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:
* 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.