There’s another angle on the George Lee saga that is as interesting to media watchers as any consideration of whether he was ‘frozen out’ of Fine Gael or was a victim of his own ego. Let’s put aside too whether Enda Kenny wasted a brilliant talent or had simply expected Lee to take a little time to settle into politics before promoting him to greater things.
Screeching out to be remarked upon is the reaction of the media pundits themselves – the pol corrs, the columnists and the editors. We’ve tried before to highlight the ‘revolving door’ that exists between journalism, politics and big business and how that affects the prism through which journalists view their work. We have argued – and George Lee is as good an example as any of the many of whom it is true – that journalists come to be integral players in the establishment rather than the independent, detached observers on the side they so defensively claim to be. They write for the establishment rather than about it – even when they are being critical of it. By becoming a TD, George Lee was only giving material expression to a state of mind that is shared by almost all of his media colleagues.
A relatively able man who arguably might have done some interesting and useful things suddenly resigned from a short career in politics. This would ordinarly have caused something of a stir and to be sure there would have been media speculation about what lay behind it and what might flow from it. On this occasion however, the man in question was one of the media’s own. He was moreover a news media celebrity politician.
Lee was in all probability more celebrated among the media themselves than among the majority of the public who on any given day can hear the type and quality of opinion George Lee was offering from many different people and sources. If the public had been asked a year ago which media personalities would best be suited to a life in politics, Lee’s name would surely have been just one among many possible candidates.
Like many a would-be politician before him Lee claimed the best of motives for wanting to go into politics. It’s true too that there are not too many politicians in Ireland who were ever motivated by altruistic ideals, politics being more a matter of political family dynasties and self-interested patronage here than in other comparable countries. So fair enough, George Lee was striking out for something that too many of our politicians are not interested in. But he was by no means unique – either as a matter of principle or of talent. Certainly not within the political system itself or – even more importantly – among the huge number of political and social activists of all political shades all over the country whose contribution to public life ordinarly goes scarcely remarked by the mainstream media, such is their incestuous preoccupation with themselves and their role at the tip of the establishment.
That oversight was never more apparent than in the eruption of offended, empathetic dismay among his former media colleagues when they heard Lee’s tale of woe. George’s pain was theirs. The prominence given to the story has been staggering. There has been a ‘media frenzy’ from the moment he announced his decision.
Many journalists clearly believed in the idea that somehow George Lee had been going to make all the difference to, well, everything. David McWilliams rode firmly to his defence on twitter on that theme – as if the loss of this one person from politics was a defeat for everyone working to put an end to what McWilliams rightly calls ‘sleeveenism’ and all that goes with it. What about the political snubs and slights routinely extended to many people who find the media rarely more than luke warm about bothering at all to report their plight? Even the decimating of the Equality Authority resulted in fewer column inches than George Lee’s departure from politics. Surely that is indicative of something being badly wrong with media priorities?
‘Office politics snuffed out Fine Gael’s brightest star’ ran the headline over McWilliams column in The Independent on 10th February. The colum is both a paean to Lee’s skills and abilities as perceived by McWilliams as much as it is a revelation of what it is McWilliams thinks a journalist could rightly do for politics. He refers indirectly to the result of the notorious Liveline poll which gave Lee an 83% support rating for his decision to leave. McWilliams surely knows fine well that this figure only represents a percentage of the minority of viewers who could be bothered to phone in. It is in no way a reliable figure. Still McWilliams has it that George knows what the ‘mammies’ and ‘aunties’ (!) of Ireland want to hear.
McWilliams also extols Lee’s talents as a communicator without making any distinction between declaiming news realtively unchallenged as a broadcaster and media analyst – and the sort of communications skills required to be an effective politician at all levels – a very different context and one in which there is no guaranteed, mute audience the other side of a camera and microphone. George Lee completely overlooked the need to communicate with his constituents before quitting politics. Over the last few days what has struck many people is his inability to convincingly articulate the problem he believed he faced and why he did not have the wherewithall to confront it in some other more constructive way. McWilliams makes no mention of the 27K voters who put George Lee into the Dail. The omission is all of a piece with his contention that Lee’s singular personal brilliance should have been enough for everyone – an immediate pass to high office and influence, as if nobody in the Fine Gael party could possibly be his equal or warrant consideration and respect for their prior experience.
As an admirier of David McWilliam’s honesty and courage in other contexts, it is impossible not to notice his over-identification with Lee in this matter. McWilliams admits that possibility as he does the similarity of interests and background but swears none of that is relevant. Some people are just better at football, he says.
Only this isn’t football. This is a discussion about all of us and game analogies don’t have any bearing on this. We want politicians to remember from whom they derive their authority and to act accordingly. This almost never happens in Irish politics and it is by far the biggest part of why Irish politics are failing and are doomed to go on failing no matter which of the mainstream parties get into power. If McWilliams and Lee are interested in genuine reform then accountable representation ought to be their first priority. Instead both have taken a high handed attitude to Lee’s electors – in Lee’s case only communicating with them minimally after the fact.
In short, there is nothing at all to distinguish either Geroge Lee or David McWilliams from the very people and system which they profess to want to reform. Did his voters freeze George Lee out?
Mark Little, formerly of Prime Time, wrote warmly about his friend on his blog. He was clearly upset and disappointed – and convinced of the fate of George Lee as described by Lee himself. The Fine Gael leaning Irish Examiner had two editorials in as many days on the subject with dark words of reproach for Enda Kenny implying that the loss of George Lee alone was some sort of potentially fatal blow to the pro-corporate ‘reform’ agenda of which the paper is so fond – and warning Kenny that his own future was now in the balance. Was George Lee really and truly all that significant? Surely some sort of perspective is wanted here?
George spent the entire day on the airwaves on the day of his resignation and to be fair to the broadcasters, most of them stayed reasonably neutral when it came to questioning him about his decision. The astonishing thing was the wall to wall, high octane coverage of what was, in stark cold reality, not at all a major political event – interesting and surprising though it was. As one letter writer in the Irish Times put it, how could it be that the resignation of a junior TD could eclipse the announcement that the INLA had given up its weapons? Pat Kenny dropped the planned Frontline programme and gave the show over entirely to the George Lee story. And to be sure, the cult of the celebrity so assiduously cultivated in Ireland by the media played its part in generating a big response from the public who were phoning into Joe Duffy’s Liveline, Eamon Keane’s Newstalk and other programmes in big numbers, whipped up by relentless, excitable announcements. The day’s news was shaped by this emphasis and the public had no choice but to go along with it in the absence of any control over how it was presented.
Fionnan Sheahan, Aine Kerr and Fiach Kelly launched boldy into a piece on the frontpage of The Independent the next day, 9th February, with the assertion that ‘Goerge Lee was frozen out by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny’ because of tensions between Lee and Richard Bruton. The Indo devoted more than 12 pages of commentary to the issue on that day. Even allowing for the possibility that the generally pro Fianna Fail paper was seeking to maximise Fine Gael and Enda Kennys’ embarrassment over the issue, this amount of coverage was absurd.
I’m putting a large bet on the proposition that the sky will still be where it normally is in a couple of weeks time and that the many able if unacknowledged people who are actively dedicated to political reform in Ireland will still be doing what they do long after George Lee has taken up residence in Washington DC or wherever he is bound for now.