Endless carping at politicians likely to undermine media
The abuse heaped on Pat Rabbitte’s head by a variety of commentators because he dared to criticise media standards goes a long way towards proving that his criticism had a point.
While Rabbitte is well able to dish out the invective himself in debates with political opponents, his views deserve more careful consideration than they have received to date.
The worrying aspect of the media response is that it has been dominated by an intolerant refusal to accept that there could be any validity in Rabbitte’s criticism. The general reaction has been to attack the man and ignore his argument.
That response is reminiscent of the attitude of the Catholic Church in the days when it was the dominant institution in the country. Institutions who believe they are motivated by higher ideals than ordinary mortals have a dangerous tendency to reject all criticism.
Rabbitte’s key argument is that the media has become engaged in a relentless denigration of politics which could ultimately have adverse effects on society.
“There is an all-pervasive negativity in the media that is not helping the mood of a people that is in distress and difficulty,” he said.
While journalists rushed to dismiss the Minister’s claim, a former political opponent, ex-PD minister Liz O’Donnell, was a rare voice in his support. “When is the last time you read or heard a positive comment about a living politician?” she asked in her newspaper column.
Most politicians are wise enough not to expect any gratitude from the media, even if they do a good job, but it is worth considering whether there is any merit in Rabbitte’s claim that the media is now dominated by “an all-pervasive negativity”.
Two decades ago American journalism professor Ted J Smith identified this as a growing trend in the coverage of US politics which was actually damaging the credibility of the media. “Their most common criticism, endorsed by huge majorities in most polls, is that coverage is unduly negative and intrusive.”
Smith attributed media negativity to a number of factors. One was that the media had ceased to regard its main function as being to report what was happening in the political world but rather to act as a watchdog on political institutions.
“The media has emerged as a sort of permanent parliamentary opposition but without the need to defend a position or offer any reasonable alternatives to the policies it attacks.”
Given the mistakes made by senior politicians in the years running up to the crash it is hardly a surprise that media coverage of politics turned increasingly negative. Unfortunately such scepticism was sadly absent when the big mistakes were being made, but it has been applied unremittingly towards the politicians who have been left with the task of trying to sort out the mess from 2008 onwards.
Unlike the political opposition, who at least have to offer some kind of alternative policies if they are to have any credibility, the media doesn’t have to offer any. It has the comfort of always being able to criticise and has no compunction about switching the point of attack to whatever policy the government of the day embarks on.