Mike Nesbitt hotel photo: Why politicians who give us the old silent treatment risk disdain
In a democracy the media has a right to ask awkward questions about the conduct of public figures, whether they like it or not
Part of me never gave a hoot about Mike Nesbitt lying face down on a hotel floor with two women over him. I could imagine various scenarios between the innocuous and the horrific, some of which made claims on my sympathy and concern, some of which suggested that pity and disdain might be more appropriate.
It may do him no harm now that the story is out, that he hit the floor in a joke fight with a woman. He may seem ridiculous behaving like that, but he also might be seen to be sparing the woman.
But we can easily imagine a few reasons why Nesbitt wanted to keep quiet about it.
It makes him look like a tube. But he also spared the woman, until she was identified in the Sunday papers.
Nesbitt is a media professional. He knows how journalists work and how audiences react, and he has traded in the past on his ability to advise others on how to manage the media to their advantage.
So he saw his advantage, in this case, in staying silent.
Let’s see if that plays well for him.
In the past there have been potentially damaging rumours about other politicians and they have handled the crises in the same way.
They stayed silent and the story died.
That can be a good strategy in some circumstances because often the media will not run a story without a counterbalancing response.
But even “no comment” is a response and enough to enable a story to run, and it always sounds like an admission of guilt. In those cases where silence worked, there was no hard evidence of misfortunes or misdemeanours.
In Mike’s case there was evidence of something having happened. He was face down on a hotel floor.
He couldn’t brush that fact away by ignoring it and hoping that the rest of us would too.
But he could, for a time, withhold from us the actual meaning of that event, though the Press was going to speculate and probe. Some rallied to him, saying: “He’s only human; we’ve all been in difficult and embarrassing situations; none of us is perfect.”
And journalism being what it is, needing to refresh a story or drop it, the strategy of saying nothing might indeed have seen interest wane and the question of why he was face down on a floor simply disappear.
The problem for Mike is that he is a politician.
He is selling himself to the electorate, and some who might otherwise have voted for him may think: this guy wants us to trust him but he did not trust us to know the answer to the most intriguing question he had raised — what was that all about, when he was face-down on the floor of the Stormont Hotel?
And while not saying might have worked as a media management strategy, there was a greater consideration here than the prospects of Mike defending his good name.
There is the question of the media’s role in a democracy and its right to enquire into the behaviour of public figures.
If the media is defeated in the exercise of that right, then democracy is damaged.
And a politician seeking votes through the democratic system should have sufficient regard for that system to acknowledge that the media is integral to it.
That doesn’t mean that he has to answer every question any reporter ever puts to him, but Mike Nesbitt is astute enough to know the relevance of the questions that arose from that incident, whether their ultimate bearing was on his health or his good sense.
He is not the only one who thinks he can steer his political course without explaining himself to the media.
In John Finucane, the Sinn Fein candidate for North Belfast, we have an ambitious political project, an attempt to unseat Nigel Dodds. And it is driven by a confidence that he need hardly talk to the local media at all.
John gives few interviews. He puts his effort into addressing political meetings, glad-handing, and he has taken up tweeting.
He trusts that he can get his message across in near media silence.
This is bizarre.
Politicians and candidates are usually eager to be interviewed. They accept — or have done till now — that publicity is the element in which they live and breathe, that they die without it.
But John can manage mostly in the thinner ether of cyberspace.
Maybe he is just so new to this that he needs to ease himself in.
One thing is for sure, and that is that he is following the guidance of a party publicity machine which will make cogent and careful decisions on where to place him when there are cameras and microphones around. Sinn Fein is often accused of control freakery, conducting itself like a cult rather than a party.
Keeping its star candidate away from the media hardly counters that perception.
But John Finucane knows he can ride on the reputation of the party he represents and that the very surprise of his being chosen to fight this seat carries news value with it.
So he can, for now, confine himself mostly to public meetings and limit himself to saying things he is comfortable with saying.
And he can maintain a presence in social media, supported by other bloggers who routinely endorse the party line.
He has just given an interview to Alex Thomson on Channel Four News, so we’ll get a sense from that of how he handles himself.
The US President Donald Trump has been saying that he is so fed up with ‘fake news’ that he might stop giving briefings and simply issue statements. That would suit his autocratic temperament, though it wouldn’t solve his problem — which is his tendency to blurt out the first thought that floats across the front of his brain. That thought has usually slipped his grasp before he has finished articulating it.
But do Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists want to be identified with anti-democratic methods?