Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Ed Curran: Angry and irrational - are phone-in shows a bad call?

Ed Curran

This dreadful winter of discontent is taking its toll.

From sixth formers and students on the rampage over tuition fees to the wave of unrest over the UK and Ireland's spending cuts, established Government is under threat. We know not where it might yet end.

The tuition fees row looks to be inspiring a new radical trend in the universities much as happened in Northern Ireland, the United States and many parts of Europe in the 1960s over civil rights issues. What a political irony if the actions of a Conservative Prime Minister prompt today's protesting students to be tomorrow's left-wing leaders.

Never has there been a better time to complain and protest. Never have there been so many media tools at the public's disposal to do so.

We live in the age of the radio phone-in, when all manner of anonymous figures in our community, only known on air by their Christian names, can pronounce on the world around them, say what they like and vent their anger at unsuspecting targets in authority over them.

Radio stations everywhere are at it. Down south ... "Good morning, your name is Padraig from Bellewstown ... What do think of Brian Cowen (right) then?"

"Sure Jaysus, I couldn't put it into words, what I think of him. He's a bloody disgrace to the country."

"Thanks Padraig. On the line now is Tommy from Tallaght ... "

On London radio... "So you're a student Mohammed ... what's your view of Nick Clegg and tuition fees?

"He's a disgrace. He's a liar."

"Thank you Mohammed. On the line now is Terry from Brixton ... "

Northern Ireland media offer wall-to-wall texting, emailing, twittering and phoning-in every day. Most recently, the weather has provoked a huge province-wide moan. Why was such and such a road not gritted? Why were the footpaths abandoned to become blocks of ice? Why was my neighbourhood not defrosted?

Whether it be the weather, the health service, education or the PSNI, there is always plenty of ammunition for the phone-in addicts. The inquisition of people in positions of authority knows no bounds. The airwaves are open house to anyone to give full vent to their feelings.

The phone-in has taken the expression of public anger and opinion to unprecedented levels of abuse, intolerance and outrage directed at those in authority, from public servants to politicians. It seems to me that the phone-in also sails closer than any other aspect of the media into dangerous legal waters. So much so that I am surprised that there are not more costly actions for defamation than have been reported or revealed to date.

"Sorry, you can't say that," the presenter will rebuke a phone-in contributor when he or she steps legally out of line. What has he or she been saying? Oh that such and such a professional public servant isn't doing his or her job properly. In fact the official is accused on air of being useless. A waste of time and money and should be got rid of as soon as possible.

As for that guy in charge of the roads, he wasn't on duty when he was needed. He should be sacked also. And the health official, she should be held responsible and sacked because an elderly woman died of a virus in hospital.

"Sorry you can't say that," says the presenter and cuts off the complainant but it's too late. The mud has stuck. To save legal face, the presenter offers a belated defence of the maligned integrity of the roads manager, health official, judge or whoever happens to be in the phone-in firing line. Hardly sufficient I would have thought but nevertheless that's it and we can now move on to Sammy from Ballyclare.

I thought that Maureen Gaffney, a Dublin clinical psychologist and chairwoman of the Irish National and Economic Forum, captured the essence of what I'm trying to say. In an article in the Irish Times, she wrote: "We have acquired a standing army of the quick-to-anger, ready to jump in front of the camera or seize the microphone, bursting to give their fellow citizens an earful.

"While readily acknowledging that there has been plenty of provocation, we also can hardly deny the emergence of a new national capacity for instant outrage and provocation."

The question must be asked: what is twittering, emailing, texting and phoning-in doing to the body politic of this and other states?

Outspoken and often irrational views seem easier to find than the hard essential facts of life presented objectively and impartially. Freedom of expression is a virtue to be defended but it should not be abused or become a means of undermining authority.

To quote Aristotle: "Anybody can become angry - that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and with the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy."

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