What the Presidential Election tells us about ourselves

It’s only been three days.  But I’m already in withdrawal.  The events of the last week of the Presidential Election were truly compelling and told us a lot about who we are as a people.  For me, it was reminiscent of the 2007 general election.  On the cusp of the worst economic disaster in the history of our young state, we re-elected a party, whose misguided and catastrophic fiscal policies over the previous ten years had brought us to our knees.  I wondered and worried whether on this occasion we could see the writing on the wall and make the courageous rather than the easy choice.

While more than 1 million of us ultimately decided that elder statesman Michael D Higgins was the best candidate for the job, questions still remain in my head about why someone who so clearly mis-represented their position before the people, still got over 614,000 votes.  Surely, honesty and transparency are some of the most basic traits we can expect from our First Citizen.   And what does this episode in our electoral history say about us a people?

Clinging to hope

There is no doubt about it.  Sean Gallagher delivered the right message at the right time to the right people.  His simple mantra, which focused on job creation and supporting the disabled and disadvantaged clearly struck a chord with a people, beaten down by economic austerity and facing into an even harsher Winter of discontent.  Unlike some of the other candidates, Gallagher avoided lofty abstractions and tapped into one of the strongest elements of the human psyche – hope.  He directly connected with our aspirations of hope – hope that a better Ireland lay ahead, one where the scourge of unemployment could be tackled, one where the individualism and greed of the Celtic Tiger were banished forever and we could work together in a sense of solidarity and community.   And while our economic and social crisis continues, people will remain receptive to that message of hope.

Gallagher’s message, coupled with such simplicity of delivery propelled him in the polls from single digit figures in the early stages of the campaign to 40 per cent in the final week – a lead, which many commentators considered unassailable.  His refusal to spend thousands of euro on election posters and to instead use new media to drive home his message was refreshing in itself and portrayed a man who was targeting the young – a man who liked to think outside the box and to do things differently.   However, our hopes for a new and different kind of President came crashing down as Gallagher imploded right before our eyes on live television.

A decline in media standards?

And it was car-crash television at its very finest.  A member of the public, started the ball rolling by asking Gallagher a series of “loaded” questions on “The Frontline” show  – questions about his business affairs, questions about the lodgement of certain business cheques to his personal account and questions about his suitability to act as President.    Gallagher failed abysmally to deal with these and subsequent questions about his involvement in Fianna Fail fundraising.

This was the seventh and final debate of the Presidential campaign.  During the previous debates, candidates were subjected to questions on mass-going habits, religious beliefs, attitudes to sexual conventions and membership of paramilitary organisations.  However, it was left to a member of the public to subject Gallagher to the kind of meticulous scrutiny which some would argue should have been done by the media.

Stark headlines in the Irish Independent the previous week alluded to an €860,000 pay-out taken by Gallagher and his business partner over a two year period, at the peak of the property boom, when some would argue they should have reinvested it back into the company for future growth.  However, these stories never really gathered any momentum and there didn’t seem to be any attempt by this or any other media outlet to scratch beneath the surface or indeed to examine Gallagher’s true involvement in the Fianna Fail organisation.  The media preferred to stick with the “low hanging fruit” by continuing to focus on Martin McGuinness’s past or on Dana’s troubled family life.

In this context, one has to examine the commitment of the media to investigative journalism.   It’s not the first time such a question has been asked and it’s not peculiar to the Irish media market.  A convergence of several factors are conspiring against its very survival in this country.

With newspaper readership and revenues in decline, advertising budgets under pressure and media outlets as yet unable to find a sustainable business model for the online marketplace, the calibre and quality of investigative journalism is suffering as a result.  Investigative journalism is an expensive business, where journalists can literally spend weeks or months examining an issue of crucial public interest.  Issues such as political corruption or commercial wrongdoing are often on the agenda but the journalist has no guarantee of an appropriate outcome and these painstaking investigations often challenge issues at the very heart of our democracy.   Substantial resources are required for this task and at a time of downsizing and outsourcing in the media industry, one has to ask where the commitment to investigative journalism will come from in the future?

As consumers of media in this country, would we rather read about Brittany Spears’s latest meltdown or the fundamental questions raised by the Moriarty Tribunal?  Without doubt, there is a growing market for what Alan Greenslade, calls the “cash-for-trash” journalism – this insatiable fascination with celebrity, which sells papers and magazines by the truckload but adds nothing to the debate on standards in public life.

The globalisation of media markets is also a serious issue for investigative journalism, where media ownership is increasingly concentrated in a small number of hands.  In a local context, we’ve had the recent sacking of Sam Smyth from Today FM, a station owned by entrepreneur Denis O’Brien.  O’Brien is currently pursuing Sam Smyth through the courts for what he believes are libellous articles Smyth wrote when covering the Moriarty tribunal.  And as recently as yesterday, we’ve had the resignation from Newstalk by maverick journalist and broadcaster, Eamonn Dunphy who claimed that producers and young reporters were being “intimidated and blackguarded” at the station, also owned by O’Brien.

Yes, the Presidential Election has thrown up some interesting questions about who we are and where are headed.  We made a courageous choice on this occasion but will we continue to do so into the future?

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