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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 23, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    A Christmas Snarl

    Harry McGee

    In the spirit of the season, Vincent Browne delves into his sack and delivers a present to all political correspondents.

    Oh, wow, it’s a splatter bomb, lobbed right into the middle of the pol corrs room.

    You can read Vincent Brownes ‘s column here.

    Just for the sake of accuracy, it wasn’t a lunch. It was a round-table interview with Cowen by one representative from each media organisation. There were about 20 representatives in all and it took place in the late afternoon for about an hour.

    Browne’s main gripe, when you pick your way through the irony-stroke-cynicism, is that nobody asked Cowen any tough questions and that the cosy club of establishmentarians more or less let him away with it. I wasn’t one of those present but there are couple of points that need to be made.

    1. It wasn’t a lunch. It was a press conference. The media represented included daily broadsheets, tabloids, Sundays, radio and television. And that included outside agencies like the BBC.

    2. That kind of setting doesn’t lend itself to the interrogative interview that Browne desires. Unlike a one-on-one with a single interviewer or anchor (like his own news show) a press conference situation puts constraints on the extent to which you can pursue a question. You can ask a question and then you can press on it, but you won’t get a chance to pursue relentlessly and ask loads of follow-up questions because others will be trying to get their questions in. So that type of situation confers an advantage on the subject rather than the questioner.

    3. Cowen is Taoiseach and that position means that he is treated with some degree of deference. Loads of questions were fired at him during the course of the hour. Some of them were harsh and direct (his wan Dail response to the Murphy report; his poor communication skills, his handling of the banking crisis; journalists challengimg him to accept that he messed everything up). But his method of dealing with these was deflection and evasion. Bertie used the same technique but in different ways. What Cowen does is answer at extraordinary length using civil service jargon and moving away from the subject. He won’t offer anything personal or any individual reflection, considering these as hostages to fortune. I know from interviews I’ve done with him in the past that for such a supposedly sharp thinker and speaker, he can be an incredible bore, droning on with useless details for an age. 

    4. Are the pol corrs a cosy lobby? One of the comments on Vincent’s piece refers to a very tall political correspondent (that rules me out!) having the craic with a Fianna Fail junior minister in Buswells. I don’t understand the logic of that. Leinster House is a smallish place and you end up knowing everybody and being friendly with some. Does it involve compromises? Small ones perhaps, but you can’t be doing the job if you aren’t prepared to bite the hand that feeds if it warrants it. John O’Donoghue’s recent demise was a case in point. Cowen and his Government – despite this morning’s bleatings – haven’t been relying on the media to do their PR. On the contrary, the media have been on the whole hostile to Cowen and his stint as Taoiseach. I can think of only one prominent commentator who believes that Cowen is doing a good job. So I don’t know where all this soft-shoe shuffle is coming from.

     5.  The thing that annoys him the most is that nobody put the hard question to Cowen that Vincent wanted to ask. And that was to press the Taoiseach on why public servants earning under €30,000 faced cuts while no moves were made to change the relief on income tax for pensions to the standardised level. But the problem with that is to ask that question you’d have to agree with Browne’s take on the Budget. And I, for one,  don’t.

    6. The final point on Vincent Browne’s little bit of mischief. If he had been there, being Vincent, he would surely have gone into Vincent mode. And I’m sure he would have pursued and pursued on that. But he wouldn’t have got any further than anybody else there. Besides they’d start getting browned off with Browne for hogging the limelight.

    Final phrase. In the spirit of Christmas, Bah Humbug.

    • Mark says:

      I agree with your take that Vincent Browne’s slant on the affair was slightly misleading.

      However, on point 4….

      Ken Foxe is not a pol corr. It took quite a while for people to start rowing in behind him. And it wasn’t pol corrs leading the race to get in there with him, if my memory serves me right.

      On point 3….

      Brian Cowen is Taoiseach, I’d argue he deserves the same degree of deference and respect as anyone else without a criminal record. He was also minister for finance.

      On the wider point it (which, it appears to me) Vincent Browne looked to undercut: the the lede was “Cowen says 2009 was his worst year ever”. There is a tendency for pol corrs – and other journalists – to ask a question that they know the answer to just to get a quote that’ll fit the day’s story they have templated in their head before the interview.

      By that I mean: it has been the worst year in Irish history in terms of the economy since 1950 or so… Brian Cowen was in charge, therefore it was hardly a good year for him, so why bother asking him the question?

      “Is there not something more relevant, insightful, or probing to question him and then write about?”, it appears that was Vincent Browne’s broader point.

    • David says:

      Hi Harry,

      Browne was completely on the money. The media have failed completely, your own assistant editor has said as much.

      As to this bit:

      “Cowen and his Government – despite this morning’s bleatings – haven’t been relying on the media to do their PR. On the contrary, the media have been on the whole hostile to Cowen and his stint as Taoiseach. I can think of only one prominent commentator who believes that Cowen is doing a good job. So I don’t know where all this soft-shoe shuffle is coming from.”

      I beg to disagree…


    • Frankie Power says:

      Why was the BBC correspondent there?

    • Deaglán says:

      I have great and longstanding regard for Vincent Browne as a fine journalist of the highest integrity. But it would be a major error to take him too seriously. Was he not at one time the chief media admirer of the Doheny & Nesbitt School of Economics? This was an informal group of economists and their friends who drank (maybe still do) in the Dublin pub of that name. Their leading light was Colm McCarthy of An Bord Snip Nua fame (another person for whom I have high regard.)
      If I recall correctly, Vincent bought into their views fully and completely. Some people called them “monetarists” but I couldn’t say if that was technically correct. They were committed to fiscal rectitude even if this meant cutting back on social services etc in a pretty drastic manner. Minister for Finance Ray MacSharry finally answered their prayers in the 1987 Budget (and many would now say he did the right thing.)
      Vincent devoted a special issue of Magill magazine in May 1981 to the Doheny & Nesbitt School’s perspective and there was a famous Late Late Show in January 1982 where the “Gospel” was promulgated in no uncertain terms.
      At that time, my recollection is that Vincent’s views on the economy were the polar opposite of what they are now. Rather than berating the Government for hardline policies, he was lambasting them for being irresponsibly soft and letting the country go to rack and ruin. I am not saying he was right or wrong, only pointing out that his views then were not the same as they are now.
      Everyone has the right to change his or her mind, but it would have been nice if Vincent had at least alluded to his dramatic change of outlook in his Irish Times column. As far as I know he has never explained his transition from the hardline school to softhearted social democrat. It’s puzzling, since the situation now is even more serious in fiscal terms than it was in the 1980s.
      I wasn’t at the briefing with the Taoiseach but I don’t see him getting a soft ride from journalists at other press encounters; I suspect that the Taoiseach’s staff would be very surprised indeed at the suggestion that the media generally go easy on him. I hope Cowen goes on the VB show for an interview. We will see how Vincent gets on: he did a full-dress interview with Brian Lenihan some time back and, in my humble opinion, didn’t lay a glove on him.
      I enjoy Vincent’s programme on TV3 for a lot of reasons, but I have to say that Jeremy Paxman’s crown is safe.

    • steve white says:

      Was this the only opportunity given by Cowen to review the year?

      The soft reporting about that briefing wasn’t a one-off.

      The IT led with implications that lots of things had happened to Cowen in 2009:
      “Cowen says 2009 most difficult year of his political life”.

      So was there nobody in the room that wanted to contrast the cuts of lower paid against those of the higher paid? Hmm, sounds like the VB has point.

    • kynos says:

      My limited experience of talking to any of them is that they have some sort of an entropy zone surrounding them like an aura in reverse it kinda drains you of the will to live. Bearing in mind I’ve not met many that and their ability to repeat the most glaring..um..inaccuracies like some sort of mantra that’ll change reality if repeated often enough. Reckon anyone’d do well to pursue them to any answer other than the one they wanted to give. It isn’t like election promises mean anything in Ireland. Sure why would they when there’s no accountability but every five years and even then to be honest? There isn’t. Will remain so as long as the power of the IRB remains unchallenged. More likely we’ll lie in a ditch beneath two parish pumps crossed in Christ’s Name.

    • kynos says:

      Bearing in mind I suppose that a crank is a component in a system applying force you can be both. In fact it might seem like tautology the more i think of it. Hmmm

    • Red Biddy says:

      Funnily when I read Vincent Browne’s article my first thought was ‘where’s ‘Paxo’ when you need him’? No turkey and stuffing pun intended…Invite the’ Paxmaster’ over for an exchange of political pleasantries…Go On I dare you! Don’t you love Kynos’s whimsical metaphors…?

    • Red Biddy says:

      Actually that should have been ‘whimsical analogies’ not metaphors..note to self be more precise with linguistics or is that pasta?

    • Old Kyng Kyole says:

      Sorry Biddy that second one was in reference to one I posted in “Political Stocking Fillers” just got delivered down the wrong chimley. Maybe should leave yiz lumpsa coal instead.

    • Red Biddy says:

      ‘Don’t explain,don’t apologise’…the ‘entropy’ and ‘parish pumps’ analogies were particularly good…deliver coal if you must but don’t leave your carbon footprints on the carpet…Happy New Year…
      Moderator if you’ve received this more than once I’m having problems with this infernal electronic yoke!

    • kynos says:

      Cheers for that! Not often you get any feedback on these blogs. Other than negative anyway. Always enjoy the more humorous contributors though. Including yer good self.

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