Terry Prone: Deserted polling stations evidence of poor political communication

11th Mar 2024
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

Arriving into Kent station at 5pm when you’re planning on boarding the 5.25 train to Dublin is cool and groovy. Gives you time to work on the “Mind the gap” anxiety. Kent station has a gap between train and platform that would suit you if you were an Olympic long-jump winner. Surviving it requires planning, a good throw (to get your wheelie bag on first) and prayer.

Usually, around 5pm, the train for Dublin is lined up directly outside the station building. Last Thursday, it wasn’t. After a while, an announcement was made apologising for the delay to that train and uttering the prophecy that it would be ready for embarking passengers in three quarters of an hour. This meant that the usual crowd in the station doubled. So crowded did it become that the volunteer pianist at the white-daubed piano began to look over his shoulder at the piled bicycles and buggies as if he expected them to topple on him.

Time and chance happeneth to us all, and the priority in a situation like this is to find somewhere to sit, which I did in the café area. Because the tables are tiny, I was closer than was comfortable with a stranger, who told me who I was, more or less daring me to deny it, and then took a further step, telling me that I train politicians to ignore incoming questions and am — consequently — responsible for the coarsening of the national debate. People around us came closer at the prospect of a good fight because they could see me roiling like eggs in a boiling pot. I riz up and told him none of My People (I turn messianic under pressure) has ever trained a politician to avoid an incoming question. Well, he said, someone does. Look at Jeremy Paxman.

I don’t know about you, but I’m up to here with Paxman. What a legacy. To be remembered asking the same question six or seven times by way of making a mockery of the failed attempts by a politician to avoid answering it. Someone mentioned it admiringly last year at a summer school at which I was appearing, and when I queried the trend in copycat broadcasters preening like budgies while repeating their question, an eminent international broadcaster on the panel was shocked.

It was the job of a broadcaster to ensure accountability by politicians, he told me piously. Accountability, of course, has nothing to do with the flamboyant repetition of a question, which gets remembered, not for the eventual answer, but for the perceived jousting victory on the part of the hack. Never mind the outcome, feel the battering.

A friend recently forwarded me a podcast from the BBC, the fourth episode of which has Matthew Parris looking at how the industry gears to teach politicians (and businesspeople) “how to look, and crucially, how to speak” on radio and television.

Parris maintains that media training is part of the ecology, now. In the beginning, he maintains, it was “purely presentational”. That was the first inaccuracy — about 90 seconds into the podcast. In the beginning, it was about survival, as politicians tried to come to terms with a brand new medium: television.

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