Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Tweeting MLAs are taking us for complete twits

Health Minister Edwin Poots
Health Minister Edwin Poots

Twitter is the perfect medium for self-important loudmouths with little to say but plenty of time in which to say it. An activity, as Jeremy Paxman recently observed, ideally suited to "people who have got nothing going on between their ears".

That's why it's so popular with many Northern Irish politicians. It suits the dopes among them down to the ground: with the 140 character limit, there's no room to discuss complex, nuanced issues of substance and weight, but there is just enough space to throw out drop-dead-obvious one-liners, petty jibes at their rivals and sombre, pious comments about terrible things happening in the world today.

Plus the odd observation about the World Cup, or Wimbledon, or Gordon Ramsay's hair or something, to show that they're real people, not grinning automatons programmed to the tips of their fingers by the party.

And all while revelling in the flattering illusion that, by doing so, they are keeping in intimate touch with the electorate, offering themselves up to maximum scrutiny and accountability. Hashtag LMFAO (yes, I can interpret basic Twitterese).

Now Health Minister Edwin Poots has taken the whole thing to a new level by using social media to make important policy statements. Up he popped on Twitter to announce that "a small prescription fee with a maximum payment of £25 per year would acquire specialist/cancer drugs for NI", adding that "paper was submitted to FM/DFM (First Minister/deputy First Minister) over a year ago on a prescription charge to buy cancer drugs and specialist drugs, FM not holding it back."

Now what's wrong with this, you might say? Sounds like straightforward common sense, doesn't it? A tiny, relatively painless charge so that local people with cancer can avail of potentially life-saving drugs available to people in other parts of the UK. How could the Deputy First Minister and his party – who oppose the reintroduction of prescription charges – possibly deny cancer sufferers this simple lifeline?

But that's the trouble with Twitter. A multi-layered and complicated question is disingenuously reduced to a basic either/or, with the added benefit of a sneaky side-swipe at Sinn Fein. It conveniently avoids, for instance, the central issue of the millions of pounds generated by the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS), which could be used to fund life-prolonging treatment for cancer sufferers in Northern Ireland without the need for reinstating prescription charges, and where that money has gone.

Meanwhile, Fearghal McKinney of the SDLP, who raised the question about PPRS monies, has called for a full audit of the prescriptions system, to assess its value for money.

This – and the general (mis)management of the health budget – is where the focus should be, not on some bogus, superficial and highly-emotive Twitter hare started by the Health Minister for interesting purposes best known to himself.

Yet Mr Poots realises that Twitter offers him the ideal platform to pose as the white knight riding to the rescue of desperate cancer sufferers. Whatever Paxman's thoughts on Twitter users, Poots has enough going on between his ears to know that.

And what about the substantial number of people who don't engage with social media at all? Are they to be left out of this "debate"? Shifting vital policy questions into the dopey, one-dimensional territory of the tweet-world, as minister Poots has done, not only cocks a contemptuous snook at the Assembly, where such business should be done, and diminishes the status of his office, it actively excludes a vast sweep of the electorate who neither know nor care what goes on in the dysfunctional virtual reality that passes for political engagement here.

As for the embarrassing Twitter spats that politicians like Mr Poots and his leader Peter Robinson seem to regularly get embroiled in – well, that's just cringeworthy.

I don't expect Government ministers to conduct themselves with Churchillian pomp, ceremony and decorum, but seeing them get involved in irritable and unseemly little bitch-fights with members of the public who happen to raise their ire makes me blush for them and the society they're supposed to be leading. Where is the dignity? Where is the gravitas appropriate to their role?

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that politicians are on Twitter for your benefit, or mine. The pretence of openness frequently conceals a far more cynical and opportunistic agenda and, paradoxically enough, a widespread and growing disconnection between the public and politicians.

Democratic accountability? You can tweet for it.

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