Noel Whelan: Too close for comfort – is it time to ditch political lobby system?

‘By parking most of their political staff in the Leinster House complex newspapers and broadcasters end up being Dublin-2 -centric in their political coverage’

Photograph: Alan Betson

Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Last October the Minister for Justice announced the appointment of a working group to examine what improvement should be made to the State’s direct provision system for asylum seekers.

The Government made much of the fact that the working group was chaired by a retired judge and that it was made up mainly of people independent of the Government. The working group is a useful initiative and its report is likely to lead to substantial policy changes.

On Tuesday evening Minister of State at the Department of Justice Aodhán Ó Ríordáin teased all interested by tweeting a picture of the cover of the report, saying: “Just received direct provision report. Going to government next week for clearance to publish.”

Surely in this day and age when a report like this is finalised, its full text should simply be posted on the department website. There is no need for it to be kept supposedly secret for a week so it can be “cleared for publication” by Cabinet.

It suggests of an effort to stage-manage the official publication to make sure the Government looks and sounds well in its response.

Notwithstanding the insistence that the report had to be “cleared for publication”, its main recommendations still found their way into the media the day after Ó Ríordáin’s posted his tweet.

The delay in publishing this report is not a big deal in itself, but it illustrates the extent to which governments still try to control the presentation of political news.

The other reality is that much of the mainstream political media, and in particular the political correspondents lobby system, enables governments in this type of control.

In this age of email, social media and the webcasting of Dáil proceedings one has to wonder whether any purpose is still served by the traditional political correspondents lobby system at all.

Groupthink

Leinster

There is no longer any reason why each media outlet’s political correspondents should not, like their colleagues covering other areas, be based in their own newsrooms and then go out and about working a wider political beat.

Doing so might disturb the groupthink that is sometimes apparent among political correspondents. It might also make things less clubby between them and the Government and politicians generally.

Reducing their proximity to politicians might also make them more fearless in criticising incumbents and more open to a wider range of voices from other stakeholders in political debate.

The argument used to be made that by being physically close to politicians, correspondents got insights or stories they might not otherwise get. However, it seems unlikely that this is the case now.

Trade-off

Over time this proximity also runs a risk that Government handlers seek to house-train friendly pol corrs by feeding them occasional biscuits of confidential information.

By having most of their political staff in the Leinster House complex, newspapers and broadcasters also end up being Dublin 2-centric in their political coverage. Political correspondents only seem to get out of Dublin for the National Ploughing Championships, parliamentary party “away days” or for rural byelections. Even when writing about political events “down the country”, some of the Leinster House correspondents do no more than repeat what they have picked up from the more chatty TDs, Senators or handlers.

In the recent same-sex marriage referendum, for example, those of us involved in the Yes campaign were often entertained to hear political correspondents speak with authority of a “silent” No vote which was going to defeat the proposal. They formed this view, it seems, on the basis of conversations with backbenchers or handlers, most of whom had not been anywhere near doorsteps.

Many of those supposedly reporting on the national referendum never got out of Leinster House long enough to get any real sense of the extent or tone of the campaign around the country.

It reminded me of a piece which Garret FitzGerald wrote in this paper after the 2004 local elections about being shocked at how well Fine Gael had done in Enda Kenny’s first election. Even though he was an intense reader of political coverage, he had had no inclination of the Fine Gael recovery around the country.

As we approach another general election, it behoves all of us who write and talk about politics to cover it other than through a Leinster House prism.

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