Privileged Access: An Insight into Source Bias in the Irish Press

On  July 14th 2013 the Irish Independent published a fascinating article by Tom Lyons entitled The Gloomsday Book: who was there on the night of the guarantee; the article is not  interesting so much for the narrative of who met whom and when but more so for the journalist’s normative judgement of who should be listened to in times of key economic crisis.  The article while expressing the usual journalistic class biases about ‘bearded trade unionists’  offers an illuminating insight into journalistic sourcing; that is who and what organisations the press speak to in terms of policy decisions and crisis and who they consider relevant. The article discusses the diary of the Minister of Finance on the day of the decision of the banking guarantee with a normative discourse on who was worthy of the state’s attention on that most infamous of days.

As an aside the article declines to remind us of the newspaper’s own support of the guarantee at the time nor its role in publishing at least one article lobbying for the guarantee in advance of its proposal and another in advance of its implementation; but as with the press and the housing bubble we are well used to institutional short memories. What is interesting in this article is that it expresses to us some illuminating thinking about who they believe  it was relevant to talk to on the day of the blanket bank guarantee, a blanket bank guarantee that has had negative aspects throughout all of society.

Guests signing in to see Mr Lenihan himself, however, had nothing to do with the banking crisis which that day saw Anglo Irish Bank on the brink of collapse and other toxic banks such as AIB and Irish Nationwide not that far behind…

…At 4pm, six representatives of different charities including Protestant Aid, the Children’s Rights Alliance, Cori and St Vincent de Paul all sign in to see the minister. These charities are more relevant to Ireland in the years following the bank guarantee than in the hours beforehand.

Then at 4.50pm David Begg, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who sat on the board of the Central Bank during the boom turned up for some reason or other. He was accompanied by Paul Sweeney, the trade union economist. A few minutes later, another three ICTU officials showed up, though it is not clear who they were planning to visit. At 5pm, Jack O’Connor, the president of ICTU, showed up – another bearded trade unionist with zero banking expertise is there to see the minister.

It seems beyond the newspaper’s conception to what trade unionists, or a trade unionist economist might have to do with lobbying the minister for finance at a time when working class wages and conditions are under constant attack and what a blanket guarantee paid for all of society might have to do with those other than business interests.  As he puts it:

The fact that neither Mr Lenihan nor his civil servants thought it wise to clear his schedule so he could focus on the banks again underlines how out of their depth they all were.

So if the state shouldn’t be dealing with pesky bearded trade unionists who should they be speaking to?

Just after Mr O’Connor bustled in, Padraig O Riordain, the managing director of Arthur Cox, showed up in the department – finally, someone who knows about banking had signed in.

So there you have it, an expert, not that such an expert could possibly have any special or vested interests or hold any conflicting brief – this question is not considered at all. The fact that this law firm while advising the state also represents elite groups in Irish society, especially banking and finance is not alluded to.  We can only conclude in the Independent’s view that when this societal crisis was in process, actors from society outside of the world of finance and banking had no role to play. As I said at the beginning of this piece this is an illuminating insight into the thinking of journalists that explains somewhat their own practice.

In his Master’s Voice?

In a sourcing analysis* of the week before and after the bank guarantee itself in 2008 this attitude was replicated in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent. The research found that in stories covering the bank guarantee  business and finance made up 23% of total sources while non business elements of civil society only made up 2%; trade unions made up none. In terms of politics, while state and party political sources made up about half of the total, Fianna Fail alone made up half of that. Non mainstream political parties got a total of two lines in one article, (a mention of an email from Socialist Party rep. Joe Higgins),  the ratio to pro-anti guarantee political parties was around 8 to 1. In terms of frequency or how often people were sourced the trend is repeated. In fact in the news section of the Irish Times about a third of articles only sourced government or state representative.


Figure One: Percentage of complete sources by type in the Irish Times and Irish Independent on the issue of the 2008 blanket bank guarantee 21/09/2008 – 5/10/2008. NB this chart is of complete sources but not frequency of sources, that is numerous sources may appear in a single article. For example although media makes up 8% of sources it does not appear in 8% of articles, it is made up by few articles with numerous sources in each.



Figure Two: Frequency of sourcing by article by type Irish Times and Irish Independent on the issue of the bank guarantee 21/09/2008 – 5/10/2008. NB while many articles contain numerous sources a source type is only counted once. The chart can be read as such ‘In 57.98% of articles at least one political source appeared’

A Single Narrative?

The fact that the newspapers came out in such support of the guarantee is hardly surprising considering the narrow nature of its sources, the research found that while the 81 articles published about the guarantee could be described as supportive only 16 and 22 could be described as negative and neutral respectively. Apart from some honorable acceptions most articles seemed to accept mainstream political and business sources without serious critique.  Why does this matter? Because politics, political policy and ideology in general is often a battle of conflicting narratives, and here the evidence clearly shows, as does Tom Lyons’  illuminating piece, one narrative dominates the Irish press, and that put simply is a class and market based narrative which serves elite sections in society, and while the press continue to have a somewhat influential role in the media and wider society this is deep concern.

*This research is part of an ongoing PhD thesis on the Irish press and the financial crisis.

Photo from Anglo not our debt



The Non-Ideology of Jim Power

“The perpetrators of the extreme negativity should question their real motives and ask themselves if their comments are doing more harm than good,” Mr Power said. 

 Irish Independent: Consumer confidence higher but fragile,  1/5/2007 

Today on RTE radio celebrity economist and Friend’s First  lobbyist Jim Power declared “I don’t take an ideological approach to anything”. This statement is interesting as it underlines the mainstream media relationship to ideology; that is that ideology is anything outside market norms while dominant market based ideologies remain ‘practical’ even when proven wrong. The idea of ideology goes beyond academic interest as RTE and other media continue to disproportionately use such ‘non-ideological’ sources from the financial world without any consideration of either political positions or interests. As discussed  in an earlier piece:

The mass media act as an economic ideological apparatus in a number of ways: Firstly the media may act to favour certain narratives above others when describing historical or contemporary events. It may do so by the use of sources biased in favour of officialdom or corporate business. As Herman and many others point out, economics is an intrinsically contested area ideologically, as ‘those expressing opinions favoured by ‘the market’ (i.e. the business elite) have been provided with disproportionate resources and access to influence and power through their sponsorships in grants, access to the mass media, and in influence in the political arena’ (Herman 1982) The media may also operate ideologically by ‘significant silences’, by the framing of issues in certain ways (Entman 2004) or by narrow agenda setting

For one of the best examples of  ‘non-ideology’ ideology in action one has to go no further than the debate between Jim Power and Morgan Kelly back in 2007. This debate took place two months before the general election in 2007 when Jim Power led the Green Jersey brigade in defending in the most absolutist and ideological terms the Irish economic model and housing market; the only question that remains is why is Jim Power still one of the most ubiquitous economic sources on Irish media?


John Bellamy Foster: Use Value, Exchange Value and the Communication Revolution – IAMCR Dublin 2013

John Bellamy Foster speaking at the IAMCR conference in Dublin. Foster discusses the issues of finacialisation and the ‘communication revolution’. Of particular interest to this blog is his discussion of the privileging of exchange value over use value; something this blog maintains is intrinsic to the Irish housing bubble and ideology surrounding it and is a central plank  to research being carried out by the author into the media and the financial crisis in Ireland.

Inception or Deception – Japlandic

Republished courtesy of japlandic.

Notes on the data: the number of houses sold isn’t factored, just the total sales price for 6 months. The volume of sales are so low at the moment that any houses at the far end of the bell curve will skew the picture. The thing that made japlandic doubt the Daft figures is the numbers for volume and value of mortgage approvals have been constantly falling – so rising prices are not being facilitated by bank lending. It would seem cash sales is the only other financing that can drive prices higher – and these are only captured in the Property Price Register, all other property stats available don’t capture cash sales. More expensive properties could skew the data – but the most significant factor at the moment is cash sales – and these aren’t being properly tabulated anywhere. Thanks to japlandic for that.

The newspaper treatment is at best an overly positive framing of the property market with  inconclusive data. At worst and probably most likely it is business as usual for the Irish press, in the week of back slapping over the anglo tapes it is worth remembering the structural role the print media has played and continues to play in the Irish economic crisis CMR.

A Few Thoughts On The Anglo Tapes

Another thought provoking piece from Cunning Hired Knaves:

Cunning Hired Knaves

The Anglo Tapes. Why now? Why in this form? Is it not a bit strange how Ireland’s EU presidency is winding up and the government is no closer to concluding a retrospective ‘deal’ on costs incurred by the public as a consequence of the bank bailout, and tapes unexpectedly emerge that could have emerged at any time over the last few years but didn’t? Yes, it is strange. And no doubt there are other more interesting speculations that haven’t occurred to me. But at the same time, who cares?

I mean, there are always things going on behind the scenes. Governments lie all the time, and the current government is no exception. Similarly, businessmen conspire all the time behind the backs of the public. Though at first I was tempted, I am trying hard to see the point in divining the real nefarious motive to the publication of the Anglo…

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