Politicians and the press: A love-hate relationship?

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

image captionThe Thick of It often showed fiery exchanges between Labour's fictional communications director Malcolm Tucker, politicians and journalists - but is it really like that?

"It is always a risk to speak to the press: they are likely to report what you say" - or so former US Vice-President Hubert Humphrey once said.

This week however, it wasn't what Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar told the press, but rather what he said about them, that made headlines.

At a function in New York, the taoiseach reportedly said Donald Trump's criticism of the media was one of the few things about which he could sympathise with the US president.

He later insisted that he supports a free press, but his remarks have re-ignited a debate about the relationship between politicians and the media.

On the surface, it's a two-way street: politicians need journalists to write about their views and policies, while reporters often require a sound bite or a tip-off from a politician to give their story the punch it needs.

In Northern Ireland, views vary about how the dynamic works.

Stage management?

Ruairi O'Kane was the SDLP's director of communications from 2007 until 2011.

He probably wouldn't describe himself as a 'Malcolm Tucker', the fictional foul-mouthed press officer from the BBC sitcom The Thick of It, but he did share his thoughts into how the political spin machine works.

"It's probably better if it's a hate-hate relationship," he says.

image sourceKim Haughton/Irish Government
image captionSince making his remarks about journalists, Leo Varadkar has said he fully supports a free press

"It's almost a boxing match, you spar with the media and sometimes you have to take a punch, but it's fine as long as you're throwing plenty back.

"Politicians like to think of journalists being friendly towards them, but then get upset when they see something that doesn't portray them or their party in the best light."

The space where journalists and politicians (and their press officers) often clash is at a press conference.

It can feel stage-managed, where journalists line up in the scrum waiting to ask questions and may only get to ask one, while on other occasions, they're explicitly told no questions will be allowed.

'Feeding frenzy'

The latter approach might find favour with press officers hoping to keep a politician out of potential difficulty.

"I see it happening now and some parties being criticised for it, but I did it too at some of our election launches," Mr O'Kane adds.

"You didn't want a question being asked that the politician might struggle to answer and allow a feeding frenzy.

"It's not to say we banned questions, but sometimes instead we offered one-to-one interviews. It's almost risk management, and thinking where could we cut out any potential for the wrong thing to be said?"

image sourceCarl Court
image captionThe DUP leadership speaking to journalists at a press conference outside Number 10

It's that choreography of press conferences and the limited access to politicians that has become a talking point within media circles in Northern Ireland.

Freelance journalist Amanda Ferguson said reporters walk a tightrope trying to maintain contacts and sources while doing the job properly.

"It's such a small place so journalists have to get the balance right," she says.

"There should be good relationships and you can have chats with politicians, but we're there to scrutinise them and get information to the public, we're not there to be their mates."

She added that she felt a lot of politicians dislike the press, and don't understand that it is not there to regurgitate party political releases.

"Some politicians would rather bypass the media altogether, and while some outlets do get it wrong obviously, politicians are increasingly trying to control their messages," she adds.

Media coverage 'like oxygen'

"You just have to look at the number of press officers and spin doctors employed, and how politicians are sometimes bypassing the press in favour of social media channels instead."

But at the core of this - is there an assumption from politicians that they think journalists are trying to catch them out, while journalists believe politicians want to avoid any kind of scrutiny?

I asked two former Stormont politicians for their takes.

image sourceCharles McQuillan
image captionThe media scrum in Stormont's Great Hall is a regular occurrence for political parties in Northern Ireland

Brenda Hale was an MLA for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from 2011 until 2017.

She says she found the move into public life and the media spotlight a "complete culture shock".

"It was into the deep end for me, especially where people could take your words and misunderstand them or misconstrue them," she says.

"There was media training, but it was only really how to speak to the camera, it wasn't really about how to deal with journalists."

She says she always worked well with reporters she came across, but adds: "There will always be unscrupulous journalists as there are unscrupulous politicians.

"It's a journalist's job to ask the difficult questions and write a responsible story, and politicians, while they're giving the party line, must also be aware they're elected, and the public need to know answers."

'Score a headline'

Daithí McKay was a Sinn Féin MLA from 2007 until 2016. He says the approach to the press in Westminster and the US seems more "aggressive" than in Northern Ireland.

"There is mostly a mutual respect between politicians and the media here, although there is obviously still the odd spat," he says.

"There have been occasions where the media has deliberately taken something out of context to score a headline, and some politicians have ignored or boycotted journalists from certain outlets because of accusations of bias.

"There are different kinds of journalists and politicians are more wary of some than others."

Whatever the current climate, Daithí McKay says the relationship between politicians and the press in Northern Ireland is best described as necessary - one can't exist without the other.

"Media coverage is like oxygen to politicians, you use it to demonstrate to the public that you're doing your job.

"Everybody knows each other - the grudges don't last forever."

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