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
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