Old Media in the Time of the Internet – Public Discussion – 26th May – Anarchist Bookfair – Liberty Hall, Dublin 1

This session of the 2012 Dublin Anarchist Bookfair looks at the value of paper and ink when the net is usually declared the real frontier. We’re asking our panel to track some of the connections between todays underground radical press, and what went before. Do these organs represent something of a collective organiser, agitator and voice for our movements or are we simply shouting slogans at the bewildered to keep ourselves busy? Where are the similarities in our projects and where are the fundamental differences? How do we judge our successes and more importantly what blinds us to our failures? Should we be building consciousness, communities or organisations?

The session will be hosted by Ciaran Moore of Dublin Community Televison.The panel will feature banter from people involved in Look Left, Rag, rabble, Liberty Paper and Workers Solidarity.

‘Irish Nostalgia as Commodity and Control’ – Miles Link

Miles Link on the use of ‘real Ireland’ nostalgia both as a commodity and as subtle element in the reproduction of class and power structures:

Any prolonged look at Irish popular culture will reveal its status as an elaborate performance. The ‘plastic Paddy’, a show put on for tourists and outsiders, is a well-worn idea, but there is also an interior identity, conceived of as more ‘genuine’, which is performed by the Irish to themselves. Or rather, it is performed to them, since I want to argue that the mass media of Irish television, radio, film and the web, most of what speaks about the Irish as ‘us’ and ‘we’, is not a celebration of some national culture at all. It actually constitutes a way of constructing an Irish identity that serves economic power—what the social theorist and philosopher Theodor Adorno would call ‘the culture industry’.

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Still Playing that Property Game – The Irish Media, Economic Ideology and House Prices

Property is back on the headlines this week due to a report from the Irish Central Bank entitled why are house prices still falling.  The report is a pretty standard and non critical look at the Irish housing market pointing out that:

the severe downturn in the Irish residential property market has already become one of the OECDs largest and most protracted  Meanwhile estimates of asking prices, from sources such as Daft.ie and MyHome.ie were also indicating substantial falls from peak, of 51.8 per cent and 43.1 per cent respectively at the end of 2011. Despite the evidence from these indices, many wonder whether they are a true reflection of where house prices are currently at, pointing to the results of recent property auctions which suggests house prices may be as much as 70 per cent down from peak levels.

The report goes on to consider what the true value of housing should be. It does so by looking at four models which

 …are a form of inverted demand function where house prices are expressed as a function of key market fundamentals

Market fundamentals? Where have we heard that before?  Back in 2007 one of the key arguments of neo-liberal economists who played a deeply ideological role pre-crash was was ‘the fundamentals are sound‘.  The Report Concludes:

The persistent decline in Irish house prices and,
in particular, the acceleration, relative to that in
2010, of the fall in 2011, poses a significant financial stability concern. This note has, using standard models of house prices, examined where actual prices are, at present, compared to fundamental levels. Most of the models suggest that Irish prices have now overcorrected by up to 12 to 26
per cent.

And interestingly the report puts some blame on low prices on the lack of mortgage availability:

A growing array of evidence suggests that
the difficulty in providing mortgage finance in the
Irish market is having a contractionary impact on
market activity and price levels.

Now it goes without saying that the report at no point considered any approach to housing outside the market, but to be fair if the brief was to investigate why house prices continued to decline in the market that might be understandable.  The report however does not seem to take into account the political economy of the wider crisis, (national or international), the political side to the crisis including government policy and certainly there is no consideration of any extra-market possibilities. The report also seems to be predicated on a recovery that is forever just around the next corner.

Now how does the media deal with the report? With critically minded reporting treatment the wider issues, problems with the report and indeed the source itself?  Or how about:

In a front page piece of entitled ‘Houses 50,000 below their true value – bank’ the report is  treated by the Irish Independent without any critique and indeed as uncritical as the report itself is of orthodox economics the Independent’s treatment seems to pick an even more optimistic tone. While leaving out much of the report dealing with the crash itself the Indo tells us that:

 But the new research suggests that house prices could begin rising again if the banks begin lending, or new lenders come into the market.

Inherent in this is the assumption that house price rises are a good thing which of course no suprise as the Irish media see housing through a market orientated framethat is that the primary role of housing is as a commodity to be bought, sold and speculated on  rather than actually house people. Beyond this of course is the solution that ‘all we need is a few banks to lend and or some new entrants into the lending market.’ Now is it just me or are we not in the grips of the bursting of a massive international credit bubble, and such simple market orientated solutions may not exist.  The article continues to tell us that:

…the report warns that the “logical” price of a house will only be realised again when buyers regain their confidence, and banks have the money to be able to lend again.

Again this is the idealistic framing of confidence being the problem, rather than the materialist framing of half a million people being unemployed and those in work having suffered vicious pay cuts alongside the austerity measures taking billions out of the economy.  Though at least they seem to acknowledge that the banks may have a slight material problem of being stone cold broke. This is coherent with the market framing as again confidence is most important for housing speculation rather than those who buy or rent a house as somewhere to live. Banks we are told:

…are only giving out about 10pc of the mortgages compared with the height of the boom. They are struggling to find the balance between beginning to give out more mortgages and not being seen as lending recklessly again. They are also coming to terms with a massive lack of funds.

And when considering who might be the expert to call on to discuss this, let’s see we have an excellent group of Geographers in NUIM who have written numerous reports on the housing collapse, some of their work can be seen on the life after NAMA blog. Or on the other hand why don’t we ask a stock broker?

Analyst Brian Devine of NCB Stockbrokers said the report was right to emphasise that Ireland’s rising population and relatively young population would lead to a stabilisation in prices.

So there you have it, the fundamentals are sound.

What neither the original report or the Irish Independent’s treatment consider is  the tens of thousands of empty houses nor the tens of thousands of people on the housing lists.  Nor indeed that there may be a fundamental problem with leaving housing to an unregulated market, or indeed a market at all. This is because in the market framing of housing it is the market that is key rather than social need.  RTE in a similar frame states Irish property prices have overcorrected – Central Bank while the Irish Times in its uncritical treatment of the report declares house prices undervalued by 26% says bank. The media treatment of this report showing little change to media reportage or treatment five years into the property crash.

Henry Silke

Alternative to Irish media hegemony is vital – Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes of the Irish Republic Blog on Media Hegemony in Ireland:

The Irish people, we are constantly reminded, are an innately conservative lot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from that conservatism being present from birth, part of the DNA of the Irish, it is solely the consequence of cultural formation. At one time it could be argued that that conservatism was the result of  a peculiar form of Catholicism, Ultramontanism, inflicted on the unfortunate people in the early 19th century. There is truth in that, but it tells only part of the story. The decline in the power of the Catholic church in recent decades has not led to a significant shift from conservatism. The answer to this prolonged ideological stasis lies in the media landscape of Ireland.

Ireland is virtually unique among European countries, and many countries in the wider world, in having no significant left-wing press. The three national daily newspapers in the ‘Republic’ of Ireland are to all intents ideologically interchangeable. The ideas and values they present to the readers are essentially conservative on politics, liberal on social  matters, and neo-liberal on economics. The same is true about the Sunday newspapers, and about broadcast media whether privately owned commercial stations or the semi-state national broadcasting company, RTE.

In this media environment, any ideas, values or principles that come out of left-wing ideology are routinely rubbished and ridiculed, usually with an air of authority and often with a sneer. Socialised medicine was recently rubbished on RTE radio as ‘Utopia’ – used as a pejorative term of course – as if the health systems in much of Europe, far superior to ours, could be dismissed just like that, an unattainable daydream. A recent demand by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland that public funding of €100 million for private schools should be withdrawn and used instead for severely disadvantaged public schools met a similar barrage of criticism, much of it from privately educated broadcasters and journalists.

That the existing Irish media not only failed utterly to challenge the ‘Celtic Tiger’ neo-liberal ‘market driven’ economic policies but actually promoted the crazy construction ‘boom’ that those policies were designed to fuel, demonstrates not just the failure of the Irish media to perform its functions  of informing the public and of holding the powerful to account, but its complicity in the creation of a national economic catastrophe. Instead of raising all of the pertinent questions arising from insane economic policies, those voices – most often of the left – which were raised against disastrous public policies were either silenced or rubbished.

The right-wing media hegemony must be broken if there is to be any basis for Ireland being able to claim to be a truly democratic State. The absence of fair presentation of ideas and values that offer an alternative to the political hegemony of permanent right-wing government by one or other of the civil war parties, the ideological twins Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, denies both the notion of a ‘free’ press and the repetitive claim that the Irish electorate is well-informed and well-served by its national media.

The defence of the Irish media that is routinely trotted out is that the media give the readers what the readers want. In the first  place there is no alternative offered, secondly an audience is through repetition over time cultured into believing that what is presented is the ‘norm’ and is the ‘common-sense’ position, particularly when the same small panel of ‘experts’, drawn from the ranks of the political class and elevated to celebrity status by the same media, is used over and over again in print and on radio and TV shows.

The belief is fostered that there is no market for a daily newspaper with the capacity to challenge the Irish Independent, Irish Times and Irish Examiner. A newspaper needs readers, not just to recoup costs through the cover price but more importantly to attract advertisers. To do this it is necessary to have a readership that it is worth marketing products to, and so middle-class and wealthier readers are important, but so too are lower income readers who also consume products and services and need public service information ads.

The approximate circulation figures for the national dailies are: Irish Independent 140,000; Irish times 102,000; Irish Examiner 46,000. Could a new left-wing daily newspaper match those figures, even the lowest? And from which part of the population might it do so?

In the recent General Election the two conservative political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, garnered just under 1.2 million votes. The combined vote for those other parties that are, or claim to be, of the left was approximately 760,000, not counting leftist independents. Another figure worth considering is the total trade union membership in this State of about 600,000. Out of either of those numbers it is difficult to see how a good quality alternative to the current trio of conservative newspapers would not be able to match at least the lowest circulation figure, that of the Irish Examiner.

But what of setup and running costs? A creative approach would be needed, but one ally that a new newspaper has is new communications and printing technology, combined with the capacity to print simultaneously in different regions or provinces to reduce distribution costs and speed delivery. By setting achievable circulation targets and initially using freelance journalists and interns alongside a core of seasoned professional staff under a good team of editors it is feasible to challenge the existing Irish national dailies for readers, and more importantly to set out to win readers away from the Irish versions of British newspapers. There is also, very likely, a large cohort of potential readers who opt for a quality British newspaper, or for none at all.

The plain fact is that until an alternative to the existing conservative national daily newspapers is put in place, then the media hegemony which sustains the political hegemony will continue its work of distortion and propagandising, maintaining a roadblock on the journey to the day when we can legitimately say that this State is a democratic one.