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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Forget Donald Trump. The true master of fake news is Michael O’Leary

The Ryanair boss perfected the art of media flyers long ago. After ‘pay per pee’ toilets and ‘vertical seats’ come this week’s ‘free tickets’

The author of the 21st-century playbook on how best to take on – and then take down – the establishment by drip-feeding an insatiable media a diet of alternative facts, half-truths and playground insults is not Donald Trump. It’s another business tycoon a little closer to home: Michael O’Leary.

Some of the more bullish comments that O’Leary has made during his colourful time at the top of Ryanair make the new US president, even when in fully unhinged mode, seem like a particularly taciturn and contemplative monk in an enclosed – but nonexecutive – order.
Since he became leader of the free world President Trump has been soothing his troubled soul in the dawn’s early light by taking to Twitter to label CNN, the New York Times or whatever mainstream media organisation has displeased him most at any given moment as “failing” or “terrible” or “fake”.

Such gentle language has never been for O’Leary, who called RTÉ a “rat-infested North Korean union shop”, this newspaper “Pravda” and readers of the Guardian “an environmental nuclear bomb”.
While Trump labels political opponents “terrible” (Obama), crooked (Clinton) or losers (everyone else), O’Leary prefers tougher words and has described the Dáil as the “worst assembly of halfwits and lunatics”, a Bertie Ahern-led coalition as “a government of lemmings, led by the biggest lemming of all”, and Ahern himself as a “gobshite”.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on climate change and suggested that, despite never reading books, never mind scientific papers, he gets global warming better than almost every climate scientist and every piece of scientific research ever done by anyone anywhere on the planet. But he has never said – publicly, at any rate – that his aim when it comes to environmentalists is to “annoy the f***ers whenever we can” before suggesting that the “best thing you can do is shoot them . . . They are Luddites marching us back to the 18th century.”

It’s not in the realm of insults, however, but in the brave new world of placing alternative facts in the public domain that O’Leary really leaves Trump in the ha’penny place.
Even this week he was at it, and not even The Irish Pravda’s business desk was immune to his charms. “Free airline tickets could be a reality, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary has revealed,” began a piece in this newspaper, which ran under the alluring headline: “ ‘I want to have all air fares on Ryanair free,’ says O’Leary”.

A few paragraphs in, however, and it becomes clear that the notion is just another O’Leary flyer. “One day I want to have all the air fares on Ryanair being free,” he said. “Ancillary revenues already make up 30 per cent of our revenues. We might never get there, but at least it’s the objective.”

Although newspapers all over Europe picked up on the word “free”, the most telling phrase was: “We might never get there.”
It is just the latest in a long line of attention-grabbing “plans” from O’Leary that never have come to anything – except achieving their goal of getting Ryanair precious coverage in all the newspapers he is delighted to deride when the mood takes him.
A few years ago he suggested that Ryanair was considering charging people to use onboard toilets. “One thing we have looked at is maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door, so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in the future,” he announced to an eager press pack. “Pay per pee. If someone wanted to pay £5 to go to the toilet I’d carry them myself. I would wipe their bums for a fiver.”

It was nonsense, of course, but it did its job. So too did his “plan” to roll out vertical seats on his aircraft. They’d be a bit like bar stools with seat belts, he explained.
Had it happened it would have seen Ryanair remove 10 rows of seats from each of its aircraft, replacing them with 15 rows of vertical seats, to allow flights carry 30 per cent more passengers while slashing costs by 20 per cent.

It never happened.
Another thing that never happened were Ryanair’s transatlantic plans. When talking about this wheeze O’Leary said that the cost of flying to the United States would be slashed. He would offer economy passengers “no frills” while in business class it would be “all be free”.
The plans were recently shelved, with O’Leary saying that there just weren’t enough aircraft in the world to accommodate his ambitions.
He has also suggested that overweight passengers should be hit with a “fat tax” and questioned the requirement for copilots, who, he suggested, were there only to “make sure the first fella doesn’t fall asleep and knock over one of the computer controls”.
O’Leary knows this is not true. Ryanair has always followed best practice when it comes to piloting and copiloting arrangements, and it takes passenger safety very seriously.

But O’Leary knows the value of a headline and understood, maybe even before President Trump did, that a judiciously placed piece of fake news can go a long way towards unsettling and, ultimately, unseating rivals that everyone assumes to be untouchable.

As he has said himself, “All flights are fuelled with Leprechaun wee and my bullshit!” At least he admits when he’s just making stuff up.
Conor Pope