As Michael D Higgins prepares for his inauguration, we saw the Presidential election fundamentally change the Irish media.
We may no longer be saints, but Ireland is still a land of scholars. We remain one of the most literate societies in the world, with more than 2.9 million people (almost 82pc) of the adult population regularly reading a newspaper.
Indeed, despite the rapid growth of alternative media channels, newspapers, television and radio still represent the ‘tried and trusted’ source of information for the vast majority of people.
But September 28, 2011 was a landmark day for media in Ireland. This was the day the final nominations for the Presidential Election were received and the race for Áras an Uachtaráin officially got underway. It was also the day Irish media, pressurised on several fronts, embraced its inner heart of darkness.
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Irish Presidential elections have always been robust affairs and not for the faint of heart. However, while Michael D Higgins prepares to officially take his seat on November 11, the other candidates are still shell-shocked at the viciousness of the media onslaught.
Senator David Norris has had a colourful career and while he expected his past deeds to be trawled through and scrutinised, he didn’t expect the twisting of the truth to such an extent that outright lies were making front page headlines.
The Sun accused him of using his position in the Senate to attempt to secure a passport for a former lover. This was completely untrue. Worst still, the Senator’s private income protection scheme, which was activated by Trinity College when it ended his 30-year professional career, was suddenly being described as welfare fraud.
It appears an increasing number of publications have embraced a ‘publish today and apologise tomorrow if needs be’ state of mind.
The problem is that the onslaught of downright lies can quickly result in death by a thousand cuts, regardless of apologies published in the press after the fact. Continually throw mud and you can be sure enough will stick.
Another interesting factor was the uber aggressive nature of broadcast interviews. The purpose of these seem not to illicit information from the interviewee but to harangue and harass them to such an extent that they were pressurised, caught off guard and made look foolish.
So what has happened to our balanced broadcasters and principled press?
Firstly, the rapid rise and 24/7 consumption of media thanks to the increase in print, broadcast and online channels, has placed severe pressure on traditional titles to remain relevant. Secondly, the arrival of the British tabloid culture into Ireland means that even titles such as The Irish Times are facing pressure to sensationalise stories.
Indeed, during the election the media in general seemed to have little interest in the issues facing the next President or their agenda, but were solely intent on dragging skeletons out of closets, regardless of the truth behind the so-called scandal.
With the aggressive questioning and no interest in giving time to candidates to explain in detail their position on issues, my advice to anyone facing such an onslaught would have been to maintain media silence. However, this is impossible in a presidential election and the media took full advantage.
Sadly, it was not the six candidates that failed to become the ninth president of Ireland that were the real losers in this media fest, but all of those who cherish an open, honest and robust media that has at its heart the interests of the people.
So, congratulations to Michael D Higgins. But for those thinking of running for President of Ireland in seven years time remember fools will always rush in where angels fear to tread.
*Paul Allen heads Paul Allen & Associatess Public Relations, and worked for the David Norris campaign.
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