Derek Mooney: The Big Loser Last Night Was Public Service Broadcasting


From top: Pro-life campaigner Maria Steen and Solidarity–People Before Profit TD Brid Smith on last night’s Claire Byrne Live; Derek Mooney

On the morning after the night before’s hyped-up 8thRef Claire Byrne debate: committed Yes campaigners are insisting that the Yes side won it while staunch No activists are declaring with equal ferocity that their side prevailed.

In my own view, neither side significantly moved the dial among undecided voters with the real loser in the whole sorry mess being public sector broadcasting.

This was not the fault of the presenter/moderator Claire Byrne or any of the lead speakers for the Yes or No sides, but of the folk in RTÉ who decided that having daytime TV style confrontation in front of a cheering crowd was the best way to discuss a fraught, complex and emotionally charged issue.

What was needed was a calm, respectful and reflective discussion, in its place we got a he said/she said wall of noise. It needed Jeremy Vine, we got Jeremy Kyle.

All that was missing to make the Jerry Springer Show effect complete were lurid chyrons running across the bottom of the screen screaming the titles of upcoming shows: I get turned on by number 1s, but not number 2s or Spoiler Alert: they’re topping the poll.

OK, I exaggerate, though the Brid Smith versus Maria Steen encounter, complete with audience boos and hisses, did make me wonder if Steve Wilkos and a team of black t-shirted security staff were waiting just off camera.

So, what was the problem with the format? It was the audience. Not any one individual or even a group of individuals, but rather the constant and incessant cheering and clapping for speakers on their side and the hectoring of those on the other.

No doubt, each side will claim that the other one went further in heckling or shouting down the other, but that doesn’t matter.

The question is why the debate was formatted and structured in such a way as to allow them to do it. Actually, if I was really bad minded, I might even wonder if is was structured in such a way as to encourage it?

Think back to any of the US presidential debates of the last decade or so. In each of them, the moderator has opened proceedings by setting out the debate rules, as decided by the US agency that arranges the debates: The Commission on Presidential Debates.

The host then explains that the audience must remain absolutely silent for the duration of the debate, with the exception of welcoming both candidates out on to the stage, so that people at home can focus on what the candidates are saying.

Opening the second presidential debate of the 2012 campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the moderator CNN’s Candy Crowley, announced:

“The audience here in the hall has agreed to be polite and attentive — no cheering or booing or outbursts of any sort.”

The format of this debate was what American broadcasters call a town hall. There ordinary voters ask their questions of the candidates directly, but that audience is made up of uncommitted voters chosen by independent pollsters.

Much of last night’s audience were chosen by the two campaigns. Both of whom seemed more interested in getting as many loud and vocal people there as possible.

I know that I am at risk of sounding po-faced, or even hypocritical. I have not been averse, in the past, of doing a bit of fairly boisterous heckling at political discussions – not all of them involving other parties.

Like many politicos of my vintage this also included a few stints in the audience of the grand old dame of Irish TV political debates Questions and Answers.

There I would attempt my faltering impression of an innocent member of the public. It was unconvincing. Indeed, the only thing worse was my dire impression of an electable politician, but we live and learn.

I know that political shows can be boring or tedious and need a bit of showbiz and spectacle from time to time. I realise that listening to a procession of TDs and Senators drone on can be a ratings killer. But going the opposite way is not the answer.

The secret is knowing when the time is right and how far to go. Last night was an example of getting the mix wrong – and it is not the first time.

We saw the same format deployed to equally unsatisfactory effect almost seven years ago in the 2011 presidential election debates – though that night had the added frisson of dodgy tweets.

Surely the only lesson they learned in the intervening time cannot just be: don’t read out the Tweets?

While we do not need to go as far as setting up a dedicated quango dealing with debates, be they presidential, Dáil or referendum along the lines of U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates, the decision on formats should not rest with the broadcasters alone.

There should be a role for an independent electoral commission, charged with overseeing our electoral process.To be fair, this government is looking at setting up such a commission.

The 2016 Programme for Government states:

A) Establishing an Electoral Commission

We believe that Ireland needs an independent electoral commission, as a matter of priority.

The new commission should examine the voter registration process and in particular the possibility of the PPS system being used to automatically add people to the electoral register once they reach voting age.

It should also look at ways to increase participation in our political process through voter education and turnout.

The new commission could also:

Assume the role of Registrar of political parties

Regulate political funding and election expenditure

Oversee the Referendum Commission, which would be a sub-section of the commission

The newly established Electoral Commission would be independent of Government and directly accountable to the Oireachtas.

As with many things the promise is there, it’s the action that is missing. The last time the electoral commission issue was raised with Taoiseach in the Dáil appears to have been back in October 2017.

Back then he said:

“There is no timeframe for it. It is very much a long-term project.”

Given that this government’s remaining time in office can be best measured in months, not years, we see that 2011 and 2016’s “priority” is today’s: “Meh, we may get around to it.”

To be fair, in the hierarchy of this Government’s broken promises this one does come a fair bit down the list, but that does not excuse its lethargy.

With a little bit of political will and Dáil time the legislation could be processed speedily. A nascent Electoral Commission could be in place for a presidential election later this year.

Much of the preparatory work has already been done. The various reports, consultation and scoping documents are already there. I understand that the Department of Environment has been preparing a Regulatory Impact Analysis for a draft Bill.

The aims and intentions of James Lawless’s Online Advertising And Transperancy Bill could be rolled into it too, so that electoral fairness is not depending on the largesse of the IT giants.

So, what’s the delay? Must we wait for Russian interference to finally act?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Watch Claire Byrne Live here

Top pics: RTÉ

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60 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: The Big Loser Last Night Was Public Service Broadcasting

  1. Cian

    Good post Derek – RTE got it wrong last night (although we’re all talking about it).
    Did you miss the Late Late Show the previous week where there was a calm and respectful discussion between the two sides?
    But you hit the nail on the head – the difference is that last night the audience was all partisan; on the Late Late Show it was mostly random punters.

    1. ahjayzis

      (although we’re all talking about it).

      Makes it even more wrong.

      The state broadcaster has no business leveraging our democratic process for ratings. We already have a TV3.

  2. phil

    I had to pay my TV license today , I feel sick after doing so …
    but what ‘choice’ did I have …

    1. Daisy Chainsaw

      I’ve ignored the letters for years. I don’t answer the door when I’m not expecting anyone and I don’t return the postcard they leave me. After last night’s clusterfupp, I feel entirely justified in my choice!

        1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

          He’s my stalker, not yours. You should be so lucky, frankly.
          So now so, as me aul’ doll might say.

          1. Brother Barnabas


            like i’ve got a folder of photos of bisted on his commute to and from work or even once scaled the wall of his office car park to sniff his saddle

          2. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

            As I said, he should be so lucky.
            Though I’m saying it timorously this time.

          3. Brother Barnabas

            as i always say, there’s a thin line between timorous and manic sexual excitement

          4. mildred st. meadowlark

            Ye should invite him to one of your ‘sessions’. Two is nicey, but three is spicy…

          5. Brother Barnabas

            that’s the base price… could be a lot more (management’s discretion)

            you, on the other hand, would get a generous discount (tbd by andyourp)

  3. Diddles

    CB Live, presented by Maria Steen.
    Was a difficult watch. I had to watch an hour of nonsense of sky sports to wind down before bed

  4. TheRealJane

    Still though, I’ll never recover from hearing the oleaginous Senator Ronan Mullen opining that a twelve year old girl is in a woman. Barf.

    Also, the idea that that weird old man who thinks that there was no harm done to the woman who was kept on life support – shocking callousness towards women from a specialist in women’s medicine.

    1. Col

      It was during the Mullen soliloquy that I seriously considered whether I would emigrate in the event of a No result :(

  5. toll bridge assistant

    we’re one more step closer to ireland getting it’s own extreme right-wing party, with all the blatant lying and shouting at people Trump tactics that go with it. I feel we’ll be fighting ignorance like this forever. The world is now a lot stupider than it was 10/20 years ago. It really is the Dawn of the Dumb.

  6. ReproBertie (SCU)

    It would make more sense for the audience to be made up of undecided voters who could ask the panel questions and the panel could debate the question and answer rather than the straw man and ad hominem nonsense that went on last night while the audience tried to decide the debate via the clapometer.

    1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

      Exactly. I cannot stand watching telly where people aren’t there to debate, merely to rant. It serves no purpose.

      1. mildred st. meadowlark

        Had to switch off last night. It was RAGE inducing and the she-hulk version of me was threatening to put in an appearance.

        1. dav

          Great, now I got that depressing piano tune that ended every episode of the incredible hulk going on in me noggin…

          1. dav

            damnit, now it’s morphed into the littlest hobo # there’s a voice, that keeps on calling meeee..#

        2. TheRealJane

          I think what was clear is that both sides are having completely different conversations and there just is no point of contact.

          1. TheRealJane

            Thanks Mildred, you and several others are doing the same.

            In honesty, I’ve been waiting for this referendum for years and it’s good to finally get a chance to speak and vote.

    2. SOQ

      It was a complete mess and the audience demographics was questionable to say the least. RTÉ will say they have a responsibility to be impartial but they also have a responsibility to not inflame an already volatile topic by this sort of mismanagement.

  7. prince Adolf Bob von bronkwurst

    good post Derek. it was a shouting match. Clare looked lovely though.

  8. BobbyJ

    I’d change

    “We saw the same format deployed to equally unsatisfactory effect almost seven years ago in the 2011 presidential election debates – though that night had the added frisson of dodgy tweets”


    We saw the same format deployed to equally unsatisfactory effect almost seven years ago in the 2011 presidential election debates – though that night had the added frisson of dodgy tweets and the revealing of Sean Gallagher as a FF bagman

  9. TheRealJane

    I wonder why they decided to omit the detail of where he practices? Portiuncula isn’t a widely known as the safest hospital.

    1. Daisy Chainsaw

      I would rather do DIY surgery than be admited to that dangerous shoighthole.

  10. Ron Dolan

    This is just another reason why I haven’t paid my TV licence in years nor will I in future.

    1. Brother Barnabas

      i don’t get why there isn’t a mass movement against tv licence – as offensive as water charges, imo

  11. Andrew

    Claire Byrne is a total lightweight and should not be entrusted with hosting debates on anything of great significance.
    She doesn’t have a serious background or experience in journalism.
    RTE seem intent on promoting her though.
    Audrey Carville or even Miriam would be more suited. They have a bit more about them.
    Farce of a show and farce of an organisation

    1. TheRealJane

      Obviously I don’t know Claire or her opinion but my instinct is that she was so keen to conceal her real feelings that she was overly generous to the opposite point of view.

      In reality, I don’t think anyone could have chaired that car crash.

      1. Andrew

        I don’t know her either but I have listened to her on radio and watched her on television and she demonstrates a remarkable lack of knowledge on who people are, historical events of significance and just basic cultural stuff.
        When you think about it, it is quite the drop in standards from say Vincent Browne or Brian Farrell
        She’s been promoted way beyond her level of competency , costing over 200k a year in salary and will likely cost the licence payer a lot more with the inevitable legal settlements that will come when you give this much responsibility to an intellectual lightweight.

  12. frankie

    This has just disintegrated into a freak show
    A nasty hostile battle where people are being demonised
    This is not going to end well as people are being branded monsters because of their beliefs
    At the end of the day people will not be bullied and they will vote from conscience and their vote will not be dictated by bullies
    The fact the debate or more like a Jeremy kile show side show was even Stephen shows this referendum is far from carried and hostility might just bite it in the bottom

  13. Mé Féin

    Jeremy Vine, Jeremy Kyle. Don’t know who they are. Stopped reading at that point

  14. Frilly Keane

    Loads and loads of losers in this televised debate
    Tag MMA more like

    Yer wan Butler won’t be seen with that smirk for much longer,
    Mattie is already in a fight for his political life so his braying liar liar like a tortured rat is to be expected
    Steen is about as genuine as a Dublin Bakery’s Blah and has about the same shelf life

    Ara’ enough of them

    The Winner
    And there was one
    Amd only one

    Mary Lou

    That girl has gotten 5 or more poll points for the Shinners from Tuesday night
    And it was a pivotal moment for her Leadership

    Of course Mooney didn’t point that out
    He’d rather loose the bollocks off himself in a gardening accident

    But Mary Lou won
    And won outright

    And ya know
    Sum’ting else
    This campaign has been one poisonous slurry pit
    Every one near it, from every side, party, collective and profession as been stained
    But the worst effected are Fianna Fail
    Watch them over the next 12 months
    ’cause once this is all over next week
    They’re the crowd that’ll fall apart
    ( Bet most of ye hadn’t heard from Timmy Dooley in 12 months …. And now he’s the FFyessers Commander in Chief, and he’s not Dublin….)

    The one party that should have struggled with this Referendum the most should have been Sinn Fein

    Instead it turns out to be Fianna Fail

    Well done Mary Lou
    That’s the leadership Sinn Fein needed
    And it’s exactly what the electorate was waiting for

    It gives me enormous pleasure
    And satisfaction
    To say all this on a Derek Mooney bit

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