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.

image002

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.

 

image002

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

 

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2 thoughts on “Privileged Access: An Insight into Source Bias in the Irish Press

  1. Thanks for the comment Seanan, I have uploaded some charts onto the post, they are a little messy as the basic wordpress package doesn’t seem to take Excel charts directly (or if they do I haven’t figured it out). But they should give a picture to the source bias inherent in the articles.

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