Going into the 2020 election, Fine Gael were in crisis mode. 12 percent down on Fianna Fáil and only one point ahead of Sinn Féin, there was a genuine chance of key ministers losing their seats and real concern for the party’s future. Central figures such as Simon Coveney acknowledged the “public frustration” surrounding Fine Gael’s public policy on housing, health, and homelessness. And so it materialised, with the 2020 election, an indictment of Fine Gael’s inaction and legislative failures. For the first time the party finished third on total votes behind Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, with Leo Varadkar the first Taoiseach not to top their constituency’s poll in Irish history.
This looked like a genuine shift in the political landscape, symbolic of what could come next: a first truly left-wing orientated administration in the form of Sinn Féin when the next election came round. Why then are Fine Gael, less than a year and a half later, second in the latest Irish Times polls, and once again a leading party in Ireland’s political scene?
The answer lies in the media coverage of Fine Gael since the beginning of the pandemic, which has enabled them to turn their political fortunes and realistically threaten the possibility of a Sinn Féin majority Government. When discussing this topic, terms such as “coverage” and “the media” can be vague. A lack of coverage can be hard to accurately assess. It is not only the failure to report key stories (although this is a component), but an inadequate analysis of these stories within the public sphere. The degree to which this is occurring in relation to Fine Gael can be more easily measured than most, especially regarding the comparative treatment of their coalition partners the Green Party and Fianna Fáil.
“In the past fifteen months we have seen an increasing trend of news organisations who are ostensibly objective broadening their tacit support for Fine Gael.”
Trying to identify the media actors perpetuating this can be more difficult, especially considering the variety of outlets, as well as certain newspapers with an overt editorial endorsement of Fine Gael and its policies. Nonetheless, in the past fifteen months we have seen an increasing trend of news organisations, who are ostensibly objective, broadening their tacit support for Fine Gael. Most noticeably the state broadcaster RTÉ, embodied most significantly in their radio silence on the criminal investigation of former Fine Gael Taoiseach and current Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.
This has its origins in the start of the pandemic’s first wave. A sense of cohesion and togetherness was felt; a cross-unifying patriotism across all demographics that can only be invoked when a country collectively faces a national crisis. Fine Gael rode this wave without inhibition, with little to no substantive discussion of their broader plans to address the pandemic and its implications. Leo Varadkar addressed the nation on RTÉ with his “rallying the troops” rhetoric and his refrain for “togetherness”.
This was accepted and to a degree celebrated. The party’s culpability in the failures of Ireland’s Covid policies were excused and glossed over. Amongst them were the lack of a structured strategy to tackle the pandemic, such as New Zealand’s “Zero Covid” policy, or a focus on achieving a proper testing infrastructure, which countries such as South Korea implemented during the early stages of the virus.
Nevertheless, the media’s irresponsibility in holding the government to account continued. The noise surrounding the coalition formation enabled Fine Gael to avoid the full effect of second wave public fatigue. They ensured that, thanks to media inertia, they were still strongly associated with the optimism of the early days, when the nation thought the pandemic could be beaten in a month or two. However, even when this noise died down and the realities of the coalition government emerged, we saw no substantive scrutiny of Fine Gael or the disastrous legacy of their policies.
The imbalanced media coverage of the coalition has become increasingly evident. Fianna Fáil have been designated as the only party responsible for policy making, with the odd helping hand from the Greens. The shortcomings of Government decision-making, specifically the calamitous impact of lockdown easing during Christmas and the ineffectuality of housing legislation, seems to lie exclusively at the door of Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil. On the other hand, there has been lopsided attention on the Greens, with little or no examination of the Climate Action Bill. Although flawed, the bill is the most ambitious Irish legislation designed to tackle the impending climate disaster. News coverage has been mostly focused on internal tensions within the Party over leadership debacles and the painful (if necessary) compromises that must occur within a coalition government.
Fine Gael’s link with the optimism of the first wave and controversies of other parties in coalition have distracted the media and distorted the public perception of the party’s actions. This relates back to the class composition of the Irish media. The biggest news organisations such as Virgin Media, The Independent, and RTÉ are disproportionately filled with people from affluent middle-class backgrounds. The lack of media focus on Fine Gael is unsurprising, given their historic association with the protection of middle-class interests and the prolificacy of such broadcasters, editors, journalists, and presenters within the news industry. The Covid-19 pandemic and coalition have served to exacerbate this to its most visible extent.
The imbalance of this media attention has been stark, and the consequences severe. Fine Gael’s innumerable Covid-19 failures as the transition Government and its hindering of coalition efforts have been casually and conveniently forgotten. Amongst them, the ad-hoc policy-decisions about lockdowns, the malfunctioning test and trace system, the incoherent travel restrictions, the failure to properly address issues in the hospitality and retail sectors, and the flip-flopping of the 2020 Leaving Cert decision. Even within the constraints of a coalition we see the continuation of journalistic absenteeism when it comes to Fine Gael.
Leo Varadkar’s explosive comments about Nphet (the body of medical experts overseeing the country’s response to Covid-19) where he suggested that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic were exclusively the fault of this organisation were barely explored within the news cycle. Similarly, Varadkar’s public criticism of what he perceived to be Nphet’s stringent measures continued and were presumably instrumental in the decision to ease lockdown restraints leading up to Christmas, despite the organisation’s quoted unenthusiasm and rising case numbers at the time. However, he managed to avoid the blowback that arose in the public arena when the fatal implications of this policy were realised.
Ultimately, the ramifications of the media’s refusal to properly interrogate the actions and policies of Fine Gael is clear. The result is a misrepresentation of Fine Gael’s role in initiating and propagating the core issues currently afflicting Irish society.