Irish Water has brought us together

Brilliantly researched critique of the Press treatment of the water issue, a must read for all media watchers:

MEDIABITE

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For five years the press has warned the public that since “we all partied”, we must now all make sacrifices. In 2008 the relentless billowing of the property bubble naturally segued into an equally relentless build-up to the next ‘courageous[ly] masochis[tic]’ budget.

But when the post-Tiger ‘we’ is not acquiescing to the next austerity measure, it is largely absent. It is often silent or simply gagged, and sometimes, it is even denied it exists at all.

There is no property or travel supplement for the post-tiger ‘we’. Because ‘we’ do not experience austerity. The effects of public service cuts, regressive taxation and emigration are experienced by ‘them’. And ‘they’ do not own or operate the press.

Sometimes, when we talk about the press, journalists respond by saying:

“you can’t talk about ‘the press’ as if it’s a collective entity, ‘the press’ is made up of thousands of…

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Fear and Loathing in Talbot St

Media bias and exaggeration has gone into overdrive; but is anyone listening?

In our last post we discussed how mainstream media tend to be relatively objective and even-handed once a story remains within certain parameters, that is once media actors such as politicians, business or civil society sources play their part and don’t stray too far from what is deemed acceptable. However, if politics or if political actors stray from those relatively narrow parameters, all attempts at objectivity and even-handedness tend to fly quickly out the newsroom window. This was demonstrated clearly in the last week when a relatively minor protest in Jobstown, a working class district in south west Dublin, sent the Irish media into a stratosphere of fear, loathing, exaggeration and overt bias. This of course is not hugely surprising, as decades of international research into mainstream media has shown again and again that the media do indeed act as an ideological apparatus that can be counted on (by ruling classes) in times of crisis. The literature speaks of many reasons for this, not least ownership and the ever more concentrated nature of ownership of the mass media, (something not lost on the Irish public), however it’s important not to become overly deterministic about ownership as other issues such as institutional practices, changes in media markets, changes in media worker labour markets, the class basis of many journalists and the overarching ideological structures of a given society can play just as important a role. It is also important not to be overly deterministic as there are many cracks in the ideological sphere of the mass media, not least the reception of media content by audiences. As discussed by Stuart Hall, among others, there are many ways audiences interpret media content including outright hostility to the intended message of the journalist or media company. (In fact, after a front page headline in the Irish Daily Mail denouncing the Socialist Party, one enterprising comrade bought up as many copies as he could with the intention of framing and selling them to raise party funds, no doubt seeing the denunciation as a badge of honour.) The access of ordinary people to cheap recording equipment, found in most phones, and easily available distribution networks via social network sites means the gate keeping role of the mainstream media is seriously damaged if not completely defunct. For example a Dail (parliament) speech by United Left TD Claire Daly reached an audience of 250,000 (out of a population of 4.5 million) in less than a week via YouTube, likewise various aspects of protests and state violence have reached tens of thousands of viewers.

Again one doesn’t want to be overly deterministic about the role of technology, and talk of ‘facebook or twitter revolutions’ tends to be exaggerated; as always there are far deeper material issues underlying such events, however the easy access to recording, publishing and distribution networks have had a profound effect on political movements. Moreover, social media organisational tools such as direct messaging and social media pages and groups (usually Facebook) very much resemble the organisational ‘scaffolding’ as envisioned by Lenin’s description of the ideal party press.

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour. With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow   political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence these events.

I did a quick search of local facebook groups with the term ‘water charges’ in them and gave up after one hundred, most had hundreds if not thousands of ‘likes’.and seemed to be regularly updated. Interestingly facebook has overtaken the role of Indymedia.ie which was to the fore in the movement against the commodification and privatisation of waste services ten years ago. While there are obvious dangers in the monopolisation of  facebook, a private corporation, as an organisational tool no other social network has the reach or ease of use.

mob rule

To go back to Jobstown and the events which took place there, (for those living outside Ireland, Jobstown is a suburb on the outskirts of Dublin with an extremely high unemployment rate and all the associated social problems). The Minister for Social Protection and Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) was to visit a Community Centre to confer awards in an educational project. To give some context, Burton has been involved in the introduction of workfare to Ireland alongside much demonising of the so called ‘undeserving poor’, usually expressed by attacks on alleged social welfare fraud and the need for ‘work activation schemes’ which is code for cutting the welfare of people who refuse to work for free. Moreover, she has been part of an austerity government responsible for cuts in every aspect of life and as always such cuts tend to disproportionately affect poorer suburbs, such as Jobstown. Finally, Burton is also leader of the Irish Labour Party who ran in the last election with the promise that they would not introduce water charges: Therefore, it was utterly unsuprising that she might be met in Jobstown by some protesting residents, especially as we are in the middle of a period that have seen mass mobilisations on every corner of the country. The protest included a sit down protest that blockaded the Tanaiste’s car and left her trapped inside in for two hours, at one point someone threw a water balloon at her and some hours after the Tanaiste and protesters left a young man threw a single brick at a police car. A local Socialist Party representative, recently elected TD (MP) for the area Paul Murphy also took part in the protest. No arrests were made and there has been no evidence of violence, although both protesters and presumably the police were filming the event.

Jobstown is not somewhere that normally concerns the media, in a newspaper search of Irish titles on the Lexis Nexis database (using the search word Jobstown) in the week following the protest I found 79 articles: That compares to the 24 articles that included the word Jobstown in the entire year preceding the protest (12 of which were crime reports). Most articles seem to accept that ‘violence’ occurred, and denounce it to varying degrees.

Certainly the events in Jobstown were newsworthy; a minister was discommoded and even hit by a water balloon, there was a bit of a protest and  it was around the ‘hot’ issue of the water charges. However the reaction by the mainstream media has been incredible by any standards. The coverage has been dripping with overt  layers of class bias, fear and hatred. The accusations against the protesters have grown by the day, the protesters have developed from being  ‘a mob’ to being ‘rioters’ to being  ‘kidnappers’ and ‘terrorists’, finally a particularly gormless TD announced we in Ireland were ‘heading to an ISIS situation‘. In one particularly odd and distasteful piece in the Irish Daily Mail the protest was compared to the notorious incident in the Northern Irish troubles where two British soldiers were taken from their car and shot dead after driving directly into a Republican funeral. (A Republican funeral had been attacked by a Loyalist gunman the previous week, and in fact this funeral was that of one of the people killed in the attack, so tensions were extremely high).

Back to Jobstown: The single brick thrown was seized upon by the press as evidence of a violent ‘sinister fringe’ infiltrating the anti-water charges movement, ignoring the fact that literally hundreds of marches, involving hundreds of thousands of people, have taken place without the slightest bit of violence. In fact ‘the brick’ itself has become a minor social media celebrity in its own right. One Facebook group entitled ‘I bet this brick can get more likes than the Labour Party‘ has been set up and is well on its way to achieving its goal. And, social media has been flooded with memes underlying both the ridiculousness of the mainstream media charges and acting as an ironic defense to what are effectively ideological attacks on the movement – attacks that have the obvious intention to both divide the movement and scare people away from attending future protests.

donal falon brick

‘The Brick’ as pictured by Donal Fallon

tallaght compared to ni killing

Part of this framing denies the fact that working class people can have any agency and that protesters and ‘decent ordinary people’ are being ‘led astray’ by outside elements such as dissident republicans, anarchists and socialist revolutionaries. While the aforementioned would, doubtless, be entirely happy to create and lead such a movement, the left in Ireland does not have anything like the resources (human and otherwise) to create such a mass campaign and only an organic and self-organising movement could have sustained itself to this level for this long. Falling into this ‘outsider’ frame was Paul Murphy’s presence at the Jobstown protest; for the media this Socialist ‘ outsider’, was responsible for the trouble. The media also jumped on the fact that Murphy had a middle class upbringing. This suited the classist nature of the press as it explained that it was one of their own, a well-educated middle class man (rather than the great unwashed) that was responsible for protests, protests that were having such a detrimental effect on the status quo.

middle class paul

Murphy refused  to denounce the protest, denied that the protest was violent and refused to apologise for the discommoding of the Tanaiste’s photo-op. Murphy thus refused to play to the heretofore ‘agreed’ rules of the media game and stepped outside the ‘acceptable parameters’ of media debate. The fact that Murphy’s two SP colleagues in the Dail refused to distance themselves from the protest (and Murphy) shocked and enraged opinion writers further, leading to a sprinkling of ‘red scare’ articles in the press. ‘Responsible’ political leaders, we were told aren’t supposed to defend assumed violence in that fashion; contrite denunciations were both demanded and expected. The incarnation of overt class politics in Irish life is both misunderstood and unwelcome by the fourth estate.

INM protest

Protest at the headquarters of Independent News and Media

So what of the effect of this media barrage on the left and the anti water charges movement? Protests are continuing unabated with large protests in Sligo, Cork and Waterford in the last week, alongside local protests far too numerous to mention. The Socialist Party seems to be gaining popularity from its new found media infamy and certainly has won respect for standing beside the protesters under considerable pressure. The latest party political poll to be published today (Sunday, 23rd of November) shows that Independents and small parties are polling at a historical high of 30%, while Sinn Fein is polling at a historical high of 22%. What we are probably witnessing, amongst other things, is a crisis of legitimacy for the mainstream media. By attacking what is a genuinely organic and mass movement with exaggerations, overt bias and outright lies, the media sphere is losing credibility, and credibility once lost will be hard won back, if at all.

Delegitimising a Movement: Irish Water and the ‘Sinister Fringe’

Henry Silke (7/11/2014)

Today on the  ‘The Right Hook’, a drive time radio talk show broadcast on the Denis O’Brien owned Newstalk FM, the first forty minutes  discussed  the continued controversy around water charges. The main issue for broadcaster George Hook and his guests was around violence allegedly being perpetuated by so called ‘fringe elements’ in the anti-water charges movement. What was interesting for me was the immediate assumptions that this violence had taken place, that this violence was prevalent and that it was orchestrated by some sort of dark fringe element. There is of course actually no evidence for any of this – as none of it has happened. Firstly the movements two main manifestations, a march in Dublin of around 100,000 followed weeks later by the simultaneous holding 90 local marches nationwide (estimated to have contained somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people) have been absolutely peaceful without any trouble of any kind. The resistance to the installing of water meters around the country has in fact been going on for weeks, most notably in North Dublin and Cork, and they too have also taken place without violence. There have been numerous arrests of protesters blockading the installations and some heavy handed police tactics but the protesters themselves have acted in a peaceful manner.

Resistance or Violence?

Resistance or Violence?

What we are witnessing is a deliberate re-framing of the water issue as an issue of law and order with the twin bogeymen of armed republicanism and communism being called to the fore. Today in what has to be one of the most overtly political act of journalism in recent years the Irish Independent claimed that water meter installation in parts of Dublin were being post-phoned, not due to the mass mobilisation of communities, but because of the ‘infiltration of dissident republicans’ (i.e. terrorists) who had been ‘attacking’ the police, no evidence whatsoever was given for any of these allegations bar Garda sources who themselves provided absolutely no evidence (1). In the print edition the independent chose to accompany the article with a large photograph of a riot – in Belgium. Newspaper accusations of infiltration of dissident republicans of course is nothing new having been used  constantly against the community of Rossport in Co. Mayo who spent many years resisting the imposition  of a Shell pipeline and refinery upon them (to say nothing of the appropriation of a natural resource). When police sources ominously speak of such infiltration they deliberately include the connotations of masked gunmen and bombers in an overt attempt to scare people away from and smear what are legitimate political manifestations and campaigns. Moreover as pointed out by the Tánaiste Joan Burton, in her infamous smart phone speech, all of these protests have been captured on video, and while heavy handed police tactics have been recorded there has yet to be any evidence of protester violence. This plays into the media assumption that when there is any clash between the forces of law and order and the public, the public is always at fault and usually expressed as the public ‘attacking’ the police whatever the actual facts of the case are.

A second theme prevalent in the media is that this movement is an orchestrated ‘power grab’ by the hard left, a classic ‘red scare’ article appeared in the Irish Examiner (2) yesterday claiming that the entire movement was not about water but rather a Socialist Party and even Anarchist plot to gain power. An interesting side note to this is the notion that a radical working class party wanting to come to power is a problem, something that is evidently not the case for right wing parties of the elite. It is especially notable as the author of the piece Victoria White is a member of the Green Party; a party who did come to power and proceeded to stand over the greatest transfer of wealth from the working and middle classes to the elite in the history of the state (3).

This type of framing of politics of course is nothing new. In 1969 Ralph Miliband writing in his seminal book The State in Capitalist Society argued that the political and economic rule by dominant classes is underlined by a complex process of legitimation which allows for the consensus of the working classes.  This is expressed in politics by ‘political socialisation’ and the ‘engineering of consent’ which he terms as a type of indoctrination which exists across society.  The methods of such political socialisation takes place within the political sphere, the educational sphere, including the universities. But the major overt area where politics is discussed and debated is within the public sphere of the mass media.

Ralph Miliband

Ralph Miliband

Miliband argues that the pluralist notion of the freedom of expression and opportunity of expression in contemporary society are both superficial and misleading. While dissident thoughts may be held they may not be easily broadcast. And though there is a widespread pluralism within the press, that pluralism is very much set within the prevailing agenda. For example the media have at length discussed various problems of Irish Water, problems such as ‘communications’, bonuses and management, but the nub of the question that is the class nature of the act of the appropriation of a public good and the elimination of a heretofore and taken for granted human right is not up for discussion. Citizens become consumers and politics becomes public           relations techniques to ‘clarify’ the nature of the policy.

Party political impartiality for Miliband is easy to achieve in countries such as Ireland when there is a clear ideological consensus between the major parties, but more difficult in societies with mass radical political parties.  In this case impartiality is quickly forgotten.  In the case where there is a broad consensus impartiality is given within the political agenda.  But there will be a widespread bias for any thoughts coming from outside that agenda. For example Miliband maintains the press is a ‘deeply committed’ anti trade union force, which will almost always take an anti-union stance in economic conflict.  In other words (in the case of Ireland) while the press may represent pluralism between the major political parties, who effectively represent similar interests and policies, in a state of conflict the press will invariably come out for the establishment.  What we may be witnessing over the last number of weeks may well be the media’s reaction to the mainstreaming of class politics, the growth of small radical leftist parties and the continued development of Sinn Fein into a mass party with the potential to take power*. In other words as class politics becomes more prevalent the press may become more overtly ideological and party political.

Miliband maintains that the act of ideological legitimation and indoctrination is also formed within the overtly non-political entertainment section of media. Moreover for Miliband  the private ownership of ‘the means of mental production’ means a state of de-facto censorship exists, a ‘private’ censorship based more on a general framework than direct control and one that albeit offers much more room for dissent compared to totalitarian state censorship, but one that will still insist on the correct attitude to conflicts between capital and labour and political issues outside the consensus.  Miliband also maintains that the power of advertisers, generally capitalist, acts as another form of influence on ideology on the media. Miliband maintains that the majority of ‘cultural workers’ as he puts it will not ‘rock the boat’ as such or go against the ideological framework because their own ideological and political framework does not normally come up against these limitations. The leash on these workers for Miliband is sufficiently long enough as to allow enough freedom of movement and not to feel the strain.  Rather than overt censorship the issue of self-censorship for professional advancement reasons has more resonance. This process became quite clear in the process of ‘self-censorship’ during the Northern Irish conflict.  Moreover in the current regime of precarious work in the media industries the force of self-censorship is likely to be stronger. In Milibands own words:

‘There is nothing particularly surprising about the character and role of the mass media in advanced capitalist society.  Given the economic and political context in which they function, they cannot fail to be, predominantly, agencies for the dissemination of ideas and values which affirm rather than challenge existing patterns of power and privilege, and thus can be weapons in the arsenal of class domination. The notion that they can, for the most part be anything else is either a delusion or a mystification.  They can, and sometimes do, play a ‘dysfunctional’ role; and the fact that they are allowed to do so is not lightly to be dismissed.  But that quite emphatically, is not and indeed cannot, in the given context, be there main role.  They are intended to fulfil a conservative function; and do so’ (Miliband 1969 p. 211).

(1)  Water protests infiltrated by dissidents as meters on hold, Irish Independent (7/11/2014)

(2) Anti-water campaigners protest too much. Their real goal is power, Irish Examiner (5/11/2014)

(3) Andrew Flood of the Anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement wrote a reply ‘Water protests are an organic expression of the power of people’ which was published by the Examiner on the 7/11/2014

*Many on the left argue that Sinn Fein are in fact not a radical party in the Socialist sense, I will not develop this argument here however I would argue that within the mainstream press and among much of the bourgeois Sinn fein are perceived as a radical party and feared and an anti-Sinn Fein bias is certainly prevalent within mainstream media.