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.

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The Silence of the Liberals

On Monday morning the Gardai began a highly political series of dawn raids which have so far seen 17 people, including two minors, arrested in force. The raids began on Monday with the arrest of three politicians, two local and one national, Paul Murphy TD. The arrests are concerned with a protest last November at which the Minister of Social Protection Joan Burton was delayed for up to two hours. No arrests were made on the day of the protest itself.  So what has the Irish Times had to say about this affront on democracy and the right of protest, not much it seems, the print edition between Monday and Wednesday has produced a total of four articles (including a letter) with just over 1,000 words and no editorials. at the time of writing the arrests continue, it will be interesting to see if D’Olier St. has anything to say on the issue over the next number of days and if so what it is, watch this space.

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Fear and Loathing in Talbot St

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

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

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

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

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

mob rule

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

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

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

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

donal falon brick

‘The Brick’ as pictured by Donal Fallon

tallaght compared to ni killing

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

middle class paul

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

INM protest

Protest at the headquarters of Independent News and Media

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

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.

Privileged Access: An Insight into Source Bias in the Irish Press

On  July 14th 2013 the Irish Independent published a fascinating article by Tom Lyons entitled The Gloomsday Book: who was there on the night of the guarantee; the article is not  interesting so much for the narrative of who met whom and when but more so for the journalist’s normative judgement of who should be listened to in times of key economic crisis.  The article while expressing the usual journalistic class biases about ‘bearded trade unionists’  offers an illuminating insight into journalistic sourcing; that is who and what organisations the press speak to in terms of policy decisions and crisis and who they consider relevant. The article discusses the diary of the Minister of Finance on the day of the decision of the banking guarantee with a normative discourse on who was worthy of the state’s attention on that most infamous of days.

As an aside the article declines to remind us of the newspaper’s own support of the guarantee at the time nor its role in publishing at least one article lobbying for the guarantee in advance of its proposal and another in advance of its implementation; but as with the press and the housing bubble we are well used to institutional short memories. What is interesting in this article is that it expresses to us some illuminating thinking about who they believe  it was relevant to talk to on the day of the blanket bank guarantee, a blanket bank guarantee that has had negative aspects throughout all of society.

Guests signing in to see Mr Lenihan himself, however, had nothing to do with the banking crisis which that day saw Anglo Irish Bank on the brink of collapse and other toxic banks such as AIB and Irish Nationwide not that far behind…

…At 4pm, six representatives of different charities including Protestant Aid, the Children’s Rights Alliance, Cori and St Vincent de Paul all sign in to see the minister. These charities are more relevant to Ireland in the years following the bank guarantee than in the hours beforehand.

Then at 4.50pm David Begg, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who sat on the board of the Central Bank during the boom turned up for some reason or other. He was accompanied by Paul Sweeney, the trade union economist. A few minutes later, another three ICTU officials showed up, though it is not clear who they were planning to visit. At 5pm, Jack O’Connor, the president of ICTU, showed up – another bearded trade unionist with zero banking expertise is there to see the minister.

It seems beyond the newspaper’s conception to what trade unionists, or a trade unionist economist might have to do with lobbying the minister for finance at a time when working class wages and conditions are under constant attack and what a blanket guarantee paid for all of society might have to do with those other than business interests.  As he puts it:

The fact that neither Mr Lenihan nor his civil servants thought it wise to clear his schedule so he could focus on the banks again underlines how out of their depth they all were.

So if the state shouldn’t be dealing with pesky bearded trade unionists who should they be speaking to?

Just after Mr O’Connor bustled in, Padraig O Riordain, the managing director of Arthur Cox, showed up in the department – finally, someone who knows about banking had signed in.

So there you have it, an expert, not that such an expert could possibly have any special or vested interests or hold any conflicting brief – this question is not considered at all. The fact that this law firm while advising the state also represents elite groups in Irish society, especially banking and finance is not alluded to.  We can only conclude in the Independent’s view that when this societal crisis was in process, actors from society outside of the world of finance and banking had no role to play. As I said at the beginning of this piece this is an illuminating insight into the thinking of journalists that explains somewhat their own practice.

In his Master’s Voice?

In a sourcing analysis* of the week before and after the bank guarantee itself in 2008 this attitude was replicated in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent. The research found that in stories covering the bank guarantee  business and finance made up 23% of total sources while non business elements of civil society only made up 2%; trade unions made up none. In terms of politics, while state and party political sources made up about half of the total, Fianna Fail alone made up half of that. Non mainstream political parties got a total of two lines in one article, (a mention of an email from Socialist Party rep. Joe Higgins),  the ratio to pro-anti guarantee political parties was around 8 to 1. In terms of frequency or how often people were sourced the trend is repeated. In fact in the news section of the Irish Times about a third of articles only sourced government or state representative.

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Figure One: Percentage of complete sources by type in the Irish Times and Irish Independent on the issue of the 2008 blanket bank guarantee 21/09/2008 – 5/10/2008. NB this chart is of complete sources but not frequency of sources, that is numerous sources may appear in a single article. For example although media makes up 8% of sources it does not appear in 8% of articles, it is made up by few articles with numerous sources in each.

 

image002

Figure Two: Frequency of sourcing by article by type Irish Times and Irish Independent on the issue of the bank guarantee 21/09/2008 – 5/10/2008. NB while many articles contain numerous sources a source type is only counted once. The chart can be read as such ‘In 57.98% of articles at least one political source appeared’

A Single Narrative?

The fact that the newspapers came out in such support of the guarantee is hardly surprising considering the narrow nature of its sources, the research found that while the 81 articles published about the guarantee could be described as supportive only 16 and 22 could be described as negative and neutral respectively. Apart from some honorable acceptions most articles seemed to accept mainstream political and business sources without serious critique.  Why does this matter? Because politics, political policy and ideology in general is often a battle of conflicting narratives, and here the evidence clearly shows, as does Tom Lyons’  illuminating piece, one narrative dominates the Irish press, and that put simply is a class and market based narrative which serves elite sections in society, and while the press continue to have a somewhat influential role in the media and wider society this is deep concern.

*This research is part of an ongoing PhD thesis on the Irish press and the financial crisis.

Photo from Anglo not our debt

 

Strategic Ideology – Preparing the ground for Repossessions?

Pat Kenny (on evictions) –  ‘Will we see more people on the side of the road literally, soon?’

IBEC economist  –  ‘Look, I think all the options will have to be looked at’

Prime Time (RTE  Current Affairs) 4th April 2013

Introduction

Ideology in its popular sense is seen as something akin to identity and something we are very much aware of, one has an ideological political position, usually some ‘ism’ or other. While true to a small extent the real secret of Ideology is the insidious nature of what becomes ‘common sense’, and how this ‘common sense’ may go on the frame narratives, agenda and discussion. This ‘common sense’ may or may not have any basis in material reality and it may or may not reflect an overt political movement. But scratch the surface and there is inevitably some class interests at stake. If one thinks of the inevitability of cuts as opposed to the impossibility higher corporation or wealth  taxes as expressed by the mass media we can see that point.

In fact the entire notion of austerity itself is an ideological and class based construct, and yes, thus far, it is working very well for elite power. The ideology of austerity has become a default and assumed reality across much of the political spectrum. The only remaining questions being sectional and localised.

Within the mass media there is a tendency for dominant political and social ideas to become ‘common sense’, in other words assumed to be true while anything contrary to this ‘common sense’ is deemed political, ideological and not rational. This type of thinking allows someone like Karl Deeter, a constant and deeply ideological champion of the Irish Property market system, to proclaim:

‘…that Flac and New Beginnings “have an ideological view of the world. I don’t’. “Maybe that makes me soulless but I believe my research is good. They can dismiss my research and rubbish it but what have they done? What research have they put together. They have done nothing. I am certainly not going to back down just because people disagree with me.”

In other words those who are in any way critical of the premises of the market system are ideological while those who support this system are, in their minds, entirely rational. In the upside down world of newspaper and media, treatment of property heterodoxy is ideological while orthodoxy – even after the collapse of the property market – remains the only truth. The depth of ideological thinking within the Irish media can be seen in that even now, five years after the event, there seems to be no conception of the possibility of supplying housing outside of an unregulated market system.

Preparing the Ground – Identify the Enemy

Anyone who was in Ireland as the economy collapsed could not have missed the public-sector/private sector ‘debate’; which in reality was a class offensive which prepared the ground for huge cuts in pay and conditions in both sectors. The public sector were framed as lazy and overpaid as well as ‘holding the country to ransom’; their unions as old fashioned and corrupt. The private sector worker for their part were lionised for their perceived self sacrifice. Of course few in the media actually spoke to private sector workers or even their representatives and tended to speak to either private sector owners, managers or human resource ‘experts’, (which often meant highly paid private consultants). When private sector workers became unemployed they could be either used as a weapon to attack other workers pay and conditions or denounced as dole scroungers. This also played into the equally ideological ‘common sense’ viewpoint that anything organised in the private sector was efficient and well run, while anything not privately run was inefficient with the logical conclusion that privatisation would be a preferred option. This was particularly ironic at the time because the bulk of the collapsed private banking system (and more importantly its debts) were on the road towards nationalisation.

While not proposing there was a media conspiracy around this period, certainly there were structural and deeply ideological issues in effect, which again were affected by material conditions, identities, the class nature of journalism and journalists, working practices and ownership and the power of advertising (especially property).

The New Enemy Within?

So the question is have we reached another such point? Are we witnessing the softening up of the population for repossessions, evictions and a new class offensive. Well first we have to meet our new national villain – step forward the ‘strategic defaulter’.

Step forward the new villain 'the strategic defaulter'

Step forward the new villain ‘the strategic defaulter’

When developing a new ideological offensive what better candidate than Colm McCarthy to step up to the plate: in a number of recent articles he discusses the idea of the ‘strategic defaulter’.

…it appears that some people who have gone into arrears have been choosing to do so, in the sense that they do not lack the financial capacity to make repayments on schedule. Some arrears can be termed ‘distressed arrears’, in the sense that the borrowers simply cannot pay, but others, so-called ‘strategic’ arrears, arise through borrowers choosing not to pay, presumably in the hope that some debt forgiveness scheme will ultimately emerge, or that they can cod the bank into believing that they are suffering genuine financial distress.

McCarthy (and much of the media) have been citing Gregory O’Connor from the National University of Ireland Maynooth:

Mr O’Connor reckons that these strategic defaulters constitute at least 35 per cent of the total, based on statistical studies of strategic default in the United States, where re-possession is easier for the lender. Despite the greater severity of the housing downturn in Ireland, there have been far fewer dwellings re-possessed, relative to the volume of arrears, than in the USA or the United Kingdom.

So there you have it no less than 35% of defaulters and arrears are from strategic defaulters who are choosing not to pay. McCarthy is citing a blog post by Gregory Connor of the National University of Maynooth on The Irish Economy.  There are however some serious issues with this blog post which becomes evident even after a brief reading. In effect the blog post boils down to saying that in the US there is X amount of strategic defaulters, Ireland has had a worse crash, therefore there must be Y amount of strategic defaulters here. It is also an entirely market based approach concerned with market values and negative equity.  By using a market based approach it focuses mainly on those who purchased property as an investment, while ignoring those who bought property as a home. Moreover, it doesn’t deal with the issue of what happens to debt after a default is ignored. Under Irish law even if the property is re-possessed and sold, the remainder is still owed by the borrower, (however unrealistic the opportunity of return). In an Irish Times article Gregory O’Connor discusses his thesis further with some remarkable and what could only be describe as ideological oversights:

The classic source of distressed arrears is loss of employment. A Central Bank sample study showed that 32 per cent of residential mortgage holders in serious arrears were unemployed, or had a mortgage co-payer who was unemployed. Unemployment does not explain the remaining 68 per cent of arrears cases.

Unemployment may not account for the other 68% of cases, but what about pay cuts, pension levies, universal social charges, household taxes, loss of hours for contract workers, full time work reduced to part time? Not to mention other issues such as the cost of fuel (for those in the commuter belts), the cost of childcare, medicine etc etc. In simple terms a couple who may have bought a house they could barely afford in 2006, can quite reasonably, after losing the 15-20% of their income, having children or becoming sick be unable to afford that mortgage today. And in structural terms what about the unsustainable inflation of housing cost from 4 times the average wage to twelve times in less than a decade?

O’Connor also cites recent legal decisions which may well have had an impact:

The legal block on repossessions arising from the 2009 Land Conveyancing Reform Act is another obvious potential driver of strategic arrears. Starting that same year, the financial regulator imposed the Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears, limiting banks’ ability to scrutinise arrears cases. Combined with troubled banks’ natural tendency towards “extend and pretend” on delinquent loans, this created a tempting environment for mortgage holders inclined towards strategic default.

While there is quite possibly merit in this argument again it ignores everything else that happened in 2009.

In other words O’Connor’s work is simply speculation and pretty poor speculation at that. What is of interest is how a purely speculative blog post can then be then quickly reproduced in the mass media as peer-reviewed scientific fact:

Recent surveys suggest that at least 35pc of those who are in mortgage arrears may be unwilling, rather than unable, to pay. This figure is based on statistical studies of strategic default in the United States, where re-possession is easier for the lender.

For his part   McCarthy hammers home some anecdotal evidence:

There is anecdotal evidence from bankers that some people are meeting all sorts of payments (direct debits for utilities) and also clearing credit card balances monthly, while failing to meet mortgage repayments.

Where to begin with this? While one can go into arrears with a mortgage and hope to work one’sway back in the future, one cannot, for example, stop paying electricity and gas bills without facing immediate cut off and losing the ability to heat your home. Not to mention the fact people may raise the €200 or €300 for a bill, but not be able to raise the €1,500 for the mortgage payment. The fact that McCarthy’s banking friends see this as a great immorality says much about their mindset. Likewise not paying a credit card minimum rate sees massive interest payments follow.

I am not arguing that there are no so called ‘strategic defaulters’, there may well be, certainly the developer class has had no qualms about such issues. Within working people there may be some, and I do not see any particular moral issue with it. After all the property market was overpriced and working people through taxation and cutbacks have already paid for much of the default within the system.  In fact  ‘strategic defaulting’  if done at a collective level in the form of a mortgage strike would be a legitimate and probably very effective form of class struggle. The point of this article is to consider why is this  becoming a household term. Does it form part of the new mood music of banks ‘getting tough’? Is it recognition that the short term strategies of the banks and state are running out of steam? In short, is it a softening up for repossessions and evictions? This is not to be conspiratorial about the media; but at certain times media framing can become so commonplace that it seeps into the consciousness as ‘common sense’, and once a group is effectively demonised, actions considered abominable a short time before is suddenly not only acceptable but expected and even demanded.

Eviction in Ireland (Vandeleur Estate, County Clare. Circa 1880s or 1890s). National Library of Ireland

Henry Silke is a PhD candidate in the School of Communications, Dublin City University. For more blog articles on the media treatment of the property crash see hereherehere and see here for an article on the conceptual basis of the research.

Market ‘Realities’: Decoding Economic Ideology in the Press – Paschal Preston & Henry Silke DCU

[T]he superstructure depends on its economic foundations.  But it is necessary to emphasise the fact that the superstructure operates retroactively on its base.  The retroactive superstructual influence in no less important than the influence of the base itself.  The historical process can only be explained by observing the interaction of the two.  They do not affect each other mechanically or as externally independent factors; they are inseparable moments of a unity.

(Franz Jakubowski 1976 p. 57)

Introduction

In the current economic and political crises the mass media continue to play an important role in both political and economic discourse. Therefore how the news media treats the economic crises and its political aftermath is of some importance. The authors maintain that current neo-liberal ideological assumptions have an influential effect on contemporary news and financial journalism and that the latter, in turn, serve to shape the course of economic and financial processes. They maintain this is important as neo-liberal ideologies are not separate from the material world but can have real effects in terms of state policies and business strategies. Moreover, neo-liberal assumptions may have blinded journalism to potential crises related to market contradictions and bubbles.

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