A note on the fine balance between criticism and a whinge
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?