Posted by: inshin | June 29, 2010

Johnny Fallon

Jonathan’s particular areas of expertise include government affairs, advocacy and public relations. He provides policy and strategic advice to a variety of clients on public affairs issues, and is responsible for relationships with Government Departments, the Oireachtas, media and the public sector generally.

Jonathan has significant practical experience within politics and the private sector. He has been involved in a number of projects including the preparation of advocacy documents, public affairs campaigns, issue tracking and research reports.

Jonathan has extensive experience of both radio and television interviews and has participated and advised on many of these in the past. He studied Business Management at Dundalk IT and is a member of the Irish Academy of Public Relations and the Public Relations Institute of Ireland. He is the author of a book entitled “Party Time” that looks at life in politics at local level for the ordinary person and details the impact of local knowledge and influence on the political process.

He is also Director of Government Affairs at EPS Consulting.

——–  Your Interview  ——–

The Person

When or at what age did you first realise you had an interest in the world of Politics?

I always had an interest really.  My family was very involved in politics and my father was close to Albert Reynolds, that had a huge impact on me. I was always aware of it happening around me, of posters in the house and meetings and comings and goings.  I can’t remember a time I wasn’t fascinated by it all to be honest.  But I was elected youth officer of my local cumann when I was 10 and I suppose that was when things really took off and I started to canvass and take an active part in everything.  From there on politics became the central thing in life for me, what defined me I suppose.  It certainly set me apart from other kids at school, whether that was a good or bad thing is another matter!

Is there any history of politics in your family?

Not as in famous family members or anything like that but certainly but my mothers and fathers families were very politically active.  My Mothers family were real Dev people, somewhat revolutionaries and were involved in 1916 and all that.  Strongly republican.  My fathers side were more understated at least until my father arrived and brought the following of Fianna Fail to a fanatical level.  He is a man not easily swayed and has amazing courage and conviction, that’s not easy to maintain.  No one ever ran for public office, but there was huge grassroots involvement that pretty much dictated every aspect of family life.

What sort of periodicals or newspapers do you like to read when not focusing on Politics?

When NOT focusing on politics, which is rarely, it would generally be something to do with history.  Im particularly fond of Ancient history.  Other than that only other publications I would read would be in the arena of Sport which is another all consuming passion.  I just devour sports pages and football in particular.

How would you feel if someone told you that you need never work in the political arena again for the rest of your life and all your material needs would be covered?

That’s a very interesting question.  Im not quite sure how I would react really.  Once upon a time I would have said absolutely no way could I survive, but a lot has changed.  I have family and two young kids so they are always my priority now.  Over the years Ive seen a lot of damage done to families through politics, it’s a tough life.  Ive also taken my fair share of kicks personally.  Politics is a fight every single day, every inch.  Its always about defending your view, arguing and that’s tiring.  I could do without a lot of that.  I would like more certainty on my material needs so I guess on balance I would go for it, but no doubt I would miss politics greatly and you could never stop me talking about it.

The Work

When or how do you get your ideas for commentating on general political trends?

Im a great believer in following your gut.  Im deeply set in convictions I hold, I know myself that I always strive to see the positive in people and in policies.  I evaluate what I see in terms of whether I can honestly say this is a good or bad thing.  You have to be honest with yourself.  If you want to assess trends then understanding how ordinary people think, how something sounds to you is key to predicting an outcome.  Its also important to understand how a politician thinks and what goes through their mind.  I think the only way to do that is having experienced politics and the daily grind of it first hand.

Do you have a set routine that you follow on a daily basis, or do you have a different approach?

Work generally dictates the routine and what a client wants and how urgent it is.  But most days definitely start with tea and a scan of papers and social media.  Working on lobbying projects involves huge amounts of reading and research.  When I’m writing I usually do that late at night, when I can get totally alone.

How do you manage the balance between business in the political world, which is probably a 24hr worldwide activity, and personal worlds?

That’s difficult to be honest.  Advising clients on political positions or information depends on always being up to speed, so TV programmes, events and news often occur well outside of normal working hours, that goes with the territory, you are never really off and my wife and kids hate the blackberry or iphone and it gets banned over Christmas!  You try shut it out when you can but its not easy, im still working on it.

How do you approach your own political commentary work when it comes to reviewing it?

Its important to me that I comment out of a genuine belief.  I don’t try to say something just because it will be popular.  If im suggesting a course of action then I always ask myself if I would have the courage to follow that course if the decision were mine.  I think commentating is easy, its actually taking a decision and living with the consequences that’s hard and I try to remember that in everything I write.  Most importantly I strive to treat every individual I comment on with respect and avoid jeering or petty jibes, after all politicians, in particular, are democratically elected and when makes fun of one, it may seem an easy target but you are actually making fun of a lot of people who vote for and trust that individual.  It is most important to me to keep in mind that I have my views, I might think Im right but it is my opinion nothing more than that.  In politics there are many different opinions and no one can say any one of them is definitively correct. I try as much as possible to avoid being dismissive of anyone unless it really cant be helped.

The Audience

Who do you write for?

Anyone who will listen! Between blogs, books, radio work and the odd newspaper article its always nice to get your work out there.  I have no doubt but that im viewed as a voice of the establishment, sympathetic to FF but quite comfortable with FG or Labour.  Im definitely not a voice for revolution or more extreme political positions.  But I’ll be honest I think there are few enough out there who can provide a so called establishment voice and I have no problem with that.  Those attacking governments and political systems and the main parties are ten a penny.

Do you try to connect with your audience and if so how?

I don’t tend to think about connecting but I do try to keep the message simple where I can.  People are busy these days.  The only thing I hope to really do is give an opinion based on my experience and its there to take or leave. I would like to believe the audience always gets that impression.

Is it important to you how people react to your writing?

Yes, there is no point saying otherwise.  Its nice to be liked.  But I wont say something just because it will get me liked and I think people respect that.  I offer opinion and I take others at face value, I assume debates to be about right and wrong and about policy.  I don’t go in for all the innuendo and secret society stuff.  I do get touchy when people accuse me of lies, corruption, or of being out of touch. Those are personal things that affect your good name. I don’t stand for that.  Everyone is entitled to make a point based on their experience and you cant comment on stuff like that unless you really know a person.  I suppose a bad reaction to a book or something like that is acceptable once someone has taken time to read it and try to understand what you were saying even if they disagreed.  What can be very tough is when you put a lot of work and effort into a book and someone dismisses it without ever even reading it.

Have you received negative criticism and if so how have you managed that?

It has been relatively rare. But there were some occasions and smart comments. It may irk me for a while but I put it to the back of my mind.  I hold the grudge though ,  Revenge is a dish best served cold haha.  Usually I find that opportunities always arise to mend bridges and change opinions.  We all have to be willing to do that and meet half way.

The Business

Most people, particularly in Ireland, believe that they have qualifications to speak on political matters, does that make entering the “professional” arena more difficult?

Yes and No.  , because you don’t need a qualification to talk on politics you just need an open mind and a healthy set of opinions.  Some of the most brilliant minds I have encountered in politics have been farmers, lorry drivers or factory workers.  Years of involvement in political parties has given them amazing insight. I firmly believe you cannot truly understand politics unless you have been on doorsteps and been a ‘believer’ of someone or something.  Unfortunately even the parties themselves show no appreciation for this knowledge base in the modern age.

On the other hand it does make it difficult in that I do believe that there is a certain ‘circle’ element when it comes to political commentary. Its same old faces particularly in analysis and comment.  That being said though there are editors and people like George Hook, David Davin Power and Frank Coughlan at the Independent that have made great efforts to seek out new voices but gaining a foothold for anyone outside of regular newspaper columnist is a very difficult business.

Do you think there are support mechanisms or barriers to people entering the political commentary arena?

Definitely no support mechanism and the barrier remains as I say an unwillingness to go for new voices and in particular a voice that has been attached to any party.  That’s a shame really as I would rather listen to George Hook or Ivan Yeats coming from an FG perspective openly and honestly than many others who say they have no background at all.  I think it’s the one thing lacking in commentary today, people just being honest and backing something or some one, even if it changes over time or on a specific issue.

What is your opinion of the impact of the internet on politics, journalism & independent political commentators?

I think it is and will be enormous.  No Party in Ireland has really grasped it yet.  But I believe within the next 20 years the vast majority of voters will make up their minds based on Internet relationships and engagement through this medium.  Its so instant.  News is old and opinion formed before it even hits TV never mind print media.  It pushes views not normally heard.  So far its been more of a subversive tool but its greatly affecting how people with an interest in politics view their own parties, their leaders, their local TDs. In time these networks will be all important.  Many years ago people in Ireland formed opinions on a community basis, people in a parish or small town were particularly influenced by key people of standing.  The online communities are just an evolution of that principle.  They will force more honest comment however and there is a sense that they cant be controlled.  To be effective there can be no intermediary, they have to be personal not manned by a staffer or run past a press office.  So its returning politics to its roots when politicians didn’t always have advice before answering a question, therefore they need to be better informed.  The difference this time is that what they say is on record and cant be denied at a later stage.

We’re half way through 2010, and a difficult period in business & political life, do you feel that there are signs of things improving and what can we do to encourage more confidence ?

That’s become something of a loaded question. I think when that famous phrase ‘turning a corner’ is used it provokes a lot of comment and anger.  In reality we are certainly in a better position than we were at the start of 2009.  That however does not mean everything is rosy in the garden.  If you think of an Olympic running track, when you start to turn the corner you are still heading downwards to bottom of track but at least you know that the change in direction is coming into sight.  That’s where we are at in my opinion.  We are close to the bottom and most economists agree that the second half of 2010 should see signs of growth again.

To the man on the street that doesn’t mean much though and experience in the early ‘90s shows that it will require a massive increase in growth before jobless figures are improved.  All economics however has one central problem.  Every equation, no matter how scientific it sounds depends on one central factor, public confidence and the willingness to spend money.  This is the catalyst and there is nobody who can tell you how this can be done.  Essentially the ‘public confidence’ part of the equation is the job of politicians and leaders.  The problem though is that in trying to build such confidence a leader will always be accused of ‘talking up’ an economy.  But if that wasn’t the case running a country would be easy!  We are still awaiting a politician to show genuine belief and conviction, belief in self that can allow others follow. Lenihan came closest but the stage is still open….

——–  End  ——–

Thanks to Johhny for agreeing to take this interview. You can follow Johnny onTwitter. Remember to visit his blog site and see his books on Amazon. Other articles of interest are: Irish Independent April ’07, Irish Independent May ’07, Irish Independent April ’08, Irish Independent February ’09

Excluding introduction, ©Denis Vaughan.

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