Nuclear Joe a polished entertainer

RT╔ reversed years of low-grade comedy programming on Wednesday with a cracker of a confrontation between Marian Finucane and…

RT╔ reversed years of low-grade comedy programming on Wednesday with a cracker of a confrontation between Marian Finucane and Joe Jacob, Minister of State for Energy. Rumours that the script was written by the Father Ted team soon bit the dust, however, when Bertie Ahern moved to undercut Mr Jacob's extraordinary improvisation.

Mr Jacob "did not do a good interview", Ahern's spokesperson asserted. Not sufficient reason for the Minister to resign. Otherwise Mr Jacob was doing "a great job", organising "all of this work to review the national emergency plan". There's Joe for you. Good 'ol Joe.

Even since the crisis about Sellafield that so concerned him in February of last year, Mr Ahern has been perfectly happy to let Mr Jacob keep hold of the nuclear reins. So Mr Jacob did speak with the voice of authority about what people should do if a plane flew into the Sellafield stacks, a few miles away from his office.

"All right Marian," Jacob explained. "I'll tell you what to do and that's the first thing you would do and it's called 'sheltering'. We would say please remain indoors, with your doors and windows closed. Switch off your ventilation systems. We want you to minimise your exposure to the levels of radiation that are now currently, God forbid, out of doors. Now that's a very particularly effective and simple one, 'sheltering' is the most likely to be appropriate."


"Sheltering," he clarified, "is the terminology we use for what you say, 'remaining indoors', so that's communications."

"If I stayed in a bus or in a car, am I 'sheltered'?" she asked.

"Not so much, but you are safer than you would be outdoors," he said.

"Or on a bicycle?" Finucane wondered.

"Absolutely," Jacob replied.

The Government's failure to grasp the distinction between style and content has rarely been more apparent. Mr Jacob is an icon of Ahern's belief that the media is the message, no matter what goes on.

Obfuscation is so blatantly the order of the day that simple words such as "remaining indoors" must be abandoned for empty terms like "sheltering", neither referring to any real policies or any considered plan. Obfuscation has become a means in itself, rather than a tool to spin communication in the government's favour.

Language itself has stuttered and stumbled since the Twin Towers fell. Metaphors from movies or bizarre parallels with fiction generate words weighed down by clichΘ and a failure to call it straight. Weasel phrases chase each other across media and across countries - "blank cheque", "innocent civilians", "good and evil", "left and right" - entering political discourse the better to distort it. Old words for old politics.

The Government had already lampooned the craft of the word when Joe Jacob was authorised to deal with news of the systematic falsification of data at Sellafield last year by writing a letter to his British counterparts.

Pens remained mightier than swords, and government communications loyal to an age when bicycles ruled the roads. An exchange of correspondence followed; public-relations personnel issued reports of Jacob attending conferences about Sellafield which generated more words and more airline travel. Bertie Ahern sat back.

The question of possible abuse of nuclear facilities was live in international debate long before September 11th, fuelled by concerns that rogue, impoverished scientists from the former Soviet Union would trade plutonium in return for the salaries they had not been paid.

But the traditional grammar of Irish politics enabled Ahern's Government to convince themselves this territory was immune from danger. Wrapped in now-threadbare myths that the only thing that mattered was the economy and that, anyway, neutrality was an impermeable membrane, Ahern's Government could carry on regardless of what minister held what portfolio, and was or was not up to the task.

Threats of nuclear or chemical attacks are taken very seriously in a culture whose skin was never more obsessed with hygiene and its works. Fresh air is becoming a commodity that requires legislative protection. Chemical warfare of a kind is fought on supermarket shelves between hundreds of brands competing to persuade consumers that being safe means being germ- and odour-free. New-home selling points build on the belief that having your own bathroom is now close to a fundamental human right.

Ahern's cronies may believe that such private obsessions fuel public hysteria, and excuse the shock waves generated by Finucane's deft encounter with the Minister for Energy. A problem with media, not message - no more than a bad performance to be forgotten when the next spin comes. Always good for a laugh, that Joe.

As the Government backpedals frantically to explain why we need fear no evil because they are among us, Mr Jacob's Wicklow honesty has told us much we need to know. What matters is language, not meaning. Truth comes down to getting the soundbites right.

The Minister's final slip was to elide the meaning of "nuclear" and "neutral", an error he quickly tried to fix. The delusional nature of Irish politics at this time of shifting ground could hardly be expressed better.