The deeper malaise in politics that the O’Dea crisis points to…

Now, here’s a thing. There’s an awful lot of hand wringing over the forced resignation of Willie O’Dea (I missed most of the blow by blow stuff since I was on mid term holidays some where in South Wales). NOw there is an interesting side question to all of this, and it relates to the way the media generally handle Sinn Fein in ways that are substantially different to they way they treat other parties. That is a fair point. But unfortunately for those critics it is not the point here. That Willie was a phenomenon in Irish politics is beyond doubt. He was a competent minister who rarely turned his back on Constituency. A man who would take four or five Masses every Sunday and never left Limerick for St Patricks Day. But the bottom line seems pretty clear. He settled out of court last summer for what the Sunday Times claim was €100,000 for what he seems to have admitted was a slanderous remark to a local journalist.

It is interesting and instructive to look at how those remarks became public knowledge. Jerome Reilly in today’s Sindo has an excellent timeline. Note, in particular, the entry for April 21:

Reporter Michael Dwane read the minister’s affidavit and realised that Mr O’Dea’s categorical denial in relation to Mr Quinlivan did not tally with his taped interview. He raised the issue with his editor. As Mr Dwane wrote this week in the Limerick Leader. “I suddenly had a credibility problem, which, if I had not recorded the interview, might have hung on my word against a minister’s in a court case. He added that Mr O’Dea’s affidavit was effectively accusing him of “making up the allegation”.

This was O’Dea’s fatal move. Now the former Minister is at pains to say he’d forgotten the precise form of words he used in that conversation. If so, committing to a legal paper which required him taking a solemn and binding oath was not the brightest of ideas. Yet had the journalist held his counsel, the affidavit would likely have stood and Councillor Quinlivan would have a had a much harder case to prove.

Treating journalists in poor faith is far more common than at may seem obvious. For the most part, journalists tend to hover within eyesight and earshot of each other, often too afraid to engage with “the bleedin’ obvious” or to ask the awkward question that might just bring greater enlightenment or, rather more to the point, that could possibly diminish their cherished ‘access’. They are too often caught in a difficult situation, in which they must weight scarcity of access with the need to speak truth unto power.

In this case, the journalist concerned had rather more than his memory to trust. And, for once, his close work did not disappear down a centralised bureaucratic sink hole. Social media played a part in what it does spectacularly well: getting the word outside the highly circumscribed bounds of the media and political elite. This time the mediation of the story (as opposed to the breaking of it) had much wider and freer play.

That’s one reason why the Greens’ Senator Dan Boyle found himself on the wrong end of a journalistic dusting up from the boul’ Brendan O’Connor:

So now, we are facing not just Government by Dan Boyle, but Government by Twitter. What’s next, a benign dictatorship led by Stephen Fry? Perhaps other well-known Twitterers like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore would also like to have their say in how we run the country — in 140 letters. This is daft.

Well, of course it would be daft, if it were even remotely true. But it clearly hurts when it takes a social media ‘forum’ to call a perfectly halt on a social media halt on a story that all the journos and politicos in Dublin found almost impossible to do in their own traditional terms.

In the new world of disintermediated news, there is no 4th wall to keep polticians (or even journalists) separate and clean from what some clearly view as an ‘illiterate mass’. The only viable antedote is to quit whinging and either continue to plough your own furrow with confidence, or jump in and get to know the ‘intelligent commons’.

It’s a shame about Willie. He was one of the genuine characters of Irish politics and a talented Minister to boot. He was not the empty suit of easy parody. Yet there is little patience for ‘politics as usual’ any more. That’s the stark fact that both politicians and discomfited journalists need to come to grips with.

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  • “He was not the empty suit of easy parody”

    The mustache did not help his cause and added to the sense of a colourful but somewhat ridiculous character ready to fire from the hip when challenged rather than consider the merit of an opposing arguement in the sound Fianna Fail tradition of thinking they are always right simply on the basis of size – ie them being the largest party. Willie’s misguided over confidence and hubris is a fair reflection of an attitude that saw his party lead his country to edge of economic catastrophe.

    The long suffering people of Ireland (South) are well shot of him.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    It is of course obvious that journos know more than they actually tell.
    The problem with the Media is that they “mediate” the story.
    Political journalism is no different fro Football Journalism. For decades “football” journalists had been following the England team on summer tours. What happened in Hong Kong should have stayed in Hong Kong of course. But it became a problem when Footballers became so interesting that “news journalists” got on board the same planes.
    Access……ah access. Well the Manchester Evening News has its “United” man and probably another reporter for the lesser team in the city……and its a trade off isnt it.
    Report what Fergie says accurately ….ie be a mouthpiece for Fergie or risk journalistic Siberia. What good is a journo with no access. A pact with the Devil?

    Not that journos are exactly above reproach. When they published downright lies about Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, was any journo actually held responsible?

    Of course the “news journalists” on England tours fifteen years ago are now “old hat”. Replaced by the citizen journalists who might just be in the same Hong Kong nite-club with a camera phone.
    Likewise Minister O’Dea was undone by the “bloggers”.
    Actually Dwane made the right.the only choice with O’Dea but luckily he had the tapes. I note his hand wringing angst on Prime Time this week. A young journalist in a Fianna Fáil city ……would he I wonder have gone quite so public if he had not known he was on a winner by having the tapes?

    So access and disclosure. At Westminster. Was all the Daily Telegraph stuff about expenses REALLY news in the Lobby. But the Lobby has its rules. Part of what Mr Walker might think of as the wider freemasonry of journalism. Indeed the Lobby has its own Lodge.
    And Stormont……..these recognisable jounalist faces at the bottom of the Great Staircase in Stormont. Furtive types. Hovering about while UTV interviews the DUP or BBC interviews SF.

    They will of course purport to tell us how truly awful these politicians are but the shouted question….
    “Can I just ask you Peter……?
    “Martin can you clarify……?
    Their cellphones over-subscribed with the numbers of DUP and SF backbenchers.
    But when the scandals break…….there they go. The attack dogs.
    “Of course all journalists knew this about …..whoever”.
    Hypocrites.

  • Munsterview

    Spot on analysis Mick !

    Media coverage of O’D and how his case was handled do throw up some additional matters that have not been mentioned never mind examined. As you quite rightly concluded there is little patience for ‘politics as usual’ but while the impatience of the general public in this regard is evident, this particular penny has yet to drop with most politicians.

    O’D’s lingering on and then abruptly having to go had nothing to do with public outrage, F.F. had ridden out far worse indignation regarding old people piled up on trollies on hospital corridors etc. Rather than an indication of a new morality in politics, if anything, it merely indicates the tolerance of level of the Green Ministers and Party for being screwed over without shouting stop!

    Anyone aware of how F.F. works will know that by now that particular line in the sand has been scrubbed out and boundaries must constantly established on each issue.

    Sinn Fein : where were they in all of this ? One of their prominent local figures and later Councillor was slandered, they should have been ‘red in tooth and claw’ on the issue in the Dail, yet ( the irony of it ! ) it was the Blue Shirts their traditional enemies that made the running for Willies head.

    Is this yet another example of Sinn Fein’s Southern Dail performance against F.F. being neutered by a need to keep F.F. onside for the North ?

    In every election I took part in for S.F. for over three decades, we had to fight not alone the other candidates and parties but also the Gardai. Even now with S.F. North and South totally committed to constitutional politics the gardai continued in the last election as in all previous ones queer the pitch for Sinn Fein wherever possible. The only thing different about the Limerick situation that it became a matter of public record. What did S.F. do about it prior to O’D’s enforced departure from Government and what will they do about it now?

    As to Gardai and Press : there was a practice where some of the top brass in Garda H.Q. had regular dinners and much good food and wine consumed, all paid for of course by John Q. Public for all the accredited security correspondences where all was off the record and all parties could have a good old insider gossip. It was by invitation only and those who in the interim between meetings caused the gardai discomfort or embarrassment by doing real investigation critical of the Gardai did not get an invite to the next one……… As hobbling the press goes, neat or what ?

    When did this practice stop or is it ongoing ? It will be ‘Politics as Usual’ while it is Press cosying up to the Power Elite’s as usual and there is little sign of both changing anytime soon!

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks MV…

    FitzjamesHorse…

    Actually the problem is not the mediation. That’s why we still stump up the price of a news paper. It’s the fact that these social media tools are capable of falsifying, not just facts but the judgements made by the great and the good.

  • Alias

    “Is this yet another example of Sinn Fein’s Southern Dail performance against F.F. being neutered by a need to keep F.F. onside for the North ?”

    Killian Forde has a better explanation. Have you seen their TDs? While you might think of them as as a Shinkansen, the reality is closer to the little engine that couldn’t.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Mr Fealty
    I only stump up the price of a paper when I get a train.
    “actually the problem is not the mediation”.
    to paraphrase Ms Rice-Davies “you would say that…wouldnt you”

  • Ramzi Nohra

    I think you are being way too kind to O’dea.

    “Now the former Minister is at pains to say he’d forgotten the precise form of words he used in that conversation. If so, committing to a legal paper which required him taking a solemn and binding oath was not the brightest of ideas.”

    Not the brightest of ideas? He basically lied under oath didnt he? I mean, I know he now is “at pains” to say he’d forgotten what he said – but you seem to take this fairly superficial defence at face value. What else can he possibly say?

    He got what was coming to him.

    If social media was responsible for getting rid of O’Dea (something I dont think you evidence in your post, unless it missed it) then it did a good job. It certainly didnt seem to falsify anything here.

  • Paddy Matthews

    So now, we are facing not just Government by Dan Boyle, but Government by Twitter. What’s next, a benign dictatorship led by Stephen Fry? Perhaps other well-known Twitterers like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore would also like to have their say in how we run the country—in 140 letters.

    Sounds like a definite improvement on what we have at present.

  • Munsterview

    Alias

    There was a story relayed to me some years back by a former associate of Sinn Fein T.D. that if true, could very well explain the lack of sparkle of S.F. in the Dail.

    The Sunday Times had just published their league tables that particular year for hospital doctor/nurse patient ratios and the Hospital in the T.D’s town was hovering around the bottom of the list. This local person contact the T.D., asked him if he had read the Sunday Times which he had not, and he explained the significance of the figures. The T.D was off base and busy, the ex associate offered to bang out a statement that he could issue……… no……. things were no longer that simple!

    The Times article and tables was apparently photocopied and faxed to the to the T.D. By lunchtime Monday all local T.D’s, Local Councillors, would be councillors, community workers etc were had issued statements but none from the local S.F. TD. Likewise Tuesday and Wednesday went without comment. On Thursday the associate again contacted the T.D. very much annoyed for an explanation……….. material had been passed on to the S.F. back-room boys and gals who were drawing up a statement in line with Sinn Fein health policy etc.

    The TD concerned finally released ‘ His Statement ‘ on Friday afternoon when local politics had moved on to other issues and the carefully prepared statement was met with amusement locally by other pols who, not knowing the story, took it that the TD concerned had missed the bounce of the ball!

    If this story is true and I have no reason to dis- believe it, then do not blame the TDs, blame the ‘micro managers’ and their handlers whoever they may be. More and more like New Labor ( that was the apparent model) ‘ On message, On cue ‘ and F*** all to say !

  • Paddy Matthews

    Social media played a part in what it does spectacularly well: getting the word outside the highly circumscribed bounds of the media and political elite. This time the mediation of the story (as opposed to the breaking of it) had much wider and freer play.

    TBH, what sank Willie wasn’t the threads on the messageboards or Dan Boyle’s tweet. What sank Willie was the release of the tape itself on the lunchtime news on Thursday, together with his performance in the interview with Seán O’Rourke.

    The confidence vote had been survived, the Greens had wrestled with their consciences and won, and with only the transcript available, things would have gradually faded away – regardless of indignation from bloggers and journalists – and Willie would have weaselled away to smear another day.

    The repeated audio of Willie “pouring poison into a journalist’s ear” (Noel Whelan’s description) on national radio was just too blatant for the Greens to be able to sweep it under the carpet. Result: one moustache on a tarnished plate.

  • Republic of Connaught

    I feel sorry for the Limerick man as he’s not a bad sort. He was comical if nothing else, which is more than most TDs offer.

    But Willie should have been christened Liam because now he’s a castrated Willie.

  • Fair enough, it all seems to me to be stretching the analogy.

    Let’s be honest: the RoI Ministry of Defence is hardly the grandest office of state (and, as of this moment of posting, http://www.willieodea.ie/ still designates him as “Minister of Defence”). Equally, a FF Cabinet has to be a balance of many regional and ideological conflicting interests: O’Dea happened to tick a lot of those boxes.
    Now to the actuality.

    Three things stand out a mile.

    1. O’Dea was caught in an outrageous libel and a lie. He had, in all conscience to go; and should have done a long while back.

    2a. Next, that Cowen didn’t insist he had already gone, and then attempt to protect and defend O’Dea is a recognition of the weakness of the administration. How long, o Lord, how long?
    2b. The sub-section of that “thing”, also standing out the odd furlong or so, is the ability of several of O’Dea’s “colleagues” to be absent from the vote-of-confidence: a precisely calculated absence to guarantee the casting vote of An Ceann Comhairle. I note that Trevor Sargent’s absence was to attend an organic food fair: a pressing engagement, indeed. Now, if a Government calls a vote-of-confidence, not knowing the outcome, that’s more than a misjudgment. And John Gormley is emphatic that the Greens were “bounced” into this vote.

    Which brings us to:
    3. For once the Greens rose about their usual “more of a dirty yellow colour” (© The Goon Show). If so, at long last: hoo-flaming-ray.

    Now to extrapolate from that saga of mismanagement and intra-governmental chaos to Great Opinions on the media and “mediation” is, for me, going too, too far.

  • RobertNoonan

    Another interesting aspect to this was. A Former Minister for Justice in the 26 was going around carrying Confidential infomation on a well known Journalist. The Journalist worked for a group who received funds from a well known Americam, the Funds were stopped.The former MInister was in breach of his Ministerial duties. Nothing happenned to him, He should have been hung out to dry.It is a funny old world

  • Jimmy Sands

    “The former MInister was in breach of his Ministerial duties.”

  • Jimmy Sands

    “The former MInister was in breach of his Ministerial duties.”

    How?

  • Jimmy Sands

    I would have thought that the 100k was more than adequate compensation for O’Dea’s stupidity. It’s probably more than Nessan ever made from the kip. He was a good minister and should have stayed.

  • Munsterview

    Robert

    Was this by chance the same Minister For Justice that had to slink out in the dark to the home of Billy Flynn, Private Detective to read his files and copies of letters already held by the Dep. Of Justice regarding Donegall and other Garda Corruption ?

    Despite his ‘Political Boot Boy’ media image, he had to come like a thief in the night as he did not have sufficient authority to face down his own senior Dep. officials get access to the files containing the original letters!

    Can it be any surprise that we all live with in a Disneyland of Cartoon politics with such Mickey Mouse gutless wonders occupying high office ? Finally, Lord Spares Us All, is this the same Ex Minister that is contemplating adding yet another return ( and failure ) to add to his existing considerable list of political failures ?

  • Dan Sullivan

    Mick, like yourself I was out of circulation for the mid-term break though somewhat further afield. Willie has long practised the most personalised combative style of political debaters and it isn’t causing too many people sleepless nights that his nob nailed boots ended up kicking himself in the gob.

    While the tweet (that was heard around the Dáil) might have allowed Dan Boyle to break the political equivalent of the 4th wall, the issue was in some senses first noted as significant whether on p.ie or elsewhere last March when it was reported by Mike Dwane and it was kept alive thereafter as it wormed its way through the courts. A few media outlets have noted that some TDs were even rehashing arguments posted on p.ie months ago.

    What makes some particular event significance is not the mere reportage but the commentary on the event and the factual reporting of it by the public and the media. The 4th estate by and large didn’t comment on this issue hence many members of the public were unaware of it ever happening. Why was that? Was it simply that we’ve grown too used to ministers and public figures playing fast and loose with the law and the facts, or did they not see it as significant that a minister would say things he did not know to be true under oath in writing?

  • Munsterview

    Dan……

    “……..The 4th estate by and large didn’t comment on this issue hence many members of the public were unaware of it ever happening. ……”

    1) O’D alleged /claimed/ insinuated whatever that Maurice Quinlivan had a vested interest in a brothel.

    2) M.Q. resorted to the High Court to try and stop these claims by O’D

    3) Based on O’D affidavit of lies and denials M.Q. was denied the protection of the High Court

    4) If an affidavit is wrong in it’s contents, that document per se cannot be corrected, a new affidavit has to be sworn which then becomes de facto the affidavit of record. O’D as a trained lawyer knew all this.

    5) According to press reports no such new affidavit was sworn and the original lying document is still the High Court document of record in the papers for that case.

    6) Do anyone imagine for one moment that in the dirty gutter politics that was O’D’s and Limerick F.F.’s campaign that the High Court’s refusal to give M.Q. an injunction preventing O’D claiming that he was associated with a brothel was not referred to, or that further slander was not done with this on the door steps and in the election fray ?

    7) On a point of honor it was already a resigning issue. However, as I have written elsewhere, this being Irish Politics and O’Dalaigh long in his grave, twittering O’D out was as good a way as any to achieve that result, but unfortunately it is far from establishing a new political morality. It is still F.F. business as usual !

  • Dan Sullivan

    by members of the public, I meant nationally, I’m sure that locally people were aware of the comment.