The case of Ben and the cranky Minister

There’s a balance to be struck, when interviewing politicians. On the one hand, there’s a basic duty to be courteous, and polite – a duty which extends to any person being interviewed, or asked a question. On the other hand, there’s a duty to the viewer and the audience – a journalist who allows the subject of their interview to bluster on without directly answering a question is serving the interests of the politician, not the audience.

My colleague Ben Scallan made every effort, yesterday, to strike a balance on that front when questioning the Minister for Public Expenditure, Paschal Donohoe. Alas, the Minister was not particularly keen on being asked follow-up questions:

What’s interesting in that clip isn’t the Minister’s testiness on a subject where the Government’s record is, to put it mildly, unimpressive. What’s far more interesting is his appeal to what he considers to be the established standards of journalistic practice in Ireland: “Nobody else interrupted me”.

Indeed not.

The question Ben asked is an important one. Every penny which the Government spends is raised, ultimately, from the pockets of the Irish citizens. It must be paid for in income taxes, and VAT, and carbon taxes, and all the rest. We hand that money over to politicians, and they spend it, or sanction the spending of it, in order to provide us with public services. At the most basic level, they are to be judged at election time on how good a job they have done managing the people’s money.

When it comes to healthcare, Minister Donohoe has sanctioned spending at a level unprecedented in the history of the state. Spending increases on health have vastly outstripped the rise in anyone’s income, or the growth of the economy. We now spend 23 billion – 23 thousand million euros – on health every single year. Since Fine Gael entered office, that figure represents an increase of more then ten billion – ten thousand million – every single year. We are spending 27 million euro more, every single day, on health, than we were when Fine Gael took office. It is an eye-watering sum of money.

Asking the Minister whether we got value for money is an important question. But it is also, self-evidently, a rhetorical question: When you go to an accident and emergency, does it really feel like the health service is 27 million euro per day better?

The Minister is entitled to respond. And respond he did: He cited, and was allowed to cite, the increase in health service staff to 17,000. That explains where the money went, but it does not necessarily answer the question as to whether the health service has actually improved. More people does not equate to better service.

At this point, Ben quite properly sought to make that very point: The metrics the Minister uses to measure value for money might not be the metrics used by the public. The Minister, for his part, decided to speak over Ben, shut him down, and accuse him, implicitly, of rudeness.

Apparently, or at least in the Minister’s perception of how things are done, follow up questions in response to self-serving waffle are not permitted, or at least are not commonly asked. That may well be the standard he can expect from other outlets, but it is not one to which he can expect Ben, or any other employee of Gript, to adhere. There was nothing wrong with our question, and there was much, by contrast, wrong with the Minister’s demeanour.

But such incidents are instructive nevertheless. Viewers can judge for themselves the Minister’s answer. And perhaps, if one thing might be accomplished, viewers might reassess the claims by Irish politicians that spending more money is, in and of itself, evidence that they have done their job.

Vast sums are contributed annually by taxpayers to fund the Irish health service. Those sums have been managed, and allocated, by one Paschal Donohoe. The health service remains in a state of perma-crisis nevertheless.

Has he achieved value for money? This is the question on which his record at the helm of the state finances must be judged.

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