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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 12, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    A note on the fine balance between criticism and a whinge

    Harry McGee

    There was a lovely sentence in John Waters column last week (read the whole article here) that really caught my eye. He was extolling the virtues of Radio 4 by means of moaning about the consant moaning we hear on RTE (and in most of the newspapers).

    Here’s the snatch of column that I liked:

    “It’s not just that, rather than listening to someone moaning about overpaid politicians to an overpaid telephone operator masquerading as a celebrity, you can listen to a lovingly-produced documentary about the secret life of crows.”

    We all know to whom Waters was referring there and it must be pointed out here that the selfsame telephone operator has built up a huge listenership.

    The point he is making is self-evident in the news and commnetary we see and read every day.  Over the last decade, most newspapers have become more agenda-driven in their coverage of current events, especially politics. You will find that not alone will what happened be reported but blame will also be assigned by the reporter, or the headline writer, or by both.

    Take the weather stories. Now, there is legimitimate criticism. And lots of it. The Government has been nailed bang-to-rights on its sluggish response to the worsening conditions, and failures in coherence, coordination and communication. But some of the coverage has been well OTT.

    Noel Dempsey was away on holidays when it broke. Should he have come home? I personally don’t think it was warranted. But some did. But with some of the coverage you would swear that he was a fugitive from justice, especially the vicarious trawling about where he’d gone on holidays (which was nobody’s business).

    The respose to such emergencies are primarily local but it reaches a stage where the response has to be national. The Government were really slow in copping on to this. When it did, we discovered there was a plethora of coordinating committes at national level, involving many Government departments and agencies.  It may work like clockwork but it’s real Sir Humphrey stuff when you are trying to understand it. They had difficulties explaining it. Then they said it wasn’t an emergency even though the emergency responses had been triggered. Cue: Confusion all round.

    But then, the horrors of Wednesday caught everybody on the hop. The Government should have kept its eye on the ball and have been more aware of what to expect. It should have been more proactive  in appointing an Ice Tsar etc. When the show finally got on the road, it was grand. But there were still shortcomings. We needed better public communications. An easy to access website, for example, that gives the latest information on roads, weather, hospitals would have been a help.

    But the criticism then started to lose the plot. At the press conference in Government buildings last Thursday, Brian Cowen was repeatedly pressed  as to why the Government had not stepped in and closed down all the schools in the country. And then Batt O’Keeffe did just that on Friday, armed with weather forecasts that said there would be really heavy snows on Sunday and the bad spell would continue into the following week. And then on Sunday, when the thaw happened a little earlier than expected, the same newspapers who had been giving out because all the schools were open were now incandescnet with anger because  all the schools were closed. In his doorstep interview yesterday, Cowen remarked, not with a little irony, that all the editorials on Saturday had approved the Government decision to close the schools. So, get a grip.

    The former army officer, and security analyst, Declan Power [sorry I said Declan Kelly in an earlier version] was on RTE’s Frontline last night. I thought he made a number of reasonable points. What he was tapping into (in my opinion) was a sense and mood out there  shared by a lot of people (though not by all) that we are passive citizens cum victims who must rely on Government and the State to look after our every need and whim.  Even if the State had managed to grit every single footbath and boreeen and had dealt with all fractures within 10 second flat, some of that cohort wouldn’t have been satisfied. I thought he made a good argument about personal responsibilities. But he had a hard time getting his points across last night.

    Sure, there were shortcomings. But the weather was as bad as I have ever seen in my lifetime. Sure, some of it was predictable. But what happened on Wednesday was quick and complex. We had a severe weather warning. Then the snows came. Then it iced over very quickly. People started going home early. They all left at the same time.  There was gridlock. And scarifying moments for a lot of people. And the problem for the gritters was that the couldn’t get out because the streets were choked with traffic.

    The points I’m making aren’t designed to give the Government a Get out of Jail card free.  Reading the papers, listening to Liveline and looking at Frontline (which has to be careful not to become a visual version of Liveline), the standards that are set for Government are unreal. You have to take account of unusual Force Majeure type events, and of the difficulties that people will have with dealing with complex events involving hundreds of thousands of citizens, and many thousands of kilometres of roads, pathways and footpaths. The last thing we need is hyberbole verging on hysteria. Nobody died. If it was an emergency, it was one with a very small ‘e’.

    Accepted, there was tardiness. Some agencies were slow getting off the ground. But a lot of the coverage has almost completely ignored the massive and unstinting  effort at local level  by roads and maintenance and emergency staff to deal with the crisis as best they could. Nothing is good enough for some.

    There’s also the concept of personal responsibility. For example, people could ensure that the space around their front door or garden was kept clear. As far as I could ascertain, there wasn’t enough of that going on (I know that there was a false rumour doing the rounds about legal repsonsibilities).

    Am I imagining it or is there a growing army of whine buffs out there?

    • Paul H says:

      Declan Power not Kelly for the record & you’re right he made a number of good points on the Frontline. Not a single person cleared the snow/ice from outside their frontdoor (never mind footpath) on my road in Dublin.

    • Octopus Caveman says:

      I can only imagine the outrage that would have been generated if the govenment had floated the idea of a Snow Tsar 6 weeks ago. Or even if it came to light that the government was ‘wasting’ money by stockpiling salt and grit.
      Joe Public wants top quality services while paying low taxes.

    • Muiris O Donnchu says:

      No, you’re not just imagining it.

      The concept of personal responsibility (let alone social responsibility) seems to have gone out the window alright, with too many people instead focusing on playing the ‘blame game’ at every opportunity (and not just when it comes to the recent weather).

      It’s often said that we get the media/society/politicians we deserve but which really comes first – a negative political culture or negative citizens? Crusading media who inspire moral panics at every turn or selfish, finger-pointing readers/viewers?

      And whose responsibility is it to lead the move away from this, if we can even all agree that there’s a better way of doing things?

    • EmmetH says:

      I was beginning to wonder if I was alone in feeling that this moaning, entitlement, culture had reached a kind of saturation point, until I listened to Declan Kelly on Frontline yesterday evening and read your blog today. It seemed to me that Pat Kenny had a full range of moaners and whiners in the audience, whipped up and ready for the ministers blood. He also had an independent expert on hand to lay into O’Cuiv should he survive the audience mauling. Kenny seemed utterly gobsmacked and let down when the security expert had the temerity to suggest that the governments response to the so called crisis was “mediocre”. When Mr. Kelly tried to make the point about personal responsibility he was talked over and the point was quite literally ignored. I believe that it’s not simply about clearing snow from your from door or gate, it’s about taking responsibility for your own and your family and communities health and wellbeing and not just sitting around waiting for some “official” to sort everything out for you. If it’s not the weather, it’s the economy or the banking system or the health service or whatever else might befall us as a nation. I fear that if we continue to allow ourselves to be led by this vocal minority of whingers we may never drag ourselves out of the hole that these people constantly tell us is being dug by somebody else.

    • Harry says:

      I have corrected Declan Power’s name. Apologies. H.

    • robespierre says:

      Totally agree Harry. I must mine John Waters columns more. Just shows even the unlikliest [places] can contain a diamond.

      I was an active canvassing member of a political party and managed a number of election campaigns between 2002 and 2005. I only worked with people that I felt were worthy of office. I came across an awful lot of people who could organise a children’s birthday party alright but were entirely unsuited to getting to grips with a department, understanding processes and technology and envisionary change in service provision.

      It is no coincidence therefore that when you have inarticulate politicians that have never worked in the real world like for instance the current Minister for Enterprise that they are incapable of offering any independent insight that brings value to the country.

      However, as somebody who works in change management and consults on it professionally I can tell you as a matter of course that when people feel no sense of personal ownership of an activity or expect / blame somebody other than themselves for an event taking place it is because the roles and relationships between public life and the service users has broken down and/or is entirely misunderstood.

      I would like to go into more depth on this but I don’t have time right now.

    • Ian says:

      Now that the thaw is ongoing, presumably all the Councils will be stocking up on ballygowan for when the summer heatwave comes.

      If that sounds like an absurd prospect, then you’re right. It’s nonsense!

    • barbera O'Shokenzy says:

      I have rte Lyric fm on 24/7 so haven’t listened to the Beeb 4 for a while. Forgot how good it is. “The secret life of crows” sounds fascinating. Hope JW reveals some of the secrets in a forthcoming column. Have always loved crows — such a raw and honest caw — no sweet tweet tweet.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      This responsibility stuff is complex and there were several layers of failure, some of which built on each other.

      There was a failure of individual responsibility – behaving like lemmings and causing gridlock is evidence of individual irresponsibility (reminiscent of the property bubble). Failing to clear your own driveway and footpath is also individual irresponsibility. Deciding to deprive the community of water by leaving taps running whilst you bugger off on a skiing holiday is not irresponsible, it is “social endangerment” and it should be a crime.

      Once gridlock had happened, there was a failure of the police to act to provide the kind of policing that the situation demanded. Emergency services were compromised by the failure of the Garda to respond adequately (if at all). Undermining the effectiveness of the emergency services is an unforgivable lapse that an Garda Siochana must ensure never, ever, happens again.

      There was a failure of local government to prepare for the weather forecast, but I would not rate theirs as the worst failure. They have legitimate grounds for waiting until the government agrees to fund emergency measures before reacting, in fact, they exercised leverage (never waste a crisis) to expose the government for its confusion in relation to local government. The minister told them last summer that he was giving responsibility for secondary roads to the NRA, so naturally they felt justified in ignoring them, until the bus companies decided to withdraw their services. This made rate payers mad and councils always respond to the concerns of rate payers (as opposed to taxpayers or residents). The government confusion was covered up and the lever put away for another crisis. The confusion is real and will reappear over and over again until the government finally sorts out its communication (and funding and responsibilities of local government). That confusion will lead to avoidable deaths, multiple avoidable deaths, as extreme weather events become more established. That is a failure of governance.

      I agree that Minister Dempsey was not responsible, he became responsible because all the rest of the government had disappeared into media silence which automatically pointed the microphone towards the only one of their number that wasn’t in on the deal. The governments absence was a case of mass running for the bunker to get out of the media spotlight.

      The major fault, however, lay in history – the successive failure to define and separate the overlapping responsibilities of local and central government. That failure was exacerbated by Minister Gormley’s secondary roads memo.

      The NRA looked surprised to learn that they were supposed to be responsible for secondary roads – so much so that it looked suspiciously like they never got a copy of the gormless memo.

      Sure it was unusual weather – but it was not extreme weather. Extreme weather is when 3 category 4 hurricanes hit you in the space of 5 weeks. That’s extreme. People’s lives are at risk. Had that happened here I daresay that this email would not have got through, even if there had been a generator to power up a laptop – we’d all be wondering how the army were going to dig mass graves in flooded land.

      The fact remains that FEMA in New Orleans are a highly effective, well funded and competently managed organisation by comparison with anything on this Island.

      And that is a failure of governance.

    • Patrick Hennessy says:

      I smiled on reading of the couple of polish girls who were in stitches laughing somewhere in ireland because the Irish boyfriend of one of them was going to stock-up for a long lock-in. all relative this weather business and what you can and must get used to.

      The Irish (under 40) have become a middle class nation of spoilt tiger brats who now must leave the the cage of false security built up by the economic boom and go forage. Leave down those long stemmed wine glasses, take off the designer dresses and shoes, and go grow some potatoes in the back garden. Get on with life as it is, not what the stupid tiger deluded you into thinking it is.


    • barbera says:

      Back to the secret life of crows again and I recall an incident, which was related to me, concerning crows and a long since dead (RIP) relative of mine (Dev’s cabinet) who used to drive a black Ford and on his way ‘up to Dublin’ for a Dail session, he had to stop half-way and get out of the car. For there blocking his path and taking up the whole road was a circle of great big black crows –I think there was one in the middle — and it was as though they were having a conference. I don’t know if any bills were passed that day but my (I won’t say grand, great or great-great) relative was absolutely amazed by the proceedings and which were so relevant to where he was going that day.
      Very much agree with P. Hennessy

    • dealga says:

      RTE would be delighted if Frontline became Liveline on TV…

    • barbera says:

      I note Harry’s metaphor, relating to the Government, of the “Get out of Jail Free Card”, which obviously alludes (is it possible to obviously allude?) to politics as being a game of monopoly. Wonder what’s going on with the latest Irish version of the board game. I believe there’s a global version now and can be played with plastic — not notes.
      No crow-knee-ism intended in my last post.

    • Ray D says:

      Yep change management expertise is certainly cutting edge in the real real world. really? I think it’s spin and a con.

    • John Barron Kensington says:

      Looking at the values of property & land which is still falling and the value of the Irish Glass Bottle site is down from £450m to £65m.
      This land is being transferred to NAMA so surley thats not a 30% hair cut more like an 85% hair cut.
      I wonder what what NAMA will value it at.

    • says:

      As a great lover of radio 4 I can agree.
      During the Tiger years the only subject indulged in over the dolphin friendly tuna and hand dived scallops seemed to be money, and for dessert a nice line of Charlie (very organic and fair trade).

      I will not be sad to see the downfall of Dublin’s “Vapid & Banal” set. Schadenfreude perhaps, but narcissus has fallen for his reflection in that mirror and the echoing chants of “its not fair” while they drown in debt sound hollow.

      Borrowing to fund trips to the safari parks of Africa, overpriced apartments and German engineered cars was stupidity. Those who did should and will pay.
      There is a science to economics, and this correction in the world economy is Vorsprung durch techic, the appliance of that science.
      So get on your bike Ireland, plant some spuds, read some books, go for a walk, smile and be human again. Forget the “I’m alright jack” attitude, poor is the new rich.

    • Charlie's dead says: for president.
      Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

    • Jonathan says:

      Moaning about government inaction is only half of the problem.
      As you say, on the one hand they moan that “daddy government” didn’t do this and didn’t do that.
      If “daddy government” actually did any of that, the self same moaners would all moan about how we’re living in a nanny state which treats us like children.
      Some people just like moaning, it seems.

    • Kynos says:

      A criticism is when you’re highlighting inadequacies in others a whinge is when you’re highlighting inadequacies in yerself.

    • Bloggard says:

      Jonathan @18 ‘true for you’ as I believe they say in Limerick and it’s environs. This lot could moan for Ireland in the forthcoming Olympics…just surf the blogs you will see the same old same old bollox. It wouldn’t be so bad if they expressed it in an interesting or amusing way, but it’s just the same tired old cliches repeated ad infinitum… Give up now it’s a lost cause the total effect is GBH of the eyeball…They could do something with their laptops and get organised as none of them appear to work in the conventional sense, but it’s so much easier to sit at the computer and whinge than actually do anything…Perhaps the Benefits system is the cause of Apathy…Gimme shelter

    • kynos says:

      What’s the other half Johnathan? Moaning about government action? Long time I’ve been moaning on here about how the howling moral vaccum that is Fianna Fail and all its works and pomps would bring this country to wrack. If you can nod and wink at the trampling of all the laws foreign and domestic that are supposed to stand against Ireland and Irish public officialdom’s involvement in torture and kidnap and illegal war, why, you can nod and wink at anything. And as the dogs in the street now see, FF did indeed nod and wink at anything. Provided the bribes were paid the backs were scratched and the cronies in the Tent looked after they did indeed. Not of course that the moaning did any good, thought there’s a certain bitter satisfaction at seeing it all come to pass and being proved right in the process. What else can we do? This is not a democracy. It’s an oligarchy, controlled from afar by plutocrats who pay neither tax nor attention to the laws supposedly standing between Irish society and the devil. Well they don’t. And the Devil’s here now.

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