From top: Brian Cowen; Anthony Sheridan;
Anthony Sheridan, of Public Inquiry, speaks on deferential attitudes in Irish media towards politicians and other power-brokers, with reference to John Lee’s recent work with austerity architect Brian Cowen.
A well-informed, objective media is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy. Journalists in a healthy democracy do not just report news and current affairs; they also have a duty to be rigidly impartial in their analysis of events.
Disturbingly, Irish journalism comes nowhere near the standards necessary to robustly challenge the State and its agents particularly when it comes to political corruption.
The recent publication of Hell at the Gates by journalists John Lee and Daniel McConnell is just the latest example of the disquietingly close and frequently grovelling relationship between the media and those who wield power within the Irish political system.
John Lee, writing about an interview he conducted with former Taoiseach Brian Cowen as part of his research for the book provides us with good example of this cringing, extremely deferential type of journalism.
The headline gives a good indication of the tone of the article: An astute, self-aware, intelligent man.
It’s said of Lyndon Johnson, that he was at his best with an audience of one. I think this applies to Cowen. He uses your first name, looks you in the eye, is exceptionally articulate and sharp. In the fog of war that engulfed Ireland during his years at the top, much of this was forgotten. Yet he understands why that is.
He spoke about how he felt the day he became Taoiseach, the enjoyment of appointing a cabinet and the brief summer of calm before all hell broke loose.
Bright man that he is, he knew there were claims about him that he had to confront. As the interview progressed I merely pointed to where we were in the chronology, and without pause he would take on the issues that he has been given so much time to think about over those preceding four years. He happily accepted he had made a mistake in not addressing the nation.
Before making further comment on the article, I want to express my opinion of Brian Cowen, an opinion that I believe is held by the majority of Irish people.
At best, Cowen is a political idiot. I do not say this as an insult (although it obviously is); I say it because it’s a simple fact. Cowen is nothing more than your typical Fianna Fail backwoodsman, gombeen politician who never had to do anything courageous or visionary to reach the apex of political power.
As a privileged member of one of the many political family dynasties that have plagued Irish politics since independence he was effectively handed power following the death of his father.
He was literally enthroned as Taoiseach by the disgraced Bertie Ahern who was forced to resign after his true pedigree was exposed at a tribunal.
But when Cowen, for the first and only occasion in his mediocre career, was called upon to show courage and vision in leading the nation he failed miserably.
As one editorial put it: The worst Taoiseach in the history of the State.
And yet a stranger reading John Lee’s article could easily conclude that Brian Cowen was a politically intelligent, insightful and courageous man whose overriding mission in life was to promote the best interests of the Irish people.
A stranger reading the article would not see what most Irish people see.
That Cowen is a loyal member of the most corrupt political party in Ireland, the party that promotes the interests of property developers, bankers and other members of the golden circle that feed off the wealth of the Irish people.
A stranger reading the article would not see that Cowen is a loyal member of the party principally responsible for the economic disaster of 2008 that destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens.
However, a stranger who informed himself of Irish history over the past several decades would immediately recognise the rampaging elephant in the room – which is:
The Irish political system is seriously corrupt. In reaction to this political corruption a significant percentage of Irish citizens have rejected the legitimacy of the State and are in open rebellion.
A disturbingly large proportion of Irish journalists are either blissfully unaware of this dramatic shift in the political landscape or are willing collaborators in defence of the corrupt system.
Either way Irish journalism is suffering from a serious malaise that is not only bad for the profession but is having a very serious negative impact on Ireland and its people.
Top pic: TG4
Niall Breslin, aka Bressie, before the Joint Committee on Health and Children in January
Fiona Kennedy, who has clinical depression and borderline personality disorder, yesterday wrote the following on the Facebook page of her Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers blog:
I AM SICK OF HEARING ABOUT BRESSIE AND JIM BREEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They aren’t actually the only people in the entire country who understand mental health issues. Also, as an aside, depression isn’t the only mental health issue that affects people, and it’s not just young people who experience difficulties either. Despite what the media may think.
There. I said it.
(I’ve had a very long day, I’m very tired and my patience threshold is below zero)
Later, Fiona wrote:
That was an hour ago. I’m even more tired now, but having driven in and out of town to collect Hubby, I’m also wired, and I’ve had time to think.
On reflection, there is a whole lot more going on than simply being pissed off at two people who are doing one of the most crucial thing that needs doing to get the ball rolling on changing our mental health services – talking. Raising awareness. Letting people know that asking for help is ok.
But that’s where I hit a pitfall, and I think that’s at least part of where my frustration is coming from. It’s not what Bressie and Jim Breen are doing that’s the issue, it’s the media portrayal of it.
Both of them are talking about what they know, and they are both authentic, articulate, inspiring speakers. But what they know is a small piece of the puzzle.
The media (and this is all very much just my own opinion) can’t or won’t see beyond that. Mental illness isn’t just depression and suicide, in as much as physical illness isn’t just cancer. There are such a broad range of issues, and within that range, hugely varying degrees of severity and need. Every single person is different.
We could also be forgiven for thinking that difficulties only arise with the under 25s. Again, I’m not discounting the value of the work that’s being done here, god knows if I’d had more awareness when I was younger then things might have turned out very differently for me.
We absolutely need to get to kids when they’re in school, we absolutely need to work on breaking down the stigma around mental illness. I would love to think that this whole palaver with our mental health services is something my kids will never have to contend with.
But what about those who are over 25? Or even over 18? I posted a piece last week by a 17-year-old reader who faces a very uncertain future once she turns 18 and transitions from child and adolescent to adult services.
What about those of us who are that bit older, who aren’t hearing the message in school or college? Or those who don’t have ready access to social media? What about workplace mental health? Or those who aren’t working? And what about our older generations? Who is the voice for them?
I think that’s what my issue is. Both these men are giving voice to a particular section of the population, and they are doing it quite remarkably well. But, (and again, just me!!) there are two key issues with this:
- This is a very sanitized version of mental illness,
- There’s a glaring gap when it comes to the rest of us.
One of my readers posted this comment in response to my little rant, I think he sums it up nicely:
‘Thanks for saying this, Fiona. We are doing a mental health awareness programme at work and it is just about depression. Yes depression is a terrible thing but so are BPD, Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, and every other mental illness. Surely we wouldn’t talk in terms of physical illness as being cancer? So why treat mental illness differently?’
‘As for celebs being the spokesperson for mental health, fine. But I would rather have as my spokesperson the woman who sat in the psychiatrist’s waiting room the other day; who had to bring her young child to the appointment because she couldn’t afford childcare; who told me how she had no idea how she was going to pay the electricity bill, let alone find money to do the grocery shopping; who was trying her hardest but who looked as if life had finally beaten her. This is the real face of mental illness’
Maybe it’s even more than that. Is it how we talk about it? The fact that we talk about ‘mental illness’. We would never say ‘I have a physical illness’. We’d say ‘I have the flu’. We’re making huge inroads in talking about it, but we’re still dancing around the edges.
I don’t know, I don’t know where I’m going at this stage. I’m tired, and I’m hugely frustrated by everything that’s happened with our mental health services on a national level, particularly in the last week, and on a personal level, for the last……….well, long time.
I just want to see open, honest, real conversation about this. About depression. About bipolar. About borderline. About schizophrenia. About all the other countless illnesses that affect us.
From top: Panel on last night’s Tonight with Mick Clifford, and graphs from early findings of a study by the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University
Last night, on TV3’s Tonight With Mick Clifford, the show’s panel discussed the media’s impact on the general election.
The panel included director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University, Jane Suiter; our own Julien Mercille; Sinead Carroll of the Journal; and John Devitt, from Transparency International Ireland.
At the beginning of their discussion, Ms Suiter presented the preliminary findings of an unfinished study by FUJO which is looking at the coverage of the election by the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Journal.
She explained that the study’s findings to date are solely based on coverage up to a week before the election and that the final week has yet to be investigated. She also said FUJO will be looking at the coverage of RTÉ and TV3.
Several graphics from the study were shown (see above), prompting Ms Suiter to explain:
“The [Irish] Independent was taking the Government line of ‘Stability v Chaos’ so ‘stick with [Enda] Kenny and it’s stability, go with [Gerry] Adams and it’s chaos’, whereas the Irish Times weren’t taking that line because they were saying, ‘well no it’s Kenny versus [Micheal] Martin’ so it was kind of the old choice that we’re used to. And then the Journal just took a very, sort of straightforward one between the three of them.”
Further to the study’s findings presented by Ms Suiter, the panel discussed the coverage as a whole.
From the discussion…
Julien Mercille: “I think there is maybe some differences between the various outlets but, by and large, the mass media gave a very favourable view for the Government. I mean you didn’t have much of a challenge to the Government parties. You did have that, maybe in a tactical way but not in a fundamental way. Take, for example, the best issue to illustrate this is healthcare. We know it’s the number one issue for voters. Exit polls show, and polls before, this is probably the most poorly reported issue in the whole country, healthcare. There isn’t a single article that calls for an Irish NHS for example which is the thing we need. It’s cheaper…”
Mick Clifford: “I saw a few…”
Mercille: “…and it’s also better for health.”
Clifford: “Absolutely but I saw a few of them, I have to say, I saw…”
Mercille: “Oh really?”
Clifford: “I did.”
Mercille: “Calling for an Irish NHS? Maybe once every now and then, but that’s not very…”
Clifford: “Well, universal health care, they didn’t necessarily say…”
Mercille: “It’s very different, it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing at all. It could be but it doesn’t have to be.”
Clifford: “Right and there’s one other thing there that I would suggest and that is that, despite that being shown, in previous elections and admittedly this turned out to be different, in previous elections, people concentrated on the economy, they concentrated on tax cuts and spending increases..”
Jane Suiter: “But actually they didn’t because we…”
Clifford: “Not in this, no, but in previous..”
Suiter: “Yeah, well in the previous election, it was all about the bailout and the Troika programme, that was the whole focus of it but actually in this one, in many, actually the focus was on party politics. So which party is up and down in the polls? Which party is going to go into coalition?”
Clifford: “Rather than the issues?”
Suiter: “Rather than the issues. So there was actually very little focus even on macro economic issues or on on micro, on tax and spending…”
Talk over each other
Mercille: “There were articles about Enda Kenny and his wife, as if this was any way important…”
Clifford: “Aaah Julien…”
Mercille: “Nothing, it is true. Nothing about..”
Clifford: “Enda Kenny and his wife.”
Mercille: “Nothing about the main policies, such as healthcare, poverty, the fact that Ireland is a tax haven. You didn’t have much of that. It was all about the person and the looks and all that.”
Sinéad O’Carroll: “Because we didn’t know, we knew that there wasn’t going to be anyone that would run away and be able to get an easy majority, we knew there was no-one able to get that magic number, so it did become, then, a game of looking at who was going to go in with who and, because no-one was giving definitive answers, that became the narrative.”
Clifford: “Was that to the detriment of, was that to the detriment of examining policies?”
O’Carroll: “I think so, absolutely, and I think, but I think also, there was, the Irish Times had a really beautiful feature on their, online, and they had absolutely every issue covered and you went into it and you could see the party policy on every single issue. Not many people talked about that feature that they had.”
Suiter: “The other interesting thing was how little focus was on any of the smaller parties or the Independents.”
Clifford: “John [Devitt], did you find it balanced, imbalanced? Or how?”
Devitt: “Well, it’s difficult to say but I think the broadcasters appeared not to have planned much of their coverage of the election, they were led by the news cycle. So, in the first week, we had wall-to-wall coverage of the Kinahan-Hutch feud and the shooting in the Regency Hotel, in the second week there was a lot of talk about fiscal space and Kenny and Adams grasp, or lack thereof of financial, their own financial data and then, in the last week or so, there were two days coverage of the Taoiseach’s comments around whingers in Castlebar. So it appeared there was little focus on, as you say, on the issues themselves.”
Devitt: “In Cork there was coverage around, or there was a lack of coverage in the national media, about and interview I think, on Cork local radio [Red FM] of Enda Kenny and there were allegations by the, was it Neil Prendeville, he had alleged that Kenny’s advisors, or his media handlers were putting him under pressure to wrap up a rather intense interview with the Taoiseach. We didn’t see that kind of questioning of Martin or Kenny elsewhere in the mainstream media.”
O’Carroll: “There’s a certain politeness, I think, that goes along with Cabinet ministries, positions and with the Taoiseach and I think, obviously, I think sometimes a lot of people, say the Vincent Browne style questioning, if you’re not answering a question, you don’t get away with that. I think, in other studios, people do get away with not answering a question because the impoliteness isn’t there and I think that is to the detriment of getting answers to questions.”
Mercille: “I agree. It’s also to do with the ideology. I mean Gerry Adams will be questioned a lot, whatever he is…”
Clifford: “Should he be questioned more than the other leaders?”
Mercille: “Not at all, I mean he’s not in power, he didn’t make the policies, he didn’t create the mess we have. He could be questioned, he should be questioned on other things, if you like, but I mean the imbalance is just blatant. I mean people were even saying, my god, if the Indo keeps going like that, they’ll backfire on their own terms..”
Clifford: “Just to make a few distinctions here. I think, and I think it is fair to say, and I think an awful lot of people feel that the Independent group in particular covered Sinn Fein in a manner that perhaps a lot of people felt was imbalanced. That doesn’t mean that the whole of the media did that. That’s the first issue…”
Mercille: “Well the media is very…”
Mercille: “The Indo was more explicit and I’m actually more comfortable with that because, actually, there is a view there and you can disagree with the Indo’s view. Sinn Fein is never covered positively in any media, any mass media, except for exceptions all right. You see the problem with Sinn Fein and the coverage is that let’s say when Gerry Adams was on Sean O’Rourke, people were making fun of his math and all that. Fine, you want to talk about the issue of economic policy, fine, but then you have to criticise Enda Kenny and Fine Gael for their austerity.”
Talk over each other
Clifford: “Hang on there’s a difference between, hold on, there’s a difference between criticising somebody for their grasp of the issues, and criticising somebody for the nature of their policies. Absolutely you…”
Mercille: “Well Fine Gael doesn’t understand economics because if you understand economics, no, if you understand economics, if you understand economics, the first thing you do is not austerity in times of recession.”
Clifford: “I know, that’s one side of it. That’s a different issue, that’s one side of an argument.”
Mercille: “It’s a more important point than not knowing about the math of this budget or something.
Mercille: “The reason Sinn Fein is attacked so much is because it’s the only force in this country that can challenge the establishment. Whether you love Sinn Fein or you hate them.”
Clifford: “Oh, so Sinn Fein are not the establishment?”
Mercille: “They’re much less establishment than Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.”
Mercille: “Oh you think? Oh really. When’s the last time they were in Government?”
Clifford: “They’re in the Government in the North, they’re the biggest party in the…”
Talk over each other
Clifford: “They’re the biggest party in the local elections…”
Mercille: “I’m not saying they’re a bit part of the establishment. But they can challenge Fine Gael and Fianna Fail much more than let’s say…”
Clifford: “You’re suggesting that questioning Sinn Fein has absolutely nothing to do with other elements, apart from their socioeconomic position?”
Mercille: “Do you have other aspects you could question? You could talk about the North, if you like, you could talk about anything, you could talk about nationalism, you could talk about Gerry Adam’s past. That’s all fine. But you have to do it, not in a double standards way. If you want to talk about the economy, fine. But then talk about austerity. If you want to talk about…”
Clifford: “Has it not been talked about?”
Mercille: “Not in the right way. It hasn’t been challenged, the media endorsed austerity all the way, across the board and they’ve said it explicitly themselves.”
Clifford: “Jane, just to, in fairness, because it is an issue, I’m not singling out one party but it is an issue as to whether or not Sinn Fein got a fair shake. What do you think?”
Suiter: “Yeah, absolutely, in the other ones, because the coding we used is coding that’s been used in Greece and in Spain and in Portugal and in Germany, so it’s developed in a pan-European group. And when we looked at it, and looked at the tone of coverage, there was a negative tone of coverage for Gerry Adams compared with the other leaders but it was driven by the Indo. And the tone of coverage for Gerry Adams, in the Journal and in the Irish Times, was neutral. It wasn’t positive, but it was neutral. And the tone of coverage for all of the leaders, in all of the newspapers was broadly neutral.”
O’Carroll: “A lot of talk was about how they [Sinn Fein] wanted to abolish the Special Criminal Court and I think a lot of people might have thought that that was kind of at the forefront of their manifesto. It was in fact mentioned once on page 46 of their manifesto. It is, you have to put it to them when it’s, exactly…”
Clifford: “Because, a couple of weeks before it…”
Clifford: “Slab Murphy was convicted… Gerry Adams introduces the Special Criminal Court..”
O’Carroll: “I’m not saying that that was something that was done in error. I’m just saying it’s a manner of the news cycle, that’s how it happens. So it wasn’t a vendetta about picking out something that may not have been on the top of their agenda and making it so in front pages, it was because it happened to come up.”
Devitt: “I think broadcast media, in particular, have a responsibility to manage the election coverage very carefully and not be so reactive to the news cycle. Print media also need to be very careful, or more careful I should say…”
Clifford: “The broadcast media though are restricted by the BAI and they have to literally measure balance…”
Devitt: “Oh absolutely but, by the same token, they were still very much led by what was in the newspaper, in the news, that day…”
Clifford: “The actual topics, yeah.”
Devitt: “And when you look at the questions that were asked of the leaders during the three debates, on RTE and on TV3, they were still very much led by what was in, or influence by, what was in the newspaper that day.”
O’Carroll: “Well it’s not only what’s in the newspapers, it’s what’s people, in general, are talking about and what people have questions about.”
Devitt: “Well, I mean there were issues like climate change or corruption – which was a big issue just in December – that were barely mentioned during the leaders’ debates.”
Suiter: “Or Repeal the 8th wasn’t mentioned much in the leaders’ debates. I think a big thing is that fact that the smaller parties, and Independents, weren’t covered much by the, you know, we saw in the poll afterwards…”
Clifford: “It’s a proportionate thing though..”
Suiter: “No, but they have a huge proportion of the vote now, as we’ve seen and they didn’t get it and, the same thing in the leaders’ debates. They had a huge proportion of the vote and they weren’t there.”
Watch back in full here
Media surround Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams this morning outside the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin
By presenting voters with a stark choice between “stability” and “chaos” elements of the establishment media went too far in General Election 2016.
Ciaran Tierney writes:
Has there ever been a General Election campaign in Ireland before in which the role of some elements of the mainstream media seemed so clear? Not to report the truth, or to compare policies, but to cheer on the establishment parties and spread an irrational fear of change.
For months now, we’ve been told that this election is giving us a choice between “stability” (voting for the parties who either bankrupt the country or imposed austerity on thousands of us) and “chaos” (God forbid if those upstarts from Sinn Féin or the small left wing parties came within a million miles of power).
Sometimes the mask slips, and you wonder whether Irish democracy is any better than the kind of electioneering you would find in modern day Russia or even North Korea.
Such as when the nation’s biggest selling newspaper gives over its main story to attacking Sinn Féin policies for three days in a row. That’s not balanced election coverage, that’s naked propaganda.
There is nothing wrong with challenging a party which has a sinister past, especially if they are a rising force on the brink of gaining power for the first time in the Republic.
But where is the investigative journalism into the policies of the Fianna Fail party which caused the economic crash less than a decade ago? Are they really ready to return to power?
And where is the acknowledgement that, by going into power with the DUP and embracing the peace process, Sinn Fein have actually come a long way in the space of a few years?
Where is the analysis of why the Labour Party abandoned their core voters (and all their principles) or why Fine Gael think it’s perfectly acceptable to punish so many for the sins of so few?
The same newspaper sent a representative, a crime reporter, onto the nation’s most popular chat show at the weekend.
He managed to insult hundreds of thousands of people on Friday night by suggesting that anyone who supports Sinn Fein’s position on the Special Criminal Court is a drug-dealer, a killer, or a thug.
People have a right to be concerned at the prospect of former terrorists going into Government, but blatant scare-mongering is another thing.
…It was hard not to see his Late Late Show appearance as a hatchet-job on Sinn Fein just a week before the election.
On the day after his TV appearance, thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital to protest against austerity. The Right 2 Change march merited just one paragraph, and not a single photo, in one of the nation’s biggest selling Sunday papers the following day.
Six days before the election, thousands of people insisted that austerity was still a big issue. They said that the march was about so much more than Irish Water. But a Rupert Murdoch-owned ‘paper decided their march did not merit any coverage, even though so many of them took over the city centre.
Across the city, another editor was putting together a piece which suggested ten different reasons not to vote for Sinn Féin. Which was fair enough, but you’d be waiting a long time for ten different reasons not to vote for the party which bankrupted the country in the first place.
Sadly, the people who cover politics in Ireland largely move in the same circles as the political masters they write about. They broadly share the same views, seeing nothing wrong with the bank bailout or Ireland’s failure to stand by our Greek cousins when they sought debt relief last year.
To support Syriza in their hour of need would have involved challenging the status quo and an admission that the Irish were wrong. And nobody in the Irish Government wanted that.
So we get “fluffy” pieces from the campaign trail, in which reporters get access to our leaders as long as they play by their rules.
…In this election, we should be grateful for social media. The landscape has been transformed.
When people see videos of 100,000 people marching through Dublin city centre on Facebook, getting next to no coverage on national television, they begin to ask about pro-Government “spin”.
More and more, people are beginning to ask questions about the information they are being fed.
We see Irish Water protesters being labelled as the “sinister fringe” on the TV news, but the only footage we see of Gardai beating up protesters is away from the mainstream media.
On Facebook or Twitter, you can see photos of thousands upon thousands marching through the streets of the capital to protest against austerity, even if those images rarely end up in the national newspapers or on TV.
You can see the establishment politicians make fools of themselves, by trying to defend the indefensible in unguarded moments on Twitter.
You can find out about the parties’ policies by accessing their websites and avoiding the scare-mongering among some elements of the media.
By all means, question the policies of left wing groups such as PBP-AAA and Sinn Fein. A hung Dail, with so many Independents, is a scary thing. Perhaps they would lead Ireland to ruin. Fianna Fail certainly should know – they led Ireland to ruin only five short years ago.
People don’t like to think they are being brainwashed or led a merry dance by those who have hidden agendas or a vested interest in holding onto power.
There is some vile stuff out there on social media, but it’s only there that you get a real taste of the anger running through the housing estates and parts of rural Ireland over the past five years. That anger rarely gets a look-in on national TV or our newspapers.
We have so many sources of information in 2016 that people can see right through the “spin”, in a way which would have been unthinkable before the advent of Facebook and Twitter.
That can only be a good thing, when we’re sometimes faced with the kind of propaganda which would not seem out of place in North Korea or Cuba.
RTÉ and the newspapers go into overdrive to give us all regular updates, including biographies, on the drug dealers operating in Dublin. Do we really need all this information? Does no editor think that rather than glamorising these people, there should be very limited information on their lifestyles, who they are related to and how they live above the law? Taxpayers are more interested in having the resources of the law directed at managing a fair and safe society.
Staying in tonight?
On the day that Dublin buries a second victim of the recent upsurge in gangland violence, we’ll [The Late Late Show on RTÉ 1] get the lowdown from crime correspondent Paul Williams on who the key players are in this latest feud. We’ll find out what they’re worth, where they’re stashing the cash and how they are controlling the Dublin crime scene from their sunny bolt holes in southern Europe….
Directors of elections for Labour Alan Kelly, for Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes, Fianna Fáil TD Billy Kelleher and Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carty, with RTÉ’s Sharon Ní Bheoláin this morning
Magdalene Hayden, assistant to Senator Katherine Zappone, writes:
The gender disparity in media is glaringly obvious, particularly when you examine the media coverage provided to female politicians on currents affairs programming in Ireland, according to Independent general election candidate for Dublin South West Katherine Zappone. For example, in recent weeks there were no female politicians participating in some of Ireland’s flagship political programmes.
During her recent feminism conference in Tallaght, attended by over 300 people, women from all walks of life shared their experiences and a common thread between them all was a sense of frustration at the imbalance of gender representation in Irish media.
Journalist, broadcaster, and activist Una Mullally made an impassioned call for media organisations to tackle the massive gender disparity endemic in our news and media organisations. She believes that a gender audit is the only realistic way to tackle the lack of representation of women in the media, while also examining the lack of women in positions of power in the industry itself.
Zappone echoes the sentiments of Mullally as someone who has been collaborating with and educating women, helping them achieve their potential for over 30 years. Having helped sow the seeds of many local women’s journeys into higher education via An Cosán, the Jobstown-based education centre, Zappone believes the time for an Independent voice with a passion for equality is now. Katherine champions equal opportunities for women in the workplace, education, health services and public life.
From top: UCD lecturer Julien Mercille, Irish Independent columnist Dan O’Brien and founder of Hibernia Forum Eamon Delaney
And that’s it.
You may recall the publication of the 456-page Banking Inquiry report during the week.
The report contained a chapter entitled The Property Sector, which included a section on Property Valuation which, in turn, contained a sub-section on Property Sector Relationships with the Media.
It was 1½ pages long.
And it concluded uncontroversially:
“Revenue from the property sector was a significant source of income for some media outlets, accounting for as much as 14% or 17% of all revenue for some newspapers. Editors denied that editorial independence was affected by their advertising relationship with the property sector.”
Further to this…
UCD lecturer and dreamboat ‘sheet columnist Dr Julien Mercille; chief economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, Irish Independent columnist and former economics editor at the Irish Times (2010 to 2013) Dan O’Brien; and former diplomat and founder of right-wing think tank Hibernia Forum Eamon Delaney spoke to Sarah Carey on Newstalk this morning’s Talking Points show.
Specifically, they discussed the media’s role in pumping up the boom, promising pillow soft landings and supporting austerity when their analysis proved faulty.
Grab a large tay.
Sarah Carey: “Julien Mercille, I’ll start with you because you laid out quite a coherent case against the media at the banking inquiry. Will you give us the elevator pitch on how it’s our fault?”
Julien Mercille: “Well, it’s against a certain type of media. I mean the case I make is that the media reflects the interests of its owners and that’s very, very easy to understand from other media. We don’t have a problem saying that the UCD student paper reflects the interests of the students, by and large, or a union paper reflects the union interests. It’s kind of obvious. But when we come to corporate media or State-owned media you say well that reflects the interests of the State, the Government or the corporate world, people sometimes say, ‘oh no, you’re a conspiracy theorist’ or something. And again it doesn’t mean that because it reflects the interests and views of the corporate world, it’s wrong. It can be right, it’s just a matter of saying it’s a certain interest and it’s a narrow range of interests that we see in the media. So, in relation to the housing bubble and the banking inquiry, the media was very much supporting the housing bubble.
There were some voices of dissent but we can name them very quickly because there’s probably only one or two people – David McWilliams is the most prominent one but everybody else was saying there either was no problem, there’s going to be a soft landing or what happens often is also they wouldn’t talk about it. So if you don’t talk about a big problem, a big bubble that’s growing and growing, that’s a kind of passive support so sometimes the media works more in that way. People don’t know there’s something important so they keep buying houses. And then there’s a problem and everybody says, ‘oh, we never saw it’. Whereas if you looked just across the sea, The Economist magazine had warned about the bubble in 2003. And not just a vague warning, a very precise warning saying house prices are overvalued by 40% I think and there were many housing bubbles at that time in the world so Ireland was not unique in that respect.”
Sarah Carey: “Are you saying that journalists were consciously bending to the will of what they thought their corporate bosses wanted or was it just something far more subtle in their neglect of the topic?”
Mercille: “Sometimes there were, at the banking inquiry again, we know that property industry called The Irish Times, for example, and said, ‘listen you better have good coverage because, you know, we’re not going to sponsor, we’re not going to advertise with you’, so there were a few explicit threats like that. But mostly I don’t think journalists were, every day, like, ‘ok, I cannot talk about the housing bubble’. I think the media is like any institution. People who work in the media mostly internalise the rules and they come not to think about them so much. It’s such a fast-paced work anyway and you don’t sometimes have the time to think about it. It’s the same thing for any institution, whether it’s the military or academia.”
Carey: “So, Dan O’Brien, the media internalised the problem and therefore were incapable of seeing it clearly?”
Dan O’Brien: “Well, can I come back to the first, the specific issue of the bubble and the property thing and then there’s the broader charge that Julien makes about media organisations doing their corporate owners’ bidding and Julien says that media people do what the corporate and Government interests want. Now I would really suggest to Julien that he get out a bit more because if you talk to politicians, most politicians hate the media, particularly Government politicians. They say that the media doesn’t report their achievements, it only looks at trivial things, it looks at their fights, it tries to catch them out all the time. The notion that the media is supportive of a government, like politicians just would laugh at that proposition. That’s politicians. Corporate, like the amount of times I’ve talked to people in business who believe the media are full of left-wing, anti-business people. They think the media is anti-profit, anti-business.
Again, they would just laugh at the notion that the media is dominated by pro-business cheerleaders. So, you know, different people have different perspectives. Julian, from his perspective, believes that, you know, the media is all dominated and basically just does business and Government’s bidding, I just think that’s fantasy. OK, so let’s move on to the bubble. I have two hats – I have one as an economist, I have one as somebody who contributes to the media. As an economist, I think we’re the people who deserve blame for missing out on the bubble, OK? Journalists are generalists, they can’t be experts on everything, that’s one of the great difficulties of media. If the majority of the economics community either thought there wasn’t a bubble or, as Julian said, didn’t raise it enough and I was guilty of that. I didn’t, I wasn’t living here so, you know, I should have said more in hindsight about the risks and that the failing of the economics profession when the average journalist was looking at what was going on and saying, ‘well look, most economists, who know more about this stuff than I do, say there’s not a problem or the risk is relatively low, well then, what are we going to write everyday. Somebody’s talking about a risk, are we going to put this on the front page everyday? No.’ So I, in my view, there were some failings in the media around the bubble and there are things that could be changed but did the media contribute in any big way to the inflating of the bubble? No. It was the banks, it was the columnists’ intellectual failings…”
Carey: “But what about property journalism specifically? I mean you know like that was, first of all, you had the revenues from property advertising, which were hugely significant. Julien pointed out that both INM and The Irish Times actually bought property websites and then you had the property porn, all those wonderful articles. You know no house ever had a flaw in it, the lovely advertorials, you know…”
O’Brien: “The notion that a journalist ceases, becomes a property editor for a newspaper and then puts aside the normal journalistic rigour and scrutiny and then writes, as you say, only positive stuff – you know, personally, I don’t think that’s the way to go. And, you know, that still happens. I don’t, you know, make decisions on how newspapers are run. Certainly, I don’t think that’s a good thing. But, you know, in terms of papers taking adverts for the sale of houses, now the last time I looked, selling a house was legal. If somebody comes to you and says, ‘I will pay to advertise to sell a product’, why would a company in an industry that’s in big trouble turn away those revenues? There’s nothing wrong with advertising if businesses want to advertise. Now when this issue of whether advertisers influenced editorial content, you know, I’ve read Julien’s work very closely – I don’t see evidence where he’s put that, where there’s definite evidence that advertisers actually influenced editorial content. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I don’t know. But I certainly haven’t seen any convincing evidence from Julien’s work showing that advertisers influenced editorial content.”
Carey: “So Julien, the problem here is just going back to that issue of confirmation bias in that we’re each seeing, you know, what we think is a bias in the media from a different perspective. So Dan’s question about evidence, you know, how much evidence were you actually able to compile on quantity of articles say not challenging the boom or challenging the boom or whatever?”
Mercille: “Well I have to say, before that, whenever you hear something from Dan O’Brien, you have to remember he has no credibility whatsoever, right? And I’ll tell you why.”
Carey: “Well I…”
Mercille: “I’ll tell you why, very clearly. From 2002, or something, until the bubble burst, he said himself, he didn’t see that. After that, 2008 until today, he was a cheerleader for austerity which doesn’t work – he doesn’t understand that. So 15 years of failure right there. So whenever he says something it has to be taken with a big grain of salt. Now his other, latest accusation – that in my work there’s no influence about advertisers – I don’t know what he’s reading, this is out there in the open. There’s good papers, interviewing journalists, saying, ‘we had pressures from the property sector telling us don’t do this, don’t write that’ and that’s fine.”
Carey: “Have you specific cases of that happening? Like you, do you know specific cases where journalists were explicitly told… now I’m…”
Carey: “I’m very open to the idea of self-censorship and group think but in the case of specific examples…”
Mercille: “Of course there…”
O’Brien: “But so what? What difference…”
Mercille: “Look, she asked me the question, right?”
O’Brien: “Oh, sorry.”
Mercille: “There’s a paper published, I think it’s from DCU [sic], and they’ve interviewed journalists and they said exactly what I just said, ‘the property sector would tell us this and that’. Now the other thing that is important, it’s not, the media doesn’t work in a way that property people call every journalist and editors call every journalist, ‘hey don’t do this, don’t do that’ – people know what they have to do. So when the editors came in the banking inquiry and said, ‘I never felt any pressure from my owners’, I kind of believe them because they share the same values. They wouldn’t be in the position they are, if they didn’t share the same values. Now if the editors were really critical people, who were thinking for themselves and challenging the establishment, they would lose their job right away. So because they are there, of course they don’t feel any pressures from them, they’re as a team. So there’s a truth to that.”
Carey: “Ok, now what about Dan’s point though, that the overwhelming majority of the economics profession didn’t call the bubble. They were, there was a large buy into the idea of the soft landing.”
Mercille: “That’s true.”
Carey: “So, you can’t blame journalists…”
Mercille: “Yes, I can.”
Carey: “When they were being told, all round them. So, fine, you’re quoting one article from The Economist but I think even the IMF, you know, weren’t aware of all the risks. So, you know, what else were journalists to do?”
Mercille: “It’s interesting that I’m sitting here, and every time I go on the media, as the person on the panel who doesn’t like the media and journalists but actually I have much more respect for journalists than sometimes what Dan is saying. He’s saying that journalists just listen to economists and then they just copy what the economists said, it’s not their fault.”
O’Brien: “I never said that.”
Mercille: “You’re a journalist, right?”
Mercille: “The journalist should be robust. Just copying down what the economists? Journalists have to do more and be critical.”
Carey: “But they don’t. That’s the problem.”
Mercille: “Well, yeah, that’s why… I mean I respect the profession a bit more when I say they should. I don’t say they’re journalists, it’s not their fault. No, you have an obligation to research. Of course, the economics profession is also very pro-establishment, so it’s no wonder that they didn’t see the housing bubble. Now Dean Baker, who is one of the best economists in the world, in 2002, wrote a very good paper about the US housing bubble, warned about it very clearly, not vague speculations. Dean Baker writes papers with Paul Krugman, he’s not a backwater economist…”
Carey: “I’ll come to Dan now on that….”
Carey: “So Dan, do you want to respond…”
O’Brien: “Look, I don’t, I don’t feel the need to defend myself. Whatever, but…”
Mercille: “Maybe you can’t defend yourself, Dan. That’s why.”
O’Brien: “I will actually, Julien. I actually worked at The Economist that you talked so glowingly about from 1998 to 2010. Some of the reports that you…”
Mercille: “You should have read the articles then that warned you about the bubble.”
O’Brien: “I was involved in the survey of Ireland, as it happens, that you’ve cited and you don’t quite seem to understand. The bottom line is, I did warn about risks, I came on TV here. I said, in 2006, I said, ‘don’t buy a house unless your income is guaranteed’. I said, ‘there’s a real risk, there’s too much debt’. I didn’t live here, I was asked, I was back and I was asked to go on a Prime Time show, exactly 10 years ago, so I did warn of risks. And, in terms of the post-crisis, I’ve been living here since 2010, I have taken a view that there was a need for fiscal consolidation. The economy is now growing again, it’s recovering. You say austerity doesn’t work, I don’t put it like austerity works, it doesn’t work, we had no choice in terms of bringing our budget back into balance and that was my view. So that’s you know, just, whatever in terms of [inaudible]..”
Carey: “Eamon Delaney, obviously there’s a lot of concern in Ireland around media ownership and cross media ownership. But I’ve often wondered, as well, about cross media employment, you know, where you have journalists, like you and I who are, say, working for Newstalk and maybe writing for the Independent or maybe writing for the Sunday Business Post or writing for the Sunday Times occasionally – that how are journalists supposed to call out each other if they’re worried that the paper that they might be criticising or the broadcasting organisation that they might be criticising might be a future employer that they might need?”
Eamon Delaney: “I think that’s just something to navigate individually. You see, I don’t…”
Carey: “But do people navigate it individually by holding back?”
Delaney: “Like common sense, I think yeah.
Carey: “Define that?”
Delaney: “Well I think that, look, you know, I would be critical of some journalists who’ve written for Independent newspapers, over the years, but I wouldn’t do it in a way that was disloyal to the paper. I mean I’m actually one of those people who believes, you know, if I worked in a restaurant as a waiter, I wouldn’t badmouth the chef. You know? I don’t get this kind of phenomenon that we had a few years ago of a certain Sunday paper attacking the main owner of the paper, the main owner of this radio station as well – I thought it was insane. If I was employing someone, I’d want them to be kind of loyal to the owner and to the general ethos. But I do think, and it does happen, that journalists do disagree greatly even though they work with the same organisation – Patsy McGarry and John Waters used to have great scraps, they were both employed by the Irish Times, I think it’s just something you navigate and it’s a matter of common sense, you know?”
Carey: “Dan what about you? Or sorry, Julien, you want to come in on that…”
Mercille: “I think it’s very interesting what Eamon said. I mean, you’ve said very clearly what I’ve been saying for ever. You said, I’m expecting to be loyal to my owner. I mean this is very, very, very obedient. I mean…”
Delaney: “They’re employing you, I mean…”
Mercille: “It’s very obedient, a real journalist would say, ‘this guy hired me to find out the truth’, whatever it is.”
Delaney: “He can do that as well.”
Mercille: “Well you just said ‘I would be expecting that someone would be loyal to me and I’m always loyal to my owner’. I mean this is very, very revealing. People ask me for examples all the time, that’s it, there’s just one right there…and unconsciously you said it.”
Delaney: “Yeah, and I’ll say it again, I do think one should be loyal to one’s employer.”
Mercille: “Well again, that’s an ethos of journalism in Ireland: we should be loyal to our employer. What is that?”
Delaney: “Julien, you’re one of these people that thinks journalists are paid for by…the media needs…”
Mercille: “What is that? This is the best quote since I got to Ireland. And he repeats it, you know, he’s very proud of it.”
Carey: “Julien, to be fair, maybe to Eamon, I mean in the last four months you’ve written for the Independent, Sunday Business Post…”
Delaney: “Everybody, yeah.”
Carey: “The Daily Mail, yeah, you’re writing for everyone…”
Carey: “So even taking into account the loyalty of the owner, which you did say, my point is that by writing for each one of them, you know, does that mean you can’t criticise each of them for failures?”
Delaney: “But I do, but I’m careful. I don’t, you know, yeah, I’m not gonna…”
Mercille: “So you criticise on the things that are not too important but you remain loyal.”
Delaney: “No I do criticise on things that are important…”
Mercille: “But that’s what you said, you have to remain loyal…”
Delaney: “No I’m loyal, I don’t believe in attacking the owner of the newspaper…”
Mercille: “You don’t believe in attacking the owner of the newspaper?”
Delaney: “Absolutely not.”
Mercille: “Ok, but that’s very obedient, you’ll get a job anywhere in journalism.”
Delaney: “If I was employed as a diplomat I wouldn’t sit down and start writing tracts against the minister…”
Mercille: “A diplomat is also, they’re also parrots, they’re also parrots, they talk for the government and get fired, they get fired if they don’t say the government line. That’s the PR industry.”
Delaney: “I can honestly tell you, on a personal level, I do have strong principles, on many things..”
Mercille: “Loyalty is one…”
Delaney: “Well, no, if I could just finish, there has never been an issue where I was writing for someone or I was avoiding something that I felt, never…”
Mercille: “Because you’ve internalised the principle so much that you don’t even feel the principle of attacking…”
Delaney: “You see this is like, you’re now telling me, this is like psychiatry like, I’m not internalising, you’re gonna tell me that I’m subconsciously self-censoring myself…”
Mercille: “No people can hear it very clearly.”
Delaney: “No, no..”
Carey: “Well Julien, if Eamon is saying that’s he never had a moment where he thought he wanted to criticise someone…”
Delaney: “Or a thing…”
Carey: “…but held back and didn’t out of fear of the consequences, is that what you’re saying, Eamon?”
Delaney: “Yeah, I’ve never, never…now I may have the same views as the owners of papers in that way we differ, you know, duly, we do differ, in the same way as someone say you were happy writing for the Irish government, yeah because I shared most of their views and still do, as a state. But I’ve never been stopped. I have been told I can’t write about something – interestingly one was to do with trade unions in which a paper, let’s not say what it was, was friendly to this particular trade union movement. So there you go that’s censorship from the left and a few other things to do with a few individuals and libel but not on any issues.”
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Previously: For Those Who Shouted Stop He Salutes You