Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Owning the News Cycle

Yesterday’s news was dominated by stories about patients on trolleys in Irish hospitals. Why?

Nobody doubts that having patients on trolleys is a bad thing. But that doesn’t make patients-on-trolleys news. For instance, the famed NHS of Great Britain has an A&E overcrowding problem right now and, bad and all as the HSE are, they aren’t responsible for events in Britain.

When asked once about the scandal of patients on trolleys, a medical doctor and Minister for Health once remarked that there is, actually, very little difference between a hospital bed and a hospital trolley, per se. You can lie on both, they both have wheels, and so on. But that doctor and Minister wasn’t Leo Varadkar, the current incumbent at Hawkins House. That was John O’Connell, twenty years ago.

So. Patients on trolleys because of hospital over-crowding isn’t unique to Ireland or unique to this year. Our current over-crowding is mirrored by over-crowding in the British NHS, and the issue of patients on trolleys has been an issue in Irish politics for a quarter of a century.

Why, then, did it get such intensive coverage yesterday?

Sometimes, something makes the news because there’s nothing else going on. It’s like all the foreign news that leads the bulletins over Christmas. An election in Azerbaijan is below the page 2 fold in the Irish Times 51 weeks of the year. Christmas week, hold the front page for the word from Baku.

But that isn’t the case this week, where there are lots of other things happening. Your correspondent's own favourite was Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s extraordinary attack on his fellow Government members as reported in yesterday's Examiner. Ó Ríordáin went on the record to say none of the Government’s mistakes have been Labour’s fault. That buck, thinks Ó Ríordáin, rests with Fine Gael.

You can imagine what the backbenchers in Fine Gael, already plenty jittery, made of them onions. You can equally imagine what sort of repercussions that might have on those same backbenchers' enthusiasm, watery to begin with, for the same-sex marriage referendum – a same-sex marriage referendum for which Ó Ríordáin himself is to lead the Yes side for the Government. Will the backbench Blueshirts forgive and forget? What do you think?

That’s a juicy story. Was it covered by the National Broadcaster? Nope. Not a sausage.

For the four days prior yesterday, Lucinda Creighton's was the only story in town. Fergus Finlay in the Examiner was so sure that #rebootireland amounted to less-than-nothing that he wrote a column about it, as one does about things that aren’t important.

Of course, it hasn’t been easy to figure out just what Lucinda is up to, other than to note that when it comes to media appearances the woman is as sure-footed as a tightrope walker. Your correspondent has long hoped that Creighton would be the leader to finally consign civil war politics to the history books (and, for civil war politics to end, both civil war parties have to go – an important point that is hardly ever mentioned), but unless people rally to her flag and soon, that chance is gone.

But while the chance of ending civil war politics will be gone, Ms Creighton herself will be anything but. Her time is only beginning. For instance, consider the following picture tweeted by Lucinda just before Christmas:

Isn’t it extraordinary? For those who aren’t good at dates, it was December 17th when Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that Ireland’s abortion laws were too restrictive. And then he goes off and has a lovely dinner with his old friend and former party colleague Lucinda Creighton on December 19th, that same L Creighton who happens to be the current face of the anti-abortion movement in Ireland.

So. On Christmas week the Twitterati learned that Lucinda Creighton isn’t such a bigot after all, and is more than willing to dine with those who oppose her beliefs. And they learned that Leo Varadkar isn’t a bigot either, and remains loyal to his old friend. We can gather from this that, were Enda Kenny no longer the leader of Fine Gael, there would be very few bars to Lucinda’s return to Fine Gael should she choose that path.

Then, the first week after Christmas, Lucinda flexed her muscles before the general public by dominating the media with a press conference at which she said the absolute bare minimum to make renting the room worthwhile. Four days’ publicity from an hour-long presser.

As they saw Lucinda at every hands’ turn over the weekend, did Fine Gael backbenchers wonder if it was their own seats that were most vulnerable to the rise of a Creightonista faction?

Not that anybody is talking about Lucinda now. Oh no. On Monday, we had Simon Coveney - a contender to replace Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader with, funnily enough, Leo Varadkar - announce that the lucrative American market is now open to Irish beef for the first time in fourteen weeks. Then yesterday the trolley scandal broke – just when Leo Varadkar happened to be on holidays and unable to act to defuse the situation.

Man. How unlucky is that for Leo?

Some commentators have said that it’s difficult to see what exactly Lucinda is up to with all this media activity. Reader, there’s a lot of it about.