A political mouse for a day!

  In the late sixties I was, for a short time, a ‘Pony Boy’ on the construction of the Victoria Line underground tube line. Last Saturday afternoon I was akin to a ‘mouse in a political laboratory’ which had been set up in King House in Boyle.    I hardly know how all this came about. I got a call from a friend, Barry Lowe, that an agency was recruiting an audience for an RTE political programme which was to be recorded in Boyle. I agreed to his passing on my number to the agency. Subsequently I got a call and was asked almost too many questions, on various aspects of human life. Apparently two political activists had got into the panel of a previous programme and had (arguably) skewed the supposed objectivity of its findings.    One of the questions I objected to, was: ‘Who did you vote for in the last election?’  While many of my acquaintances seem to be able to tell me the answer I am rarely sure!  After giving a muddied response to this call I was inducted. We were to be paid a reasonable fee for our leisure. With my own vision of the format being ‘The Questions and Answers’ style, things rested so.    A couple of days later I got a call from the Red Sea which surprised me as I do not know any people in the region but it resolved itself when it transpired to be Red C Recruiting Agency.   The Show’s the thing On a sunny Saturday, I arrived at King House and aligned with a couple of equally bemused Boyle friends. Things began to shift somewhat when it became obvious that it was not just a Boyle audience and our confidence was dented when we saw people with folders and question sheets. Should we have done some homework?    Former Fine Gael supremo, Ivan Yates, and astute political commentator Noel Whelan breezed through the Long Gallery paying no attention to us — shades of things to come. Media Consultant Terry Prone was also a participant. A cameraman took some shots and we did our extras bit by paying no attention as if this was routine stuff. After humble pie we were herded to the end of the corridor.    ‘You will be going up in a short while’ we were assured after nearly an hour’s wait. Then an American gentleman with little personal introduction began a process of ‘organising’, as it turned out, his audience. ‘All those who voted Fianna Fail form into a line’. Nearly half the group fell in line. ‘You all go up’. It then transpired that there were more audience present that the required number and that some would have to be ‘cut’ — but were assured of payment which assuaged the pain of dismissal.    I was more curious about the process and joined the next list whether it was mine or not. I was not going to let a principled stand get in the way of education!    On entrance to the ‘saloon’ as it is called in The King House, where the show was going to be recorded, I was just amazed at the amount of technology involved. This was no humble production.    The American gentleman, who, on later enquiry, was a Mister Frank Luntz, began organising his audience with Fianna Fail devotees on one side and the ‘rainbow coalition’ on the other side of the auditorium. I was surprised that a ‘Presenter’ was so ‘hands-on’ in the detail of arrangements but realised why this was so as events unfolded.   The Dial Meter After a brief warm-up it was down to business with Mr. Luntz cracking the whip like a ring-master. Those with notes and prepared questions were informed that props were out of the equation. It is they who would be answering the questions. Very soon we realised this was no casual show where one could relax and smell the roses. We were going to work.    Questions, political images, audio clips and advertisements were hurled at us like tennis balls and it seemed we were expected to respond like an honours mathematics class. As usual in these situations, a minority were willing to contribute on many of these topics, and the rest of the audience were happy to let them do so. However when a member of the audience was not appropriately responsive the presenter found it hard to accept. By the end of four hours or so in ‘the saloon’ it was a chastened audience that retreated to the evening sunshine.    The purpose of it all was to gain a snapshot of the opinions of a ‘focus group’ of people who were not members of any political party. The problem here was that some of the group did not have much interest in politics anyway and their knowledge was in line with their interest.   Indeed the recruiting agency went to such lengths to ensure that the audience was unaligned that they ended up with an audience that verged on the politically apathetic. It was expected that at least some of the audience would have seen the previous transmissions but few in fact had. This meant a hard day at the office for Mr. Luntz.    The images and messages of the six political parties were presented in their various guises with excerpts from their Ard Fheis speeches. During this process we were introduced to the ‘smart technology dial meter’ which you manipulated as you reacted to the varied political comments or even words.    Another scenario proposed was ‘Which of the six political leaders (Messrs. Ahern, Kenny, Rabbitte, Adams, McDowell, Sargent) would you like to be caught in a lift with for six hours?  The Taoiseach seemed to do well, being readily identifiable. Mr. Kenny introduced the idea of ‘A Contract’ with the electorate which apparently is a part-creation, in the American political arena, of Mr. Luntz himself.   Frank Opinion, A Week in Politics Special Apparently at the two previous shows in Dublin and Clonmel the audience was more vocal, politically aware and incisive. This was in stark contrast to our perceived political indifference. The issues that came across in Boyle to the behind the scenes analysts were: the significance of local factors and candidates and the fact that the rising tide of The Celtic Tiger hadn’t raised all boats, especially in this region. The process lasted over four hours with us and apparently the analysts spent another hour commentating on what they had observed. This will then be edited down to forty minutes for transmission on Sunday night after ten or so. So we look forward with a degree of apprehension to the final cut but then again I could be ‘airbrushed’ out of it and not get my Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame!   Mr. Frank Luntz Oh yes who is Mr. Luntz? To my innocent surprise it took very little time with the internet ‘google’ to find a Mr. Frank Luntz, he being a man of substance and standing in the United States. Born in 1962 he is listed there as a ‘corporate consultant, pollster and political consultant (then) to the Republican Party. Mr. Luntz’s speciality is testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their products or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.’  An example of this softening process is referring to ‘Global Warming’ as ‘Climate Change’. He has worked with former Republican Speaker (Leader) of The U.S. Senate, Newt Gingrich, when he was seen as the primary opponent of President Clinton. Apparently he had a similar ‘focus group’ programme in 2005 for the top BBC current affairs show Newsnight which was said to have a big impact on David Cameron becoming Leader of the Conservative Party in Britain. It is very unlikely that our contribution will have such a dramatic impact!    So here we were, a humble audience in the presence of a real political scientist of international stature. I am afraid a good deal of his efforts, with us, got lost in translation and Mr. Luntz’s frustration was visible. He may not have appreciated the nuance that the BMW region is a different country to Dublin.   Personally, I took it all with a degree of stoic amusement but the clever contributions that I have thought of since rankle. As I said many times in a different environment: ‘Could have done better’. So if you ever get a call from the Red C find out more about what’s in the tin.    Otherwise you might unwittingly end up as the subject of an experiment and be a mouse for a day.