Language, Spin and Irish Politics
'It seems that our public life is now to be dominated by spin and that plain speaking is elided in favour of meaningless public relations speak.’ Mr. Justice Peter Charleton
In his latest report on the Disclosures Tribunal, Mr. Justice Peter Charleton pulled no punches when he put the spotlight firmly on the web of spin and PR speak that he uncovered in the upper echelons of An Garda Siochana and the Department of Justice.
But it’s not just those named in the report who must have been feeling uncomfortable under the penetrating gaze of Judge Charleton. Ireland’s political elites must also have felt distinctly uncomfortable with such a refreshingly honest and plain speaking expose of the semantic hall of mirrors that increasingly passes for public discourse in Irish public life.
There can be no doubting but that the Varadkar government is close to the top of the class when it comes to the black art of spin and news management. We are not talking here about media treatment as an after thought for some political decision or other. On the contrary, it clear that, for the Varadkar government, the potential for news management is a key consideration in whether or not a decision is made in the first place.
The role of the government’s Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) in ‘selling’ the Project Ireland 2040 plan is a timely reminder of the value placed by this government on spin. A central part in the ‘selling’ of this plan involved taking out advertorials in various regional newspapers with copy and photos of leading local Fine Gael personalities kindly supplied by the same SCU.
Many of these (struggling) newspapers were encouraged to downplay the fact that these ‘news stories’ were in fact advertorials paid for by the taxpayer. There were also suggestions that there might be plenty more from where this came from...
Unfortunately for the Strategic Communications Unit, the whole enterprise of spin blew up in their faces when some principled journalists started voicing concerns about the obvious blurring of lines between news stories and paid advertorials.
Apparently, the only thing wrong with spin is being found out. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar later announced that the Strategic Communications Unit was to be ‘decommissioned’ although the public are left with the distinct impression that, in the words of Gerry Adams ‘They haven’t gone away you know’.
Possibly even more serious than the SCU’s efforts at controlling the news is the manner in which language itself is increasingly used as a weapon in news management. It’s not just the political parties who engage in this. Possibly the worst culprits in this area are the NGO sector who appear to be engaged in their own low level war to change the very meaning of language.
Take, for example, the word ‘discrimination’. Everyone, particularly old style libertarians, will have a clear understanding of the word ‘discrimination’ as something intrinsically wrong involving an action against someone on the basis of their gender, religion, nationality etc.
But just look at how the meaning of the word has been deliberately changed over the last 30 years. Today - much like cholesterol - we are told by those who must be obeyed that, in fact, there are two types of discrimination: good (positive) discrimination and plain old bad discrimination.
But this is not just some old harmless game of semantics. The meaning of words impinges directly on public discourse. Take for example, our electoral system – the foundation on which democracy itself is built. Today, ‘positive discrimination’ in the form of gender quotas sees political parties effectively fined if they fail to select the ‘right’ candidates.
The reason state funding of political parties was introduced in the first place was to curb the malign influence of big business over politics. Yet, now we have the bizarre situation where the NGOs, using our money, do precisely the same thing and influence candidate selection by political parties. This is justified by sugar coating the resulting discrimination as some sort of ‘positive’ discrimination.
Similar word games are apparent in other areas. We live in a world where the term ‘equality’ has been elevated to the status of sacred political dogma with Irish politicians duly genuflecting before the altar of ‘equality’.
The Varadkar government is very much in this mould seeing itself almost as the keepers of the equality flame. Strange indeed then that not alone is Varadkar the product of an exclusive private education, 40% of his cabinet also come from a similarly privileged background!
Let’s be clear here – people are free to spend their money on anything they want and that includes private education. However, there is something particularly galling about politicians from highly privileged backgrounds building political careers on, of all things, equality.
Time and time again, we have to endure the spectacle of some of our most privileged politicians and NGO CEOs prostrating themselves before the high altar of ‘equality’. The real challenge for these same elites, it would appear, seems to be in framing just about any proposal that they want to promote as an ‘equality’ issue.
The 2016 referendum to allow same sex marriage is a case in point. This referendum to change the country’s marriage laws was framed as the ‘marriage equality’ referendum and carried with it the implication that henceforth, people would be free to marry anyone of their choosing.
Of course, this is not true. Even after the referendum was passed, the laws on marriage remain highly restrictive and expressly prohibit marriage between a whole range of people. So much for ‘marriage equality’.
If truth is the first casualty of war, then surely language can be considered the first casualty of spin. Mr. Justice Charleton did us all a public act of service in publishing his recent report. It’s not just his vindication of Sgt. Maurice McCabe that he should be thanked for. He should also be thanked for a refreshingly plain-speaking expose of the PR speak that has infected much of Irish public life.