Irish Water has brought us together

B1TdXE_IcAALtTp

For five years the press has warned the public that since “we all partied”, we must now all make sacrifices. In 2008 the relentless billowing of the property bubble naturally segued into an equally relentless build-up to the next ‘courageous[ly] masochis[tic]’ budget.

But when the post-Tiger ‘we’ is not acquiescing to the next austerity measure, it is largely absent. It is often silent or simply gagged, and sometimes, it is even denied it exists at all.

There is no property or travel supplement for the post-tiger ‘we’. Because ‘we’ do not experience austerity. The effects of public service cuts, regressive taxation and emigration are experienced by ‘them’. And ‘they’ do not own or operate the press.

Sometimes, when we talk about the press, journalists respond by saying, “you can’t talk about ‘the press’ as if it’s a collective entity, ‘the press’ is made up of thousands of people and hundreds of organisations, with a diversity of politics and agenda”. So, for the purposes of this article, perhaps it might be less controversial to speak of ‘the press’ simply as shorthand for ‘those media organisations owned by Denis O’Brien and the State’*. Because Ireland’s media landscape is arguably dominated by just one vista, from Leinster House looking out towards Malta.

O’Brien’s Irish Independent once referred to Ireland as a “bold child being justly chastised by responsible parents”. We were told “we [had] behaved like the adolescent who throws a frat-house party while the parents are on holidays”. Austerity wasn’t really even about economics, we were actually being taught how to “behave like a normal country”. The Irish Examiner even promised us the mystical Troika would “restore [our] sanity”.

And restoring sanity is a useful thing, particularly when a public is as “angry” and “irrational” as ours. This angry populace is a permanent feature of political journalism, increasingly so around election time. Sometimes of course, this “anger” is ‘justifiable’, ‘understandable’ or ‘righteous’, but it is always irrational. And a state cannot be dictated to by those without the ability to engage in “reasonable discussion”.

Which makes the recent arrival of a “sinister fringe” all the more understandable.

4 weeks ago 150,000 people, across Ireland, marched. They marched for many different reasons, but were united on one issue — objection to the introduction of further austerity measures in the form of a water tax and the establishment of a semi-state utility, Irish Water.

Like the household charge before it, the Government’s latest austerity measure has been greeted with widespread civil disobedience. And like the household charge before it, a campaigning effort by the press to smooth the path for this Shock Doctrine-esque policy has been widely rejected by the public.

Initially at least the press reported the widespread protests relatively uncritically (despite one story listing the planned locations and times of protests below details of an alleged firearm incident related to meter installation). However, coverage of the movement has soured of late. Even those columnists that are relied upon to discard the establishment hymn sheet, have taken to joining in the chorus. In the midst of a mass mobilisation, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades, the press has drawn microscopic focus on a single brick†.

This brick was a god send to the commentariat. The question of how to deal with a public that was neither ‘angry’ nor ‘irrational’ was slowly dividing them. The “howling” “mob” however, an unthinking mass, hurtling without purpose or direction, is something that could unite them. The “charade” of peaceful protest could finally be exposed.

Politicians and the press have, for the most part, been in step since the beginning of the protests. Those who objected to Irish Water were branded “a different category of people”, wallowing in a “pool of disaffection”. From very early on there were numerous attempts to cast protesters as ‘fringe elements’, implying ‘infiltration [by] dissident republicans’. There were also claims that violence had increased across the state as a direct result of protests.

As the protests gathered pace the claims became even more wild. The movement had been co-opted by leftist “lunacy”; radicals looking for “a decent riot”. But the Jobstown protest was really the turning point. The “anarchists, extremists and all-round loonies” of the movement where now somehow being simultaneously compared to Ebola and ISIS.

The rhetoric reached a crescendo when a protest group in Jobstown, Dublin, obstructed Taniste Joan Bruton for 2 hours as she left an event. The Irish Examiner claimed Ireland’s “drift from democracy”, which “has seen a Taoiseach condemned by a tribunal, corruption rewarded with bailouts & a public left to foot the bill”, had “peaked when a TD was “prevented from going about her business””.

A fragile democracy we must have, that could see a single “frenz[ied]” “mob” — even one that “barricaded” a politician in her car before “attempt[ing] to overturn [it]”§ – pull the constitution out from under it.

But the condemnation didn’t stop there. The Irish Examiner referred to a water balloon that had been thrown at Joan Bruton as a water “bomb”. The Irish Times summed up the events as “rampant law breaking and thuggery”, which only “encouragem[ed] mob rule”. This “fascist intimidation”, according to the Irish Examiner, signaled the “first step towards an atrocity”.

Needless to say, this is the kind of public that is “unlikely to listen to reason from anybody. Not even a dictator.”

The hope was and is, in both government and the press, that “the [latest] concessions, along with the smears, will fracture the protest movement”. And, in turn, that will weaken public confidence in the water protesters” — better the public be “confused and frightened” than angry.

Yet while this sit down protest generated much heat, there was little light shed on events just a week earlier, when the Irish Independent published a video of “Gardai [being] forced to physically restrain protesters”. The footage included images of multiple women being thrown to ground, and a total of no examples of Gardai being attacked or under threat. When heavy handed Garda tactics did eventually make it into the press, the Irish Independent managed to spin — the throwing of a woman into a concrete bollard —  into a more palatable headline: “The tall guard in black saved my life”.

Meanwhile, as the process of demonisation continued to abound, the press engaged in damage limitation on behalf of the government – claiming the disgruntled masses were simply ‘mis-communicated’ to. Rather than do the hard work (though there have been exceptions) of actually going and talking to protesters, the press assumed the government had just made a PR boo-boo in failing to “sell the concept” of water charges

The Irish Times claimed “persuading the public that this is necessary has been complicated by [a] series of political errors”. Rather than the inequity of an economic system that invests such political and economic capital in gouging the public for further taxes and public services cuts, while simultaneously writing blank checks for banking and property bailouts, what the public are really interested in is clear evidence of “efficiency and value for money”.

It will come as no surprise to you that, like property before it, the Irish have a unique love affair with water. The Irish Times explained:

paying for water offends something deep in the Irish psyche. Living in a country where it rains so much, people find it hard to accept the notion of paying for water”. No government “was ever going to have it easy when it came to making people pay for something that has been supplied free to urban dwellers for generations”.

However, when the press did actually engage with the public on the issue, they found a slightly different story. The public responded to this assumption —  that they thought water magically found it’s way into their taps, clean and chlorinated (expect where it’s contaminated with cryptosporidium) — by noting they are fully aware they are already paying for it.

The press was in step with government as it attempted to address this communications problem, with prominence devoted to headlines like ‘New Irish Water directors to face ‘elevated’ criteria’ and ‘Irish Water should not pay bonuses, Brendan Howlin says’. And when the Government finally unveiled their redrafted policy on water taxation many in the press decided the fun was over. The time to address “our fiscal obesity”‡ is nigh.

The public’s concerns had been put to rest, the minister in charge, Alan Kelly had, second time round, been “remarkably clear and comprehensive”. One journalist on Twitter asked, incredulously, whether it really was “possible the Government has actually learned something?” Before the Irish Times later confirmed, yes, the government had listened and learned, “there is no doubt about that”.

With that, the Irish Independent called time on the “water charges debacle”. The problem has been resolved. The public should return to their boxes.

I’m not entirely convinced that’s it though. And I’m not sure the press is either. There is a sense of wishful thinking in the face of unpalatable realities about much of the press’ post-Jobstown post-Irish Water 2.0 discourse. As one Irish Examiner writer recently put it, “the politician, the bishop, and the newspaper are much-diminished sources of authority”. The scandals, crimes and blunders of the past decades have stripped away any veneer of establishment credibility.

The nexus of power in Ireland sits more exposed than ever before. And this poses questions for the press that it has been unwilling to ask or answer. For instance, GMC Sierra, the company appointed to install water meters, is owned by Denis O’Brien, who, while being a major shareholder in INM, we are assured by Sunday Independent editor Anne Harris, “does not control it”.

Yet, despite the fact he has no controlling authority, should this relationship not pose serious questions for INM’s coverage of the protests and the policy decisions? Why is it that the press does not feel compelled to declare any and all potential conflicts of interest in it’s reporting? We might, though it would be sacrilege, ask the same question of RTÉ, the state broadcaster.

But, in spite of all these challenges, the public has found it’s own voice.

If nothing else, this has proved once and for all, we do not need the press to lead or shape public opinion. In fact, independent public opinion exists in spite of media attempts to lead and shape it. The public is no longer subject to the false of illusions of the establishment. The public understands that it is it’s own reality, not the one presented to it on the evening news or morning newspaper.

Whether Irish Water protests achieve the broad aims it has and will collectively determine is beside the point. The public is awake. For the first time in many years the public is no longer a disconnected mass. As Richard McAleavey puts it:

If the Irish Water mobilisation has achieved anything, it is this: a realisation that we are not alone.”

We’ll find out on December 10th whether the press has again failed to “shape our perspectives”.

Notes:

* Of course ‘the press’ wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Landmark Media Investments Ltd, owners of the Irish Examiner, or the Irish Times and the Sunday papers.

† Yes the Irish Independent really did photoshop an image of Joan Bruton into the path of the brick, despite the fact she had left the area before the brick was thrown.

‡ As McAleavey noted elsewhere: “That would be the ‘fiscal obesity’ that ensures 27% of the population experiences deprivation.”

§ The source of this claim has been asked to provide evidence to support it, but none has yet been given.

Forget what you’ve heard, Israel isn’t losing the media war

Shift in the media balance of power has been greatly exaggerated

BtotnGsIAAAFPNy

Despite optimistic claims that “Israel is losing the social media war over Gaza”, the mediating influence of the news industry remains dominant in our cognitive understanding of the conflict; contorting information through both bureaucratic and institutional parameters; determining what is sayable and unsayable, what is visible and what remains hidden.

However, there is certainly a sense that this power is beginning to be eroded. Whereas television was said to bring war into our living rooms, social media realises the uncensored sights and sounds of war in realtime. Paul Mason’s recent essay on the role of social media in informing a new generation of hyper-connected news readers makes a strong case for a shift in power. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence this has translated into a broader media shift.

Continue reading Forget what you’ve heard, Israel isn’t losing the media war

Some massacres are uncovered, others remain buried

Iraq is suffering it’s bloodiest period in years, so it’s no surprise some deaths go largely unreported, but which ones?IBC data

“It was supposed to be a routine job, police say. Move 69 prisoners from an outlying town to a jail in southern Baghdad.” [Reuters, 27 Jun ‘14]

But those 69 prisoners never reached their destination, they were instead gunned down during a fire fight between the Iraqi army and the insurgent force of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to army spokespeople that is. This is the second such mass killing of army prisoners in the last weeks.

Just 9 days ago Reuters reported that 52 prisoners were found in Baquba, a regional capital north of Baghdad, with “execution-style wounds to the head and chest”. Again, according to the government, the prisoners were said to have been killed by crossfire.

However, according to anonymous sources cited by Reuters, these prisoners were not the victims of stray bullets, but were instead summarily executed by their captors.

In Baquba, the New York Times reported that a source at the morgue said that “many of the victims had been shot to death at close range”.

While in Hilla, a police officer and a senior local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, “no attack took place, and the police had executed the 69 men”.

But, in contrast to the claims of mass killings made by ISIL earlier this month, these massacres have yet to be widely reported. This is despite reports by Amnesty International and tweets by Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

In the immediate aftermath of the killings there was some media interest, at the time when responsibility was attributed to ISIL. However, since the blame shifted, the interest has quickly waned – save for less than a handful of reports, the first by Reuters (republished by several other news organisations) and then by the New York Times.

Quietly at least, it seems the Iraqi government is sending a message to ISIL that it does not have a monopoly over mass killings.

The New York Times cited these two events as evidence of the return to a “familiar cycle of violence” between Sunni and Shia. At the very same time, evidence of deaths in Baghdad neighbourhoods are said to “fit the pattern of Shiite death squads during the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007”.

Yet these aren’t the kind of events that form part of the broader narrative.

ISIL are still the only “extremists” in this conflict, while the Iraqi government and military, and the various Shia militias, are constantly said to be engaged in “counteroffensive”, responding to violence, and only engaging in it after their “patience had run out”. These executions, where they are referred to, are branded of a lesser evil than those of the ISIL led insurgency, unhindered by “a raw, sectarian quality“, despite being directed predominantly towards the Sunni minority.

Russia Today is THE worst

RT presenter Sophie Shevardnadze posing enthusiastically with Russian FM Sergey Lavrov for a ‘selfie’.

You would have thought the very public resignation of RT’s Liz Wahl would have nurtured a certain reluctance to display overt partiality, but clearly that’s not what has transpired.

Luckily, the western press is undistractible and can usually be relied on to step into this void of journalistic independence.

Unluckily for us, a juicy bone has been waved in front of these metaphorical dogs, in the shape of a photo.

The Washington Post asked: “Could this be the selfie to end all selfies?”

TIME marveled: “Biden’s First Selfie Is Just Awesome”

Talking Points Memo reported: “Biden kills the selfie game with Obama”

CNN surmised summarised: “‘Pals': Biden, Obama make selfie time”

The Huffington Post claimed: “none of us can ever compete”

The Telegraph said: “The pair perfect their toothy grins

Judge for yourself, I guess:

It’s not always metaphorical dogs mind you, as CBS News’ Margaret Brennan can testify:

The Earth’s orbit around the Columnist is expected to be roughly elliptical

Image

Blast from the past: In 2008 we organised a public meeting to discuss the reporting of the Iraq war in the Irish press. Several hundred people came along to watch a panel of experienced reporters, from both corporate and independent institutions, debate the topic (with more following the event live online at RTE.ie and the RealNews.com).

The following day the Irish Independent ran an inaccuracy filled (and predictably ill-willed) hit piece by columnist Kevin Myers. After a protracted exchange with the paper’s editor we submitted the following letter as response:

We write in response to Kevin Myers’s article ‘My narrow escape from an ambush by the liberal left’ (Irish Independent, April 10) which attacks MediaBite and alleges all manner of fiendish plotting and ulterior motives behind our invitation to him to participate in the debate entitled ‘Reporting War’, which took place at DIT Aungier Street the night before Mr Myers’s article appeared.

Mr Myers’s excitement about our debate is as mystifying to us as it is inaccurate: names are spelled incorrectly, he skews the sequence of events he describes and misstates the context and nature of the exchanges we had with him prior to inviting him to participate in the debate.

Most Irish newspaper readers will be accustomed to Mr Myers’s indignation in the pages of the national media.

It is, arguably, generally understood that it is Kevin’s job to be continually working himself up about one thing or another and he has been doing splendid work in that regard for a long time now. What appears to be new in this article, however, is an element of what looks to us like paranoia.

We also believe, perhaps mistakenly, that the article was likely filed for publication before the debate had even begun.

Mr Myers clearly didn’t watch it at any rate — which would have been an advisable thing to do.

The consequences of that omission are sadly apparent in almost every line of the article.

As with most things in life, the explanation for all of this is the obvious one

MediaBite had a polite exchange of opinions with Kevin Myers about an item he had published in relation to the Iraq war.

As a media monitoring project, that is the nature of what we do. We posted this exchange to our website message board, where it can be seen for what it is.

A week and a half later we invited Mr Myers to participate in our debate — both as a journalist who has written frequently about war and out of a concern to represent as fair and full a range of opinion and news media providers as possible

Having placed himself front and centre in his imaginary scheme, Kevin Myers can only, it seems, conceive of the debate itself, its audience, MediaBite, the DIT, RTE.ie.

The Real News Network, the six debate panellists and its moderator (most of whom he takes sideswipes at, and three of whom had flown from the UK, Toronto and California to be present) — as all being mere props and/or dupes to aid us in our alleged objective: to “ambush” Kevin Myers.

He alone was to be the sole and true object of the entire plot.

The idea is made all the more absurd given that Mr Myers was not mentioned once in the course of the debate.

There is not even a particle of truth in Kevin Myers’s allegations about MediaBite, as we hope this letter makes evident.

We can only ask that readers of the Irish Independent take the time to watch the debate, which is available as a webcast on RTE.ie and linked to from MediaBite.org — and make up their own minds as to whether it was a devilish plot against Mr Myers by MediaBite or a worthwhile discussion about media coverage of an issue of serious concern to most Irish people.

When is journalism tantamount to complicity?

Sometimes asking a question makes you a pawn in a propaganda play
Blb-Cu3IgAAg36G

[This piece is cross-posted at Medium]

Western journalists and media outlets have been outraged for some time now by strong hints of a Russian crack down on freedom of the press. A “wave of consolidation” has enabled Putin to construct a “virtual “ring of steel” surrounding the media”, according to the Economist.

More recently, promoted by RT America’s Liz Wahl’s on-air resignation, Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray revealed claims that Russia Today employees operate in an environment of “frequent censorship” and cited charges made by former employees that management had told them “we work for the Kremlin”.

This widespread attention implies genuine concern for press freedom in Russia, specifically the ability of journalists to ask difficult questions of those in power.

With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the events of the last few days. In particular, Edward Snowden’s appearance on Russian television.

It’s now just over 8 months since Edward Snowden was granted political asylum in Russia after being stranded there when US authorities revoked his passport.

Snowden has been in and out of the press since then – from being awarded the Sam Adams prize for integrity in intelligence to “delivering testimony to a European Parliament inquiry” into surveillance – but it was his actions on Thursday that stepped over the line as far as “many” in the Western press were concerned.

The Washington Post’s Stephen Stromberg, decried Snowden’s “cowardice” in appearing on Russian TV to question Putin about whether the Russian government or agencies carry out mass surveillance, saying:

The Edward Snowden leaks were not wholly contemptible. Unlike, it’s now thoroughly clear, Edward Snowden himself.

A sentiment concurred by Newsweek’s Jeff Stein and Jim Poco, who tweeted:

“if he wasn’t [The Kremlin’s] then he is now”

The ‘crime’ Snowden had committed was appearing on a televised question and answer session to question Putin on Russia’s surveillance apparatus. Snowden asked:

“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you, does Russia intercept or store or analyse in any way the communication of millions of individuals?”

The whistleblower (or fugitive as Reuters has taken to referring to him) explained in an article for the Guardian the following day why he took part in the media set-piece, saying:

“[My] question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in US Senate intelligence committee hearings between senator Ron Wyden and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA collected records on millions of Americans, and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion.”

Snowden went on to challenge Putin’s “evasive response” citing comments made by Andrei Soldatov (an authoritative source on Russia’s security services according to the New York Times) suggesting the public challenge “could lift a de facto ban on public conversations about state eavesdropping”.

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 12.42.28

Yet when Snowden, someone with a precarious citizenship status, challenges the president of country which has temporarily granted him asylum publicly – first on an admittedly canned television programme, and then in a foreign newspaper (which, it so happens, was recently awarded one of the coveted US journalism prizes, the Pulitzer) – he is reflexively mocked by numerous professional journalists as little more than a ‘pawn’ in a ‘propaganda show’.

Editor-in-chief at Think Progress Judd Legum, wrote, “[t]he problem with Snowden’s response is that you can’t actually ask a question at a propaganda event”. Fox News’ Howard Kurtz, surmised, “[i]n a few moments, Snowden became part of a Soviet-style propaganda machine”. Washington Post and Slate columnist Anne Applebaum responded, “maybe he thought he was clever, but no one watching got the joke”.

Julian Hatten, of The Hill, asked rhetorically, “[i]s Snowden Putin’s puppet?”. Dylan Byers Politico blog writer Hadas Gold referred to the appearance as “a move that many described as a clear propaganda effort by the Russians, with Snowden as their pawn”. Where ‘many’ is apparently used as shorthand for ‘my ideological contemporaries’.

Foreign Policy columnist Michael Weiss commented, “So now Snowden is asking pre-scripted questions of Putin, who welcomes him as a fellow spy”. New York Magazine’s Joe Coscarelli’s headline read, “Russia Deploys Edward Snowden Cameo at Vladimir Putin Propaganda Show”, while below Coscarelli argued that “Snowden served up a chance for Putin to tell the world that Russia doesn’t spy on its citizens like the big bad U.S. does”.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce said Snowden “ought to be embarrassed for helping to catapult” Putin’s “hilariously arrant bullshit…into the dialogue” in a “publicly chummy” encounter. While the Slate simply exclaimed: “Putin made a friend!”

More worrying though was an argument made by former freelancer (for the the New York Times and The Washington Post among others) Joshua Foust, who took the position that in asking the question Snowden had, at best inadvertently, conspired to deceive the Russian public:

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 12.41.53

A dangerous argument for the journalism profession, should it take hold, positioning all (alleged) soft ball questions by journalists as tantamount to complicity. And what is much of what is referred to as journalism, other than the asking of questions, to which we can safely predict the answers, of powerful people?

If there’s a problem with scripted questions and compliant journalism, the Washington press need look no further than the Washington press, where President Obama doesn’t even need to preapprove press conferences to feel safe in the knowledge he won’t be caught off guard.

For example, in April last year Obama interrupted a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan to take questions from the waiting press. Obama asked, almost incredulously:

“hold hold hold on, you guys all have the same question?”

To which those the reporters responded:

“Yes”

The question related to the (at that time) alleged use of chemical weapons by a yet to be identified party in the Syrian conflict, and was prompted by comments made by the US president in August the previous year. Obama had, “to the surprise of some of the advisers”, put in place a so called ‘red line’, past which the US could be expected to intervene in the conflict.

The White House had specifically warned the Assad regime that the movement or use of chemical weapons would not be countenanced. And those officials responsible for any use would be “held accountable for their actions”. This statement would from then on shape international coverage of the Syrian conflict, in many ways rubber stamping the criteria for intervention, without the need for a firm basis in international law.

Another fascinating example was provided by the BBC’s Washington correspondent and the presenter of BBC World News America, Matt Frei.

In a video piece reporting on the killing of Osama bin Laden. Frei, backed by a soothing piano soundtrack, asked viewers to admire Obama’s chin. Upon which evidence could be found, Frei claimed, of a “warrior president”.

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 12.41.02

And if you are still looking for further examples of a docile press, the BBC has a whole back catalogue of examples.

Take for instance the Jon Sopel’s recent interview, sorry, “road trip” with Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, a veritable lesson in subservient interrogation, including difficult questions such as, “do you like Twitter?”:

To be fair to Sopel, he did ask a few critical questions eventually, though none of them made it into the final edit or the accompanying report.

When former foreign editor of BBC News journalist Jon Williams, now with ABC News, addressed criticisms of impartiality against BBC reporting in it’s description of the North Korean regime and it’s leader, he didn’t even go to the trouble of looking through the BBC archive.

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 12.40.19

The answer of course was pretty straightforward. At the BBC, when Williams was editor there, totalitarian or dictatorial rulers could be found referred to as “Crown Prince” or simply the “King”, if they are of Saudi origin anyway.

In the last few days we’ve also seen the fascinating spectacle of serious news organisations (unlike, say Buzzfeed, who wear’s it’s traffic-journalism on it’s sleeve) excitement at the ‘news’ Hillary Clinton’s daughter is pregnant. Evidencing enthusiasm for embryonic gestation second only to that of the UK press’s fawning over Kate Middleton.

Politico, the BBC, Mashable, to name but a few, all have begun what will no doubt become a series of stories on the subject. As an MSNBC panelist forewarned, “an entire nation is going to watch a family have a child”.

But I’ll leave you with a piece of journalism from CNN’s military sounding ‘political unit’ that has to be seen to be believed.

Commenting only yesterday, in a post and a tweet, on a photo shared by Vice President Joe Biden, they wrote:

‘Pals’: Biden, Obama make selfie time

Continue reading When is journalism tantamount to complicity?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers