From the recent Edelman Trust Barometer; former Press Ombudsman John Horgan at the Leveson inquiry in 2012
Further to the recent ‘Edelman Trust Barometer’…
Which shows trust in Irish media is at its lowest point since the poll was first taken 17 years ago…
Former Irish Times journalist, former Dublin City University professor, former Labour TD and senator and Ireland’s first press ombudsman John Horgan writes in today’s Irish Times:
Here, the review of the 2009 [Defamation] Act by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald will include, not only the effects of the Act itself in relation to defamation proceedings, but the functions, powers, and effectiveness of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman.
Some of the major issues for the Fitzgerald review, on the basis of a decade’s experience of our own system, could therefore usefully include the following:
– Should participation in the Press Council be effectively further incentivised for all non-broadcast media [freesheets, the online publishing activities of broadcasters, perhaps even bloggers] who see not just editorial but commercial and legal advantages in adherence to an effective body dedicated to the maintenance of professional standards?
– Should the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council – including their invaluable mediation service – be given enhanced legal standing, acceptable to the newspapers and journalists, so that they become a more frequent and effective final destination for dispute resolution, instead of an alternative route?
– Should media play their own part in this, and in enhancing the public acceptability of their voluntary system, by helping to develop, perhaps in consultation with the Press Council, more effective, and perhaps more generous, remedies for, and responses to, reasonable complaints from people whose reputations have been unfairly impugned?
– Should this also include – as a powerful implicit acknowledgment of every individual’s right to freedom of expression – more frequent offers, in appropriate circumstances, of the right of reply?
Just because these are all complex issues for public policy does not mean that they should be shirked. Now is as good a time as any to address them.
In January 2012, Tom and Sally Fitzgerald made a complaint to the Press Council about the apology, which they claimed was in breach of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines.
The Press Ombudsman, John Horgan held that the newspaper, in publishing the apology, had failed to take into account the feelings of Kate Fitzgerald’s grieving parents and, following publication, failed to take sufficient remedial action to resolve their complaint.
A further claim that The Irish Times had breached the Code of Practice by failing to investigate, prior to editing, the truth or accuracy of the statements in Kate’s article was rejected by Mr Horgan, as being out of time on the basis that the article the subject of the apology had been published more than three months previously.
On appeal, the Press Council found that this latter decision was an administrative one, from which there was no appeal. Sally Ann Fitzgerald, from a newspaper family, found this decision inexplicable.
Concerning the Pat Carey resignation and a rush to print, Stephen Collins political editor of The Irish Times writes:
One of the features of Irish public life over the past few years has been the growth of a truculent anti-politician mood. There are many reasons for this and it is arguable that politicians have brought it on themselves by the behaviour of some of them as revealed in a variety of judicial tribunals.
Nonetheless, the health of our democracy requires some level of understanding by the public of the challenges and choices faced by politicians in the course of their everyday work. Constant denigration of everything they do has helped to promote a nihilistic public mood which could over time prove to be very dangerous.
Much of what passes for current affairs coverage in the media no longer involves serious exploration of the issues and the choices facing society and amounts to little more than politician-baiting.
Card-carrying Journalist, acclaimed Bono biographer and DIT lecturer Harry Browne appeared at the banking inquiry to discuss the media’s role in the the boom and bust.
In his opening address, Mr Browne, formerly with the Irish Times, argued that by putting advertisers above readers newspaper editors had managed to lose the respect of both. [full text at link below]
Print and broadcast media in Ireland played an immeasurable but almost-certainly significant role in the inflation of the property bubble and the legitimation of risky behaviour by the financial-services sector in the lead-up to the crisis of 2007-08, and did so partly by ignoring or marginalising scepticism about these phenomena.
I won’t romanticise the journalism of an earlier age, which had plenty of its own problems, many of them involving the limits and shortcomings of professionalism itself. However, over the last 30 years or so these principles are widely understood to be increasingly at risk all over the world, with particular features of the media landscape endangering them.
As the leading American scholar of journalism Daniel Hallin has written: ‘For the most part I don’t think journalistic professionalism is breaking down from the inside, by journalists becoming less committed to it; instead I think professionalism is being squeezed into increasingly smaller niches within the media field’
It is my contention that in Irish newspapers we can quite literally see that ‘squeeze’ occur over the period between about 1990 and 2007, as the physical construction of newspapers changed. There was a inscription of an unquestioning pro-business ideology and practice on to increasingly large, advertising-heavy proportions of the newspaper – with ever-growing business/finance, property and lifestyle sections, dedicated to the advertising of, respectively, recruitment, real-estate and consumer goods and services.
Even the most scrupulous of newspaper editors came to see those sections as a realm of, at best, what you might call ‘Professionalism Lite’, where soft treatment of the rich and powerful was expected.
Even if you worked in the niches where full-blown professionalism still held sway (the journalists who filled news pages and provided political coverage, for example) it was hard to miss the message embedded in that big, colourful product about your employer’s relationship to financial institutions, property interests and other corporate bodies.
Those supplements were, after all, paying the bills. When Irish Times Ltd infamously paid €40 million for myhome.ie in 2006, it appeared to confirm its dedication to what increasingly looked like its core business: advertising property sales.
This has obviously consequences, of course, for the newspaper’s capacity to deal impartially with subjects such as the desirability of property ownership over other forms of tenure, or the related question of the ‘soft landing’.
A group of Irish financial journalists, speaking on condition of anonymity to a team of academic researchers who published their findings in 2010, discussed this issue.
One of them said: ‘Much of the mainstream media seems to me to be very conflicted because of their reliance on real-estate and recruitment advertising. That doesn’t mean reporters consciously avoid writing bad news stories, but it’s hard to run against the tide when everyone is getting rich.’ Another stated that journalists ‘were leaned on by their organisations not to talk down the banks [and the] property market because those organisations have a heavy reliance on property advertising’.
In 2006 I myself interviewed dozens of journalists about the direction of the Irish Times.
One of them, retired from the paper, said: ‘In the mid-1980s… we had a series investigating the truth behind buying and selling property. Can you imagine that now?’ Even in the 1980s, he recalled, ‘[t]he commercial side of the paper [i.e. those who sold advertising] were in complaining like nobody’s business’ about the series; but the then-editor, Douglas Gageby, ‘stood up to them’.
The idea that certain, then-small parts of Irish newspapers were professionally compromised territory, however, was already in the air as early as the 1980s.
A former business editor from Independent Newspapers recalled a lunch from that period where journalists and brokers gathered to mark the appointment of a new president of the Irish Stock Exchange:
The lunch went well and all the proprieties were observed, until, during the port, the topic of mutual dependence came up in the conversation. ‘What do you mean, mutual?’ a rubicund and slightly tipsy broker ventured. ‘The business pages are ours. We own them.’…
…By the time of the Celtic Tiger, this compromised turf of business and financial journalism had expanded many times over both in the volume of pages produced and in the number of journalists employed. In that important and revealing research cited earlier, the authors summarise the views of several of the Irish financial journalists they interviewed:
According to Journalist F, because of the need for regular contact with financial sources, ‘some journalists are reluctant to be critical of companies because they fear they will not get information or access in the future’. Journalist E… believed that some journalists had become ‘far too close to their sources’: They viewed them as friends and allies and essentially became advocates for them.
Their approach was justified editorially because many developers and bankers limited access to such an extent that it became seen to be better to write soft stories about them than to lose access.
Extremely soft stories would be run to gain access too…. Journalist B criticised daily financial journalism for being ‘almost entirely press release and stock exchange disclosure based’…. Journalist F noted, it was ‘well known that some PR companies try to bully journalists by cutting off access or excluding journalists from briefings’.
Many of the Irish journalists interviewed for that research said the business media here had become more adversarial since the crash. However, in research among British journalists in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a study found there was ‘no consensus among financial and business journalists about their “watchdog” role in relation to markets and corporate behaviour’.
This sort of ambivalence, to put it kindly, about telling good, tough stories while maintaining source relationships is not unique to financial and property journalism. However, as the role and prominence of those sorts of journalism increased exponentially in the 1990s and early 2000s, their particular compromises of ‘professionalism’ played a proportionately much bigger role in newspaper coverage of these important areas of the economy and society.
Their growth was not inevitable, nor was it unique to Ireland. It was part of an international development in the newspaper industry that sought to diversify papers’ content and appearance to make them more attractive to advertisers and (to a lesser extent) readers.
“In Jobstown, Dublin, on Saturday afternoon, a woman was confined to her car for two hours. Insults were shouted. A water balloon was thrown. The car was rocked back and forth, and people banged noisily on the roof of the car. Following Garda intervention, and negotiation among the protesters, the woman was allowed to leave.”
“On the scale of things, on the scale of the massive structural violence inflicted by austerity policies in Ireland, this was nothing. Nothing. That did not stop a host of figures from Ireland’s political and media establishment, but also a good deal of polite society, from weighing in against the protesters, with terms like “scum”, “mob”, “fascists” liberally cast around.”
“In this regard, Joan Burton is a beneficiary of socialism for the rich. The concern for her wellbeing is a product of the indignation felt by the rich – and those who identify with them – when they feel that one of their own has come under attack. They look at her and ask themselves what if it was them, or what if it was a member of their family. The sympathy is second nature.”
“By contrast, the protesters who surrounded the car are an amorphous, menacing swarm. They are not people like “us”; they are not brothers or sisters or people struggling to pay bills or people enduring any kind of humiliation or hardship who have found a common cause together. The fact that they have appeared in public view, that they have stopped the normal order and flow of things where those who rule are treated with respect and those who are ruled maintain a harmless distance, becomes cause for instinctive outrage.”
“The idea that they might be stopping the car, and even hurling insults or a water balloon, because the government represents the interests of the rich whilst expecting to be treated like dignitaries, is beyond the bounds of polite conversation and contemplation. Joan is right because the State is right because the markets are right and because we are right, and that is that, and anyone who disagrees is an enemy of democracy. This, as I was saying the other day, is what demophobia looks like.”
“The focus on the Socialist Party TD for the area, Paul Murphy, and on his role in the protests, is in keeping with this fear of the mob. What is outrageous about him, from this perspective, is not that he is an elected representative and hence not behaving like the genteel legislator he ought to be, but rather that he is from a relatively comfortable background. And as such, he is a traitor to the cause of socialism for the rich.”
“People from relatively comfortable places, according to this line of thinking, have no business finding common cause with people from Jobstown, since the latter do not know their own minds: people like him should become accountants and vote Labour and remain respectable members of society. And if people in places like Jobstown do irrupt into our line of vision, it isn’t because they have decided among themselves to mobilise because they have had enough, but because they have been led astray. They are there to be led; they are not there to take part in politics, and if the Gardaí have to batter them, well, that’s regrettable, but they’re just restoring proper order, after all.”
“And the trouble for Ireland’s political and media establishment, and also a good deal of polite society, is that this “mob” is not planning on going away soon. And deep down, they know it, and they are scared. Hence it is easier and more productive to focus on a single brick than to contemplate the crumbling foundations beneath them.”
[Cork-born European Indoor 3,000m Bronze medallist Ciaran Ó Lionáird, 25, from Cork]
Ciaran Ó Lionáird writes:
“On my layover in JFK [to a training camp in Florida], I got a bit busy on Twitter in response to a feature article on fellow Irish athlete Colin Griffin in the Irish Examiner [on Saturday]. Let me preface this by saying I have a lot of respect for Colin. Anybody who knows him will agree he’s a guy who has the intellect and reasoning ability to form thoughtful and coherent dialogue relative to his sport and also think on a relative scale about the career of an athlete and what comes afterward.
I spoke out in response to the article as I felt the presence of a recurring theme in features on Irish athletes recently. Granted, there have been positive news stories too and in my haste in getting a message into 140 characters, I perhaps over-generalised in my criticism of the media for bringing a negative agenda into Irish athlete interviews. Now, with the space of this medium, I can hopefully expand a little on my thoughts and explain why I feel the way I do on this.
I am totally in favor of athletes speaking out against what they perceive as unjust. Funding and grants have always been a contentious issue as they form the backbone of an athletes preparation. Cuts to funding can leave an athlete scrambling to re-budget and the year-to-year changes make it difficult to follow-through on the 3-4 year plans necessary to build the continuity and consistency necessary to perform at a World level.
I feel that journalists sometimes play on the emotions of the athletes in order to get a quick and easy jab in at Irish Athletics. Such an act in isolation may not really do a whole deal but when it occurs again and again, it portrays the athletes as moaners and presents them as fighting not just against the system but against each other too. That certainly isn’t the case in real life but the general non-athletics fan can pick up a paper and take a glance and think “ok here we go again”.
“For the journos, it’s an easy sell. For athletes, I feel that it weakens our position in the long term as it prevents us from coming together and forming a consistent message to bring to AAI [Athletics Association of Ireland] with our concerns. Isolated attacks and digs on Twitter do not help our cause I believe. Continue reading →
[Dr Julien Mercille, of University College Dublin, top, and former Irish Times Economics Editor Dan O’Brien, above]
You may recall Dr Julien Mercille, who researched the role of Irish media in the property bubble and whose most recent research studied the coverage of austerity between 2008 and 2012 in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent.
On foot of this research, Dr Mercille and the newly-appointed chief economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs and Irish Independent columnist Dan O’Brien, joined Colm Ó Mongain to debate the media’s attitude to austerity on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week with Colm Ó Mongain
Dr Julien Mercille: “Basically, the main Irish newspapers, they overwhelmingly support fiscal consolidation and austerity. There is only a minority or articles that go against it, to propose alternatives or to propose cuts or something like that. And, really, it’s about 10/12%, depending on how you count it, of articles, that oppose austerity. Basically, going in line with the Government view. So it reflects, the media reflect the viewpoints of economic elites and political elites. So, in a nutshell, that’s, that’s it.”
Colm Ó Mongain: “And what’s the reason behind it, according to your research?”
Mercille: “The reason is that, the media, they’re big corporations. And it’s only to be expected that their interests therefore will reflect those of the corporate sector, they’re a part of it.”
Ó Mongain: “Dan O’Brien, what do you make of that contention?”
Dan O’Brien: “I think it’s a little like saying that because most articles in newspapers now say that global warming is happening that the media is being taken over by the green movement. I just don’t think it stacks up. I also say that if you look at the number of elected representatives we have in this country. At the last election, there was only one political party that said ‘no austerity’, ‘no fiscal consolidation’- that was United Left Alliance. It has 3% of the elected representatives. Sinn Féin accepts that, it wants to do it in a different way. So if you add Sinn Féin up with all of the other main parties, they account for 90% of the elected representatives. What goes on in the media basically, more or less, reflects people’s political views.”
Mercille: “Well that’s simply not true. I mean global warming, it’s not true that media is completely saying…”
O’Brien: “I didn’t say completely…”
Mercille: “…there’s global warming, and the reason why popular opinion is let’s say favourable to consolidation or whatever, well, part of it, is because the media talks only about that.”
Ó Mongain: “So, as you see it, the media forms the opinions that, in turn, leads to people voting for parties who are in favour of consolidation?”
Mercille: “Yeah, not completely, I mean people have their own independent opinions. Sometimes they reject everything but if the media only says one thing, first of all, that doesn’t present alternatives so it’s harder for people, let’s say, who don’t have an economics background to come up with alternatives, and sometimes convinces people that there’s no alternative, as Dan just said.”
Ó Mongain: “Dan, that idea that politics is overwhelmingly a product of what people, their political choices are informed by what they read in the media, what they absorb through the media?”
O’Brien: “Yeah, I think that there is, certainly, some element to that but I think people get information in a whole range of ways and they form their opinions in a whole range of ways. Like some people believe that your political opinions are based around personality characteristics and there’s some evidence for that, it’s about the family you were brought up in, the sort of political history of your family, the background that you have, what you study. I think the notion that, you know, the media is all run by big business and gives one view and that brainwashes people is just the sort of conspiracy theory nonsense, frankly.”
Mercille: “Well, “the conspiracy” is something you hear all the time when people don’t know what to say against your arguments. The fact that news organisations are a big business is a fact, it’s not an interpretation. I mean, you just look at their numbers, they’re big businesses, nobody can deny that. They can deny other things but not that. That media brainwashes people, nobody says that. What I’m giving is an institutional analysis of the media, based on the fact that they are big businesses. And that’s a fact, you look at their annual report and look at their revenues and their profits: they’re big businesses. We don’t have a problem talking about the…”
O’Brien: “Well I think the media is made up of, it’s not just made up of a couple of giant organisations. Your study seems to focus on two of the bigger media organisations. You go around the country, you will find there are local papers all over the country, there are local radio stations, you know, your kind of view that the media is only big business is just not correct. There are a lot of small media organisations, there are a lot of micro media organisations, so you know, I, just again, I think this all smacks of a conspiracy theory: that there are big corporate interests that are determining how people think. Speak to a lot of people in business and their view of the media, including the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, is that these papers are actually very left-leaning and are full of left-leaning commentators. So a lot of people in business would take exactly the opposite view and they would say the media is too left-leaning.”
Ó Mongain: “Isn’t that a point, Julien, perhaps that if the media is keeping everyone unhappy all of the time, they must be doing something right, to be keeping that many people unhappy at the same time?”
Mercille: “Well the media sometimes does many things well. That’s, nobody denies that. The fact that big business criticises the media means basically nothing. I mean it’s interesting to have this discussion in Ireland. Ireland is very unique in Europe. It doesn’t have a left-of-centre media organisation. I mean there’s no Guardian here, there’s no XXXX Diplomatique (go to 5.20)??), there’s only centre-right media.”
Ó Mongain: “And from your point of view, should the political debate in terms of left and right be replicated amongst the media, or should the media try and strive towards the middle ground?”
Mercille: “Well the media should tell the truth. That’s very simple. So when you say things like ‘history shows that in an economic downturn, you need to cut spending’ – well that’s just not true. So, things like that. Or, let’s say, ‘we need to save all the banks’ in 2008, that’s just not true, there are alternatives, there were alternatives, it’s a very simple principle as a journalist, you should just tell the truth. So, if poverty is rising because of austerity you should report that. If Enda Kenny says we need more fiscal consolidation after five years and you clearly see that it doesn’t work, you should say that. And show the alternatives, based on history, based on other countries in Europe.”
Ó Mongain: “Dan?”
O’Brien: “Well, Julien uses words like objective, reality, truth – I wish it was as simple as that. But, you know, people have different interpretations of what the truth is, what reality is.”
Ó Mongain: “Before we go on, just on the broader point Julien was making Dan. This idea that fiscal consolidation came in, when austerity was being discussed, did the media interrogate it sufficiently enough to look at alternatives, were enough voices brought to the fore that might have informed the public into what they might demand in the political system?”
O’Brien: “Well I think there are two things here in this country. One is that, from 2010, we had no choice. Once we lost the capacity to borrow, or the capacity to make our own decision, we really had no choice. There is an issue from the period, around 2008 to 2010. Now, up to around 2011, the academic evidence pointed to fiscal consolidation happening and it being focused on spending cuts first and then taxes later. Subsequent academic literature would say that that’s certainly not as clear cut as the academic literature, up to 2010, so there has been a choice that would support, to some extent, Julien’s position on that, in new research, and I think that’s all been brought out. I think the media has reported that. So I’m not sure there’s been any non-reporting. Another issue Julien mentioned was that poverty increased. Of course poverty increased, you know? 330,000 people, or number of jobs in the economy, declined and I don’t think anybody in the media did not report that.”
Mercille: “Yeah, it does appear in the media, but if it’s hidden somewhere that’s not as strong as front page, that’s what I was saying. And about the fiscal consolidation and the fact that we didn’t have evidence before 2011. I don’t know what you’re reading but it was very well known. That’s how the US got out of The Depression. Since 1945, the period is divided into two broad periods: one is the Golden Age of capitalism in the 50s and 60s, where things were much better than after the 70s. There was no financial crisis basically and, at that time, they were Keynesian methods, government was more important intervention in the economy by the government was more important: that’s just very well known. I don’t know many people who would disagree with that.”
O’Brien: “Well that’s not the case, if you look at the amount Governments spent in the 1960s, relative to the size of the economy, it was lower across all the developed countries than it is today. So that’s wrong, it’s simply incorrect.”
Mercille: “Yeah well, OK, you can believe Dan O’Brien or you can believe…”
O’Brien: “Look at the data, look at the data. The data show that in a post-war era, the size of government began rising, the 50s, continued to rise in the 60s, went up in the 70s and then flattened out in the 70s. That’s what the data show.”
Mercille: “Yeah, but I mean the government had more intervention, wages were rising in real terms…”
O’Brien: “Because economically economies were rising more rapidly, as you said, it was the Golden Age. You’re attributing the Golden Age of capitalism to an idea that you believe was because of more government intervention. You know the complexity of economic growth is massive and economists don’t fully understand it. They need to be honest about that and if you think you understand it better than all the economists in the world, fair enough.”
Mercille: “No well, of course, you can debate that on ten radio shows of course but financial regulation, for example, was tighter?”
Mercille: “Right? So things like that. Yeah, so I mean, it’s not to say that we found out in 2011 that ‘oh my god, we’re doing the wrong things’, I mean we had evidence before that. And it’s true that, I mean economics you cannot predict anything in that, right? You can have only likelihoods and probabilities but to say that we didn’t know before 2011 that austerity didn’t work..”
O’Brien: “No I didn’t say that, I said..the Harvard academic, who is the leader in the field on fiscal consolidation was a guy called, an Italian called [Alberto] Alesina. His literature was viewed as being the gold standard. It was then subsequently challenged by a number of people and it’s no longer viewed that his point – that you increase, you cut spending first and then increase taxes, is as hard and as rock solid as it was thought in 2010. So the evidence base, because of new research, is now changed and I would support your argument that the kind of fiscal consolidation that some people advocated in the past does not have as strong an evidence base now as it had in 2010. That’s my point.”
Ó Mongain: “So should that be reported, Dan O’Brien? Or is it a situation whereby the media is mostly made up of generalists and lacks the critical tools in order to interrogate policy on that kind of basis, based on the data your talking about.”
O’Brien: “Well this is one of the difficulties in a more complex society, of getting the expertise into the general media and that can be difficult, particularly in a small country where it costs a lot of money. If you want to employ a medical doctor to write about medical affairs, you know, you’ve got to be offering quite a lot of money and small, it’s only the bug business, as Julien would call them, media groups that can afford to do that.”
Mercille: “Well in economics there is a technical knowledge that is always useful of course but, for instance, the trade unions here. Or even groups like Social Justice Ireland. They propose Budget submissions all the time. Well, you would just have to report that, and you can even do a copy and paste from their documents, if you really were under time constraints but that doesn’t appear in the media.”
O’Brien: “Every interest group has a pre-Budget submission so I’m not sure that, you know, that filling newspapers with vested interest groups’ pre-Budget submissions is either something a huge amount of people are going to have interest in, or will sell newspapers. And I suspect the reason these sort of pre-Budget submissions don’t get covered is just because they’re pretty dull things.”
Mercille: “Well they get covered. IBEC’s submission gets covered all the time – why is that? Why is IBEC always in the paper but Social Justice Ireland doesn’t appear very often?”
O’Brien: “Ok, the Nevin [Economic Research] Institute which is a trade union-backed economic think tank, it has a quarterly report and it gets covered in the media. IBEC is a business organisation and it has a quarterly economic report but it would seem to me that they both get prominent coverage because they both represent very large groups of people.”
Mercille: “Maybe today, in very recent times, you might see a small opening in the mass media, a bit more diverse views because it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that austerity is not working. But, by and large, I mean it’s a business viewpoint and Dan was saying, well IBEC and UNITE get covered, yeah, it’s true, they both get covered but if you look at how many times they get covered, IBEC gets covered much more, maybe not explicitly but my studies showed, I mean, you have, yeah, you have Social Justice Ireland writing but, what, once every year or so…”
O’Brien: “So, just to be clear, your study explicitly went back and counted the number of references to IBEC and the number of references to the trade union movements and you found that trade union movements were mentioned fewer times than IBEC, is that what you’re saying?”
Mercille: “The study counted all the outside writers, excluding journalists and opinion pieces for five years – 2008 to 2012. Trade union representatives, I think the number is about 5% of those writers, about 45% were from the financial sector, were mainstream economists. So, yeah, they both get a voice but..”
O’Brien: “When you say mainstream economists, do you mean academic economists or are they employed by banks or financial institutions.”
Mercille: “It can be both but mostly…”
O’Brien: “Ok, well there’s a very big difference: you’re an academic. There’s a very big difference between one of your colleagues writing an article and someone who is from a financial institution writing an article, I think you’ll acknowledge that.”
Mercille: “Well not necessarily, they might have the same viewpoint. Most economists…”
O’Brien: “There’s nothing wrong with that…the difference is where you’re coming from. Can you trust somebody who’s writing from a financial institution perspective to give a honest opinion or is that person reflecting the views of the interests of his organisation. An academic is paid to be independent and can have whatever views he or she wants.”
Ó Mongain: “What do you think can be or should or could be done about what you see as the media’s bias towards right-wing ideas. I mean what’s your solution to balancing the debate in society?”
Mercille: “Well if you look at the alternatives, what’s called alternative medias, like blogs, like Namawinelake or Notes On The Front, by Unite’s union – those are, they give you a different perspective.”
Ó Mongain: “Doesn’t that depend on a discerning consumer behaviour – if there is a progressive blog, if there is a left-leaning blog and there is clearly an audience that goes with that, that they themselves become a player because everybody else has to sit up and pay attention and thereby they change the dynamics of the debate.”
Mercille: “Yeah like, some of the advertising, for example, it helps if you can get advertising revenue, it helps if you can promote your viewpoint and your business but advertising, let’s say during the housing bubble, the property sector would not be likely to support a blog that would say that there’s a housing bubble and don’t buy a house right now, right, they’ll go with other viewpoints. That’s why it’s more difficult for the alternative media to get revenue like that.”
[Julien Mercille, top and a Irish Times banner ad from 2011]
The general stance in favour of fiscal consolidation presented by news organisations is illustrated by an editorial statement in the Irish Times that called for a campaign to ‘educate’ the public about the need for reducing the deficit. ‘Members of the general public still do not appreciate the possible extent of the economic downturn’, given that two-thirds of respondents in a national poll ‘took the view that the Budget was too tough, with 10 per cent believing it was not tough enough’.
The editors thus concluded that ‘the Government will have a major job to do in educating public opinion about unpalatable economic realities and the need for civic discipline’
You may recall UCD Professor Julien Mercille and his damning academic study on the Irish media’s role in inflating the boom (and the hand to hand combat with economist Marc Coleman over same).
Dr Mercille has now turned his attention to whether newspaper coverage of austerity policies in Ireland has been fair and balanced.
Anybody who reads the Irish press knows that it varies from centre-right to right. There’s almost nothing left of centre.
Ireland is actually quite special in this respect in Europe. There’s no equivalent of the British Guardian here for example. No Monde Diplomatique either.
I wanted to see how this played out in the coverage of austerity since 2008.
I looked at all editorials and opinion articles on austerity published since 2008 in the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Sunday Business Post and Sunday Times.
This returned 929 articles.
The main conclusion: the media have been relentless cheerleaders for austerity.
The key points of the study revealed:
(1) Support for fiscal consolidation is overwhelming: only 10% of articles on the topic are against it, 58% support it, and 32% don’t voice a clear opinion.
(2) Keynesian stimulus is out of the picture: only 2% of articles stated a preference for increasing government spending. This is astonishing. It is the main progressive alternative to austerity, but yet, we never hear about it.
(3) Those who say that trade unions monopolize the debate are dead wrong: excluding regular journalists, 29% of the authors of the articles are mainstream economists, 28% are working in the financial or corporate sector, and 20% are political officials in the three main political parties, which have all supported austerity. In short, the overwhelming majority of writers (77%) come from elite political or economic elite institutions. The remainder is composed of 9% of academics (excluding mainstream economists), 7% of members of progressive organisations (like Social Justice Ireland), and only 3% are trade union officials. It is thus a very conservative cast of writers who are allowed to take part in the debate in the national media.
The media have announced their role in convincing the public that austerity is good for them very clearly.
At the outset of the crisis, in November 2008, an Irish Times editorial called for a campaign to ‘educate’ the population about the need for austerity and ‘civic discipline’.
The problem was that Irish people did ‘not appreciate the possible extent of the economic downturn’ because only 10% of them thought the budget should be tougher while two-thirds thought it should be less tough, according to a national poll. The editors thus concluded that ‘the Government will have a major job to do in educating public opinion about unpalatable economic realities and the need for civic discipline’.
The media’s pro-fiscal consolidation views can be assessed by looking at the following sample of article titles published since 2008: ‘Commitment and Stamina are Required for Fiscal Consolidation’ (Irish Times), ‘New Budget will Prove Tough but Necessary’ (Sunday Independent), ‘Austerity Vital to Maintain our Economic Sovereignty’ (Irish Times), ‘We Need to Stop Living in Denial and Cut Costs Even Further’ (Sunday Independent), ‘We Must Suffer the Pain Now—Or Else we will Blight Future Generations’ (Sunday Independent), ‘Bill is Tough but Necessary’ (Irish Times), ‘Tough Budget Would Restore Confidence’ (Irish Times), ‘Supplementary Budget can Begin Urgent Task of Restoring Depleted Tax Revenues’ (Irish Times), ‘Budget May Cut Wages and Raise Taxes to Restore Competitiveness’ (Irish Times), ‘[Austerity] Budget Will Restore Confidence and Hasten Economic Recovery’ (Irish Times) and ‘Tough Budget Needed to Stave Off Grimmer Future’ (Irish Times).
The case is so overwhelming that it may even surprise its proponents.