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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 10, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

    The Frank Carson rule

    Harry McGee

    More... Bless me for I have sinned. It’s been five weeks since my last public confession. My excuses. Holidays. My sins. Venial. A bit of laziness. Oh, and blogger’s block (if that condition did not exist before, it does now).

    This offering is about communication.  Because it’s been a while, I’m going to tie in a lot of loose strands, and some will be tied with a granny knot. And it’s a roundabout way of saying sorry I’m a little late giving a plug to the fabulous Leviathan (which I’m also missing because I am working late).

    More...One of the first profound  joys I experienced after returning was being asked to report on a couple of hours of proceedings if the all-singing all-dancing all-party committee on the Constitution. The committee was  was examining the impact of the McKenna and Coughlan judgements on referendum campaigns. The judgements, both from the Supreme Court, are important. There is now an obligation on the media and on the State – and particularly broadcasters – to impart information in a manner that reflects the Yes and No arguments equally.

    Now, this committee is inquiring as to whether or not the rule (in truth, the slide rule) is fair and balanced.

    I had a bit of a double-take when I learned of this. Perhaps there is indeed merit in revisiting both judgements. But it seemed to me that the committee, politically, are re-running the referendum. And in its way, saying that the No side getting an equal say as the only possible explanation as to why the referendum was lost.

    Enter Maurice Hayes, who had been invited to speak to the committee. The chairman of the National Forum on Europe is a bulwark of common sense. And may I add before getting into the meat of the argument Forum’s booklet on the Lisbon Treaty gave by far and away the best and clearest explanation of this very complex – and impenetrable – document.

    The Yes side asks is it fair that parties representing over 90 per per cent of the vote in the last election wanted a Yes vote yet had to cede 50 per cent of the coverage to, well, Sinn Fein, a wealthy man’s money, and a rag-tag of others.

    But that assumes that the corrollary of that is that the sole reason for the success of the No side was its disproportionate exposure in the media.

    But that’s upending the argument, or looking at it from the wrong way around. As Hayes pointed out referendums are different from elections and that the choice is betweeen competing views as opposed to competing parties.

    Ergo, it’s not really important that all the great and the good are assembled on one side. The independence and robustness of the electorate in that regard can be seen by its verdict on Lisbon. They defied the bulk of the State’s authority in favour of the weight a particular argument.

    The committee, it seems to me, has also presupposed that the media alone was a huge factor – it was the Sun wot done it, etc.

    Hayes had an interesting observation to make on this point also. He said he noticed that at least some of the campaign had occurred ‘below the radar’.

    “One of the things that appeared in analyses (after the outcome) was conscription (to a European army). I only heard it mentioned once in a public meeting.

    “Much of the debate was below the radar and only being picked up by people on the doorstep.

    “I was interested by the poll that said that a surprisingly large number of people said they were not canvassed at all,” he said.

    I was intrigued by this, that there are streams of information that we are not fully aware of. The European Army conscription claim was a classic whispering campaign. It was heard in the workplace. On internet fora. By SMS messsage. But it didn’t appear in any of the mainstream media outlets until so late in the campaign that it could not be a factor.

    One of the thing I’m asked a lot is if new media outlets like the web, blogging, texts, youtube has a big bearing on Irish politics. Until now I’ve most said no, we are way behind the curve in the US.

    I’ve revised that a lot in the past year. I think there’s been a bigger change in the medium of the message than I previously acknowledged. I think it’s particularly apparent or noticable when it is a contest of ideas (as in a referendum) but that’s happening quickly too in everday common or garden politics.

    TV, radio and newspapers no longer hit all the targets. The Obama effect is taking hold. YouTube will become more important than primetime newscasts. Blogs will influence more than op-ed pieces. The quickest way of spreading a message will not be by rolling news but by the wildfire effect of a funny or quirky text or video clip or via the likes of www.politics.ie.

    The writer and director Gerry Stembridge once gave the best every answer in a written questionnaire.

    Asked what he thought of post-modernism, he replied: “I view it with an air of detached irony”.

    Don’t scoff either at the kind of post-modernist stuff behind  Jon Stewart on the Comedy Channel or the much-anticipated series that John Ryan will front in the New Year. It has had a huge and growing influence in the US (and has served as a counterpoint to Limbaugh and co). It’s not new either. Frank Hall’s ‘Pictorial Weekly’ and Spitting Image come to mind from the long-distant past.

    Not forgetting some old technology. Even the one-sentence slogans in good old-fashioned posters out-flanked beautifully crafted opinion pieces written on behalf of the Yes side. The Town Hall meeting – honed in the US – is making a comeback here as is Leviathan – a genuine all-singing all-dancing even thanks to David McWilliams, the finest vaudeville performer of this or any generation.

    The media is becoming more fragmented, more dissolute. But that’s not to say the message is less potent or that it’s a case of brace yourself folks for yet more shallowness.

    Ah, The Frank Carson rule. Ultimately, it all boils down to the way you tell ‘em.

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