An end to complacency: switching from the notional to the national conversation…

I feel like a bit of a dolt picking up on this so late, but I’ve only just read the edited version in the media section of Village Magazine… It was written as a valedictory to Questions and Answers (Fergal’s not a fan of “the rehearsed, Carr Communications-tested verbiage that made up most of the program”). The most striking thing, for me, he picks out is the medium’s capacity to pick out one genuine moment when the ‘national conversation’ (ie, what people on the street are genuinely talking about) and the ‘notional conversation’ (what producers generally allow to be talked about) coincided and then use it as a demonstration of its own value. A classic breaching of the narrative from Michael O’Brien

Last night, having run various greatest hits and dissected them in studio, Q & A replayed Mr. O’Brien’s short speech. They went to the panel for reaction. The talking heads spoke of it as a powerful moment of television. One described where she was when she saw it. I cannot tell you how nauseated I was by this treatment. This poor man’s cry of hurt and anger was being turned into a TV moment. It was being treated like Ray Houghton’s goal against England in 1988.

The notional conversation was having its revenge. When real people intervene in the notional conversation, they need very quickly to be made less real, to be turned into a media talking point. Susie Long has had her name degraded by being constantly used as a catchphrase. Mr. O’Brien, who has surely suffered enough, is going through the same process.

Nothing real can survive for long in the notional conversation. Election results are discounted. Ideas are ridiculed. Moments of feeling and reality are cheapened and degraded. This is done by people who consider themselves in tune with the nation, who write and talk about the mood of the people for their living.

Eamonn De Valera used to say that when he wanted to know what the Irish people wanted, he needed only to look into his heart. In the notional conversation, the same approach is adopted. Though in today’s less deferential times, it might more vulgarly be said that it is less a matter of looking into one’s heart than of pulling it out of your arse.

O’Brien was a powerful exception who proved the rule that the anodyne and pre-set generally rules the narrative. Now the country needs substantive debate, there is much running about like the proverbial headless chickens… Although I think Fergal over hammers the case against Q&A, he’s rightly identified a passivity in the way in which those with a Public Service Broadcasting remit carry out their duties.

This general passivity in the Irish media was amply demonstrated in the Pat Leahy edited Any Other Business column for the Sunday Business Post a few weeks ago:

Last week, Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate, made a point germane to this debate about mandated airtime and suchlike. ?Long ago I said that, if liberals said the earth was round, while conservatives said it was flat, the news headlines would read: ‘Shape of the planet: both sides have a point’. But I encountered a new wrinkle today.

?I was tentatively scheduled to be on a broadcast dealing with -w ell, I won’t embarrass them. But first they had to find someone to take the opposite view. And it turned out that they couldn’t -which led to cancelling the whole segment. In a way, this goes beyond my original point, which was the unwillingness of the news media to referee a controversy by actually reporting the facts.

Now it seems that a fact isn’t worth reporting unless someone is prepared to deny it.”

And Leahy’s writer takes it home:

Broadcasters and, God help us, newspapers have a duty to report facts to the public. So if the Yes side is saying that the Lisbon Treaty changes absolutely nothing in our dealings with the EU, then journalists have a duty to point out that this is in conflict with the facts.

Similarly, when No campaigners declare that Lisbon will lead to compulsory abortion, euthanasia, conscription and foreign spuds, it’s not good enough for broadcasters (and some in RTE are the big offenders in this regard) to simply hand over to the Yesser on the panel to disagree. Don’t you think?

That for me is the key missing element. Switching to the Joe Duffy/Stephen Nolan (god bless ’em) line of inflamed public enquiry is no answer in itself… Taken to its more extreme conclusions that way lies hollow demagoguery

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  • I always liked Bill Maher’s maxim (speaking about Intelligent Design movement, but applicable to many more areas) that “You don’t have to teach both sides of a debate, if one side is a load of crap.”

  • Dan Sullivan

    Part of the problem is the Arts bias in the background of many of those in the media and the fact that many of the issues under discussion in politics are often quite nuanced and technical, whether stemming from economics or physical science based problems in areas from medicine to carbon emissions. This means the media presenters, who are often in locus Jo Publico, are not conversant in the substance of any of those debates. In TV in particular this is a problem but it crosses over to radio and newspaper columnists too. And so they go for overly simplistic approaches and a mindset of it’s “just not fair” when we come to the Joe Duffy’s of this world.

    I caught a glimpse of it last night with the Sky News review of the papers which appeared to be dealing with media studies and physics in colleges, and the impression was created that there was hardly any need for people to have even the remotest bulls notion of the sciences.

  • Orlaith

    The latter argument about media debate and balance reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s dictum ‘A man who sees both side of a question is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all’

  • Mick Fealty

    Dan that’s something the current imperatives are testing to destruction just now. Interesting that most CEOs in blue chip companies come from accountancy or engineering backgrounds. At the very least we need a political and media class that can keep up with them.

    Orlaith and Gerald,

    Absolutely to the point. Those quotes speak to the big fat conceit underpinning the PSB sub-Reithian ethic of objectivity. Without the rigour of the original.