it looks like there is zero possibility that Varadkar will resign; he’s going to ship political damage though, that’s for sure.

For one, his apology needs to be a bit more contrite than the mealy-mouthed explanation at the weekend that his manner of dealing with it “could have been better”.

There was an embarrassment of Fine Gael Ministers (all five senior Ministers plus a couple of junior ministers) falling over themselves this week to defend the Tánaiste’s honour.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app

The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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