Arlene and the media

6 Jan 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Jan 2017

Arlene Foster: running from the hounds?

I was once told by someone who had suffered at the hands of the press that journalists are like beagles.

Individually, he said, they can be delightful, you can feed them tit bits and they will respond well to you. In a pack they can be boisterous and irritating but harmless. Get them on your scent and if they get you they will tear you to pieces, limb from limb.

In his experience it wasn’t one story that had been fatal, but the cumulation of multiple wounds, many minor, that had led to his withdrawal from the office he once held.

Today you could say that we are witnessing this process in action. Northern Ireland’s press pack is in full pursuit of First Minister Arlene Foster, whilst her press aides are acting as hunt saboteurs trying to do all they can to put the pack off her scent.

The thesis raises interesting questions about just how powerful the media is. In a mature democracy politicians are acutely sensitive to hostile media attention. It doesn’t take much for a press campaign to lead to a resignation from office.

Voters will readily switch allegiance if they perceive- fairly or otherwise - that a party is poorly, incompetently or corruptly led, parties are sensitive to this and have no fears about sacrificing Minister and even leaders if they believe this will help them retain or achieve power.

This is because voters have a valid choice at election time and comparatively small voter swings will lead to a change in government.

But what happens in a state where political allegiance is more tribal? What impact do media “scandals” have there?

The experience in the Republic of Ireland would suggest that the direct political impact is not as great.

Take former Taoiseach Charles J Haughey. When he was in office in 1982, a murderer on the run from the authorities was discovered in the then Attorney General’s house, a situation Haughey described as “a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance,”  thus giving birth to the acronym GUBU, a term subsequently applied to Irish political scandals in which he featured so often.

He returned to office in 1987 and only resigned in 1992 after it emerged that he had been involved in the phone tapping of journalists. The full extent of his corruption emerged after he had left office: the offshore bank account, the embezzlement of party funds and the mysterious payments he received from “benefactors” in the business community.

Whilst in office some, if not all, of this was known. There was constant speculation as to how he could afford a mansion and an incredibly extravagant lifestyle on his comparatively modest salary. The electorate certainly knew, yet he survived, and for several years prospered as leader of a party which was seen as impregnable.

Times have changed over the border but in the 80s and early 90s Haughey and Fianna Fail were able to ride out media storms. They believed, and were probably right at the time, that the urban liberal media was out of touch with core thinking in the heart of Ireland and that what to one man might be seen as corruption would be perceived by others as evidence of a “cute hoor” in action. And over and above this people still voted according to their family allegiances to the adversaries in the Civil War.

The case of Haughey and Fianna Fail is cited as an extreme example of how political figures can withstand severe testing from the media and see off the packs of press hounds and remain in, or regain office.

The hounding of Foster falls into a different category. The issue is clear cut. She was minister at the time that the botched Renewable Heating Scheme was devised and first rolled out. Her opponents do not have clear-cut evidence of her doing anything wrong, the issue is that as Minister she was ultimately responsible for the scheme. Therefore they are calling on her to step aside pending a full investigation, the nature of which has yet to be determined. This she is refusing to do.

The dilemma for both her and her party is also clear. The DUP came to power citing itself as the strong voice of unionism, and the party most likely to stand up to Sinn Fein. The fact that SF President Gerry Adams is now leading the calls for her to step aside compounds that difficulty in their eyes. Why should she, they would say, stand down at the behest of a man known to have been a leading figure in the IRA? What would that say about being the strong voice of unionism?

For the moment they are making the call that defying Sinn Fein is more important to voters than Foster stepping down.

It is a different kind of calculation to that made by Fianna Fail, but one which again is rooted in tribal politics. Being strong in the face of the enemy is what supporters will value most, they would argue.

It is a gamble. Politics is changing. There are lots of recent examples of parties which appear to emerge stronger from controversy or scandal: Nigel Farage, Donald Trump being but two. In Italy the comedian Beppe Grillo who leads the fast-growing party the Five Star Movement is unable to take elected office because he has a conviction for manslaughter.

The public increasingly, it would appear, are not on the same page as the press. Executives at the New York Times, which has relentlessly attacked Donald Trump, will attest to that.

Many commentators appear to agree. They would argue that if Foster stays put, and SF don’t back down, any resulting election would see the DUP in much the same position as they are today. We’ve analysed this here

However this misses one crucial point, and one where the media may be more closely in step with public opinion.  The crisis we face is not necessarily about one political party, the DUP, but about politics itself. Elsewhere in the world the DUP would probably be categorised as anti-establishment: it has policies that both Donald Trump and Nigel Farage would support.  But here it is part of the establishment, and stripping out the personalities, this is not about Arlene Foster but about devolved government itself.

It is about Stormont, whether it works, what its cost has been, what good it does, and the competence of those we elect to it and the civil service that supports it. The issue is as big as that. The RHI Scheme is an example of monumental bungling of public funds at a time of austerity and raises questions about the general competency of those who run Northern Ireland in the public mind.

The warning signs have been around for a long time. If all those people who are entitled to vote but do not were categorised into an imaginary “Apathy Party” it, rather than the DUP or Sinn Fein would win every election with plenty to spare.

That is what is really at stake. Our electoral system will continue to deliver mandates for our tribal parties and they will continue to operate as before and share government. This, for the moment at least, is inevitable.

Further down the track, the signs are more ominous. A government that does not command the respect and support of its people is no government at all. It has no valid mandate. All parties regardless of their position on the RHI Scheme need to remember, and act on that. General disaffection and disillusionment is a real and present threat.




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