Media should confront the tyranny of the angry texters

Sat, Mar 31, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:A kind of victimhood or entitlement culture has gone unchallenged by too many media outlets

THE ANNOUNCEMENT by RTÉ director general Noel Curran that he has instituted a full editorial review of some programme-making practices is welcome. It would appear from media reports that the focus of the review will be the production of live, audience-based programmes and how such audiences are assembled and prepped for their Andy Warhol-prescribed “15 minutes of fame”.

However, this review should also be the opportunity to take a more comprehensive look at other aspects of the station’s news-gathering and broadcasting policies. Certainly Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has posed a timely question about the texting and tweeting tyranny that seems to be overtaking more and more radio broadcast output (and not just from RTÉ). Offering engagement and accessibility to Seán and Mary Citizen is all well and good (“do keep your texts and tweets rolling in”), but too often this is becoming a platform for political soreheads of every hue.

And surely there should be a requirement to establish the provenance of this babel of contributors, information that is more authoritative than “Joe from Ballinasloe” or “Mary from Finglas”. The benchmark should be fewer, authenticated contributors who make better comments than the “mad as hell” variety.

This should also extend beyond the texters and tweeters when it comes to news-gathering and public affairs commentary. Over the past year or so, one stand-out feature of the reporting of the so-called wave of protest sweeping the land, whether to do with water tax, septic tanks or bin charges, is the uncontested platform offered to these same protesters by many radio and TV programmers.

“So why are you here protesting outside the gates of Leinster House?” has become the standard opening salvo. This is followed by a fulminating tirade about the oppression of rural dwellers, the entitlement of people to various services, the unfairness of double-taxation (whatever that is), and the need to get “the rich” to pay their fair share of taxation. Forget about the inherent contradictions and faultlines. And now it’s back to the studio.

The septic-tank protest movement is the classic of the species. Spurious claims of rural dwellers being oppressed and put-upon, as opposed to their city-slicker cousins, predominate, while the vital importance of ensuring ground water supplies are not contaminated by leaking tanks is glossed over. Most rural householders see the maintenance of their septic tank in the same bracket as dealing with a leaky roof, repairing the washing machine, and servicing the family car, and accept they are liable for the consequential cost. They don’t go looking for a State handout, end of story. As someone born and reared in rural Ireland, I know this to be the case.

Yet, much of the media has allowed a kind of victimhood/entitlement culture to be peddled by the septic tank protesters. They need to be taken on. Do they accept that if their septic tank is leaking, it could be a public health hazard? Do they accept that checking whether the tank is okay is a prudent thing to do? Do they accept they are responsible for the proper maintenance of the tank?

If they protest that city and town-dwellers enjoy mains sewerage services, then what about the higher cost of delivering virtually all public services to rural dwellers – post, telephone, public transport, etc?

Water tax objectors and opponents of refuse charges need to be challenged similarly. We need to put a price on clean water. It is extremely expensive to produce, and allowing people unlimited, free consumption is pure madness. It is a further truism that our overall taxation system is seriously lopsided, and we need a progressive property tax to help achieve a more balanced, sustainable tax system.

Besides the matter of how protest groups are engaged by the media, another factor is worthy of consideration. Over the past year and more I have been struck by the number of people who declare they have given up listening to such-and-such a current affairs programme. “Too much moaning, people constantly giving out, putting me in a bad mood, hearing the same old voices banging on and on.” There are lots of people who don’t want to be fed a constant diet of negativity.

This is not a plea for a fantasy Alice-in-Wonderland approach to news and current affairs. Our systemic economic crisis is awful – and the pain and suffering of many people is real and palpable. But most people want to do their best, no matter how daunting the odds. They want to believe things can be better, and they would like the media to give them some reason to believe it.

In his brilliant biography of the late Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson relates a showdown the Apple founder had with Rupert Murdoch over Fox News. Jobs regarded the station’s output as destructive and harmful to America. “You’re blowing it with Fox News. The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you have cast your lot in with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society,” he said.

It would be interesting to apply this paradigm shift to Ireland. Against a backdrop of the International Monetary Fund-EU bailout, with Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil sharing the same broad policy agenda, and our left-wing politicians also scrabbling for the centre ground, would this offer a more meaningful approach than left- and right-wing analysis?

Using this concept of the constructive-destructive axis could be a much more meaningful way of analysing our politics and public polity generally, including news and current affairs programme-making. Then we might get to see who is being constructive, and who are – quoting Jobs again – the “puller-downers”.

Stephen O’Byrnes is a communications consultant with MKC Communications

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