Post-Politcal? The Power of the Opinion Line

If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying history at university, it’s that simple fact of academic scholarship that everyone has an opinion for certain reasons, regardless of if the historian, the writer, the journalist, chooses to let us in on those reasons. Who writes the opinions, how are they formed, why are they saying them, why are they saying them now? One of the most significant rules I’ve taught myself to abide by, as historian and journalist, is to look at who’s writing the opinion first, before processing the opinion – study the historian before you study the history; if you know the journalist, you know the opinion.

The great opinion-makers of journalism today exist as such because we know them, and by virtue of that we trust their opinion. Those qualities of trust are essential to the mutually-independent relationship existing between journalists and the public. By enlarge, these famous profits of the Op-Ed have earned the platform professionally and as such are regarded as elite, experts, public intellectuals, trustworthy talking-heads. People like Miriam Lord, Roisin Ingle, Fintan O’Toole, Una Mullally – those who generate, determine, and influence political opinion. From their laureate platform of the Irish Times or any other large-scale medium, their opinions enter into the public domain of a given discourse as something that professionals must contend with, such is their power of sway – politicians, policy makers, bankers, presidents, CEOs; none are free from the sharp edge of the journalist’s pen, and none live who do not fear it.

There we have the elite political platform as it stands in the public domain – the Op Eds share their powers of attrition with the professionals, and the public, the you’s and me’s of the world, then listen, see, protest, interact, observe. We, the public, can interact all we like via social media within a given discourse, but does the average protestor ever receive the same level of respect as the Op Ed? Do you think that Leo Varadker would pay heed to an artfully chimed rant lest it come from the savage pen of the glorified Op Ed? Dream on. That’s public politics and public journalism intertwined – it’s elite, often inaccessible, and represents a considerable chunk of national discourse which accounts for ‘public opinion’.

What happens when we don’t know the person making the opinion? Do we still listen? What happens when the layperson accesses that elite public domain of opinion? The professionals, the elites, are finally forced to listen. The power of opinion line radio, such as Joe Duffy’s Liveline on RTE Radio 1, 96FM’s Opinion Line, Red FM’s Neil Prendeville show, is that it occupies the same space within that domain of political discourse and yet occupies a common sphere between the elite opinion-makers and the ‘general public’.

Opinion Line radio is bolstered by public response through social media, although it offers a platform that social media cannot provide for by itself. From the outset, the opinion line may seem like nothing more than angry taxi-drivers shouting about the youths who knocked over their wheelie-bin three times in the last month, angry students complaining about the irregularity of their bus route, or angry mothers with noise complaints against College Road students. However, it’s value to political discourse, and more importantly, its value as a point of access to political discourse, is that it pushes the voice of the layperson into the elite sphere and forces those elites to acknowledge their voice. In the same way, it thrusts the thoughts of ordinary people into a mainstream media sphere in a way that the newspapers and magazines can’t – not everyone can write, but anyone can shout. However, unlike social media, the voice of the Opinion Line is made public in the most accessible sense, and thus is legitimized.

Such is the power of the Opinion Line – it represents the formal creation of a hegemonic “post-political” platform by creating an alternative public sphere for discourse.

For example, once this year’s budget was announced, Minister for Finance Pascal Donohue’s first port of call was the Pat O’Rourke Show on RTE Radio 1. There, the Minister took questions and points from the public about how the Budget affected them – concerns that, without the legitimization of the opinion line, would arguably have gone unheard. Adding to that process is the legitimacy of the platform itself – the national broadcaster taking active participation in voicing the nation, whilst the Ministers the nation are put under interrogation by the public. One notable response to the Budget as pointed to Minister Donohue came from business owners of the service, leisure and tourism industries who explained to Minister Donohue how VAT increases would directly affect their livelihoods.

Arguably, Joe Duffy’s Liveline is the most prolific of its kind in an Irish context, and as a figure in Irish media, he is a fearless iconoclast. Duffy has his roots in politics – he was elected President of Trinity College Students’ Union in 1979, becoming President of the Union of Students in Ireland four years later. In many ways he has come to represent the power of the voice of ordinary people. He’s probably best known for his booming tone of voice that would shout the smallest of whispers and has often been aligned to the ‘moan and groan culture’ of the Recession years. He acts as both ringmaster and confessor to the nation and has brought his listeners through some of their most turbulent years – watching the country land itself in an economic ditch after a few wobbly years of luxury and self-indulgence. Rather than having a chat with their parish priest, solicitor, or mother, callers prefer to “talk to Joe”. Often, Duffy may milk the dramatic effect of the missives that appear on his show, but as ever, he is intricately attuned to the popular mood and always endeavours to make a serious point of what may seem to be the most ludicrous of situations, and still knows how to push all the awkward questions. Ludicrous though they may seem, they matter, if only for the fact that they exist in the public sphere.

Whilst the content of the opinion-line may not always be radical or deviant, the opportunities to vocalize the thoughts of well, anyone, rather is, and by extension, it can be implemented as a strong socialist tool. On the other hand, radio in some capacity has always been radical – the infamous pirate radio show Radio Luxembourg operated from 1933 to 1992 and was the forerunner in pirate radio in the UK and Ireland during those years. It captured huge audiences and both defined and echoed generations of counter-culture throughout the 1960s and 70s – new-age thinkers defying laws of censorship, and mainstream norms in media content, music, news, and opinion. It effectively challenged the monopoly that BBC radio had on things like advertising and represented that same post-political sphere that today’s opinion-lines still occupy, in some capacity at least. Joe Duffy mightn’t resemble much of the content that Radio Luxembourg once did, but the common ethos is one that celebrates radical voices in the public sphere. Opinions are always political in some capacity, but the airwaves of the opinion-line thrusts them into the post-political.