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.