It is the duty of the opposition to bring checks and balances to bear upon whatever government is the incumbent. Parties that fall short of a majority during elections are meant to become our protectors – alerting us to any misdeed or misrepresentation made by those whose bottoms sit comfortably on the seats of power.
That’s the theory, anyway.
In practise, however, that is never the case. Opposition parties do not exist to expose the malfeasance of those that govern – they exist to depose them.
You will never hear the leader of the opposition declare; “I completely agree with this new and visionary government policy.”
Even if the incumbent party were to announce free mortgages, free water and free pre-school – the opposition would immediately go into conclave to find fault and to widen any cracks in such initiatives. Never mind that such initiatives might be of universal social benefit, what’s in the collective minds of the opposition is the detection of any flaw which can be used to erode government credibility. And throughout their years of opposition they will attempt to find as many flaws as possible in order to have a litany of such “failures” ready to justify their candidate’s election when they present themselves to voters.
This approach is, at best, political pragmatism; at worst it’s a self-serving appetite for control, a hunger to elevate themselves from the lower reaches of influence to a higher plane of power. So, if that’s the case, then we must ask ourselves whether honest opposition even exists.
I believe it does.
And no, it’s not people power – even if mass street protests can indeed cause changes in government policy, they only very rarely cause a change of government, at least while that government has a workable majority.
What brings governments to their knees is the one true force with no lust for power, and the only force that seeks no material benefit from a changing of the guard.
The media have true oppositional power. A bit of a leap? Maybe. But when intelligently critical newspaper articles, well researched TV documentaries, or when a radio interviewer exposes a high level politician as a liar – it is then that the edifices of power are undermined. And often, having been previously unaware of whatever government malfeasance has been exposed, the elected Opposition has to play catch up.
Investigative, expositional journalism, be it of the print or broadcast kind, is one of the reasons every despot attempts to close or control newspapers, to influence the output of TV stations, and to block or limit internet access. And it doesn’t just happen under the rule of tyrants – it happens in democracies too.
Influence over the media, not influence over the Opposition, is the gold standard to which incumbent governments, despotic or otherwise, aspire. Governments with a comfortable majority need never fear the Opposition, but their fear of an autonomous media is pathological.
And with good reason.
RTE was not established to bring television to the population of Ireland. It was established in the 60’s to deflect the influence of another medium, the BBC. Ireland’s national broadcaster was created to provide government-influenced programming which reflected the Catholicism and intellectual isolationism which were the extant policies of the legislators of the day.
And governments’ fear of the media is a concern that endures well into the 21st century.
In 2006 Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy and senior correspondent Colm Keena were accused of publishing classified information in an article concerning the investigation of Bertie Ahern by the Mahon tribunal. The government disapproved and the journalists were indicted under government-sanctioned legislation. Both writers had to destroy relevant documents to protect their sources and they faced a High Court order forcing them to reveal those sources under penalty of imprisonment or a $300,000 fine.
It was an investigative TV programme into the Fr. Brendan Smith child abuse affair that caused the collapse of the government in 1994.
But let’s be honest and fair. There are organs of the media that carry their own agenda – editorial biases and political leanings do indeed exist in the press and broadcast media. Ownership issues, monopolies, and the dangers of owner-influence are very real concerns. But they do not negate the argument. There are journalists and broadcasters whose ferocity, acumen, and honesty break through. Such professionals are the real opposition – not the Opposition which opposes only in order to depose.
It’s a sad truism that whatever the media exposes to public scrutiny the Opposition, like howling hyenas, will feed on the carcass of what has been brought to light and take undeserved and self-righteous credit. How many times have we witnessed some member of the Opposition stand up in the Dail and challenge the Taoiseach with a matter that has been exposed, not by the speaker, but by the media?
Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, and that oddball collective of non-aligned protest-parties bring nothing to the floor of the Dail. Nor will those that replace them in the next election. Despite their posturing declarations of affinity with “the people of Ireland,” their preoccupations of the Opposition will always be with themselves and with the acquisition of power. If so many of us have become disenchanted with politicians, it is not because of cynicism, it is because of weariness, a kind of waffle-fatigue that, over time, has left us indifferent.
So, when it comes to genuine opposition, for once it’s right to blame the media.