Blame being leveled at the media

There’s a bizarre bit of finger-pointing going on towards the Irish media for its failure to “reflect” the public opinion on Fianna Fail which is now obvious in light of their electoral success.

The thing that’s off-putting about this idea is the automatic acceptance built into it that the media does and should pander to what’s popular rather than present the facts.

There is no doubt that the numerous polls over the past few months got it badly wrong. This is partly because of the last minute swing that began to show itself in the final week of campaign and it is – as Braz points out in a comment here – partly because of the irrelevance of a FPTP poll question on a PR-STV election.

However some people, including Eoghan Harris who showed more than enough of his true colours on The Last Word this morning (.wma link), seem to believe that if the public are in support of a certain person or party the media should reflect that and keep its mouth shut.

The media (bar the letters page) is not a voice-box for public opinion. If a politician is exceedingly popular that should not stop the media from asking legitimate questions of them. Indeed, if the public at large doesn’t even care about the issue and isn’t itself bothered with the questions that doesn’t make it any less legitimate and should not be justification for shelving things of democratic importance.

It should never be the case that the media gauges public opinion, sees it swinging to the right or left and then begins to produce copy to appeal to that audience. It happens, of course, but it shouldn’t and pundits and politicians shouldn’t be demanding that it does.

Harris’ admittance that the Sunday Independent attacked Bertie Ahern until it “got what it wanted” shows up everything that is wrong with that newspaper and with certain sections of the media too. It was happy to go into attack mode until a price was paid but no-one should have been raising real questions about Ahern when it was obvious that people liked him. How dare they.

He basically admitted to using his paper’s influence to inform policy rather than people. It was used as a blunt weapon for its middle-class readership and staff. It was never about finding the facts, disseminating them and letting the reader decide. It was all about forcing an issue of, on a political scale, minor importance down the throats of Fianna Fail to achieve a pay-off.

Campaigning journalism isn’t an evil in the right hands – just read about Harold Evans’ work in The Sunday Times. But Harris wasn’t striving for the greater good, his campaign was nothing other than self-serving and at no point does his “campaign” constitute as journalistic or important.

There is a fair question for the public to ask of The Irish Times and others who wrote about revelations over Ahern’s finances. Was there an ulterior motive behind the articles? Was it an orchestrated attempt to damage Fianna Fail? I don’t think there’s any real evidence to suggest that there was such a motive or it was a planned-out attack, but the media should be held to account just as much as politicians.

But to suggest that the media shouldn’t have been asking questions of Ahern because the public didn’t want them to is just baffling.

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