Una Mullally: Why I have tuned out of #GE16

‘I’m allergic to their voices, their butchering of language, their PR’d answers, their deflection, their evasiveness’

‘So how did whoever do on whatever debate? I don’t know. And I’m not sure if it matters.’ Photograph: Maxwell/AFP/Getty Images

‘So how did whoever do on whatever debate? I don’t know. And I’m not sure if it matters.’ Photograph: Maxwell/AFP/Getty Images

 

Last week, I was trying to sleep on a hard bed in the stifling heat somewhere in the middle of nowhere in west Africa, trying to figure out where my Imodium was while being bitten by fleas. And I thought to myself, “well, at least I’m not watching the leaders’ debate.”

When I got to Dublin Airport on Friday afternoon after 30 hours of travel including a surprise stop off in Guinea, I barrelled into a taxi, tired, stinking, sunburnt and bitten. Mary Lou McDonald was shouting about the USC on Newstalk. “Sorry, could you turn that down please?” The taxi driver looked over his shoulder at me, incredulous. “The radio?” “Yes. Actually, just turn it off.”

He began to twist the volume dial, “but… it’s the news,” he said, his disbelief now morphing into a strop. “I don’t want to listen to people shouting at each other. Thank you.” A deathly silence descended. He drove slowly into town and I could almost feel him willing the meter to screw me over.

On the way in, the election posters in Bertie Country fluttered in the drizzle. Some lad from Fianna Fáil’s one read “the credible alternative”, possibly the most inane and uninspiring slogan ever. Someone had written “TRAITOR” on a Paschal Donohue poster, a caption with punch. Donohue’s radio voice immediately entered my head, you know the one, it’s the voice of a petulant child, as if a presenter has just told him to go clean his room.

Christy Burke’s poster squinted out through the rain, “One of our own”, it read. I wondered what that was supposed to mean, and why it sounded like a slogan that emerged from a focus group of Ukip voters.

I used to listen to the radio morning, noon and night. That ritual was disrupted a couple of years ago when my partner banned me from listening to Morning Ireland in her presence. I would switch it on in the morning, and while Cathal Mac Coille tore strips off some TD, minute by minute I’d get more het up, stomping around the kitchen making coffee shouting, “can you believe this eejit?”, “that wan’s lying, you know”, “this country. Jesus. The famine should have wiped us out”, and so on. By 9am I’d be in a rage about Irish Water, whatever the daily political squabble was, farmers, teachers, the health service and a bishop, and not even the dulcet tones of Rachael English could calm me down.

When I got sick last year I stopped listening to the radio. I couldn’t deal with other people’s problems. I turned it off, and only turned it back on again to listen to marriage referendum reports and debates.

I had stopped watching Irish current affairs television a few of years previously. I couldn’t take any more Prime Time barneys or Vincent Browne sending me to bed with sharp pains running up and down my left arm. When I moved house in January of 2015 I no longer owned a television, so now I couldn’t even passively watch those programmes accidentally.

At some point, I realised I had tuned out completely. I couldn’t tell you the last time I watched a television news report, or listened to Drivetime. What used to be central is now very peripheral; secondhand stories about a radio item from friends, my mum recounting verbatim what was said on Liveline, other people’s tweets, radios on in Spar or a taxi. If something sounded particularly essential I might watch or listen back. But so little was essential, and so much was noise. I preferred far away stories on American podcasts or English radio programmes. I suppose many people at some point realise this about their newspaper reading habits. They used to buy one, and one day realised that wasn’t something they did anymore.

Transfer deadline day

I assumed this would be a temporary thing. An election was on the horizon and I love election campaigns. Or at least that’s what I thought. By the time Enda Kenny named the date, I realised I used to love election campaigns, in the same way sports reporters love transfer deadline day. I loved the mechanics of them, the architecture of them, the nerdy pursuit of coverage. I loved dissecting who triumphed and flopped with their social media campaigns, who made a gaffe on Seán O’Rourke’s show, who was shot down by Miriam O’Callaghan, who Matt Cooper got stuck into.

But when the campaign kicked off, I was already exhausted by polls and points, and when you realise what gets covered for the most part is the machinery of politics and not the issues it impacts on, it’s hard to un-see. The informative and interesting conversations I had about politics and the issues, were with friends and strangers, and the odd time I did tune in, I grimaced at politicians acting and arguing, not actually talking about real things, real people, our real country and our real lives.

As a journalist, I know you’re meant to live and breathe this sort of stuff. I see my friends and colleagues talking and writing and tweeting about a creaking set in RTÉ’s studio during a debate, or a TD storming out of a radio studio, but I just think “so what?” The lives that we are living aren’t reflected in the rantings of politicians trying to “take” seats.

Sometimes I wish I could put the broadcast genie back in the bottle. Maybe I should care about what so and so said on such and such a programme. But the petty strifes of Irish politics played out on radio and television became insufferable. I’m allergic to their voices, their butchering of language, their PR’d answers, their deflection, their evasiveness.

I’m allergic to the very form broadcast media coverage election campaigns takes, the bun fights, the polarised arguments, the ‘this person thinks this thing and this person thinks the other so let’s put them in a studio together’ version of “debate”, the rehearsed spiels, the egos. And the funny thing is, I don’t feel any less informed. But I do feel calmer.

Tuning out of an election campaign is a liberating experiment because what colours your opinions isn’t the performances of politicians, but real life as you live it, the stories you hear from real people, and the research you do to find out who you feel represents the ideals you desire. So how did whoever do on whatever debate? I don’t know. And I’m not sure if it matters.

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