Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rationing the Media & Politicians

I have long held a healthy contempt for much of the media, particularly the broadcast variety. This contempt has grown exponentially with the growth of the 24-hour media monster and its seemingly insatiable appetite. I get worked up when I see politicians either actively seeking exposure on such media or allowing themselves to be doorstepped/ambushed, particularly when they allow themselves to offer instant answers to unexpected questions on topics which are clearly not part of their own brief. When is the last time you heard an honest “I don’t know” answer from a politician?

But the media technique which causes me most irritation is when a guest is invited to speak on a specific topic, but is then ambushed with questions about some totally unrelated, but currently hot, topic. Having caught the interviewee off-guard, s/he is then badgered to say something controversial or forced into a corner to take a specific, previously unannounced, position. Then, and this is what really pisses me off, the next news bulletin opens with the exclusive news that Deputy/Bishop X has told RTE that Minister/Father Y should do Z. It’s presented as if the interviewee had issued a press release calling for some specific course of action, an approach which is deliberately misleading. That, to me, is tabloid journalism at its worst. RTE routinely do it.

I long for the day when politicians are strong enough to say “that’s not my area of expertise and I won’t give you a top of the head view”, or “I’m not here to discuss that “ or, and this is too much to hope for, give the journalist a “John Prescott”, i.e. a right hook to the face.

How much of a politician’s time is wasted on media appearances, particularly Government ministers? Consider the additional time spent on preparation/briefings to anticipate questions, both on your own brief but also on other current political topics, both domestic and international. The politicians have, by default, allowed the situation to develop where they are supposed to be up speed on every aspect of national and world affairs and fair game for media questions on almost any topic that could be considered even peripherally relevant.

So here’s one possible solution:
All politicians are issued with a ration book of “media coupons”.
Each book will contain separate coupons for use on local, national and international media.
The number and mix of coupons will vary by the nature of political office held e.g.
- Govt ministers will have more national & international coupons than your local
- TDs will have more local media coupons that a Govt Minister.
- Local councillors will have mainly Local Media coupons.

Here’s how it works:
Every media interview, whether initiated by the politician or the media outlet, requires the cancelling of an appropriate ration coupon. When coupons are exhausted, no further interviews can be accepted.
This should make politicians more selective in their proactive publicity seeking activity, and also reduce the number of top-of-head views offered in doorstepped situations. Instead, “no coupon” could replace “no comment”, without any of the possible negative connotations which “no comment” often generate.

Indeed, it might also make sense to include media outlets in a similar rationing system, with each outlet restricted to a specific maximum number of political interviews/interviewees per day/week, across all programmes/publications. Think of the money the media would save and the number of cub reporters they could let go.

If both sides - media & politicians - have to ration themselves, by definition the interactions should become more selective. “ I want to talk to you but you don’t want to talk to me” would become quite commonplace - and acceptable.

The main benefits I see would be:
- better and more considered media coverage of politics
- politicians freed up to do the work they’re elected to do, rather than merely being fodder for, mainly broadcast, media.
- better, more in-depth overall news coverage, without all the easy fillers.
- fewer journalists, fewer media outlets, less noise, more clarity

We’d need to provide a mechanism to prevent a politician facing allegations of corruption etc from refusing interviews on the basis that s/he has “no coupons”, but that shouldn’t be insurmountable.

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