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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 9, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    A note on our trade

    Harry McGee

    Newspapers (and especially blogs) don’t pretend to be history treatises. We are constrained by enormous pressures of time. An example of that was the story I did last week on Cowen’s speech. He began his delivery . at 8.10. It ran until nearly 8.30pm. I had to hotfoot it back to the office. I arrived back at 8.50pm. I then had to write a 650 word story on the speech from notes and had to do it in 20 minutes to make the 9.10pm deadline for the international edition. That’s getting the intro right.. making sure you get it all the major points he made… and all the quotes. That is as momentary, as ‘of the moment’ as you can get in print.

    And the media is of the moment. People sometimes describe newspapers as the first draft of history. I have always believed that to be too grand a claim for what we do. We churn. And turn out the product every day.When we report on a political event or occurrence, we usually confine ourselves to the event itself, with not a huge amount of context. Of course, it will be put into a frame… bad month, good autumn,u-turn, backslide etc.

    A statement we political hacks often make to each other after an event or controversy or decision or the bottling of a decision is:

    That really looks bad for so-and-so politicain, doesn’t it.

    In other words, the politician is damaged by a gaffe, or a failure to take action, or the inability to quell a rebellion, or a populist decision, or a non-populist decision, or a general vive of inertia or ineptitude.

    Take your pick. Your average Joe Schmo political part leader probably runs through the whole shooting gallery in a month.But it’s very rare to assess that damage in the context of an entire political career. It’s a spell of three home losses in a 42-game season. It causes temporary concern but rarely is it career-threatening.

    Why do I write all this? Cowen had a good week last week. He’s had months of bad weeks and a couple of grotesque ones when he seemed paralysed by inertia. I write this because a couple of people who emailed me about the ‘lad done well’ story got into “Who Fears to Speak of ’98″ mode. In other words, how dare you praise Cowen for doing anything because he’s the guy who got us into that mess in the first place by presiding over the orgy of greed when Minister for Finance between 2004 and 2008.

    The general  point that is being made is fair. But the expectation that when writing anything about Cowen we must necessarily back-refer to this previous record at each and every turn is not. The nature of our work is that we assess how Cowen and Kenny and Gilmore and others cope with the here and now. We must report on the events that occur now within their own limits and within their own circumstances, all while operating under the constraints of time and space (that does not really give you much time to sit back and think fine Platonic thoughts).

    It’s not quite a case-by-case basis of doing things. But if you were to include the context that some emailers have demanded, it would not take congisance of changing circumstances, of events, of efforts made to remedy past mistakes. Ultimately when Cowen is judged on how he handled the economic criss as Taoiseach,  the question will be asked about whether or not his previous profligacy made him the author of  his own misfortunes. But to demand to put that handicap on his (or on anybody else’s) back each and every time you write about them is unreasonable, in my view.

    Seamus Heaney was criticised for not taking strong enough stances on the Northern troubles in the 1970s and self-mocked himself a little with the nickname of Tacitus. But Tacitus can be good especially when we are describing events that are fluid, inchoate, unfinished and without resolution. I am almost allergic to a particularly shrill brand of cocksure opinion (especially the spoofers who are ram-rodding home their ‘solutions’ to the financial crisis) or to populist ranting (like Dunphy on the Late Late on Friday night). When you read it months and years later, you realise how silly and self-serving a lot of it is.

    Is Cowen a good Taoiseach or a bad Taoiseach? Will his time as Minister for Finance come back to haunt him? Sorry for being such a boring drudge but it’s still too early to say. We can say with certainty that he hasn’t been as good as the eulogies of last summer suggested. We can also say that his performance of last week doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a beaten docket either. We can also say too that his communications’ strategy has been poor.

    These are the events and speeches and pronouncements and controversies we cover each day. We can’t – and I hope, don’t – pretend to be omniscient in our reporting, though we strive to be 100 per cent accurate. Our opinion pieces can’t pretend to have the wisdom of introspection and retrospection that comes with disinterested analysis of events that have occurred, that are complete, that are finished.

    There, now I’ve got that off my chest!

    • You know, I have to tell you, I really enjoy this blog and the insight from everyone who participates. I find it to be refreshing and very informative. I wish there were more blogs like it. Anyway, I felt it was about time I posted, I’ve spent most of my time here just lurking and reading, but today for some reason I just felt compelled to say this.

    • Harry says:

      Well thank you Susan. We try to keep the blogs at a really really high standard (!) but often find ourself outgunned by those who comment in a more concise (definitely) and more astute (arguably) way.

    • DesJay says:

      What was that about the worfkman blaming his tools?

    • Harry says:

      Not really. Just explaining the limits of what we do.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Harry, I have no problem with the idea that last week was one of Cowen’s better weeks but that is more in contrast with how terrible the other weeks have been and especially consider how he was lauded upon assuming office as this incredibly talented bloke.

      The speech wasn’t that good, but it wasn’t awful either and put in the shade any speech that Bertie ever gave but that is to damn with faint praise. The problem with it is this, and here is where the comparisons with Haughey might turn out to be valid. It is not that Haughey was living large off loans he didn’t bother to service or gifts from the rich and famous; it is that Haughey knew what the problem was, he told us to our faces what it was that we had done wrong in plain and simple terms, he told us too what was needed to be done, and then he went straight off and did the complete opposite for the next 6 years until he got back into power in ’87. I believe that only for Ray MacSharry wrestling control of the economy from Haughey that he would have again tried to avoid the necessary action. FF don’t have a Ray MacSharry figure at present and don’t seem likely to find one. MacSharry realised that by acting as he did that he would never be FF leader something that might well have been within his reach but he gave it up because he knew that the country had no other choice but to adopt the framework that FG had left him with. He took that FG ’87 budget and ran with it. Can you honestly see any of the senior figures in FF today placing their personal ambitions aside forever and doing the necessary?

    • Harry says:

      Dan, it’s not comparing like to like. Fine Gael had produced a hairshirt Budget in 1987 that MacSharry went ahead and imposed. So he had political cover in case it didn’t wrork. Secondly, the scale of the crisis – while bad – was incomparable to the Armageddon we are facing now. Thirdly, Haughey dithered for years before acting. Whatever, Cowen’s role as MF (especially his bubble-bursting Election budget of December 2006) it’s too early into his tenure to conclude that the is a ditherer.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Harry, I’m happy to split the difference and say that while one might not be in a position to conclude that Cowen is a ditherer, the balance of evidence to date is on the side that he is, rather than he isn’t. The immediacy of the mess today is for sure worse than in 1987 but the long-term nature of the steps required for recovery are similar. I think we had really good years from ’94 to ’04 on the back of lots of sacrifice from ’84 to ’94 but ’04 to ’07 were a bit like those few extra drinks you shouldn’t have had, on what was a really good night out. I think we need to embed a new model of thinking as to why we raise taxes from people, it’s not to punish them but to pay for things that people have said they want. We need more linkage in people’s minds between taxes raised and monies spent and more of it has to be at the local level and more of it has to be inherited wealth and capital.

      Oddly enough, the title of ditherer did for the image of Brown more than anything else, or it seems to have so far anyway.

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