Changing the Narrative: the normalisation of the homeless crisis

The Irish housing crisis has carried on for close to a decade now, with boom to bubble to bust and boom again. Policies of deregulation, corruption and market based planning led to an unsustainable bubble that burst and led to a lost decade. Post crisis, while there have been some tightening of banking regulations, the overall view of housing as first and foremost a commodity has not changed, nor the ideological aversion to social housing exercised by the leading political parties.

One of the outcomes of the crisis, caused partly by the crash, alongside the lack of social housing, and underlined by the extreme laissez-faire attitude to the private rental sector has been the continuing rise in homelessness, which has been steadily rising over the last number of years. Rents have been rising at astronomical levels putting entire families on the streets, where inevitably they are housed in private hotels at far greater than the cost of social housing.  Likewise the Housing Assistance Payment, sees the state paying out to private landlords for decades at a time, rather than build themselves. This bizarre arrangement lays bare claims of market efficiency over  public provision.

We are very quickly entering a new and  very deep class divide where so called millennials without substantial parental support will probably never be able to own a home. This will include people from both working class and middle class backgrounds. On the other hand landlords, under the current regulatory and political climate, will be able to build portfolios with ease. And the ever spiralling rents make saving for a deposit, post crisis a much stricter process, near impossible. As people who would have traditionally owned their own homes, or lived in social housing have joined the private rental market it’s hardly a surprise that those in difficulty have ended up homeless. Add to this the current trends in precarious working conditions for the young and we are faced with an entire generation, and their children, a pay check or two away from homelessness, in all its forms.

There seems to have been a flurry of activity in recent days by elements of the government and broader state to normalise what is in fact a crisis situation. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week informed us that happily there are plenty of affordable homes, which he seemed to consider at 300,000 euro plus. However, any quick calculation shows that 300,000 plus is out of reach of anybody on a low wage, the maximum allowed is 3.5 times your wage. So a couple on 30,000 each, what would be considered a decent wage are priced out. Moreover, Varadkar followed by stating that homeless level are low by international standards, something disputed by  housing groups.

Even more bizarrely Conor Skehan of  the housing agency came out with the statement that ‘homelessness is normal’ and we shouldn’t get ‘emotional’ about the issue. This is more or less a call on people not to empathise with the homeless, which includes families with small children.

This was quickly followed on by the ERSI who, just like in 2007, tell us housing is fine, but prices may go up 20% in the near future. In other words, get on that ladder, buy your investment property for a quick buck etc. At the same time the Daft report, as always led with an ideological defence of market based housing, and opposition to regulation, announced that rents had gone up yet again. And in the great tradition of the Irish petit bourgeois Damien English,  Junior Minister for Housing, was more concerned about so called ‘reputational damage’ that the ‘negative narrative’ may be creating internationally.

Finally to underline the issue of individual accountability Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive told us not to try to help the homeless, as they have arrived through years of ‘bad behaviour’ not outcomes of a deep structural crisis.

The cynical amongst us might suspect some sort of campaign, even linked to Leo Varadkar’s new five million euro communications strategy unit, and sure there might be an element in government spinning of the crisis. But far more likely is it is the latest incarnation of a deep seated class based ideology, that sees housing as a commodity and those outside the ‘market’ are simply there due to bad individual choices.

The boom is back baby.

 

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Journalism in Times of Crisis – University of Limerick April 7 2016

Journalism Times Crisis - Option 1

 

As the world continues to face the upheavals of war, migration and economic crises, it is pertinent to discuss the role of journalism and the media as a whole in the structures of contemporary society. Such a discussion is given added urgency at a time when the media continues to concentrate into privately owned monopolies with worsening conditions for media workers, more stringent editorial controls and a retreat from so-called ‘fourth estate’ ideologies into market driven strategies.

Likewise journalism as a profession is threatened by falling circulation figures, cuts in funding and the advent of click-bait pseudo journalism, churnalism and an ever greater reliance on public relations subsidies. Distribution too has been disrupted by the algorithms of Facebook and news-aggregators, that some argue is narrowing rather than widening readers perspectives.

Journalism’s independence from social and political forces has again come into question as seen with the cosy relationship between journalism and the financial and property sectors; while recently both newspapers and broadcasters are increasingly coming under accusations of bias in their reportage of social and political events.

This conference will bring together journalists, media workers and media theorists to discuss the role of journalism in the 21st century, conditions for journalists in the contemporary newsroom and prospects for the future of the media industry.

twitter: #crisisjournalism

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/1050038358370802/

Programme

09:45 Opening Address plus main keynote:

Location: Millstream Common room

Gemma O’Doherty, Investigative Journalist: ‘Media Concentration and Power’

Features Writer Gemma O'Doherty. Pic Frank Mc Grath

10:45AM coffee break

11:00 Panel Discussion
Location: Millstream Common room

Media Concentration and Power Chair: Bryan Dobson. Speakers Seamus Dooley (NUJ), Henry Silke (UL), more speakers to be added.

12:30 pm Lunch

1:30 Pm – 3-00 pm Parallel Sessions 1&2

3:00 – 3:15 Coffee

3:15 – 4:45 Parallel Sessions 3,4&5

5:00 – 6:00 Panel Discussion/ Debate
Location: Millstream Common Room

Talking about Water: Is the Media Biased? Chair: Mary Dundon. Speakers: Eoin Devereux, Paul Murphy TD, more speakers to be added

8:00 pm social event
Location: Millstream Common Room

Parallel Sessions

1: Journalism and the Economic Crisis
Julien Mercille (UCD)
Henry Silke UL (UL)
Fergal Quinn UL (UL)
Ciara Graham (IT Tallaght)
Aileen Marron (UL)

2: Journalism and Politics
Mary Dundon (UL)
Harry Browne (DIT)
Tom Clonan, (DIT)
Mark Cullinan (UCC)

3: Representation in times of Crisis
Gavan Titley (NUIM)
Angela Nagle (DCU)
Martin Power, Amanda Haynes (UL)
Kate Butler (Sunday Times)

4: Disruptions in Journalism
Eugenia Siapera (DCU)
Kathryn Hayes (UL)
John O Sullivan DCU
Tom Felle (UL)
Helena Sheehan (DCU)

5: New Journalism and the Radical Press (Panel Discussion)
Chair: Seamus Farrell (DCU)
James Redmond (Rabble)
Ronan Burtenshaw – (Village Magazine)
Dara McHugh (Look Left)
Dave Lordan – (Bogman’s Cannoon)
Lois Kapila (Dublin Inquirer)
Dara Quigley – (degreeofuncertainty)

Lois Kapila of the Dublin InQuirer: A Return to ‘old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting’

The Dublin InQuirer has raised some eyebrows since going live a few months ago. It has quite an interesting perspective including articles on the role of finance capital in the city and good critical coverage on the goings on in the city council. Coverage of the work of housing activists has been included and the site broke  the shocking story of homeless families being forced to use the side entrance of hotels. The web based publication comes out every Wednesday and as well as the what we would expect from a  local news site such a city desk, arts and cuisine articles and a what’s on section what really caught our eye is the  ‘unreal estate‘ planning and property section which as the name implies has a far  more critical outlook compared to the ubiquitous estate agent  driven property porn found  in  mainstream journalism. The site also includes interesting ‘long reads’, such as  one on the life and work of cat catchers in the city.  Columnists include Frank McDonald previously of the Irish Times, the aforementioned Andy Story who covers economics and Roe McDermott an advice columnist. The site practices what founder Lois Kapila describes as a more traditional approach to journalism and writing compared to the PR driven churnalism that has increasingly become the norm. We sent Lois some questions to find out a little more about Dublin’s latest media product who discusses issues such as funding models, journalistic style and practice and mainstream media plagiarism.

Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila

Congratulations on the new news site, the first question is why did you decide to set about establishing it?

Thanks! I set it up because I thought there was a gap in the market for in-depth city coverage, and that there were many stories that weren’t being told. Also, I was working as a struggling freelance journalist in Dublin before this, and I couldn’t find many places that would run the kind of stories that I wanted to write – in-depth local journalism.

I grew up in the UK and there, at least, local journalism seems to be looked upon as second-class journalism. It isn’t really respected as much as the nationals. In 2009, I interned really briefly over a summer for an alt weekly publication in the US called Washington City Paper, and what they were doing there really blew me away. That changed my idea of what local journalism could be.

As well as all that, I wanted to create opportunities for young reporters to go out and about and do what some might consider more old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, rather than maybe rewriting press releases or sitting at their desks reporting on tweets. I hope that we’re going to be a good training ground for journalists who can then go on to grander places that can pay them more.

 logoHow long have you been up and running? Are you finding your feet?

We’ve been up and running since June this year and I think we are finding our feet. It’s taking us a bit of time to get to know our beats, and to become known on them — simple things such as being recognised as press at city council meetings.

The mindset that a reporter needs for a weekly publication, rather than a daily, or hourly, is different. You need to think a bit more about where the debate is headed, find stories that aren’t going to have been published elsewhere by the time you go to press, and justify having that bit more time to report. So that’s a learning curve too.

I feel like we’ve got the basics in place now, and there are different longer-term projects that we need to start working on, particularly using data, to make the most of being an online publication. We’re not exactly where we want to be yet, but I think we’ll get there.

Question three is of particular interest to media activists is how did you go about establishing it? And as much as you feel comfortable telling us do you have a particular funding model? We notice for example you offer editorial services and a shop, is this intention to leave you a little less dependent on advertising?

At the moment, it’s funded with some start-up funding that I have been extremely privileged – and am slightly nervous –  to have got from family. I did apply for, and continue to apply for, different grants but haven’t managed to bag one yet.

I obviously did a lot of talking to people and reading about different models for local media before we got set up, and I thought that we would find it really tough to survive if we were completely dependent on advertising. So we are trying to work on numerous revenue streams in addition to advertising, as you noticed: editorial services, an online shop, our membership scheme.

As a local publication, focused on the kind of journalism that we are, we’re never going to get as much traffic as a national with rolling breaking news and celebrity tidbits might. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think it’s safe to work on that assumption.

So we’re working to build up a smaller core of loyal readers who spend more time on the website, and like what we do, and give what they can when they can. It’s healthy to have that focus on readers, I think, and in the future, I want to build up our membership scheme, so that those who donate to us do get more than a tote bag; I’d love to be able to give them discounts at different places in the city, and to run more events for them.

The danger of having all these streams, of course, is spreading ourselves too thin. We are a small team and so finding time to manage them all, and keep them moving, is tricky.

In the future, I’d love Dublin Inquirer to become a newspaper part-owned by its readers. I envisage some kind of equity crowd-funding model, where in exchange for a contribution, the readers become part-owners.

DublinInQ The site seems to have a particular interest in planning and housing, and it has to be said has a far more critical attitude towards it compared to what we are accustomed to, for example your ‘unreal estate’ section, is this area of particular interest to you, and why?

I think it’s of interest to us, because it’s something that our readers want to know about and we all struggle with issues like rising rents and substandard accommodation. If you live in the city, you can’t help but take an interest in the built environment.

As for taking a more critical attitude, to me that just seems the default approach that we should have to it. It’s also more interesting, I think, than property porn.

I genuinely don’t understand how you can have such blatant property porn, thinly disguised adverts, on the front page of the Irish Times website, for example. Sometimes, right up there at the top of the page. How can a national newspaper of record think that the potential sale of one multi-million-euro home somewhere in the country is deserving of that kind of exposure?

When I first moved to Ireland, the second apartment I lived in with my husband had mould all over and broken windows. The ceiling fell down and the landlord had complete control over the heat and left it off for the winter. And it’s really difficult to function and stay healthy when you’re living in those conditions. But if nowhere else will take you because there’s a shortage and you don’t have references and you’re broke, what are you going to do?

So, I do feel passionate about housing. Also, we are a city paper, and we aim to focus on local government. And housing and planning are some of the areas where the council does actually have influence. So that, too, means it’s a natural reporting area for us.

We have also noticed what seems to be wider range of opinion on your site compared to the mainstream, especially around property, is this a policy?

I’m glad you think that we have a wide range of opinion on the site! I guess it’s a policy to be open to submissions and have a wide range of informed voices. I don’t understand why any publication or editor would make themselves difficult to reach.

I would like us to have more diversity, though, in terms of ethnic minority contributors, for example. I think the media in Ireland does not reflect the diversity out on the streets. I know that immigration is newer here than in the UK, for example, and for some immigrants, language will be a problem, but I think we have to try harder to open up opportunities for people from new communities to get a break in journalism.

For those who worry that somebody from somewhere else can’t possibly understand what’s going on here, I would point out that our planning and transport reporter is from the US and his stories are smart and spot on.

Are you going to be engaging in investigative journalism on the site?

I would love to be able to do more investigative journalism on the site.

To me, investigative journalism is just great reporting that takes more time. At the moment, we’re a small team and so that’s a struggle. But I think we’ll get better at juggling longer projects with weekly pieces and that’s definitely something that we’ll be working on.

In any case, I think we should approach all stories with the mindset that you might associate with investigative journalism, and ask, “What do I want to know?” rather than, “What will people tell me right now?”

How would you describe yourself editorially?

I think that our mission, for want of a better word, is simple: to tell people stories that help them to understand what’s going on in the city, and present them in a way that’s enjoyable to read. And some of those will be the more medicinal, we-think-you-should-know-this stories, and some will be the softer, we-think-you’d-smile-at-this stories.

I don’t really give any thought to where we might fall in terms of “on the left” or “on the right”. To me, that’s irrelevant. We’re independent. When we’re reporting stories, our focus is simply to figure out what’s going on and tell our readers.

Our voice is more informal and, at times, some might say less measured than some publications. But I think there’s a danger with some publications that they confuse having a neutral voice with “unbiased” journalism and sometimes hide behind that style. It’s the reporting process, and being transparent about where information came from, that determines whether a piece is accurate and honest or not.

Are there any sites, papers or models from outside Ireland you admire or would like to emulate.

There are so many sites and papers that I read and admire and would love to be even a shade as good as, particularly in the US. I love the alt weeklies such as Washington City Paper  with their long-form narrative style and grit. I love regional publications like This Land Press which seems to be succeeding at building a sense of community around the publication, has a quality print quarterly, and is great-looking. And I love Tampa Bay Times, where even the simplest story is done with such care, such as this one about sports fans  or this one about an astronomer.  I also love Texas Monthly.  In India, Caravan  has incredible political profiles.

Do you intend to stay Dublin focused in the future, or do you have plans to publish national focused stories?

We’re definitely staying Dublin-focused. It’s a better use of our resources to keep our coverage tight and get to know the city as well as we can, rather than spreading ourselves too thin. I think this is where the gap is too. I’m not saying that there aren’t other Dublin-focused news publications, but I don’t think any of them are doing quite what we are.

I hope that some of our stories will get picked up by nationals. Actually, a few already have, such as our story about the rules that homeless families in emergency accommodation have to abide by. RTE and The Mirror picked up on the issue, as did The Journal.

While RTE credited us, and The Mirror re-reported the story themselves, it was a bit frustrating to see The Journal pick up the story and use our reporter’s photos of the list of rules as source material and illustrations, and not give us even an “H/T”.

But it’s still great to see issues that we follow and think are important spread to a wider audience. And I think that even though we’re small, we can hopefully play a bit of a role at times in setting the agenda.

Bias? What Bias?

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The Press, Market Ideologies and the Irish Housing Crisis

Henry Silke, of this parish, wrote a short paper for the newly founded Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths University, London. The paper looks at the links between the media and the property industries and looks at the coverage of housing and property in the run up to the 2007 general election:

The time period was chosen for two reasons. Firstly the drop in house prices first began in the second quarter of 2007 and secondly because this coincided with the general election that year which was held on the 24th of May. This election was probably the last major opportunity for debate in the ‘public sphere’ on the property bubble before the crash, and certainly it was the last opportunity for people to vote before the crash.

The report looks at where the Irish Independent and the Irish Times sourced their information on housing; sourcing is an important issue in media as journalists depend on sources for information which is then further mediated to the public, often as fact. The results are stark: 

 In the coverage of property in the Irish Times and Irish Independent a key finding was the dominance of elite sources connected with the property and finance industries as compared to ordinary sources such as home buyers and renters. In fact, out of 800 articles, only one reflected critically the views of tenants. This is especially the case in the property and business sections. The greatest total single overall source on the issue of housing is comprised of estate agents, accounting for some 28% of total sources and 29% of sources by frequency. This high skewing of estate agent sources is due to the large number of advertorial articles in the property sections but nonetheless the lack of critique within the property sections even from a consumer perspective (never mind a public interest, business or societal perspective), still leaves much to be desired.

In the news sections official sources, especially politicians are most prevalent with 69% of total sources. This can be broken down to 29% government parties’ representatives and manifestos; 34% opposition parties representatives and manifestos and 6% local government and government agency sources. 17% of articles also included sources from the finance and property industries…

 

…the parties with pro-market polices make up the vast majority of sources in the papers although it may be argued this reflected party political support at the time. When compared, the Irish Independent and Irish Times have a roughly similar ratio of party political representation. Economically right wing political sources make up the majority with approximately 65% of representatives being openly free market parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats). If we include Labour who had a 2007 policy of subsidising the market by offering large grants to be used to buy private housing (the number would go up to approximately 77%). Representatives of parties that call for non-market solutions to housing make up just under 9% of sources (Sinn Fein, The Socialist Party and People Before Profit Alliance), while the Green Party, which called for stricter market regulation, come in at 10.5%.

The most striking figure is that of what we term use value sources, that is sources such as renters and home buyers who are interested in the property solely for its use, i.e. to live or work in it. Use value sources make up only 2% of total sources and appearing in only 2% of all articles. This compares to ‘exchange value’ sources (from the property and finance industries) making up 43% of total sources and appearing in 44% of all articles.

A key observation from this research is that statements from sources in private industry are generally reported as fact with little or no critique. There is an absence of critical engagement with the claims advanced by such manifestly partisan sources and the consequent lack of any independent or investigative journalism orientated to a wider public interest. This overly skewed sourcing could be described as a manifest ‘capturing’ of the press by property and finance sources and may help to explain the downplaying of the oncoming crisis, and the lack of critique of the massive inflation of the cost of housing as will be discussed below.

The report goes on to discuss some of the treatment and framing of the housing by the Irish Times and Irish Independent:

The key trends included an overall market-orientated frame: that is that housing was primarily looked at from the point of view of the market rather than society. Elements of this included the privileging of exchange value over use value, non-critical reporting of markets and market sources, and a ‘fragmented imagination’ – that is the artificial division of events. For example, while corruption on housing issues such as rezoning was heavily covered in the news sections on the political side, the industrial side of the corruption was completely ignored and corruption itself was not covered in business or property sections of the papers. The role of the state, following clear neo-liberal norms, is seen positively, as existing to serve the market, to return it to stability; or negatively as a malign force causing instability in the markets.

The report goes on the discuss the lack of critical engagement in the newspapers with issues such as house prices and the property markets:

The residential property supplement in both newspapers displayed an uncritical, aspirational and advertorial discourse when reporting individual properties. At times, advertorial type articles also find their way into the business and news sections. Not one article questioned whether an individual property may be overpriced, the minimum expected of even a consumerist publication. Overall in the newspapers, including the news sections, the key issue is of the market and ‘market stability’ rather than either consumer or social good. In the news sections there is an acknowledgement of a need for a second tier housing supply for those who cannot afford to purchase on the open market. But the third tier of private rental accommodation (beyond one article) remains invisible. In the property and commercial sections the rental property market is framed from the perspective of landlords and investors. Even second tier housing is framed on a market basis from the point of view of private companies or developers involved in the supply of public housing. In Op-Ed articles, market stability is the major issue again trumping the crisis of affordability or the social need for housing. The only questioning of rental prices is from the point of view of business focusing on the danger of wage demand inflation arising from higher rents.

On the role of the state:

The discussion around state policy played into the neoliberal trope of state ‘interference’ distorting a functioning market. Material issues such as overproduction and price inflation are ignored and assumptions of market self-regulation (without state interference) appear implied. This is an important finding as it reflects the neo-classical viewpoint that markets work and are self-regulating and that crisis came not from markets themselves but from behavioural, psychological and political interferences that cause irrational exuberance, crashes and crises. Again, given the non-critical sourcing of both papers from orthodox neoclassical economists and the lack of any evidence of independent fact checking or investigation, this is probably not surprising.

The report concludes:

There is ample evidence from the research to state that the role of newspapers when covering the property industry was not one of objective reporters or ‘watchdogs’ reporting on the issue of housing from the point of public interest. Rather, the newspapers’ key role was as advertisers for the industry, facilitating exchanges of uncritical information between industry players, and as an ideological apparatus. This apparatus acted to normalise the hyperinflation of housing, celebrate high property prices, downplay alternatives and, crucially, acted to play down the contradictions in the Irish system that were heading towards a crash.

And:

The newspapers did not act in accordance with the overall public interest in mind but rather narrow sectional and economistic interests. There were some exceptions to this, in particular in some opinion pieces. However, the main trends and frames point to a ‘captured press’; that is a press in the service of a narrow class-based interest. This does not represent an accusation of a ‘conspiracy’, as stated by Geraldine Kennedy (2015) in her evidence to the banking inquiry. Rather, this is evidence of key structural, institutional and ideological biases that were apparent in the analysis of the content. A key element to this process was the framing of housing not as a social need but as a commodity whose chief role was to create wealth rather than supply housing. This allowed for the celebration of the hyperinflation of housing and rental costs. The market-orientated framing also included the neo-classical and idealistic belief in market self-regulation, either denying or playing down the possibility of a crash. The lack of critique may well have helped to both build and prolong the bubble itself. That is not to say the media caused the crisis. There were long term material and political structural issues at its core. However, the newspapers did play the role of facilitator, supplying ideological and political cover to an economic elite who profiteered greatly from the hyperinflation of housing and the sale of financial products. This assisted in laying the grounds for the housing crash, the economic crisis and the subsequent financial bailout, alongside the severe austerity policies that then followed.

And finally:

There is little evidence that this framing of housing as a commodity rather than a social need has changed as most discourse continues to be around ‘fixing the market’ rather than thinking outside of it

The full paper can be found here.

Harry Browne: Opening statement to Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss with the committee the role of the media, as part of the ‘context’ phase of its inquiry into the banking crisis. I understand from your invitation that you wish to discuss the following: the role in mainstream media for scepticism about the sustainability of the housing boom or the strength of the broader economy; potential conflicts of interest among media organisations; the promotion of property ownership over other forms of tenure; and the prevailing view that there would be a soft landing. In my opening statement I will address these in broad terms and and am happy to explore them more specifically thereafter.

Print and broadcast media in Ireland played an immeasurable but almost-certainly significant role in the inflation of the property bubble and the legitimation of risky behaviour by the financial-services sector in the lead-up to the crisis of 2007-08, and did so partly by ignoring or marginalising scepticism about these phenomena. I will focus in my statement on the newspaper industry, and I will argue that this socially destructive role should be understood not as a ‘failing’ of Irish newspapers but as a feature, one that flows predictably from commercial media’s structural relationship with the corporate forces that benefited from the bubble. While this relationship is of very long standing and continues, to some extent, to this day, I will further argue that there were certain aspects of the development of newspapers in the 1990s and early 2000s – particularly acute in Ireland but also experienced elsewhere in the world – that made them especially vulnerable to domination by those forces, and weakened the capacity of journalists to play the critical, adversarial, investigative role that most of them undoubtedly value.

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Joint Committee of Inquiry of the Banking Crisis – The Role of the Media

Dr Julien Mercille said that after the crash, the media also presented the Government's crisis resolution policies in a largely favourable manner

Today Julien Mercille and Harry Browne were called to give evidence at the banking inquiry on the role of the media in the housing bubble and crisis:

Julien Mercille’s testimony  can be found here:

Harry Browne’s testimony can be found here:

Comment to follow

The Construction of News and the Framing of Dissent

The common perception of news production is that news reports events as or after they happen; a newsworthy event takes place and teams of journalists go out and report the case. This is of course true in some cases such as accidents and other unexpected events. However if a news team had to simply ‘wait’ for news to happen they might find that reality may not fit deadlines in a neat manner. Rather the reality is that news is often as not constructed by the news production team and then published or broadcast. A common version of this can be heard every morning on ‘Morning Ireland’ and most other radio stations. Minister X is interviewed at 8.45 on issue Y and the Nine O’Clock news follows with ‘Mister X stated Y’, this will then be followed up throughout the day with reactions to what Minister X said by opposition politician Z and so on. Minister X may have gone on the radio specifically to state Y, therefore being very much part of the news construction process. Teams of PR agencies and state communication departments spend their days constructing pre-prepared news items for the mainstream media (which are never marked as such); which leads to the direct subsidisation of news by powerful interests. This leads to the very obvious advantages of elites over the rest of society with an ability to shape news agendas and interpretations to suit their own interests.

The 1970s saw an upsurge in institutional studies of media companies often drawing from the sociology of work. These studies have shown how the ‘reality’ constructed by journalists may be what is more easily available or accessible to journalists (or important to journalists) rather than a reflection or mirror of reality (for example see Tuchman 1974, 1978). The construction of news is not a neutral event, work practices, access to sources and overarching ideologies influence how this news is constructed. The ‘news values’ or what is deemed newsworthy is intrinsically ideological as is the interpretation and framing of those events. As Roger Fowler (1991 p.2) succinctly puts it

What events are reported is not a reflection of the intrinsic importance of those events, but reveals the operation of a complex and artificial set of criteria for selection. Then the news that is thus selected is subject to processes of transformation as it is encoded for publication; the technical properties of the medium – television or newsprint, for example and the ways in which they are used, are strongly effective in transformation. Both ‘selection’ and ‘transformation’ are guided by reference, generally unconscious to ideas and beliefs.

The ideological nature of news construction has been clearly on show over the course of the water protests, the literally hundreds of water protests happening on a daily basis seem not to be deemed newsworthy; this clearly fits the mainstream frame of politics being something that happens in the corridors of power rather than on the streets.  Moreover when protests are covered there are common attempts to play them down or describe them as violent as witnessed by the so called ‘sinister fringe’ framing of the water protests. Violence by Irish Water staff, their security firms or police is not being reported in the Irish press. The protests and assorted violence is of course being watched via social media and has now been picked up by the UK based Vice.

framing

The examiner on Wednesday the 28th of January gave us a clear example of both news construction and framing. A protest the previous Friday (a full five days before) against President Michael D. Higgins had been held in a working class part of Dublin; during the protest some frankly childish insults had been thrown at the President and there had been evidence of pushing and shoving by the Police. The protest in itself however was not the story covered by the Examiner rather the newspaper interviewed Paul Murphy TD and asked him to denounce the protests. Murphy in a nuanced enough fashion said that he thought it was legitimate to protest the President as he had signed the Water Charges Bill and defended the right to protest but that he did not think it was tactically wise to do so, moreover he did not support personalised remarks against the President. The headline however was ‘TD defends Higgins Abusers’ which was misleading as it seems to imply Murphy had come out to defend all aspects of the protest rather than answer a question asked by the newspaper. Murphy was most likely targeted by the newspaper because of his role in a previous peaceful protest, which he had also refused to denounce.

examiner

The Examiner continued its construction of the story on Thursday the 28th with the front page headline; ‘Murphy Protest Remarks Spark Outrage’, this headline was even more insidious as one reading of it could imply that Murphy had a closer connection to the protest. The newspaper rather than Writing ‘Protest Remarks by Murphy Spark Outrage’ place the words Murphy and Protest together which means ‘Murphy’ could be read as an adjective or possessive implying a far closer connection, while this may be put down to simply poor style on the part of subeditors linguistically ‘Murphy Protest Remarks’ is a far stronger and more ideological statement than the ‘Protest Remarks by Murphy’ placing Murphy far closer to the protest than having simply answered a question that was put to him by the newspaper. Murphy himself has stated that he intends to officially complain to the Press Ombudsman about his treatment but the event in itself is extremely useful in reminding us about the role of the media as news factories rather than simply being objective reporters of daily life.

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Fowler, R. 1991. Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press. London and New York: Routledge.

Tuchman, G. 1978. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: Free Press.

Tuchman, G. 1974. The TV Establishment: Programming for Power and Profit. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

Ragbags and Reactionaries: A comparative analysis of the treatment of the ULA and Reform Alliance in five newspapers

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*.

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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).

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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

 

 

 

 

Media, Markets and Crisis – Towards a Crisis Theory of Communication

The mass media, advertising and ICT play an increasingly important role in both market systems and capitalist crises. This role directly impinges on the dissemination of information to market actors as well as the reflexive and dialectical nature of the processes by which actors respond to market information. Further, the media serve as an ideological apparatus, resource or arena which acts to naturalise the market through what this research describes as a market orientated framing mechanism (Preston and Silke 2011).

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Thompson (2003) contends that communication is an integral and reflexive part of the contemporary market system. As he puts it, there is a complex relationship between the producers and distributors of economic information, and those who use that information to make decisions about investment and trade. Many recent studies point to the convergence of flows of information such as those on 24 hour news channels, business channels and internet blogs and sites with market activity itself. For Hope, (2010) information broadcast on such media by bankers, stockbrokers and traders themselves tends to be self-serving and inevitably leads to ‘a real time feedback loop that proliferates then contributes to the growth and collapse of speculative bubbles’ (Ibid p. 665). Finally, we must note how the mass media also play a pervasive and important role in the commodification process through advertising and indeed comprises a part of the circulation of capital itself (Garnham 1979, Fuchs 2009). This research reflects the Marxist concept of base and superstructure, beyond a perceived notion of economic determinism, but rather as a dialectical relationship between various superstructures, in this case the state and the media, and the economic base including the various aspects of class power inherent within.

Since the onset of the ‘great recession’ there have been key debates around various aspects of crisis theory, most notably around the areas of the rate of profit (Brenner 2009, Kliman 2012), under-consumption/overproduction (Clarke 1990) and fiancialisation (Duménil and Lévy 2004). This research maintains that communications and the media are a key though non-deterministic element of the contemporary market system and proposes a move towards a crisis theory of communications.This paper explores theoretical aspects of the evolving role of the media with respect to deep and prolonged financial and economic crises, especially the ‘Great Western’ crisis since 2008.

As empirical reference point and by way of case study, the paper considers three key moments in the Irish economic crisis and their treatment by sections of the mainstream press media: The Irish property market in the run up to the 2007 general election on the cusp of the Irish crash, the blanket bank guarantee of 2008, where the state effectively guaranteed the debts of the entire Irish banking system in its totality, and finally the introduction of the National Asset Management Agency, a state sponsored bad bank aimed at cleaning up the (then) private banking industry. The paper uses these examples to consider the role of the media and its relationship to both the markets and political policy.

A crisis theory of communications, looking at dialectical relationships between economic structures, trends and crises and media content.

Henry Silke 2014

This is an abstract for a paper to be presented at ECREA 2014, Lisbon Portugal

 Bibliography

Brenner, R.  2009.  “What is Good for Goldman Sachs is Good for America: The origins of the Current Crisis,”  Prologue to the Spanish Translation of Economics of Global Turbulence, Akal.    IN: Economics of Global Turbulence.  Madrid: Akal,

Clarke, S. 1990. The marxist theory of overaccumulation and crisis. Science & Society, 54(4), pp.442-467.

Duménil, G. and Lévy, D. 2004. Capital resurgent: roots of the neoliberal revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fuchs, C. 2009a. Grounding critical communication studies. Journal of Communication Inquiry,

Fuchs, C. 2009b. Some theoretical foundations of critical media studies: Reflections on karl marx and the media. International Journal of Communication, 3pp.369-402.

Garnham, N. 1979. Contributions to a political economy of mass communication. Media, Culture & Society, 1(2), pp.122-146.

Hope, W. 2010. Time, communication and financial collapse. International Journal of Communication, (4), pp.649-669.

Kliman, A. 2012. The failure of capitalist production: underlying causes of the Great Recession. London: Pluto Press.

Preston, P. and Silke, H. 2011. Market ‘realities’: De-coding neoliberal ideology and media discourses. Australian Journal of Communications,

Thompson, P.A. 2003. Making the world go round? communication, information and global trajectories of finance capital. Southern Review, 36(3),