Oliver Callan: Leo Varadkar proves a master of distraction
Tweeting Taoiseach understands modern voters want bite-sized news light on detail
“Leo Varadkar’s Republic of Photo-Opportunities is a terrific success . . . Fine Gael has hit a six-year high at 34 per cent and his approval rating is 52.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Republic of Photo-Opportunities is a terrific success. At least, where he’s concerned. Poll after poll shows the criticism he took for setting up a new spin unit was, like him, worth it. Fine Gael has hit a six-year high at 34 per cent and his approval rating is 52. His self-satisfaction rating is also the highest of any Taoiseach.
Not even breathtaking post-truth comments about how Ireland has “one of the lowest levels of homelessness” can dent the shiny new iTaoiseachX. His steely defence of the claim, undermined by charities, revealed this was no gaffe. Leo doesn’t do unscripted, that was the old Taoiseach, the bug-riddled Amstrad Enda who took ages to load and crashed before the end of his game.
In response, he again played down the crisis, saying “housing . . . is about more than homelessness – it’s about people being able to afford a home.” Then, he was back on Twitter, grinning smugly under the caption “Managed to get photobombed by a llama in Kildare today.” It was an alpaca. Although facts don’t matter to learned-off Leo, the iTaoiseachX is a smart device.
His mastery of politics is his understanding that people are switched off from the minutiae of issues, even the biggest ones. Three recent polls showing steady increases coincided with news about tracker mortgages, tax-dodging, Garda scandals and worsening homeless figures. In that time, there have been no meaningful moves to improve accountability, no new reforms, no action. Modern voters consume news in bite-sizes and move on quickly from scandals. The Taoiseach’s advantage is his grasp of this.
He plays to his own right-leaning base and keeps everything, simple, sloganised and on repeat. He’s not a man of action, but of distraction
A Reuters/BAI Digital News study shows around 70 per cent of millennials avoid the news either often, sometimes or occasionally. The number one reason cited is that it “has a negative effect on my mood”. Poor pets. Fifty-two per cent of people get their news from social media. Television is still the top platform at 68 per cent but fell by 8 per cent over two years. Last year marked the first time that the proportion getting their news from social media was greater than either radio or print.
It’s no accident Varadkar uses social media to conquer and distract. His most frivolous posts, filled with socks, stars and chicken nuggets, are as vacant as the lands sold to vulture funds while he sat at Cabinet for six years. In the real world of politics, his activities are likewise tailored to audiences who like their news in fun size. His ugly comments on homelessness was no lack of discernment, just a higher class of trolling. He plays to his own right-leaning base and keeps everything, simple, sloganised and on repeat. He’s not a man of action, but of distraction.
Photos of socks
Tuesday, November 7th was a heavy-duty news day. The Paradise Papers were revealed, there was a rail strike and with a sexual harassment scandal at its zenith in Westminster, questions began to be asked about Leinster House. It was also the day Varadkar wore a poppy, a non-sequitur that was covered by every media outlet. Two of them ran readers’ polls. That night on Twitter, the Taoiseach posted photos of socks he’d been sent, with the words “You are a ride” visible on the letter. This made an actual news story on independent.ie. November 7th was one of the dates the Sunday Times face-to-face poll showing a surge in support for Leo was carried out.
The following day, Micheál Martin asked about pay cuts to hospice staff and the Taoiseach responded by accusing him of using unparliamentary language over the word “blackguarding”. The incident drew more comment than the issue of hospice staff pay. It was reminiscent of the icky Dáil clash with Mary Lou McDonald in September when he derided her as “cranky”. The row got bigger traction than the deputy’s original question, about why banks would be exempt from corporate tax for 20 years.
In late October, when the tracker mortgage scandal was the story of the week, Varadkar ended his weekly video message by speculating about Paschal Donohoe’s Halloween costume. Embarrassed in California by Apple’s refusal to commit to the Athenry data centre, he tweeted selfies with Star Wars figures. Last Thursday, weeks after the Government said it had the tracker mortgage issue under control, Bank of Ireland revealed 6,000 more of its customers had been affected. Varadkar’s social-media activity that day included a photo of him filling a dishwasher. He wrote: “No one gets away without packing the dishwasher around here.”
This is the leader of the country, folks, and he’s the most popular Taoiseach since Bertie Ahern in the boom years. That guy ended up in a cupboard. Perhaps there’s room to hope yet.