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Still Writing Out the Resistance: The Irish Times and the Household Charge

Critical Media Review on the Irish Times continued  de-politicisation of the household tax controversy.

In a previous article critical media review looked at the framing of the household charge controversy in the Irish Times and Irish Independent concluding that much of the coverage has  written out the anti household tax campaign. In doing so they have effectively written out political discussion and debate focusing on either technical issues or mistakes of the Government. Today in the Irish Times a rather bizarre piece completely omitting any political considerations continues this theme.  The piece begins with:

DESPITE BEING imposed by a Government with healthy polling figures, at a time when every Irish citizen is aware of the financial challenges facing the State, almost half of all Irish householders have avoided paying the €100 household charge to date.

A number of issues here: primarily the authors conceive of politics as the game of polling, and presumably if polls are up all is well in the world. Politics presumably does not go beyond this representation of representation and certainly should be kept off the streets. Secondly they seem to have a complete unawareness of the financial position of much of the Irish working and middle classes. At the same time they also omit the wider political implications of the boycott.Thirdly and  most incredibly the authors state:

Without any large-scale protests, a near majority quietly and almost peacefully failed to pay a tax. Even in the worst days of the 1980s, this level of tax avoidance was unthinkable.

We can only surmise that the (now slightly embarrassed?) authors wrote the article before last Saturday’s large demonstration at the Labour Party conference in Galway; a protest which ended with 1,000 protesters breaking through police lines. For  the first time in the Republic of Ireland pepper spray was used by the Police (cue media bias on protester violence here).

He obviously didn’t get the ‘no protests have happened’ memo

However they must have written the article since the large scale protest outside the Fine Gael conference, and the literally hundreds of local campaign meetings and protests involving tens of thousands over the last few months. The anti household tax campaign has been the biggest national political campaign in the Irish Republic for decades. This lack of political awareness is especially poor given that the article was written by academics specialising in regulation and governance in one of Ireland’s most prominent universities.

We can only  speculate that they are either political novices or have chosen to omit the campaign for ideological reasons. The fact that they use the term ‘tax avoidance‘ rather than the term ‘boycott‘ would certainly betray an ideological bent. However that is not to say it is impossible for one to be both ideologically bent and politically unaware at the same time.

The large scale protest that didn’t happen outside the FG conference

But the bizarre elements of the article only begins. The authors ask:

Why the massive failure to comply? Are we witnessing a disaffected public flexing its combined “muscle” in response to a Government imposing more and more austerity measures on the average family?

And answers:

Lessons from regulatory governance – the study of what makes people choose to follow or break rules – suggest otherwise.

And now begins the entire de-politicising of the entire issue. The authors offer a number of reasons why people have not paid, in doing so the authors offer absolutely no evidence of any kind, relying on what can only be described as pop-academic suggestions.  Firstly they tell us of an experiment by ‘behavioural’ economists:

 Seeing other people “get away with murder” can create a “coalition of the unwilling”. Behavioural economists have conducted experiments where individuals work together to win cash prizes. Participants could work together to build a bigger pot to divide, or free load on the work of others. In these simulated games they showed that most people are willing to go to great lengths to see cheaters punished – even to the point of giving up their own winnings just to make sure another person doesn’t get away with more than their share.

And then jump immediately to the conclusion:

People preferred to join those not paying the household charge than to see others get away without paying it.

Behavioural psychology is in itself quite controversial and in no way universally accepted but even leaving this aside; the idea that some individuals (most likely students)  taking part in simulated games to win cash prizes, somehow equates to people suffering in the fifth year of austerity measures, (while watching the wealthy being bailed out and become wealthier) is quite frankly ridiculous and has no scientific validity. They also betray an extremely narrow conception of why people don’t pay. It is not people acting collectively or even individually in protest (or  being unable to afford the charge)  but not paying  so as to ‘not see others got away with it’.  Collective solidarity seems to be anathema to this line of thinking.

Second, be transparent about your figures – but do it afterwards. Being told that you’re the last person on your street not to pay the charge is very powerful, but knowing you’re the first doesn’t rush you. Everyone knows there is strength in numbers, and the Government kept telling us how big those numbers were. If you are going to give constant updates about your figures, you had better hope they are on your side.

A certain hint of authoritarian and propagandistic thinking here. Surely not in the paper of record?

Third, social pressure matters. While many people pay their taxes because they think it is a patriotic duty or they wish to contribute to the State, others do so because of the social stigma attached to non-payment. The Revenue Commissioners figured this out a long time ago and started publishing lists of tax avoiders in newspapers.

Hearing your neighbours gossiping about your dirty laundry can be much more effective than a fine. By failing to make a strong case for why the charge was necessary, the Government failed to bring this social pressure to bear.

This is entirely consistent with the ‘dole scrounger’ line of thinking. Or better known as blaming the victim. The article certainly is starting to betray an authoritarian line now, which continues with:

Finally, a threat needs to be credible. When it was a week before the deadline and three out of four people hadn’t registered for the charge it was possible to believe that non-payers would not really be punished.

After writing an article dripping in bias they offer a little faux-objectivity:

Whether the household charge is a good idea or not  it’s clear that the Government really didn’t give it the best chance for success.

Finally they finish with their entire position and the reason for the article:

While it’s important that people are taxed at fair levels, the response to the household charge shows that it’s equally important that money is collected in a way that makes people confident that everyone will pay their fair share and if they don’t that they’ll be punished for it. To mistake technical weaknesses for mass revolt would also be an example of policy failure.

Let’s repeat that last line to make sure we get it:

 To mistake technical weaknesses for mass revolt would also be an example of policy failure.

Now repeat after me:  There is no opposition, there is no political resistance, there is no opposition, there is no political resistance, there is no opposition….

Kicking off the 2011 Revolts in the age of the Networked Individual: Andrew Flood (Workers Solidarity Movement)

In an long review of  Paul Mason’s new book  Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere Andrew Flood of the WSM discusses some important aspects of the changes in communications structure  in the last number of years, and his reflections of how those changes have affected politics and activism. This review is extremely interesting not only for the insights into the book itself but also for the examples of the activist use of communications tools as experienced by the author himself.

Here critical media review will highlight some of the more communication specific aspects of the review, including Andrew’s own experiences and the theoretical section on the ‘networked individual’. The original review is of course much less media centric than these short extracts and as such should be read to be fully appreciated.

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Namawinelake on a major silence in the Irish mass media; much as the media acts to mystify the class power structures of ‘the markets’ it is of little suprise that journalism remains blind to the outcomes of such structures.

NAMA Wine Lake

In fairness to the Irish Independent, there was a reference to the payment of €1.5bn to AIB bondholders today, appended to a news report which focussed on the NTMA selling bonds to pension funds; the Irish Independent wrote “Meanwhile, nationalised AIB will pay back €1.5bn in senior, unsecured bonds later today, in the latest controversial payment to bondholders in a bailed-out bank. The debt was not covered by a specific government guarantee, though it benefited from the Government’s decision not to “burn” senior bondholders in the State-controlled banks. Last night, the bonds were trading at face value; they have seen a sustained rise in prices as the repayment date approached. (Additional reporting Bloomberg)”

And that was it in Ireland’s old media.

RTE even managed to display its ignorance when it reported in the late afternoon, the occupation of the AIB building in Dublin’s IFSC district by protesters and said “They…

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Putting on the ‘Grün’ Jersey: Jim Power and the Household Tax Revolt – Michael Bride

In 2007 Jim Power, like most right wing economists, proclaimed that there was nothing wrong with the Irish Economy and that the ‘fundamentals were sound’; however Power did see a danger, not the danger of an oversupply of housing/property, nor an over accumulation of wealth or even an oversupply of credit; for Power the true danger was those who were ‘talking down the economy’ (see here and here).

Jim Power - As you can see the fundamentals remain sound

This idealistic viewpoint doesn’t see problems in material  conditions;  the crisis instead comes  from ‘confidence’ in the markets or even the confidence of the markets. Five years on and Power, ever blind to the material facts of the economic crisis, concentrates on how the household charge revolt ‘looks’ to outsiders and how this, like before, is the real threat to the economy.

This of course is to say nothing of how economists working for banking and financial interests (friends first in the case of Power) continue to be given platforms in the national media, notwithstanding their obvious conflicts of interest and the minor fact that they have in general and certainly in the case of Power been consistent in calling it wrong again and again. While Critical Media Review dusts off the ‘Green or Grün Jersey’ Michael Bride deconstructs Jim Power’s take on the household tax revolt and its consequences.

Putting on the 'Grün' Jersey

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