BY MARK MULQUEEN
We want to build the profile of our University and when you have a campus like UL’s it makes a lot of sense to build it around such a unique attribute.
Securing the first RTÉ General Election TV Debate to be held outside of Dublin sits naturally into such ambition. Creating a high impact profile takes a degree of boldness and some real scale and a General Election TV Debate offered a fair degree of both.
“ ...one only needs to cast a glance across the Atlantic to see what extreme partisanship can do to national political discourse."
Whatever people say about politicians, what they do actually matters. Politics, good and bad, has real consequences. Unlike a lot of things we watch on TV, political discussions actually matter. Yes, there is the feel-good, tribal loyalty that comes with light entertainment and most especially sport, but the actual importance of both are very limited in comparison to politics. So, a General Election TV Debate may infuriate at times (and give rise to much unrepeatable commentary on social media!) but it does actually matter. That is why UL was delighted to host the GE 16 TV Debate.
One phone call last September sealed the deal. In hindsight, there was urgency in our decision that proved unnecessary - we all thought we were, most likely, looking at an early November election, so the event planning began with haste. When the election subsequently moved to 2016 there was some relief but that initial planning stood to us. The Taoiseach’s prerogative to call the election – a potential trump card to be played as the Taoiseach of the day chooses – meant that only 10 days would be given between notice of the exact date and the event itself.
The get-in of RTÉ crew and trucks, the logistics of turning our University Concert Hall into a TV studio, the high security required by the Gardaí, the accompanying national media pack and last but not least, the unavoidable disruption of academic life, made for a busy 10 days. And that was before an audience was assembled!
RTÉ had chosen a polling company to select the audience so as to guarantee impartiality and fairness. This certainly represented good risk management and though personally I might have preferred a much more passionate and raucous audience, one only needs to cast a glance across the Atlantic to see what extreme partisanship can do to national political discourse.
UL students of journalism had already been selected by RTÉ to enter into a unique collaboration in providing coverage from the many election count centres nationwide, and so UL’s Journalism School was primed to become hands-on with the TV Debate production when it descended upon our campus.
RTÉ were great to work with. They were fair and generous in the coverage given to the Mid-West and the University in both the lead-up coverage and the Debate Show itself. The role of a ‘national broadcaster’ was self-evident over these few days and, indeed, subsequently in their coverage of the election result a fortnight later.
Today, from this post-election vantage point, we can look back at what was an election campaign that was quite short and relatively lacking in standout moments. This, and the fact that debates are a media construct in the first place, meant the media probably ascribed greater importance to the debates in this election than in previous elections. This was not the case in 2011, when an economic crisis provided plenty of drama and very real consequences. So I wouldn’t assume that another General Election will permit TV Debates to be quite the centre of attention they were in February, 2016. No doubt GE 2016 will be remembered by many people for other things but for UL we will recall a bold opportunity that we grasped with both hands.