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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.

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.

Balance in the Bin: The Irish Times’ Framing of the Greyhound Lockout

The Irish business media have not been known for their critical thought nor for their hard questioning of economic actors; on the contrary theirs is a history of sycophantry, poor reporting and little or no fact checking. ‘Entrepreneurial’ and ‘innovative’ businesses and business ‘leaders’ such as Anglo Irish Bank and various property speculators were unquestioned and lauded as paragons of a new dynamic Ireland. Since the crisis one might have reasonably expected a more thoughtful form of business reporting, more reflective, less obsequious  and maybe even slightly critical. Alas, the journalistic model of forelock tugging, arse licking is still with us.

greyhound

Friday’s Irish Times included a long interview with Michael Buckley, Executive Director of Greyhound Waste. Greyhound is in the news as they are currently locking out their workforce, demanding that they take a 35% pay cut. Elements of the media, true to form, are uncritically reporting statements from the company with little evidence of fact-checking and displaying all the usual fawning reserved for business leaders. Friday’s 2,500 word interview includes no counter statements from SIPTU (the union involved) and takes Buckley’s word on every aspect.

 Buckley himself is described as ‘conveying enthusiasm’ for what he does and his statement that the private sector is doing a ‘good job with domestic waste collection’ is unchallenged; something that would raise the eyebrows of any of Greyhound’s long suffering customers. The term lockout is not used, rather it is stated that workers refused a ‘proposal’ that has led them to being ‘replaced, for the time being anyhow’ by agency and contract workers. None of the locked out workers are given space for comment.  Buckley, again uncritically, is given space to show his ‘sympathy’ to the workers, but goes on to say a pay cut is better than nothing, and again the workers’ point of view is not given.  The article then goes into some sycophantic reminiscence of how Buckley’s parents used to run a waste operation, which he describes as a ‘hump and dump’ business which was collecting waste and ‘dumping in unlicensed landfills’. The Irish Times seems to have no issue with this and for this matter they do not mention the numerous environmental indictments that the current Greyhound operation has been involved in; neither does the article think to mention the fact that Greyhound is based in the Isle of Man for tax avoidance purposes. For the Irish Times, the Isle of Man ‘model’ is simply an innocent act of accounting.

 The key section of the interview is where Buckley describes the ‘regime’ Greyhound took over, after its privatisation, being in a terrible state, as:

The collection of rubbish had been seen for decades as a service and not an income stream for business. The workers were well paid and had attractive working conditions.

Indeed, for 150 years Dublin City Council ran what seemed to be a relatively well run waste service that was free to citizens at the point of use. The privatisation of the service is a good example of what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession, a feature of late capitalism that sees a rentier class taking over already existing services and charging for them, often supplying a far less quality service, costing more and paying their staff less. In the case of Greyhound, tax avoidance can also be added to the list. This process began over a decade ago by the commodification of the waste service which would pave the way for later privatisation; in an ironic and Orwellian twist the Labour Party has taken to blaming the opposition movement to the commodification and privatisation of waste and other services for the current mess.

 Throughout the article the process of the labour dispute is described solely from Buckley’s point of view without a single quote from a trade union source. Buckley is allowed to make an accusation of racism against workers, whom he claimed opposed a scab operator because that man was a foreign national. This allegation is not challenged, nor are workers or trade union representatives allowed to answer the accusation.

Greyhound’s unpopularity with its long suffering customers is put down to ‘communication problems’ or Greyhound not being versed in public relations, nothing to do with its extremely poor service or its opportunistic charging for the collection of Green waste which had been free up to privatisation as an obvious and sensible environmental incentive.

 The most incredible piece of writing is that the private waste companies represent an ‘entrepreneurial, innovative sector’ – how is this so? By taking over an already existing, well-run service and operating it in a haphazard and amateurish manner? By doing down the pay and conditions of its staff?  By its numerous notices of repeat non-compliance by the Environmental Protection Agency or by their not-so-innovative use of the Isle of Man to escape financial regulation? A simple internet trawl would uncover actual innovative waste management practices across Europe that go beyond shipping waste overseas for landfill and incineration in even less-regulated parts of the world.

 The Irish Times might argue that this was an interview and that the opinion of the workers and their representatives can be found elsewhere, but this is not entirely true. While the Irish Times does have a much shorter article (500 words) in which a union representative is given some space to counter Buckley’s accusations, where is the 2,500 word soft focus interview of a shop steward conducted in the middle of a strike? Where are the articles describing the shop steward’s childhood and his or her vision for the future? Where is the article with interesting quotes from a striking worker and his fascinating outside interests and hobbies? Where is the article that takes the position of a shop steward without question, challenge and that doesn’t put forward the company’s view for balance? For that matter where is the ‘union’ section of the newspaper, to balance the ‘business’ section, which let’s face it should be really named the ‘elite interests section’.

 Or here’s a crazy thought, why not include an economics section that includes journalists that can see beyond the interests of a single élite class and past recycled neo-liberal clichés; a section that may even question failed economic policies such as the botched privatisation policy that has left our waste services in such a shambolic state.

Inside Bias – class representation in the Irish Times

blind_spot2A piece on the Irish Times new podcast series ‘Inside Politics’ on renting and property gives some revealing insights on continued class biases in the newspaper. The section included three guests, a TD from the Labour Party, a speaker from the Residential Landlord’s association and a representative from Mortgage Brokers Ireland (who is also  a landlord). Who’s missing from the picture? You guessed it a tenant.  The framing of rent reforms as unnecessary, counterproductive and politically impossible quickly follows:

Media, Crisis and The Making Of Common Sense – The Live Register

The Live Register hosted a podcast discussion on the Media, Crisis and the making of common sense between Henry Silke of this parish and Julian Mercille of UCD.

From the Live Register:

Why is the vast majority of Irish media dominated with an undoubting and uncritical attitude towards a single theory of the ‘crisis’? What role does it play in legitimising, rather than challenging, the structural causes of growing inequality? And what does this mean for radical interpretations of democracy, public space and the remaking of common sense?

In this Live Register podcast, we’re joined by Julien Mercille and Henry Silke, two academics who have been carrying out separate research relating to the Irish media.

Julien Marcille lectures at the School of Geography in UCD and has recently published research on how the Irish mainstream media have covered the Irish “crisis” from a pro-austerity position over the last five years. Henry Silke is a postgraduate researcher at the School of Communications DCU, who has been examining the political role of the Irish press during the crisis.

We used their research to frame a wider discussion of the real role of mainstream media in Ireland today, exploring how market ideology is central to how mainstream media frames public discourse, very much at odds to the perception of mainstream media holding truth to power.

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

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On January 25th 2014 coming, ex Junior Minister Lucinda Creighton, and the newly formed Reform Alliance are to hold a launch meeting in the RDS. The meeting is expected to draw 300 to 400 people and has been dubbed a ‘monster meeting’ (Sunday Independent 5 January 2014) and an ‘Ard Fheis’ style rally (RTE.ie 6th January 2014). The meeting has received quite a lot of media attention, including a long one-to-one interview with Lucinda Creighton on RTE’s flagship television current affairs programme Prime Time  to discuss the new formation (RTE 7th January 2014), a full three weeks ahead of the rally (see Broadsheet.ie for a transcript here). The alliance is made up of seven ex Fine Gael TDs and Senators who split with the Party in opposition to last years abortion reform. The Alliance can be described as socially conservative and economically liberal; some have dubbed it a Progressive Democrats mark II, (for example Rory Hearne here). A type of party that certain sections of the media, especially the Sunday Independent,  have been calling for for some time.

The Reform Alliance, however, seems to have neither the intellectual grounding nor the popular appeal of the Progressive Democrats and its long term viability is not certain. Moreover, the PDs were first and foremost a neo-liberal party which allowed for social liberalism on issues such as divorce and contraception. The Reform Alliance seems to more be more akin to the US right, which combine social and religious conservatism with economic liberalism and it is yet to be seen how much popular appeal exists for such an ideology here, or if the alliance has legs. Already some prominent economists and independent politicians, most notably David McWilliams and Stephen Donnelly have declared that they will not support the Alliance as it is too socially conservative. (See Cedar Lounge Revolution here for more declines).

Two Alliances and Two Launch meetings

While watching some of the media coverage, it occurred to me that another alliance launched in 2010 didn’t seem to get anything like the coverage of the Reform Alliance: The United Left Alliance was launched on the 29th of November 2010 with a meeting of three to four hundred in the Gresham Hotel, but was not described anywhere as a ‘monster’ or ‘Ard Fheis’ style meeting. In fact, as memory serves, there wasn’t much coverage of it at all.

The ULA launch on the 29th of November 2010 - not a 'monster' rally.

The ULA launch on the 29th of November 2010 – not a ‘monster’ rally.

The ULA was an alliance between the already existing left groups: the Socialist Party; the Socialist Workers Party; the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group; and the People Before Profit Alliance. The ULA had  a similar political weight to Lucinda Creighton’s Reform Alliance with one MEP, and numerous councillors , this was evident by the election of 5 TDs in the following election. The United Left Alliance didn’t last very long and split within two years, some details on this can be found here.   In 2010, however, the split was not a foregone conclusion and indeed there was serious potential  for the alliance to develop into a new party to the left of Labour.

This post is concerned with the print media treatment of the two political groups The Alliances are broadly similar in terms of  political representation and support, though the ULA probably had more activists and some  parts of the ULA have sunk roots into their communities. The launches too are similar in size and style as political rallies rather than voting conferences.

ULA potentialTo compare the two alliances we will look 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 launches were/will be held on 29th of November 2010 and on 25th of January for the ULA and RA respectively), we look primarily at the number size and position of the articles and secondly consider some of the treatment. To gather the data the Lexis Nexis newspaper database is being used with similar search criteria (see below). What we are interested in is whether the two Alliances get equal treatment or generally equal treatment both in terms of quantity and quality, and if either Alliance receives any support or opposition.

Politics and the Mainstream Media

This is of interest as the mainstream media, while not being the only source of political knowledge for the general population, is still a key. The print media remains an important part of the media sphere most especially in terms of agenda setting and the development of political themes and frames over time. In normative terms the media should offer equal access to various sides of the political and economic debate, however, as long pointed out by critical scholars, due to issues of ownership, institutional work practices, the class makeup of journalists, and sometimes target audiences, alongside wider ideological processes, there is less than equal access in the mainstream media between what can be termed conservative or mainstream voices and left or alternative  voices.

 In political terms the media may play an important role in developing support for or opposition to political parties or groupings by either publicising, supporting, opposing or ignoring their existence. This is not to be overly deterministic around the mainstream media as political movements can built through ‘boots on the ground’ and how they relate to various events and issues and ‘objective conditions’.  Also materially wealthy groups can bypass media by use of advertising, or develop a media presence by the use of public relations.  It is, however, important to recognise the role of the media in constructing political discourse, agenda and debate which is of particular importance in the media’s role in disseminating information about a new formation on a national level. In short the media remains both a key battleground and source of soft power in the political sphere and its treatment of various political groupings is important.

The ULA and the Reform Alliance, almost identical in terms of political support,  offer an opportunity to test the Irish media on this point.This first post will consider the treatment of the ULA, while a second later post will look at the treatment of the Reform Alliance.

UL who? – The Coverage of the United Left Alliance and launch meeting in five newspapers

A search was performed on the Lexis Nexis print media database between the first of November and the 13 of December 2010 using the search terms ‘United Left Alliance’ or ‘Richard Boyd Barrett ‘or ‘Joe Higgins’ or ‘ULA’ or ‘Seamus Healy’ to appear anywhere in articles of the five newspapers. This uncovered 12 articles of relevance. A further search using the words ‘Higgins,’ ‘Daly’,’ Collins’ uncovered a further 11 articles (3). 13 articles were found to non applicable; that was articles that may have named politicians such as Joe Higgins or Richard Boyd Barrett but didn’t mention the ULA or the formation of an alliance. In fact three articles that discuss a ‘surge’ to the left  managed to do so without any mention of the ULA or left regroupment at all (1). There was a total of 5 articles about the ULA itself (2), a further 2 articles where the ULA made up a considerable part and finally 3 articles where the ULA was mentioned in passing. The 5 articles solely on the United Left Alliance appeared in the The Irish Examiner, The Irish Times (twice), The Irish Independent and the Sunday Business Post. All of the articles were straight news stories and neutral in orientation. Each article was short and appeared deep inside the respective newspapers. (An exception is the Sunday Business Post where a page number was not found). The 5 articles on the ULA made up a total of only 1173 words. The launch meeting in the Gresham hotel on the 29th of November was not covered by any of the newspapers and no article appeared before the 26th of November, three days before the meeting. Of the five articles where the ULA made up a substantial part or were mentioned in passing 3 were neutral and 2 were negative, none of the articles expressed any support for the Alliance. The one article that seemed to take the ULA in any way seriously and offered any analysis was an article entitled ‘The Old Order Swept Away’ in the Sunday  Business Post on November 28th (1174 words) .This article was  primarily on the demise of Fianna Fail.  In the article acceptable  parameters  of political policy were quickly established, firmly placing the article in an orthodox frame:

The cacophony of voices which say that the individual measures of the plan are not necessary tend to be quieter in explaining where the money should otherwise come from – beyond infantile sloganeering.

The notion that most Irish people – who are, let us not forget, among the best-paid and most lightly-taxed in Europe – won’t have to pay anything if we can somehow get Dermot Desmond and Denis O’Brien to open their wallets is hardly worthy of serious debate.

The main issue of the article is that  political cultural change is underway:

The disregard for our established politics is spreading. Last week, the TEEU trade union promised a campaign of civil disobedience against the four-year plan. One senior and experienced politician reflected privately that ”there will be civil disorder”.

There has been a huge inflation in the incendiary language that is being used of late. In the Dáil last Thursday, Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín O’Caoláin – actually following a speech by Eamon Ryan asking for some civility and calmness in the debate – accused the Greens of ”treason” and ”betrayal”, ”criminality” and ”treachery”

And on the ULA:

But Sinn Fein in are far from the only people using this language. A few minutes earlier, Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins launched a new United Left Alliance across the road in Buswells Hotel.

Higgins is a sincere and committed politician and, unlike most of his colleagues in the last Dáil, chose to accept only the average industrial wage, devoting the rest of his salary to political activities.

That does not make him right or wrong about anything. But it is the language used at last week’s launch that was notable. He spoke of the government ”draining the lifeblood of the poor”; of the ”vultures in the markets”; he accused reporters present of accepting ”the dictatorship of the markets”. This is the language, not just of right or wrong policy choices, but of good and evil. And if you believe your political opponent is not just wrong, but evil, that adds a whole different dimension to politics

While the article was respectful of the Alliance and took it quite seriously its final sentence leaves no doubt to its view of the alliances political orientation:

The movement of economic forces is having a profound social and political effect. It always does – economic forces are the tectonic plates of the political landscape. Political change is certainly on the way. Not all of it may be welcome

And that we can say is it; a total of 10 articles with any mention of the Alliance in six weeks, and nothing before the 26th of November, one article of interest, and certainly no expressions of support in any article in any newspaper. One is reminded of the quote attributed to Oscar Wilde:

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about

We can conclude with certainty that the print media did little to inform the public of the processes taking place around the formation of the United Left Alliance nor publish  anything in the build up to the launch meeting; meaning that most people outside of the organised left probably knew little of either the launch meeting or of the Alliance’s existence. How this compares to the coverage of the Reform Alliance will be investigated in part two of this blog.

Notes

(1) Sinn Fein’s by-election win heralds surge to left  Sunday Independent (Ireland), November 28, 2010, POLITICS, 469 words; SF and left-wing Independents set to burst out of blocs  The Irish Times, December 11, 2010 Saturday, OPINION; Opinion; Pg. 16, 879 words; SF swing can make Gilmore Taoiseach  Sunday Independent (Ireland), December 5, 2010, POLITICS, 973 words) (2) United Left Alliance to run in 14 constituencies  The Irish Times, December 7, 2010 Tuesday, IRELAND; Other Stories; Pg. 8, 392 words; Left-wing groups call for 24-hour strike to reverse budget cutbacks  Irish Examiner, December 11, 2010 Saturday, IRELAND, 339 words; Higgins hopeful of progress of left-wing group  Sunday Business Post, November 28, 2010, IRELAND, 482 words; Socialists aim for six seats in next Dail  Irish Independent, November 26, 2010 Friday, NATIONAL NEWS, 91 words; Higgins and Boyd Barrett to contest election under left-wing alliance  The Irish Times, November 26, 2010 Friday, IRELAND; Pg. 10, 469 words

(3) Summary Analysis

TOTAL ARTICLES NOT APPLICABLE ABOUT LAUNCH MEETING ABOUT ULA ULA MAJOR PART OF ARTICLE MENTIONS ULA TOTAL WC OF ARTICLES ABOUT ULA NUETRAL TOWARDS ULA POSITIVE TOWARDS ULA NEGATIVE TOWARDS ULA
23 13 0 5 2 3 1773 8 0 2

Normal Service Has Resumed

On Today’s Irish Times news-wire Ireland’s best known Homer Simpson impersonator and ex politico John Bruton has returned to that old pre-crisis trope of ‘over-regulation’.  Needless to say the Times doesn’t offer any contrasting opinion, such as the possibility of let’s say under regulation; rather the piece focuses on Bruton’s call on Ireland to become a ‘centre of excellence’ on tax dodging, or what our more creative accountant friends like to call ‘tax compliance’. Veteran Irish Life and Permanent Banker and Irish Times chairman David Went was not quoted on whether he thought that Irish banking should be rid of pesky regulations, but he was probably busy.

BRUTON regulate

John of course didn’t event the trope of ‘over regulation’, here’s an interview with everyone’s favorite entrepreneur and all round genius Sean FitzPatrick of Anglo Irish Bank from back in the good ‘ol days of 2007:

Q We need regulation?

I don’t think corruption is endemic in Irish business. We may have had a few bad apples but … we aren’t attracting the brightest like we did in the seventies and eighties because the banks just don’t have the respect…because of the banks themselves…and we have to work hard. It will take some time to regain the respect and trust that is very important for any society to have and not just with banks because banks are very fundamental to the infrastructure of any society…

 

Q You have given out a lot about regulation and over-regulation, do you have a sense that the entrepreneurship that created the Celtic Tiger, with all our Tribunals and new standards that we are somehow choking business? Do you think Irish business is corrupt or endemically corrupt?

 

Its not. We don’t have the Enron’s or anything like that. We never had the scandals that have taken place elsewhere. Of course you need regulation. But you don’t need over regulation. What we need is appropriate regulation. The danger is, ever since we have had scandals, do you know what you get..as non-executives on boards?  You get middle aged accountants…on boards because they will be good for the audit committee. That can’t be good for business. What we need are a board who represent the stakeholders and are real people with real experience and that relate to the customers that you are actually dealing with and maybe relate to the shareholders. But if we are all going to run for the umbrella of safety with regulation, then what we have achieved over the last ten or fifteen years will be easily brushed away. I’m not looking for a free-for-all. We don’t have a free-for-all here. What I’m looking for is some sense and balance in regulation … [Bad practices] are not endemic and if we are going to change the whole regulation for all of that, then I think that you are mad.

Interview from TV interview with Aine Lawlor ‘One to One’ RTE December 2007, read the entire transcript here