Lesson for Irish political press in US coverage of Kenny speech

State’s media must avoid distorting lens that turns criticism to destructive cynicism

An Taoiseach addresses the White House as part of an official visit for St Patrick's Day. Video: The White House

 

The contrast between the domestic and international media treatment of Enda Kenny’s St Patrick’s Day speech in Washington should provoke some analysis about the way politics is routinely covered in this country.

It was only the international acclaim for the Taoiseach’s speech from such highly regarded liberal voices as the New York Times and historian Simon Schama that prompted a reassessment by the Irish media about what had happened in Washington.

If Channel Four news and the New York Times had not generated a wave of positive coverage across the globe, the accepted narrative at home would have remained one of a supine Irish leader tugging the forelock to president Donald Trump.

On any objective analysis, the Taoiseach deserved some plaudits for the skilful way he stated important principles about immigration while remaining within the bounds of diplomatic courtesy. The speech had impact where it counted, in Washington, precisely because he hit all the right buttons.

Crucially the speech was made in the Capitol. Congress has the decisive voice in immigration reform and it is there rather than in the White House that the fate of the undocumented will be decided

Kenny’s supporters believe the latest episode is all of a piece with the routinely negative coverage he has received from much of the Irish media for virtually his entire tenure as Fine Gael leader.

Distorting lens

A more fundamental problem may be that significant elements of the media present politics through a distorting lens that assumes the Government of the day is always acting from the basest possible motives.

Thus the efforts of mainstream politicians to wrestle with the complex problems facing Irish society are frequently misrepresented and their motives called into question when they make choices that provoke opposition from any quarter.

It is not just Kenny who has suffered from this approach. The Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition that had to deal with the whirlwind of the financial crisis from 2008 to 2010 arguably got a far rougher deal.

Of course Fianna Fáil deserved its share of the blame for presiding over the policies that led to the crisis but its ultimately successful attempt to drag the country back from the edge of economic ruin was conducted in the face of unrelenting media criticism.

The scale of the negativity that greeted the necessary corrective measures was matched by the indulgent coverage of those propounding potentially disastrous policies like debt default and exit from the euro.

There is regular hand-wringing in the media about the rise of dangerous populists such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen but little awareness of the media’s own role in promoting corrosive cynicism about mainstream politicians who are trying their best to deal with the complex problems that confront them.

The Washington episode might serve some useful purpose if it prompts a little self-analysis on the part of the media about the dividing line between a critical approach to politics, which is entirely appropriate, and a destructive cynicism which is proving itself so dangerous to the future of parliamentary democracy.

Healthy scepticism

It is a natural feature of democracy that voters are generally suspicious about what their politicians are getting up to. However, that healthy scepticism can be transformed into something sinister if people are fed a constant diet of negativity about all mainstream politicians.

Of course nobody forced any of them into running for office but democracy needs public-spirited people willing to take the risk of standing for election. They deserve some recognition for their successes as well as the brickbats that will inevitably accompany their failures.

The irony about the coverage of Kenny’s visit to Washington is that it has served to strengthen his position within Fine Gael and has even given him the room to extend his leadership for a little longer than had been anticipated.

He had been expected to announce his timeline for departure on his return from the United States but the way the visit turned from perceived failure to acknowledged triumph has given him more room for manoeuvre.

The assumed timetable for his departure has also been affected by British prime minister Theresa May’s decision to delay the triggering of article 50 until the end of this month.

A summit of the other 27 EU leaders to agree a response had been planned for April 6th and 7th but that has now been postponed until April 29th. His Fine Gael colleagues have long accepted that Kenny should attend that meeting to ensure the Irish position is properly understood. It means the earliest he will be stepping down is in the middle of May.

In recent days some of his supporters have been encouraging Kenny to put off his departure date as party leader until the Dáil summer recess, which would mean he would remain as Taoiseach until the Dáil resumes in the autumn.

Such a move would be tempting fate and could backfire badly. There is a lot to be said for quitting while you are ahead and Kenny is now in that happy position.

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