Tuesday, November 01, 2011

David Norris and the Media

Failed Presidential candidate David Norris made a slightly petulant remark to Seán O’Rourke on Radio One late on Friday night, about his being “singled out for special treatment” in the media.

Senator Norris is quite correct in noting that he’d received special treatment but, in a coda apposite to his entire campaign, he still doesn’t realise that this special treatment was in his favour. The media did everything in their power to protect him from himself, until the task proved quite impossible in the end.

To give one concrete example: David Norris retired from the Presidential race at the start of August, and returned to it six weeks later, half-way through September. While David Norris was out of the race, he still remained an option in the opinion polls held during those six weeks. Why?

Once Gay Byrne stepped down from the race no pollsters bothered with him anymore, even though he had been a poll-topper, just as Norris had been. Nobody polled about Pat Cox once Foxy Coxy lost the Fine Gael selection convention to Gay Mitchell.

Opinion polls cost money. If Norris had second thoughts after his retirement from the race, it would have cost him serious wedge to commission a private poll to see what his standing was like in the country after the controversy broke. But he didn’t half to, because the pollsters were still including him fee gratis.

At any stage a poll commissioner could have told his or her pollsters to forget Norris; he’s history. But nobody did. The media left the door open for Norris’ return by providing him with tremendously useful polling data without his having to pay for it.

There is no such thing as unbiased news. It doesn’t exist. There is only a question of degree and direction of spin. For instance, if a media body condemns state-sponsored spin, it is good for the cautious citizen to wonder which spin it is they favour instead.

Media law in Ireland is such a mess that the media tends to self-police, which is not something Juvenal, of who guards the guardians fame, would approve. Self-policing manifests in different ways across different media; the Irish Times goes light on court cases involving travellers for instance, while the Sunday World can’t quite get enough of them.

But there are issues of which the media are of one mind, and do what is, in their opinion, their patriotic duty. This is the wearing of the infamous “green jersey.” The coverage of Queen’s Elizabeth’s visit is an example where everybody got with the program and nobody questioned the spin. Or at least, nobody important.

The problem with this “green jersey” stuff is that it’s not the media’s job to put the country first; it’s the media’s job to stress-test the institutions of state to ensure that the citizens know exactly what’s being done, or not done, in their name. A defense council in law has to examine every corner of the prosecution’s case and should always presume the client is innocent. The media should do the opposite, always presuming the Government is up to something and try desperately to find out what that something is.

That’s the theory. In practice, people have their own views and if they see a chance to do the country a favour by presenting their darling in as good a light as possible, that’s what they do.

The Irish media seems to have been of one mind on David Norris for years, before anybody thought of him as a Presidential candidate. John Waters outlined in the Irish Times last June the steps he himself took to save David Norris from himself when Waters was editor of Magill magazine in 2002 and Norris gave his infamous interview to Helen Lucy Burke.

Journalists hate giving interviewees sign-off on interviews. It doesn’t do much for objectivity. But both Waters and Helen Lucy Burke pleaded with Norris to amend what he said. Norris refused. The story went to print but it was never sensationalized, even though the views expressed were sensational, to say the very least.

Nobody else picked up on either because there was an understanding across all media that Norris was a National Treasure and wasn’t to be scrutinized as others are scrutinized. This tremendous regard for Norris lasted all though to September, to the extent of David Norris getting free poll data from a media that would not surrender its darling.

The Helen Lucy Burke interview with Norris wasn’t even a gaffe. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was a carefully thought out philosophy of life. But still its did their best to save the National Treasure.

Eventually they couldn’t, as Norris, whatever he may think, fell because he lives in a world that is utterly different to the rest of the country. Norris’ fall wasn’t to do with letters or disability claims. It was to do with his attitude to the difference between a child and an adult.

Not everybody gets the same benefit of the doubt as Norris enjoyed. The late Brian Lenihan famously dropped a clanger when he said “we all partied” during an interview on Prime Time in November of last year. Did RTÉ do a Waters/Burke and stop the camera to say: “hold on now Brian, that’ll sound awful. We know what you’re trying to say about the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years but that phrase will dump you in the smelly. Why don’t we have another crack at it?”

No, they did not. They just thought gotcha!, ran the piece and Lenihan was monstered over a slip of a tongue while there were much bigger issues in the content of what he had to say.

Senator Norris clearly feels battered by the campaign and he certainly suffered during it. Some of the stuff in The Star was particularly wretched and that is par of the course there of course, may God have mercy on them all. But reality is that the media protected David Norris for as long they possibly could, and he would be well advised to reflect deeply on that before he writes anything hasty in his memoirs.