By little more than bizarre coincidence, I found myself listening to a few minutes of Liveline for the third time in five programmes. Today’s excerpt concerned a text poll on the matter of a third bailout for Greece.
As I tuned in, Duffy was on the cusp of revealing the result. He was speaking with an Irish person based in Greece who appeared to be advocating some kind of solidarity from Ireland. With a certain amount of relish, he revealed that 66% of people texting into the programme had said No: Ireland should not pay money into a third bailout.
Before he revealed the result, he made the qualifying statement to the effect that it was only a rough poll and something of a self-selecting sample. Nonetheless, he continued, previous polls conducted on such a basis had proven to be reflective of general public sentiment on a range of issues.
If you were to press Duffy or his producers about the use of such polls, they would claim they are only seeking to reflect what is already there. They would deny that they are trying to influence the political agenda in one way or another.
Such denials would mean nothing. The decision to launch a poll on a political matter is politically motivated. How you word the questions is shaped by your political worldview and what you consider politically important. That is not an accusation levelled at Joe Duffy: it is an inescapable fact.
Let’s consider the effects of asking this question, and presenting it. First of all, whilst Joe Duffy says that his phone-in polls reflect public opinion, it’s far more accurate to say that they shape it. There is no ‘true’ position held by people that pre-dates him asking the question. But once the poll question is asked, people start thinking about the issue in the terms set, and, if they are so motivated, give their answer accordingly. Then, when the result is broadcast, people interpret the result as reflective of what certain people ‘really’ think.
If you are sitting at home broadly sympathetic to Greece, a poll result that tells you a majority of people disagree with your view will make you feel as though you are up against it. It may confirm your worst suspicions about what people think. It may lead you not to bother expressing any kind of solidarity.
Similarly, if you hear that a majority are against a bailout for Greece, and in the same terms as the right-wing constituencies of North European nation-states who look upon the Greek population with racist suspicion and moral condescension, you may feel buoyed. If you are a political party apparatchik with Fine Gael or Labour, for example, you may think that your strategy of putting the boot into the Greek population as a proxy for your own local enemies is bearing fruit.
In the course of the discussion on Greece two days ago, Joe Duffy asked Trevor Hogan whether Ireland should hold a referendum on participation in a third bailout for Greece. He was adumbrating the political perspective of the right-wing constituencies of North European countries. He was also expressing the outworkings of the institutional logic of the European Union and its Constitution. The European Union is, by its institutional design, supposed to be a union of nation-states competing against one another, ratcheting down labour conditions and social rights, and struggling to fashion jurisdictions as accommodating to big business as possible. All this, as well as the awareness that solidarity with Greece serves to undermine the establishment in Ireland, was neatly smuggled in to the question he asked today.
But perhaps the most audacious tacit proposition contained in Duffy’s question is the idea that there is a democratic political collective known as ‘Ireland’ in control of own destiny. In this ‘Ireland’, there is, of course, no class antagonism. Sure Joe Duffy should know: he’s from Ballyfermot!
Duffy is forever alive to the fears and discomforts at play in the collective unconscious of Ireland’s political and business elites, and he always knows the right questions to calm their nerves. Liveline is a programme that is forever on guard to the danger of people getting ideas above their station, specifically, the idea that politics is anything other than a matter for professional politicians, punctuated by the occasional vote. And it stands guard over other ideas: for instance, the idea that whatever the government does is legitimate by virtue of the fact it is the government; the idea that An Garda Siochána is good because it is the police force; the idea that ‘abroad’ is first and foremost a place where decent Irish innocents get ripped off by unscrupulous foreigners come the holidays. The biggest thieves are, of course, are a lot closer to home. And their modus operandi is, as any Garda can tell you, to keep you talking at the front door while their accomplice sneaks in the back door.