“The kind of unfiltered, spontaneous commentary that Twitter seems to trigger in Irish politicians should be welcomed. Without it, we could have seen Mr O’Dea’s alleged perjury and Mr Cowen’s poor preparation be subject to less analysis and discussion than they merited”
Hungover leader or overexcited media? Eoin Brady examines the reasoning behind the intense scrutiny of Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s recent interview.
Listening back to the now-infamous Morning Ireland interview, from the moment Cathal Mac Coille greets Brian Cowen with “thank you for coming over before your breakfast”, it is obvious that Mr Cowen should not have gone on air.
“Irish premier denies being drunk, hung over on air” – as reported by The Associated Press – is a story that has been covered in over 450 articles worldwide, including in influential media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Guardian. The indirect phrasing used in that title – Mr Cowen’s denial of being under the influence, rather than his actually being under the influence – demonstrates how the story emerged and developed.
This is a story not about what Mr Cowen actually said or did in his interview – the interview itself is by no means outrageous. Rather, it is about the way the events of the morning (and the preceding night) were handled by Mr Cowen, commentators and other politicians afterwards.
The responses Mr Cowen gave during the Morning Ireland interview were vague, equivocal and somewhat incoherent. He did not give straight answers to pertinent questions, including one about the suggestion that next year’s budget cuts could be €4bn, instead of the previously mooted €3bn.
While this is an integral issue for the recovery of the Irish economy, and Mr Cowen’s answer will have further perturbed already jittery bond markets, he would have not given a straight answer after eight hours’ sleep, a brisk walk and a bowl of porridge. The content of his interview was conventional and unremarkable.
There would have been no story here, were it not for two things: firstly, that it is known that Mr Cowen had been drinking and socialising (or becoming a socialist, if Noel Dempsey is to be believed) at 3.30am in the bar of the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway the night before.
Secondly, that Fine Gael Transport Spokesperson Simon Coveney tweeted “God, what an uninspiring interview by Taoiseach this morning. He sounded halfway between drunk and hungover and totally disinterested.” Mr Coveney probably did not intend to accuse Mr Cowen of being inebriated, but other than that, what he said was clear.
Although Mr Coveney was just one of a number of people making the point on Twitter, his position on the opposition front bench lent the story an air of legitimacy. From there, the story exploded, or blossomed, depending on one’s perspective on the matter.
This is not the first time that Twitter has influenced Irish politics: this event was preceded by Green Party Leader Senator Dan Boyle’s 140-character statement of no confidence in coalition partner and then Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea.
The kind of unfiltered, spontaneous commentary that Twitter seems to trigger in Irish politicians should be welcomed. Without it, we could have seen Mr O’Dea’s alleged perjury and Mr Cowen’s poor preparation be subject to less analysis and discussion than they merited. This unconventional outlet gives politicians a means to act with their hearts, against the status quo.
This is also not the first time that an unpopular prime minister has become embroiled in a public relations disaster that was triggered by modern technology. Gordon Brown’s labelling of Gillian Duffy – an elderly lifelong Labour voter – as a “bigot”, after the two shared an apparently pleasant discussion, would not have gone any further than the back seat of his Jaguar, were it not for a misplaced radio microphone.
Arguably, Mr Brown’s gaffe was more serious because it appeared to betray a genuine dislike for one of his party’s core voter demographics, while Mr Cowen’s slip was as a consequence of his gregarious and sociable nature.
On the other hand, Mr Cowen perhaps demonstrated an even greater contempt for his public by going ahead with an interview that he must have known would make him appear indifferent to, and lacking in respect for, the 464,000 listeners of Morning Ireland.
The similarity between the two men’s responses to their respective furores is notable: Mr Brown’s forlorn head-holding (while unknowingly being filmed by a webcam during a radio interview) added to the negative publicity he received, as did Mr Cowen’s flippant comment hours after the interview advocating “everything in moderation – including moderation”.
While Mr Brown went on to apologise to Ms Duffy in a straightforward manner, Mr Cowen has failed to give a coherent apology: he promised that it “won’t happen again”, admitting to having given what “wasn’t [his] best performance”. However, he has attributed this to the “hoarseness in his voice”. Mr Cowen’s reasoning, a sore throat, will hardly do enough to instil confidence in voters who, already disillusioned with Fianna Fáil, are adding up the reasons that they are unlikely to bring Mr Cowen back as their leader in the next general election.