The Hot Press interview: Mark Little

For a former mod who once failed to get a prince review published in Hot Press, Mark Little has done pretty well for himself. Paul Nolan quizzes the author and broadcaster about Iraq, Washington, the West Wing, Ireland’s place in the world, politics, the media, Michael O’Leary, Bono and, of course, the smoking ban.

These days, it can be hard to get a grasp on the big black truth of international current affairs.

In an era when media tycoons seemed to be engaged in a death-match to see who can drive the lowest common denominator to subterranean levels, journalists with the freedom to express their viewpoints independent of political or aesthetic agendas are in increasingly short supply.

The tricky questions of media ownership and the truthfulness of political reportage are among the issues addressed by Prime Time presenter Mark Little in his second book, Zulu Time: When Ireland Went To War. A dramatic improvement on his 2002 debut, Turn Left At Greenland (“That was a little too, ‘Gee-whiz, I’m in the good ‘ol USA’ for my liking,” admits Little today).

Zulu Time offers a fascinating analysis of Ireland’s increasingly complex political and cultural ties with America, and also places our relationship with the US in the context of that country’s role as the sole remaining global superpower. Indeed, the phrase “Zulu Time” is an American military term used during war-time, when the US armed forces around the globe adjust their clocks and watches to make sure all units are in exact synchronicity.

In person, Little retains, well, little of his besuited and ultra-serious onscreen persona. Relaxed and humourous, and dressed in smart-shabby clothes, he has the demeanour of a well-raised, well-read and softly spoken student. As you would expect of a Trinity educated, foreign affairs-fixated, ex-Washington correspondent, the anecdotes flow thick and fast, all undershot with a keen eye for detail and a razor-sharp intelligence.

PAUL NOLAN: Given the day that’s in it [March 29], what are your views on Micheal Martin’s smoking ban?

MARK LITTLE: Well, it’s funny, it’s one of the things we were discussing this morning at the Prime Time meeting. For me, the most fascinating question is: how bad have we become as a nation that we need the government to step in and protect us from our own behaviour? You know, as someone who’s a partially reformed smoker, I can see how it’s a good idea. Like, you get up some mornings after a party and the smell of smoke around the house is just revolting! But what’s interesting to me is that we’ve got the highest mortality rates when it comes to illnesses like heart disease, and just last weekend, six young guys, all aged 18-30, died in car accidents. I mean, drink-driving is an epidemic at this stage.

The problem is that there’s no one asking us to take responsibility for our own personal behaviour. And in the absence of that kind of individual initiative, the state feels compelled to step in and crack down on drink-driving, and introduce a blanket smoking ban. Micheal Martin has become the bogeyman, but few people seem willing to acknowledge that we smoke industrial quantities of cigarettes. I suppose at a certain point, you either have a change in Irish attitudes, and really address things like binge-drinking and smoking, or you have a change in the law. And at the moment, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’re capable of making that change.

As an ex-Washington correspondent for RTE, do you think The West Wing is an accurate depiction of Capitol Hill politics?

I think it is, except people don’t rush around like that! I read an interview recently with Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the show, and he was saying that because of the pacing demands of modern TV, they’ve had to shorten the dialogue and make the scenes a bit snappier. So, for me, the only problem in terms of the show’s authenticity is the pace. I mean, I have been in the White House on quite a few occasions, and it’s an incredibly funereal environment, almost like a museum. Anybody walking fast in the West Wing would be considered suspicious, because generally speaking there’s a great sense of solemnity, and a huge amount of respect for the place as a political institution.

Now, it’s different when you meet those people down in the bar at half-eight later that night, that’s when they become the characters that you see in The West Wing. But certainly during the day, there isn’t that frantic, fast-moving rhythm to the place that you see on TV. But I think The West Wing is a good show.

It’s interesting when you compare the tone of the programme – where the cinematography suffuses the characters in a golden, beatific light, and everybody is striving to do the right thing – with something like Yes, Minister, which is a far more cynical take on the machinations of high-level politics.

Yeah, I tend to describe The West Wing as soft porn for political junkies. It’s even kind of lit like that, everybody’s got a halo, and there’s usually this rising crescendo of music on the soundtrack as they come to the verbal orgasm. I suppose I myself would have a more sceptical take on the political milieu in Washington. But at the same time, I’d have my real cynicism reserved for the people who pontificate and lecture. I have found that there is genuine idealism in politics, and I would even describe myself as an admirer of politicians, and I know not a lot of people are.

I remember a particularly illuminating encounter one night at my favourite bar in Washington, the Capitol Lounge. The reason it was really fascinating was that all the young politicos would come in there on a Friday night, and you could get into the most extraordinary conversations. On one of my last visits there, ‘Alternative Ulster’ by Stiff Little Fingers was playing on the jukebox, and that kind of prompted this discussion on the Northern situation between me and this other fellow I’d met, a 21-year old adviser to a congressman. And he had the most reasoned, informed, considered and well-thought out lines of argument on the subject that you’re ever likely to come across.

This is a guy who was straight out of university, he had no Irish-American background, but the fact is that in Washington – and to a lesser extent, in Dublin – you do meet people who live, eat and breathe politics out of a great sense of idealism. And then there are a few people who conform to your worst fears about lazy politicians on the make. But I did relish that diversity when I was in the States.

The middle section of Zulu Time details your experiences in Iraq whilst covering the war for RTE. The obvious question is: why would you take off for a war-torn region and potentially put your life at risk?

Because it’s an absolute privilege, and I know that’s a ridiculously naïve and silly thing to say, but there you go. I’m a bit of a political junkie, and career-wise, foreign affairs has always been my great passion, ever since I first picked up The Irish Times and started taking an interest in the news. So to be able to do a job like that, it’s like being a football fan and getting the chance to play for Man Utd. To get the opportunity to go to the story of the year – if not the decade – and in effect have a ringside seat, I actually felt incredibly fortunate, as absurd as it sounds.

And the second thing was that it just represented so much. If you really think about the war in Iraq, it touched everybody’s life in some way, from the price of the petrol you put in your car, to whether it’s safe to go on your backpacking journey to wherever. These issues tend to affect society in a really fundamental way, and that’s why it’s intriguing to me.

In the book, you use the Iraqi war as a kind of prism through which to view the complexities of Ireland’s relationship with the US, and more broadly, explore the current tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. Had these thematic concerns been growing in your mind for quite a while?

Absolutely. I mean, as an example of our ambiguity toward the US, when I was I kid, I could tell you that I hated Ronald Reagan, and yet I could also list the entire roster of Academy Award winners from that year. So there was this combination of loathing and adoration that defined my relationship with the United States. Now, I got a bit closer to the country during my time living there, got to understand it a bit more, and became far more pro-American, and when I say that, I mean pro-American for its people and its culture.

But I came home and realised that there was this stereotypical view of America that had taken hold here, and it had infiltrated other parts of the world too. Everything was reduced to a simplistic black and white debate. And what I realised was that the war in Iraq was a great way of holding a mirror up to Ireland, and asking what this war says about Ireland. Like, what is our relationship to the world? Is there anything in Ireland that makes a genuine contribution to world affairs anymore? I mean, you look at Grafton Street these days, and it’s all British shops!

I don’t have any hard and fast answers to these issues, but I thought that in the writing of the book it was at least worthwhile to raise the questions.

Do you think that the Bush administration shot themselves in the foot by focusing so strongly on WMD and Saddam Hussein’s non-existent links with Osama bin Laden?

Yeah, I think the real tragedy of all that stuff was that they kind of never let us make a choice. If the debate had have been all about Saddam’s war crimes, about the fact that there was definitely some level of co-operation between the Iraqi government and tin-pot regimes around the world, then maybe that would have allowed people to make a more informed choice. But what seemed to happen was that the Americans and the British had an obsession with forcing us to make a decision about WMD, and about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda which weren’t really there.

I think what it boils down to is that in the top echelons of power in Washington, and to a lesser extent in London, there’s almost a kind of suspicion of the people. There’s this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that, “they’re stupid, so we can only feed them arguments that a moron would understand.” And it’s not even that every member of both administrations feels that way, but somehow the level of debate ends up getting reduced to caricature.

And then what happens is that the opponents of the war come along, and they make a caricature of the political leaders’ intent, and suddenly what ordinary people are left with is a debate that’s black and white, simplistic, insulting to their intelligence, and the net result is that they’re turned off by politics.

Having spent some time in Iraq, what I realised is that far from being a black and white situation, there were all these shades of grey. I mean, I’d meet these people in Northern Iraq who were 100% behind what Bush was trying to do, but they were never really acknowledged for who they were and the views that they held. At the same time, I could see how wrong the Americans were wrong in their emphasis on WMD, because the evidence just wasn’t there. So, it was a multi-faceted situation.

As you point out yourself in the book, someone like bin Laden, with all his riches, can scarcely claim to be the true voice of the Islamic world’s dispossessed. Does Al-Qaeda’s motivation really just boil down to the fact they object to the assistance America provides to countries like Israel and Saudia Arabia?

That’s certainly a factor, but I think the underlying causes for the growth of these terrorist organisations go deeper than that. There’s been a massive baby boom in a lot of these countries over the past twenty or thirty years, there’s an entire generation of people – mainly male, because they’re the ones getting the education – coming out of university at 20 or 25, and realising that there are no jobs for them there. Now, they have access to the internet, music, movies, western culture in general.

So they’re being exposed to this fantastic image of the States, and yet on the other hand they’re realising that even though they’re the middle-class, they’re not going to get the opportunity to ever live that dream, and they become deeply alienated from the whole system. They live under oppressive regimes, like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or any of the other Arab League nations which are not true democracies yet, and they just feel like secular solutions don’t work, our own government has sold us out, and the west won’t do anything to rectify the situation. So they look at other ways of interpreting their reality, and they end up being drawn to these Islamic extremists.

With regard to news broadcasting, you make the very interesting point in Zulu Time that in your own experience, editors at 24-hour rolling news channels are interested in exposing the truth and taking a more in-depth view of important issues, but the demands of the format are such that they constantly feel compelled to go with the latest rumour or half-truth for fear of losing ground to competitors.

Well, I do think that this tendency to go with the latest piece of idle speculation is really damaging news. But I have to say that I wouldn’t give up on the format. I think what’s it’s given us is a real feeling of immediacy, and the chance to connect in a very direct way with what’s going on in the world. But in war-time that can have real dangers, and part of it is that we just become obsessed with isolated incidents, and not the overall context. However, I also think that there are people who are trying to strike a balance between the two, and I would hope that even in RTE there are producers like that.

By getting reporters in there on the ground, it enables you to do a piece very quickly, and turn it around for broadcast in a relatively short space of time. But you also get the opportunity to go off, do some research and present a little bit more in-depth information on what’s happening. So I definitely think there’s a happy medium that can be found between the two approaches, and I feel that ridding ourselves of 24-hour live news, imperfect though the form may be, would be throwing the baby out with the bath water to a certain extent.

What do you think of Clear Channel attempting to rid the airwaves of people like Howard Stern? Some commentators feel that the organisation really has a case to answer when it comes to curbing freedom of speech.

I was reading a fascinating article about this recently. You know what’s really horrible? The way in which corporate America, now more than ever, is seeking to co-opt the counter-culture. I remember in my last book, I wrote about this multi-outlet hardware store called Home Depot. Their slogan was, “Think revolution, not evolution”. And they’re fucking selling hammers!

And the corollary of this is that you get a mega network like Clear Channel buying up live music venues across America, and you end up with a band like (points at my t-shirt) Nine Inch Nails being booked into an arena that’s owned by a politically conservative corporate giant. And the problem is that it’s a very subtle process, and people often don’t even realise that it’s happening under their noses. So everyone from Napster to I-Pod to Clear Channel are colonising even the most aggressively radical and rebellious parts of our culture, and most of the time we’re not even aware of it.

It also results in some pretty astonishing culture clashes. I remember Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, remarking that the ultimate irony of the novel was that capitalism was literally prepared to eat its own shit if there was a buck in it. The book was one of the most vicious critiques of consumerism in recent years, and yet Rupert Murdoch’s Fox made it into a $65 million movie, and Brad Pitt was on the poster!

Well that’s the problem with consumer society. It will always generate a need, and if you take something like reality television, it’s being sold on the basis that people are just this close to becoming a superstar. Really, it’s an addictive concept. And I think that as young people, we’re used to being hyper-vigilant about insincerity and hypocrisy. In Ireland particularly, we’re always able to take the great and the good down a peg or two. But very often, we’re sleepwalking when it comes to identifying more subtle methods of control.

And when you have companies equating rebellion with consumption, and trying to convince you that the most radical thing in the world is to buy Nike or Adidas, then it’s fucking open season, anything can happen; Fight Club becoming a Hollywood movie like you talk about, or rock bands having tours sponsored by car companies. I mean, on paper they seem like fairly absurd concepts, but these are things which have actually come to pass!

With regard to domestic media, you seem to be fairly sceptical about the section of the press that David McWilliams recently described in Hot Press as “the commentariat”. Do people like George Hook and Eamon Dunphy fall into that category of journalists whom you feel disingenuously adopt the language of protest, given that they themselves are card-carrying members of the establishment they’re supposedly railing against?

The last part of what you say is that thing that gets me a little bit. I work for RTE, and up there with the GAA and the Church, it’s about the most maligned public institution in Ireland, and there are good reasons for that. We’ve got the crap the kicked out of us over the years, and I’m fine with that, because at the end of the day, I’m paid by the taxpayer, so the taxpayer has a right to know how much I’m earning per annum. And I’m in the public eye to an extent, and I’m not a shrinking violet by any means, so you take the criticism when it comes.

What gets me – Jesus, I sound like a curmudgeon here – is when you have people presenting themselves as being anti-establishment, when they are in fact as much a part of the establishment as the people they’re giving out about. And it’s not even so much someone like Dunphy, ‘cos I’m actually a great admirer of his, from the point of view that if he didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him. He speaks his mind and creates debate, and I have a big problem with the fact that people don’t speak their minds in Ireland.

Where I do have a problem is when it gets so far that you have a guy like Michael O’Leary portraying himself as some kind of rebel. I mean, he’s walking around in shirtsleeves, pretending he’s not a hugely successful businessman! But at the same time I’m conflicted, because I do have a degree of admiration for him. I know I sound like an awful middle-of-the road type guy here, but he’s provided people with cheap air travel and created employment, and he deserves credit for doing that. But when his tone starts to be Lenin in 1917, I think we’re in trouble.

In Zulu Time, you refer to the “self-serving dramatists” you’ve come across in the media during your travels. Presumably, RTE aren’t totally impervious to having such individuals infiltrate their ranks.

There’s obviously a culture that celebrates celebrity, and you can get sucked into that very easily. Put it this way; it’s not that hard to find yourself in a position where you start believing your own hype. I mean, I remember when I was working in Washington, I’d come home to Dublin a lot, and the place was fucking party central for me. It was a playground. I’d turn up in Lillie’s or Reynards, and have a brilliant time, but then it got to the point when I’d wake up in the mornings and read an article in the paper about what I’d been up to the night before. And I’d think, “Jesus, there I was at two in the morning, and someone was watching me and writing about me.” I got very shocked and scared by that.

Also, I realised that in the early days, during my initial interviews, I’d mention my daughter. Suddenly, one day I was listening to the radio, and an ad for the RTE Guide came on, and they mentioned the fact that I was talking about my personal life. It was my fault, I never should have exposed myself to that, but I chose to do it at a certain time and it was a mistake. So these days, I’m very conscious of avoiding circumstances where you could be misinterpreted, or turning up at events that could be construed as careerism. There’s an old line: “If you invite people to your wedding, don’t be surprised when they turn up for the divorce.”

There’s a perception that Prime Time has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Is that very much how it feels for those of you working on the show?

Definitely. It’s all down to a producer named Noel Curran, who’d previously worked on stuff like Eurovision and Kenny Live. He came in, and he was just this straight-talking, no bullshit guy who put everyone to work immediately. He assembled this team of people who had a lot of ideas they wanted to put into practice. It was very hard work in places when he came in, there was a lot of discipline involved. He wasn’t the kind of person who’d come into a meeting after a show he didn’t like, and say, “It was okay, maybe we need to do a little bit more of this…” He’d basically just come straight out and say that it wasn’t up to the standard he wanted. And that generated a great spirit and a real sense of motivation, and that’s what’s been driving the show this past couple of years.

Do you think the programme has perhaps been slightly guilty of bombast though? I mean, even something like the special on underage drinking, which generated a huge amount of interest and earned a good deal of critical acclaim, the tone still seemed to be, “we’re gonna smash you in the face with the facts ‘til you’re begging for mercy.” There’s a kind of pervasive element of…

Sensationalism, yeah. It’s a very good question. I mean, I’ve got a hundred examples of things that have annoyed me in terms of the way they’ve been presented on RTE. But there’s always a debate, and I think people would be amazed at just how vigorously these things are discussed. Like, even this morning in the Prime Time office, we started off with a row about the smoking ban. People literally took diametrically opposing points of view, and the ins and outs of the subject were argued about at length. Now, if we can have an in-depth discussion on that topic amongst a group of people from fairly diverse backgrounds, we think that it could actually work on television.

If occasionally we do a programme that does piss off a lot of people, then good. As long we’re stimulating discussion, not going after easy targets, and most importantly, examining all sides of the debate, then I’m comfortable with it. I do think that there’s a second issue here as well, which is that people attack the dumbing down of television. But if they examined their own viewing habits, they’d probably find that they do watch these programmes, like, y’know…

Trisha, this week’s topic: “I don’t believe in Holland”. Or, How Thick Is My Arm? Or, I’m A Suicide Bomber, Get Me Into There!

(Laughing) Well, I want to do Celebrity Death Farm, where you don’t just vote people off, you vote for their execution! Look, I’m very, very conscious of being too self-righteous about pop-culture, because the fact is that I’m as plugged into it as anyone else. And I do think that if people were honest about what they watched, they might not criticise broadcasters for bringing that populist, sensationalist element into it. Because to be quite honest, I can show you the ratings. There’s an example I quote in the book: 350,000 people watched Prime Time the night of September 11, 320,000 watched Fair City.

The fact is that viewers are tuned into those shows, and unless you can take some of the language of popular culture, some of the techniques of those shows – maybe sometimes the items are shorter and there’s more shouting in them – it’s probably not going to hold people’s attention over a sustained period of time. But we have to be very conscious of not getting into a Day Today-type scenario, where the flashy graphics overtake the substance. So again, it’s just a matter of balance.

Overall, I really liked the book. But there was one section of the final chapter that I found slightly absurd. You cite Bono as being “by far the most effective proponent of enlightened dialogue between Europe and America.” He’s just a bloke who plays some rock songs!

I take your point, I take your point. It’s especially weird for me, though, ‘cos I remember when I was about twelve I’d see Bono buying chips in the burger joint down the road, or hanging out with The Edge in the local pool halls. I remember when U2 released Boy, he was just a guy with a dodgy mullet who was in this almost-prominent band in Dublin! Or I’d see him heading off to rehearsals in a battered old Chevette. So the idea that he’s now in the Oval Office with George Bush negotiating $15 billion aid packages is particularly strange thing to observe from my vantage point.

But, you know, when I was writing the book, I really actively looked for examples of people who were saying to the US, “Show us why you are the great country we know you to be. You have an obligation to demonstrate to the world why you are the nation you are today.” And the only person I could find who was articulating these things was Bono! But I know what you’re saying, the idea that a rock star would be the most prominent advocate of greater transatlantic co-operation is pretty ridiculous. But maybe that drives on the essentially nonsensical nature of life, you know? It appears pretty absurd on the face of it, but there does seem to be a weird kind of logic at work in the world sometimes.

[photography: Liam Sweeney]

Zulu Time: When Ireland Went To War is published by New Island Books


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