On the second of January Lucinda Creighton held a press conference to announce that she would launch a political party in two months, as of the launch the party had neither name nor policies but rather a hashtag #rebootireland – which quickly and predictably backfired as the hashtag was mercilessly trolled. Nonetheless the mainstream media jumped all over the announcement, some critically, and the story has topped the news agenda for the last two days. It does have to be acknowledged that it is a slow news week which is probably no accident considering the timing of Creighton’s ‘monster rally’ last year. Nonetheless if we compare this to the coverage on Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy’s recent call for a new political alliance there was nothing like the wall to wall coverage. Although there is some speculation on the possibility of a left slate in 2016 on social media, mostly uninformed it should be said, there has been little discussion in the mainstream media. In fact the possibility of a further left slate doesn’t seem to be on the media radar at all, bar the honorable exception of TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Browne.
Politicians of the left are not being put under any pressure from journalists about whether there will be a slate, they are not being questioned about whether talks are ongoing between groups or what their policies might be – something that presumably is of interest in the lead up to the general election and certainly of interest to those outside the political mainstream. In polls, the left continues to be lumped in with the ‘Independents and Others’ group which itself is hardly scientific and not particularly informative. This is especially odd considering the recent development of one of the largest grass roots political movements in decades – the anti-water charge campaign, sections of which have been engaged in illegal acts of direct civil disobedience. From a party political point of view the Socialist Party has won seats in the two most recent by-elections. One could only imagine the coverage Lucinda Creighton would have if she and here group were involved in a mass movement and had won a number of by-elections.
The Irish political scene is changing with cracks appearing in the old edifice, the duopoly of power of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is being challenged by Sinn Fein which, at least south of the border, is campaigning on a left-Keynesian manifesto. The Labour Party is facing the abyss and there has been a breakthrough of socialist groups and independents in the recent local elections and by-elections. On the streets the anti-water charges movement has brought literally hundreds of thousands out to demonstrate, yet the mainstream media still remains focused on the possibility of yet another right wing party, and one based on a very shaky foundation.
To test this seemingly overt political bias we conducted some research comparing the treatment of two mass meetings, firstly the launch of the United Left Alliance which was held in the Gresham Hotel on the 29th of November in 2010, and secondly the launch meeting of Lucinda Creighton’s Reform Alliance on the 25th of January in 2014. To compare the two alliances we looked at the press coverage of both groups and launches in five newspapers: The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Irish Examiner, The Sunday Independent and The Sunday Business Post. The period chosen is the month in the lead up to the two launches and two weeks thereafter. The two groups and meetings were chosen as they both had a generally similar social and political weight .It may be argued Creighton as an ex Minister and leading a split of seven government members added more political weight in terms of parliamentary politics, however it could be also be argued that the ULA with hundreds of political activists and two political groups with national branch networks had more social weight. As discussed in an earlier post that can be read here, the ULA received minimal attention with only ten articles (none of which covered the launch meeting) in the six week period. The articles made up a total of 1173 words in the entire period*.
On the other hand the Reform Alliance was covered in a total of 119 articles with a total wordcount of 55,213 words. The Reform Alliance received detailed and sometimes critical coverage, in fact as time went on it could be seen that the newspapers seemed to lose faith with the prospects of the alliance developing into a party at all. Generally though the Reform Alliance was treated in a neutral tone in the majority of articles (with a significant proportion treated negatively and a smaller number treated positively).
So why is this important? After all hasn’t the mainstream media post-crisis lost much of its credibility? Hasn’t the water charge movement grown in spite of the mainstream media both playing it down and framing it negatively? And haven’t we bypassed the traditional media with our own social media pages leaving less reliance on the traditional media to popularise issues and events? While some of that is partly true, it is also the case that the mainstream media still dwarfs, both in readership and resources, the alternatives. And the issue of mainstream media influence remains important. While the mainstream media may not be able to tell you what to think, it can still tell you what to think about. In other words it still plays a crucial agenda-setting role. In political terms media attention (even critical) can put a political group on the agenda and build up political profiles, or on the contrary it can treat a political group negatively or even worse ignore them completely. The media can even help establish the very concept of what is political or not, for example the local meetings, marches and local events are not deemed to be political compared to the breathless mutterings of pol-cors on the latest minor parliamentary manouvers. Indeed street meetings, protests and anything involving the demos are oft as not framed as semi-criminal events to be feared. The entire framing of the parameters what is politically permissible or even possible is one of the clearest ideological roles of the mass media today. And again this research underlines the need, as difficult as it is, to fund and develop an alternative media sphere that can see beyond those parameters.
The fact that the media ignored the ULA in 2010 is hardly surprising, Irish political journalism doesn’t rate extra-parliamentary politics as politics at all and they were most likely unaware that the the left existed at all in 2010. Likewise, it is of no great surprise that sections of the media are fascinated by Lucinda Creighton; the semiotics of a young, blonde, articulate, middle-class ex-minister – the veritable Fine Gael poster-girl – are obvious and one wonders if Billy Timmons or Fidelma Healy-Eames were leading the group, would it get half the attention; but overall there seems to be an ultra-reactionary element around Independent News and Media pining for a populist strongman (or woman) to sort out this country once and for all.
*Articles are only counted when they are about the ULA or RA, articles only mentioning the alliances are not counted.
Henry Silke 3/1/2015