Times and tides and pendulums – Brendan Hoban
by Brendan Hoban in the Western People
Apart from the turkey sandwiches, one of the tedious sides of the post-Christmas season is answering the question, ‘Well, how did you get over the Christmas?’ Every year that question haunts us at every turn, even though we have a number of predictable answers to bat it away. Like, ‘Sure you wouldn’t think it was Christmas at all’; ‘Nothing to watch on the television’ and ‘Isn’t it Christmas all the year round now’ – though that latter remark may be losing its sheen.
I shouldn’t be saying this, of course, but one of the joys of Christmas is getting away from what we now understand as ‘News’. I mean Cathal MacCoille and Áine Lalor haranguing people on Morning Ireland and Fintan O’Toole hectoring us in the Irish Times and Vincent Browne trying to cause a row on TV 3. I suspect I’m not the only one who finds all of that misery endlessly tedious and uninstructive.
News now is not about informing the public or teasing out complexities or clarifying issues. It’s about pushing an agenda and providing entertainment or, if possible, a mixture of the two. Balance and fairness are no longer ‘values’ in current affairs, though serious journalists occasionally bow in their direction. What matters now is excess, the need to engage an audience and deferring to whatever is the populist tune, a form of hunting with the hounds – or. more accurately, circling with the matadors in a Spanish bull-ring.
Ask yourself what will be the high-points of a news round-up of 2010. The chances are that much of it will be the times when people lost the run of themselves. Pat Rabbitte losing his rag with Minister Pat Carey on Primetime. Brian Cowen mugging Miriam O’Callaghan. And Vincent Browne savaging some unsuspecting guest on Tonight with Vincent Browne.
Just before Christmas Browne chaired – if that’s not, in the circumstances, too approximate a concept – yet another discussion on the Murphy Report into sexual abuse in Dublin diocese. A researcher on the programme contacted me – as one of the leaders of the new Association of Catholic Priests – and asked me would I like to participate in the programme. While geographical concerns dictated that I couldn’t possibly take part – I was in Ballina and the programme was in Dublin – even if I was living next door to the studio (wherever it is), I wouldn’t be caught dead playing the willing victim at another of Browne’s ritualised media executions.
This is the way it works. Browne introduces a topic usually in a long, badly scripted and often incomprehensible monologue where with a lot of hemming and hawing he attempts to express a very predictable series of personal obsessions based on a very predictable list of agendas. He then introduces a panel usually made up of those who more or less agree with him as well as a willing victim, who has agreed for whatever reason to be the bull in the ring, as matadors attack in waves and Browne himself eventually moves in for the kill.
While in Spain the bull usually sports a rosette to indicate what part of Spain he comes from, if in Browne’s ring the victim sports a Roman collar, or has an allegiance to the Catholic Church or some such discredited institution, it makes the chase and the eventual kill all the more exciting.
In the programme on the Murphy Report the victim, a Dublin priest who had written an article pointing up some of inconsistencies of the report, was placed between Marie Collins, a spokesperson for victims of abuse, and Mary Raftery, who had produced some of the RTE programmes on abuse and is now accepted as a leading expert on the subject.
Effectively the programme was an analysis of the article written by the priest and was the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. When the priest agreed with the populist view he was tolerated; when he disagreed he was turned on by the panel and the presenter. He was given what might be called ‘the Eddie Shaw treatment.’ (Shaw, a one-time spokesman for Dublin diocese, was similarly attacked by Browne and an assembled panel on a previous programme.)
Browne’s programme, interspersed with populist rants and audible sighs while his victims seek to respond to his thesis, presents as current affairs but is really an opportunity for the ‘host’ to get attention for himself. There is no pretence at balance, no effort to present each side of the argument, just Browne performing for the camera, putting on a show and intent on needling and eventually humiliating a willing victim.
Browne who has made a great living on outrage – and is now among other things a multi-millionaire contriving to present himself as the mouthpiece of the common man – has very effectively gleaned publicity over the years from set-piece interjections at press conferences with huge audiences, as when a few years ago he ambushed the hapless Bertie Ahern and no doubt he’s waiting in the wings for Brian Cowen. It’s entertainment, if you like bull-fights, but it’s not current affairs and it’s certainly not news.
What’s making it difficult, if not impossible, for the Catholic Church to get a fair hearing now in Irish society is the context in which we seek to survive, much of it of course our own fault. The word ‘Catholic’ in Ireland is now a term of abuse and a whole cadre of journalists are making comfortable livings on playing the populist tune. It doesn’t matter if balance has gone out the window. Or if reputations are shredded along the way. Or if fairness or even humanity is of any interest to anyone. The assault on the Catholic Church, on priests and, by extension, on religion is the flavour of the day and the hard truth is that there’s little enough anyone can do about it, at present.
Tides turn, of course, but they take time. Pendulums swing from one extreme to the other. And eventually they settle. So things will change, but it will take a long time and many of us may not be around to see it. In the meantime enjoy the turkey sandwiches.
May I wish all my readers a happy new year.