Long way from Mike Murphy's morning patter
In 1984 ‘Morning Ireland’ began a current affairs revolution that changed the nature of Irish politics, writes NOEL WHELAN
THE SILVER anniversary broadcast of Morning Irelandlast Thursday focused on many of the big events and changes which have occurred in Ireland over the last quarter of a century. Surprisingly little attention was paid in these special programmes, however, to the changed nature of media itself over that period and, in particular, to the changed nature of the relationship between our politics and our media.
The fact that RTÉ decided to devote first one hour and ultimately two whole hours of primetime morning radio to news coverage was the start of an explosion in news and current affairs programming.
In 1984 there was only one hour of news or current affairs on Irish daytime radio in the form of John Bowman’s Day to Dayon weekdays and This Weekon Sundays. Each morning Mike Murphy woke the nation with his Terry Wogan-style mix of music and patter. Gay Byrne dominated the morning and the drivetime programme was all music.
Twenty-five years later, in addition to Morning Ireland, we have two hours of Today with Pat Kenny, three-quarters of an hour of News at Oneand two hours of Mary Wilson’s Drivetime. There is even another hour of late-night political discussion with Rachel English. RTÉ television followed the same pattern. In 1979, apart from the two evening news bulletins which were then half their current length, there were half-hour current affairs programmes two or three nights a week. Now there are more than two hours of news and current affairs most evenings.
This massive growth in RTÉ news and current affairs coverage coincided with an explosion in the number of print media and commercial broadcasting outlets covering politics. The intimate and restrained relationship which senior politicians once enjoyed with political journalists is no longer possible because the scale and nature of political coverage has been transformed. During the 1977 general election campaign, no more than five journalists regularly followed Jack Lynch’s barnstorming nationwide tour. The Taoiseach could brief the touring pack directly by chatting to them at the end of the day, often over a whiskey. By comparison, more than 80 media personnel were accredited to the most recent Fianna Fáil “think-in” in Athlone.
This rapid growth in media coverage of politics says something about the Irish appetite for public affairs, but the fact that our politics now operates in this larger and more intense media glare has changed how our politicians behave. On balance it can be seen as a positive trend. More and larger spotlights should at least in theory lead to greater transparency. However, while the amount of newsprint and airtime given to politics has grown, the amount of news to be covered has not necessarily increased. Some of the additional airtime has been devoted to more comprehensive coverage of substantive politics, but not all of it. The gap is being filled to an extent by a dumbing down in the determination of what is news and by a greater focus on the minutiae of political “processology”. The daily or hourly twists and turns in politics that now get so much attention may appear significant when compared with how the story was covered in an earlier programme, but ultimately it is medium-term trends that actually matter.
It is also depressing that politics increasingly allows its agenda to be set by the media rather than the other way around. Until a few years ago my other half worked as an adviser to a government minister and the timing of the first telephone call to our house on any Dáil sitting day was determined by the running order on Morning Ireland.
Sometimes the phone rang immediately after the 7am news headlines or It Says in the Papers, but more usually it came after the programme’s 8.10am “front page” interview slot. The call always came from a staffer in Government Buildings whose job it was to listen to the programme, assess its implications for Dáil question time later that day and make sure briefings were prepared for the Taoiseach.
Somebody on the opposition’s staff obviously had and still has a similar role, because more often than not the first question asked of the Taoiseach raises something which was reported or said a few hours previously on Morning Ireland.It amounts to a reversal of what should be the proper order. What the Dáil decides to focus on today should determine tomorrow’s media agenda rather than the other way around.
The more worrying consequence of the upsurge in radio and TV news coverage is that the mere fact that there is so much airtime to fill means that the pace of political events has accelerated. At times of greatest controversy or crisis our politicians should take more time for reflection and not allow their actions to be shaped by the start time of a news programme.
There are many occasions when the intensity and extent of media coverage of politics coupled with our politicians’ hypersensitivity about media portrayal has detrimentally affected decision-making and in some instances even law-making. The series of events which caused the collapse of the Reynolds government in 1994; the hype about Sars in 2004; and the manic C case controversy of 2006 are just three relatively recent examples of this.