Media cycles and the teacher conference merry-go-round

Thursday 17 April 2014 13.59

teacher-conference

By Education Correspondent Emma O Kelly

On Monday evening the teachers’ conferences begin and RTÉ News will be there, along with the rest of the country’s media, to report on the issues, the rows, and of course the minister’s address. How will he be received? Will teachers walk out? Will they applaud or will it be the silent treatment? Boy do the cameras love this. They lap it up.

Nothing illustrates the news cycle so well as the teachers’ conferences. By Tuesday, and on into Wednesday, the airwaves will be jammed with the voices of teacher trade union leaders, the minister, teachers themselves; explaining, warning, giving out. The newspapers will fill pages and pages, pictures and articles, poring over Junior Cycle reform, pay scales, small schools, FEMPI, teacher morale, and on and on.

During a week that is otherwise traditionally quiet on the news front, education will take centre stage. This is good. Many important education topics will be debated and scrutinised. The media will gorge on it.

And by Wednesday or thereabouts the public will have had its fill. The backlash will begin. Letters in the newspapers, texts and tweets to radio programmes, ‘Would those teachers ever stop whingeing/ranting/whining/revolting?’

Last year one letter writer to the Irish Times posed a question; “Is it necessary to have three separate conferences on the same theme?”, he asked.

But we’re missing the point. These are trade union conferences. Trade union conferences. And this is what trade union conferences are all about; trade union members debating and deciding the policies that will govern their union into the future. So of course members whinge, of course they argue, and of course sometimes they revolt.

It just so happens that we, the media, are piggy-backing on this; recording what we please and beaming it into the country’s living rooms every night. (And for journalists nothing beats a good revolt.)

Does the media’s presence influence what goes on in the conference halls? Of course it does. But only to an extent.

We show the walk outs, the heckles, whatever other protest may greet the minister’s speech. We broadcast the rousing response delivered by the union’s president. We broadcast the inevitable standing ovations.

What the public doesn’t see is the post hoo-haa lunch, when the minister and trade union leaders sit down together in perfect amicability.

Of course we also broadcast on the issues concerning teachers, the impact of austerity, the challenges they face in the classroom, their concerns around proposed reforms.

But by Thursday, when I phone my news editors with what I reckon is an interesting angle on some rather more obscure aspect of education policy, I’ll be treated, gently, as if I’m slightly insane. It’s over, Emma. Step Away. Now.

The satellite vans will have packed up and moved on. On to the annual conferences of the doctors, or the civil servants. And there the media cycle will begin all over again.

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