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Catherine Martin mistook a gotcha moment for a meaningful political move

If Minister for Media had faced down the opposition and media and supported the RTÉ chair, ongoing saga would already have faded from public interest

Nothing better illustrates the futility of chasing policy by Twitter/Telegram than the Irish Times/Ipsos B&A Snapshot polls. Check out the moving bar chart on the news app. No lists, nudges or suggestions are provided by the pollsters; people are simply asked what they have come across recently that made them think the Government is going in the right or wrong direction.

The main themes of the past eight months are fairly predictable. The remarkable part is the rapidity of the shifts. The moving chart may scorch your eyeballs.

In the first poll last July, housing occupied the topmost thoughts of around one in five. No surprise there. But what stuns the brain briefly is what came second: that was RTÉ, galloping in with 13 per cent, superseding the cost of living/inflation, immigration, climate change, and even the HSE as public concerns. Still it was summer and this particular reality TV series featured a cornucopia of gifts – the celebrity presenter, the Dublin 4 cast, the overpriced flipflops from the slush fund in the semi-State company, the overpaid presenters brought down to earth, the smorgasbord of eager politicians turned daytime TV stars.

Add in the one third of the population that says it never trusted RTÉ anyway – too lefty, too woke, too mainstream, not enough GAA – and the plot just wrote itself. It was thrilling. Anyone who claims otherwise has never tried to get the news on the RTÉ app only to get an ad about axe-throwing tourism instead.


But here’s the twist. By August, RTÉ had fallen to 1 per cent. Just a few weeks of breathless, saturation coverage and it sank, never to feature again. Of course, the wheels continued to whir as reports were prepared and TV licence payments were withheld in protest (allegedly), but as a public preoccupation it vanished from the Snapshots poll. Sated viewers went off on their holidays, probably pausing now and then over a chilled white to ask “eh, what exactly did Ryan Tubridy do again?”. But there was always the promise of a second series with the trailers, the recaps, the leaks, the will-they-won’t-they tension around the non-appearing witnesses.

As the latest episode reached its eye-popping denouement on Thursday night - the live firing of RTE’s chairwoman, Síun Ní Raghallaigh - it must have dawned on some that the frenetic early treatment of the controversy had whetted some insatiable mutual appetite between the media, the politicians and the public.

No one comes out of this well, not least the politicians insisting mournfully that the public are sick and tired of the whole damn thing, as if gross political inertia had nothing to do with it in the first place

The clamour for instant corporate purity and clarity in a human collision of dysfunction, long pent-up public reckonings and the human rush for self-preservation was surely a significant factor behind Minister Catherine Martin’s ill-advised Prime Time appearance. Heads on plates as the price of political peace are commonplace, but she had been a lucky arts minister, unexpectedly blessed with funds to pour into new initiatives and had garnered considerable political capital in the sector, if not among colleagues. She could have faced down the opposition and the media, presented a take-it-or-leave-it public statement and supported a woman who clearly had no vested reason in obfuscating about anything.

What emerged instead was a minister on red alert for a gotcha lash, who decided she needed to show muscle in the political/media/public drumbeat for more RTÉ blood-letting. Then, disastrously, she mistook a public humiliation for a show of strength.

And for what? The evidence of the Snapshot polls suggests that if she had accepted Ní Raghaillaigh’s correction, the fallout would have lasted a couple of days.

Some details, such as one executive’s €450,000 exit package and the names of those who failed to ask questions, will stick in the public craw; the nitty-gritty of who knew what and when about the process of a correctly negotiated exit will not.

No one comes out of this well, not least the politicians insisting mournfully that the public are sick and tired of the whole damn thing, as if gross political inertia had nothing to do with it in the first place. Some people may well be weary of it, but a live-on-TV public firing, showboating Oireachtas committee members and a dose of non-stop soap-style media coverage tend to deliver a reinvigorating kick to any old proceedings.

In human terms, it represents a fast-moving, guilt-free reprieve from truly depressing issues such as housing or the stunning rise of immigration as a concern from 6 per cent to 24 per cent in eight months of the Snapshots polls.

The one indisputable mantra of politics is that events happen. It’s how they flare and burn or sputter and die that tells us something about public attention. The Snapshots, for example, tell us that Crime/Gardaí went from zero to a December spike of 16 per cent, the only issue to tie for first place with housing. Then it plummeted to 3 per cent.

The cost of living, another big talking point, hit a high of 17 per cent in September, but now stands at 3 per cent. The Palestine/Israel conflict which appeared to dominate every conversation, every social platform, every TV news bulletin, every broadsheet headline, entered the poll in October, rose to 6 per cent in November, and fell to just 4 per cent in February. Ukraine didn’t feature at all.

The most urgent issue of them all, climate change, struggled to reach an eight-month high of 7 per cent.

Let the blame game begin.