Tag Archives: Bias

The Media: Masking advocacy with carefully managed language

This is an adapted version of a longer essay looking at combining a Propaganda Model based media analysis with a Conversation Analysis approach to analysing news interview interaction. The subject is a series of Prime Time Late Debate programmes which aired in February (and which we looked at at the time), about a month prior to the last election.

Impartiality (often used interchangeably with neutrality) is considered a cornerstone of modern professional journalism. The BBC’s Director of News Helen Boaden recently commented: ‘[BBC] ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have [...] continued to rise over the last three years’ and ‘[a]s the perception of trust and impartiality increases, so do our audiences’ because ‘impartiality is an important factor in the audience determining its choice of broadcast news provider’. Similarly, RTÉ state in the introduction to their Programme Standards and Guidelines:

Fundamental to all we do has to be a rigorous commitment to some key editorial principles: Fairness and Honesty; Impartiality; Objectivity and Accuracy; Integrity and Independence; Diversity of Opinion; Respect for the Vulnerable; Accountability

RTÉ is a major provider of the vehicle for public debate. On our airwaves the listening and viewing public should be able to hear all sides of national debate. They should be able to regard the presenters of programmes as neutral and not coming down on one side of an issue of public controversy.

And the guidelines give particular focus to the role of interviewers as arbitrators of debate:

There is a particular onus on programme presenters to be impartial. Presenters should be seen as referees between competing viewpoints, encouraging debate. When an interview is taking place with only one side in a debate represented the presenter may put competing viewpoints to the interviewee.

Looking at two episodes of Prime Time we’re aiming to test whether these rigorous guidelines are realised in the real world and ultimately to ask whether it’s even possible or desirable to demand journalists strive for neutrality. The two programmes we’ll look at were broadcast in the weeks preceding the last general election. The first programme was broadcast on the 3rd February and the second on the 17th February (Late Debate, 3rd Feb) (Late Debate, 17th Feb).

The two panels featured people from all the major parties (Richard Boyd Barrett, Ivana Bacik, Mary Fitzpatrick, Lucinda Creighton, Eoin O’Broin, Eamon Ryan, Michael Mulcahy, Claire Daly, Brian Hayes, Dominic Hannigan), along with non-party affiliated political figures (John McGuirk) and economists and banking experts (Cormac Lucey, Michael Taft, Moore McDowell, Sinead Penthony). While clearly not a representative sample from across the political spectrum (featuring only five women, no trade union representatives, few non-business experts, no political activists and no experts from the social sciences), the predominantly well paid professionals (mainly working in the public sector) that make up the panels do offer some diversity of views on the significant matter under discussion, the Irish economy.

The topics for the programmes were billed as follows, ‘So just how big does your politician think the State should be? What functions should it carry out? And more importantly, what functions should it carry out directly, and what should it just buy in?’ and ‘Can the State really create jobs?’. The central theme of the programmes therefore is the role of government in the economy.

If we were to take the Propaganda Model as a basis we might reasonably argue that despite the presence of these guidelines business friendly discourses of minimal state interference, low tax rates and competitive wages would be disproportionately valued by the interviewer – with these discourses aligning more closely with the interests of corporate advertisers and owners, while also minimising the prospect of negative reactions from powerful sources of flak (e.g. the government). Alternative discourses of high taxation for the wealthy, increases in the minimum wage, proposals for economic stimulus and negotiated write-down on individual and sovereign debt on the other hand would likely provoke these same sources and are therefore likely to be more negatively valued.

Evidence of this predicted preferential treatment of certain discourses is clearly visible in media reporting. Take for example the issue of Ireland’s property bubble and the discourses around the economic measures proposed to deal with its fallout. On the issue of property media reporting is highly biased in favour of discourses of personal responsibility, with the popular refrain being ‘we all partied’. A view held simultaneously by our Minister for Finance and the “newspaper of record”. To emphasise this point it is worth noting that the issue of personal mortgage debt forgiveness took three years to reach the media consciousness. On the issue of Ireland’s economic recovery, austerity measures, as opposed stimulus spending, overwhelmingly dominate media discourse. As we have shown, in the lead up to the first of several emergency budgets in 2009 ‘the [media] debate was [...] entirely skewed towards cuts, aimed at increasing ‘competitiveness’ by driving down wages’, alternative budgetary proposals were conspicuous by their absence.

In his recent book Sins of the Father Conor McCabe writes that much media discourse on the economic crisis that has unfolded in Ireland since 2008 has been dominated by myth. There is the myth of the ‘Irish property-owning gene’ where newspaper articles explain the housing bubble of the early 2000′s as a result of a uniquely Irish genetic disposition to home ownership. On the contrary, McCabe cites Eurostat statistics of EU home-ownership in 2006 that placed Ireland eighteenth, with owner-occupancy at ‘just under 74 per cent’ down from a high of 79 per cent in the 1990s. There was also the myth that Ireland’s political and financial establishment have a singular propensity for immoral behaviour. In response to this McCabe simply notes that the financial crisis was not an Irish phenomenon (Near FM interview with Conor McCabe), a fact pointed out for more cynical reasons by successive politicians attempting to deflect attention from their personal responsibility. McCabe though does not make this point to deflect from any individual culpability, he accuses the system, saying: ‘The ruthless pursuit of profit is not personal; that is the way business works. And what is condemned as immoral in times of crisis is often praised as savvy and pragmatic in times of prosperity’.

McCabe could reasonably add to this the myth of Ireland’s ‘bloated’ public sector. Examples of this economic myth are scattered throughout the press. For example, in 2008 Matt Cooper wrote in the UK The Sunday Times newspaper ‘Take the axe to the bloated public sector’. More recently, in March 2011 an analysis piece for the Irish Independent written by Eamon Delaney claimed ‘[a] bloated and pampered public sector is bleeding the nation dry’. However, according to various reports from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in comparison to other OECD countries Ireland’s public sector is relatively small and among OECD countries Ireland ‘ranked third to bottom in terms of public expenditure’ (OECD) (OECD) (Finfacts).

These preferences for certain discourses might be manifested in news interviews in numerous different ways. Failures to attend to characteristics of formal neutrality are potentially as varied as conversation itself. The interviewer may be observed to favour one interviewee over another, whether in the formulation of questions or the time allocated for answers. The interviewer may be found to align with particular panellists in disputes, or to display an apparent preference for certain sources or voices in their questioning, or to deviate from the question-answer organisation, making ‘unvarnished assertions’ in favour of some of the (related) themes discussed here, or their distribution of response tokens (usually withheld in news interviews) may be found to denote approval or disapproval in line with the predictions derived from the Propaganda Model.

Take for example the following exchanges between Donagh and Claire. Claire is first introduced to the conversation with the comment “you don’t agree with any of this do you?”, “this” referring to an extended discussion between various interviewees and the interviewer in the previous minutes on a range of issues relating to the central question of “equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome”. On the surface this poses a literal binary choice for Claire, restricting her options for response to “yes” or “no”, without that is, diverging from the prescribed interactional frame set by the interviewer in the question. The interactional frame being the organisation of turn taking, broadly characterised as ‘interviewer asks the questions and interviewee answers them’. Interviewees for their part are complicit in their own positioning, implicitly acquiescing to this and other unspoken rules. In effect Claire is forced to reject the premise of the question and risk being perceived as interactionally hostile or accept the premise and appear ideologically intransigent.

It’s worth noting that the question is negatively formulated, as opposed the possible “do you agree with this?”. Also the summation “any of this stuff” is in contrast to much of the economic jargon that had preceded the question, suggesting the interviewee is reflexively opposed to the topic under discussion. Claire is positioned immediately as a hostile witness, an uncooperative partner in the interaction.

We can also see the interviewer diverging from the normal policy of avoiding subjective questioning. The questions are ‘interactionally hostile’, strongly ‘project[ing] preferred or expected responses that run counter to [interviewee] positions’ – as reflected in Claire’s responses. The significance of this exchange in terms of bias is also revealed in Claire’s responses. Claire is one of the few members of the panel that express strong preference for economic stimulus and strong opposition to reducing taxes and increasing financial assistance to stressed banking institutions. Claire is a politically marginal interviewee in terms of economic policy.

Clayman and Heritage refer to the ‘prospective import’ of a question, noting that ‘some questions are relatively open-ended and allow the interviewee maximum leeway to respond, whereas others narrow the parameters of an acceptable response and exert pressure on the interviewee to answer in a particular way’. This is an observation that can be applied to questioning of interviewees in this panel discussion. As shown above, the import of the question posed to Claire certainly narrows her options for response. In the first place she is forced to defend herself against a charge before even addressing the question itself.

If we compare this to the manner in which other interviewee’s are questioned a pattern of interviewee partiality might be observed. For instance:

In all these instances interviewees are directed relatively open-ended questions, with no particular answer preferred in the question. In the case of the question directed at Moore the question itself is prefaced by a contextual statement, formulated as a debate between two opposing sides, of which the interviewer does not express an explicit preference for. However, it could be argued that here too that the interviewer has manufactured a limited number of choices, restricting the interviewee’s options for response.

Again though in the following question we can see again a preference for a particular answer, with Donagh invoking an expert source, adopting the voice of “economists” in order to undermine proposals for a “job creation strategy”:

The significance of this quote is that it is directed at a particular theme or ideology, not a particular interviewee. Donagh does not charge politicians, but “the state”. The issue of job creation is one supported (to different degrees) by almost all the panellists, with the notable exception of Moore (an economist). The concept of a “job creation strategy” is tied up in the discourse of economic stimulus, both suggesting a degree of intervention on the part of the government. By adopting this voice over other potential voices Donagh makes a choice about which discourses are valued. Further, by referring to “economists” he alludes to the presence of economists on the panel, thus embedding the question with an implicit threat – that Brian’s answer is potentially open to direct challenge by experts.

Brian’s response is an objective confirmation of this interpretation. He immediately seeks to position himself in agreement with the identified expert on the panel and with the interviewer’s question, saying “well I agree with Moore”. Of course this is a generous reading of Moore’s remarks. The closest Moore came to endorsing this position was in his opening comment “the state can do things which help jobs to be created”, however he tempered this assertion with the statement “but in the long term the state doesn’t create jobs”. Having positioned himself as a cooperative witness Brian changes tack, after a slight pause and a hesitant “eh but” he goes on to describe how government can create jobs through infrastructure development.

With this exchange in mind it might be interesting to look at interactions between denoted “experts” and the interviewer and fellow interviewees. Sinead Pentony (Head of Policy at TASC, an independent think tank) is first introduced with the comment “I presume you would disagree with any reduction in the minimum wage”, a loaded question similar to that directed towards Claire in an earlier example. It identifies a preferred response, restricting Sinead’s options for answering, without, again, diverging from the interviewer prescribed interaction. It presupposes that Sinead’s contribution is predictable, indicating to the overhearing audience a diminished value of her as yet unstated opinion. It also undermines her position as an expert, positioning her as a reactionary as opposed a rational deliberator of facts. Sinead is, as with Claire, positioned as a hostile witness, an uncooperative partner in the interaction:

Sinead responds to this by reformulating the interviewer’s question. She repairs the premise, noting that the minimum wage is not €8.60, but €7.65. Ordinarily this response would be unnecessary, the accuracy of the wage level is superficial to the fundamental question. However, in responding in this way (including the use of the opening “well”) Sinead indicates that she irritated by the formulation and also reaffirms her position as an expert, displaying precise knowledge of economic intricacies. Donagh responds by admitting his error and apologises in order to repair the relationship. Sinead acknowledges this apology by anticipating his response and beginning her answer to his original question before Donagh has completed his turn.

This interaction becomes more interesting when juxtaposed with interactions between the interviewer and other panel experts, those with ideological views that resonate more closely with the institution hosting the debate. Economists are called upon on various occasions by the interviewer in order to evaluate other interviewee comments. In the following example Donagh summarises the previous turn’s interviewee comments and asks Cormac to evaluate them, asking whether Richard’s proposals are “possible”:

Here Donagh provides a prejudiced summary of Richard’s comments, taking what was a purely ideological discussion (to use Donagh’s words, his “idea of society”) out of context and reframing it as a realistic proposal. Given the condition of Ireland’s government finances, the cost of borrowing and the absence of international investment, plans to “level everybody up” are far fetched at best. This summary positions Richard as a fantasist, and not as a serious political candidate. Cormac inevitably disagrees with the premise and corroborates the interviewer’s tacit proposition.

Moore McDowell, an economics lecturer in University College Dublin, is also identified as an expert. Donagh refers to his credentials several times in the course of the programme. In this next example we can see that Donagh seeks confirmation of his views from Moore, saying “that’s a real problem isn’t it”. In the first instance Donagh introduces an article from the current affairs magazine the Economist, satisfying professional requirements for formal neutrality by invoking an argument using the voice of someone else. However he then validates the argument in his question to Moore commenting “that’s a real problem”. He then goes on to modify the statement by adding the words “isn’t it”:

Just as Sinead’s contributions were seen to be predicted, Moore’s contributions are similarly anticipated. However, in contrast to his behaviour towards Sinead, Donagh looks to Moore to validate +his+ views. Donagh addresses Sinead with predictions embedded in the questions. Sinead therefore is not permitted to offer original opinions, she is given the opportunity to validate the interviewer’s position as a knowing overseer. Whereas questions directed at Moore are inflected with hesitance (e.g. “isn’t it”), positioning Moore as an evaluator, a lecturer, to Donagh’s student. Almost an inversion of the turn-granting authority displayed in interactions where interviewees are seen to apply for permission to enter the conversation (e.g. by interrupting with the phrase “Donagh Donagh Donagh”).

Again it is important to recognise that Moore’s views are ideologically congruent with those of the media institution as described by the Propaganda Model. He argues for less government interference in business, a weakening of the trade unions and a broadening of the tax base (which essentially means increasing taxation on the lower income earners as opposed wealthier ones).

On other occasions Donagh can be seen to reuse Moore’s metaphorical queues. Moore refers to the Metro North metaphorically as a “red rag”, indicating that it is project that angers him. Several turns later Donagh assumes this metaphor applying it to another large scale infrastructural project, Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2:

Not only does Donagh adopt Moore’s strong scepticism of using government funds to finance infrastructure development, he also invokes the same metaphor to accentuate the position:

This alignment is reflected by some of the panellists, who, while not agreeing entirely with Moore’s thesis, recognises the appeal of being seen to be walking the same line. However we can see that these alignments can be rejected. For example in the following extract Dominic attempts to align himself with Moore by saying “we’re asking people like Moore”, indicating to the audience that as a non-expert he seeks out the views of experts. However, Moore rejects the alignment in the following turn, interrupting Dominic (and contravening the interviewer-interviewee interactional dynamic) to say “I’m not a business person”. When Dominic does not amend or clarify his statement Moore again interrupts saying “the last person to ask is an economist” to which Dominic responds “we’re looking for ideas from across the business sector”. Donagh attempts to regain control of the discussion, while Brian, who had performed the a similar manoeuvre only moments before without reproach, joins the the interaction laughing at Dominic’s expense:

We can see a similar repetition of interviewee language (i.e. Moore’s “red rag”) in interactions between other panellists and the interviewer. If the following extracts Donagh repeats the interviewee’s phrases in his response to their answers, saying “speaking of madness” and “we’ll get into the staggering and obscene”:

What’s interesting in these repetitions, in contrast to the one related to Moore, is that Donagh appears to change (or invert) it’s discursive application. While Claire uses the the concept of “madness” to  describe “the idea of reducing wages”, Donagh invokes it to describe the idea of negotiated wage agreements. Again Donagh is careful to employ the professional technique of voicing topics as those of others, in this case IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation).

Donagh’s use of voices is interesting too: the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the OECD, IBEC, John Fitzgerald (a researcher at the The Economic and Social Research Institute), the Economist, all strongly business oriented sources. In each instance where these sources are used, Donagh introduces strongly pro-business ideological discourses, such as “cutting the minimum wage” and increasing “[government] expenditure cuts”. While there is substantial conflicting evidence of the effectiveness of these measures Donagh does not attempt to introduce sources or voices that counter this narrative.

Responses tokens (such as “yeah” and “mm”), a common feature of normal conversation, are rarely offered in news interview situations. As Greatbatch notes, the ‘withholding of response tokens’ (in order to avoid signalling approval or disapproval) is a method employed by which interviewers in order to give the appearance of interactional neutrality (Greatbatch in Bell and Garrett, 1998:169). Where they are observed to be offered maybe provide clues as to which views and which panellists the interviewer favours or disfavours.

In both these programmes Donagh is found to strictly adhere to this formal neutralism, withholding verbal response tokens almost entirely, with only several “yeah” tokens used as interviewee turns are closing. A study of body language may reveal inaudible tokens or gestures (such as nodding of the head) that could be construed as signalling agreement / disagreement with prior turns, however this analysis does not attempt to examine this.

In the above extract we can an interviewee, Brian, display how response tokens might be distributed in conversation, even in a heated debate such as this. Donagh on the other hand makes only one interjection during Moore’s lengthy turn. He responds to Moore’s comment regarding government intervention in the business market by saying “which it does all the time”. This is interesting in that it comes at a natural turn-relinquishing point, however it does not provide a further question, it does not indicate to Moore that his turn is closing. It functions instead as an acknowledgement of Moore’s contribution and acts as continuer, indicating to Moore that the floor is still his. It can be thought of therefore as a ‘non-minimal response token’ providing positive ‘feedback’ in assessment of Moore’s prior turn.

The Propaganda Model suggests that business friendly discourses of minimal state interference, low tax rates and competitive wages would be disproportionately valued by the interviewer in these interactions. It also suggests that alternative discourses of high taxation for the wealthy, increases in the minimum wage, proposals for economic stimulus and negotiated write-down on individual and sovereign debt on the other hand would likely be more negatively valued. This analysis has attempted to determine whether this preference for institutionally motivated discursive patterns and the individuals that represent them were manifested in the organisation of the interaction. While not claiming to present a definitive description it has certainly identified some compelling evidence to suggest it’s the case.

Donagh’s interactional relationships with the interviewees are notably different, with Moore continually positioned as the expert and Claire and Richard consistently marginalised. Donagh also shows an identifiable preference for certain sources or voices in his questioning, sources that align with the pro-business predictions made by the Propaganda Model. The analysis has also provided some evidence to suggest the interviewer showed partiality to certain discourses, such as minimum wage cuts and reductions to state expenditure on infrastructure, which again align with the expectations derived from the Propaganda Model.

While Donagh does attend quite rigidly to certain aspects of formal neutrality (e.g. withholding of response tokens) and Prime Time does follows institutional and regulatory guidelines designed to ensure impartiality in news reporting and interviewing there are many opportunities for interviewers to impart their own views or those internalised through the institutional structure.

This observation relates back to ongoing discussions we’ve hosted (Kieran Allen and Robert Jensen) about the practicality of striving for neutral journalism and whether comprehensive guidelines simply mask advocacy with (not so) carefully managed language.

Social Media Leaders – A Media Game

Political leaders have really started to embrace social media tools over the last few years, but as avid news readers will know this development tells us one of only two things, either:

a) They want to attempt to reach out and engage with your citizens as part of a hi-tech revolution to promote transparency

b) They prefer hanging out with their buddies and relaxing in bed while telling people what to do using only 140 characters

So here’s a game, pretend you work for a newspaper and choose which narrative is applicable to each of the following world leaders. Click on the links below to find out if you got it right…

Choose A or B:

Answers: Did you get it right? 1 Did you get it right? 2 Did you get it right? 3

Choose A or B:

Answers: Did you get it right? 1 Did you get it right? 2

Banging on about media and property again

For the past decade the media inscribed a “triangular relationship between politics, development and banking” which largely explains why despite the witch hunts for rogue bankers, developers and politicians the media has not yet reflected on its own role in the crisis.

[Image via Irish Independent]

Dear Brian Brennan [BrianBrennan (at) independent.ie],

I just read your piece in today’s Irish Independent and wanted to say I thought it was well timed. The damning judgement at the ballot box was not just directed at Fianna Fail, but at all those who facilitated and were complicit in the economic crisis. I also wanted to say though, that while you target a number of groups who bear serious responsibility for the economic crisis, I would argue you have left out at least one significant group: journalists and journalism.

At both a corporate and a journalistic level Irish media institutions failed in their role as the fourth estate. They failed to investigate properly the property market and the economic rational that underpinned it, they failed to expose the banking and political system that fueled the bubble, and at the most basic level they failed to safeguard the supposed firewall between journalism and advertising. Quite oppositely, they actually developed an economic stake in a rising property market. Both the Irish Independent and the Irish Times moved into the property sector both in terms of news supplements and as sales agents. Economics reporting reflected and fed into that perspective, with few dissenting voices.

Despite all this the media has not reflected on its role in the economic crisis.

Best wishes,

1. http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/brian-brennan-voters-dealt-with-ff-now-others-must-be-punished-2569360.html
2. http://www.mediabite.org/article_The-Elephant-in-between-the-property-ads_665274077.html
3. http://www.mediabite.org/article_The-Media-and-the-Banking-Bailout_679566551.html

The Forgotten Constituency: The Majority and The Irish Economic Crisis

Discussion with Kathleen Lynch, Professor of Equality Studies, Department of Social Justice, UCD.

18th February 2011

(KL – Kathleen Lynch, MB – MediaBite, Miriam Cotton)

MB: Can you say a little about your own background and what attracted you to Equality Studies?

KL: I founded Equality Studies here in UCD in the late 1980s. Ireland was not unlike it is now. In the mid 80s we had the moving statues, we had the abortion referendum – a very controversial time. It was Ireland with the influence of Thatcher and Reagan – when they became extremely powerful politically and ideologically. There were a number of us here in UCD who felt we had an opportunity. I was always interested in equality issues and social justice since I was young. I had this idea for establishing Equality Studies. We had a women’s studies forum here. People often forget that the librarians in UCD were very involved in setting that up – more than the academics – but the women academics did get involved later and I participated in that in the mid 80s. Then I felt that while I was interested in women’s issues, my interests were bigger than that. I was interested in human rights, global justice and especially in class and equality. I felt that Ireland was a very class divided society. So I wrote a proposal. I got the support of colleagues in Law, Sociology and Business and eventually after two or three years – in 1990 – we got approval to start a masters degree and that’s 21 years ago this year.

So there was that context, but there was also another context. More seriously, I suppose, one thing I learned from the nature of politics in Britain at the time was that what Thatcher did in Britain was very significant. Obviously she broke the unions of course but she also institutionalised injustice through laws. Education was my main area of research then. The 1988 (UK) Education Act was deeply inegalitarian. It started the break-up of the public school system in Britain. I was very aware of what was happening and what we saw was that you can institutionalise injustice in the same way you can institutionalise systems of justice. I felt there was a need to create a site for intellectual life, for scholarship and teaching and to create a place in the university where people could actually study and research on equality issues. We worked at the time with Women’s Studies. Ailbhe Smith was a central person involved in that. There were a lot of initiatives then in the early 1990s. The idea was to create a safe intellectual space where people could create ideas that would outlive the lives of individuals – and that’s very important I think. A lot of people think of change in terms of charismatic individuals but I think that is very dangerous politically. Individuals are important but they are not as important as wider ideas. I would, as I say, be very aware of creating a space where people have the right to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxies whatever they may be. And the orthodoxies do change – they are not always the same.

MB: With regard to social justice and equality in Ireland – other than on TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Browne and among very few other journalists – the usual suspects such as Gene Kerrigan and Fintan O’Toole for example – and despite the grossly unequal burden that’s been landed on the less well-off, the media is substantially failing to report and discuss these issues in any depth, if at all. In fact it has been established that to do so is laughable. Sinn Fein and The United Left Alliance panel members on TV and radio are openly sneered at for raising them. Fionnan Sheahan, Political Editor at The Independent has referred to Sinn Fein’s ‘fairytales’ – by which he means economic policies aimed at responding to the crisis fairly.

KL: When the crisis happened first I thought that the source and cause of the crisis would be identified by the media – which was the unregulated power of global capitalism and what happened in Europe in the 1990s in Europe and throughout the world when capitalism won the cold war and was given free reign. Whether you like it or not – and you don’t have to be a socialist to believe this – or a feminist – the fact is that capitalism is for profit, the way it has been regulated is for share holder interest only, not for workers’ interest and certainly not in the interest of the common good in any sense of the term.

What happened in Ireland was that at the very beginning of the crisis there was huge criticism in 2008 of unregulated capitalism. But slowly that dissent started to fade away. I think that is very worrisome because what is happening now is that the blame is being shifted. For example, you have this ideology being put about that welfare fraud must be taken on. This is risible in the context of a society which has been impoverished by its political and commercial elites – both the banking and development sectors have bankrupted the state. To make your main platform the taking on of welfare fraud which is tiny by comparison to major corruption and tax evasion which are widespread – is extraordinary. But that is what is happening – there is a deliberate attempt to scapegoat the vulnerable. Of course there is an attack on the public sector which is also an attack on women. People forget that over 60% of people in the public sector are women, the vast majority of them earning very average salaries. You have a handful of very high salaried people who are taken out and held up for public ridicule and the rest of the sector is held up for the same ridicule even though the majority in general have nothing to do with the crisis.

So you have two kinds of scapegoats: the very vulnerable and the ‘undeserving poor’. Of course they wouldn’t dare attack the elderly after the elderly took them on and they are a powerful voting block. But the people who are very vulnerable are women and children. People also forget that 20% of our children are defined as living in poverty by the UN – that is a huge number of children. None of these people have a political voice and so they don’t count and are gradually being discarded. That is my view and I think the media have played a very important role in actually creating that kind of ideology over the last two years.

The other issue is that control of the media is a huge consideration here. It is obvious when we look at what we have. We have to pay a licence to a national broadcaster which is controlled by the conservative political parties in terms of ideology. There is no question about it. How that is managed I don’t know but it is self-evident. You need only listen to the so-called news, which is not the news, it is the news as it is constructed for us, as we are allowed to know it. And you can see it in that a certain perspective on events is presented all the time. There is the odd television programme around the issues, but an odd dissenting programme is not a swallow that can make a summer, just as a couple of dissenting voices in a newspaper doesn’t make it a balanced newspaper.

MB: We find that often when we make that criticism of the media people invariably say ‘but there’s Fintan O’Toole’ as if one person or a very few people are enough to create balance.

KL: The media is not remotely balanced. There is no question that there is a media elite about whom a lot of questions need to be asked. Where did they acquire their education? What degrees have they studied? When they are studying journalism some of them are given placements in places like the Dáil. They become aligned with political parties. They get their stories from political parties so they are not truly independent in their political judgment. And then you have the ownership and control issue. About 60% is owned by Independent Newspapers and a handful of others own TV3 and other newspapers so we have no equivalent in Ireland, for example like The Guardian. We don’t have a newspaper that you can pick up and say this paper represents a dissent from the centre right.

MB: Our counterparts in the UK, Media Lens, would not agree with that and we agree with them that The Guardian is just as guilty of unquestioning conformity as any of the others despite the blush of dissent in its news coverage. Media Lens alluded to them as ‘The Guardians of Power’ which was in fact the title of their first book.

KL: I think you could say that is true but it’s certainly better than what we have in Ireland. I think we’re on a gradient here. But The Guardian does consistently hold a view that is different to the Tories. We have no newspaper that you could pick up and say this different from the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael consensus – not a single paper has a consistently contrary view. Apart from a token journalist or two, that’s it. If you take what is printed out as the reportage of events, most of it reads like press releases.

MB: Do you think we are seeing what Naomi Kelin has called ‘The Shock Doctrine’ being put into effect? For instance there are a number of reports and analyses that show there are perfectly workable alternatives to many of the austerity measures being inflicted on us that would not involve cuts to disability allowances and other welfare supports. Is the response to the crisis ideologically driven?

KL: There are always alternatives. There is a deliberate attempt here to frighten people and to tell us we have no choice, that we can’t negotiate with Europe and that we can’t raise taxes. It’s ludicrous. I think that some of the media people should get out of their comfort zones and go around and look at the wealthy parts of the cities. Go and use their eyes and their ears. Look at the cars that sit on people’s drives. Go into Dublin or Cork City and see where people are wining and dining. There are a lot of very well off people in this country. I don’t know where the media do their research but I believe there is a lack of honesty about people in privileged positions in this country. There are wealthy people who are not being targeted in any serious way. Instead of that the average person is being made to feel “Oh well, you had a good time and you had security and now you can’t have that security any more”.

I have given a lot of attention to the party manifestos and the Fine Gael ’5-point plan’ is straight out of a Tory text book. It’s full of soft language hiding hard policies. It’s full of vagueness. I’ve looked at their policies on higher education, for example, and nobody seems to have picked up on the fact that the fees will be about doubled for arts degrees and approximately trebled for science degrees. You’d have to pay a percentage up front and balance when you are finished. That sort of hiding of policy is going unexamined. The failure of the media to interrogate policies is in my view shameful. I’ve read today’s Irish Times (18th Feb 2011). There’s an analysis of Higher Education policy and there is no reference to this. It’s in S.9.9 of Fine Gael’s manifesto and though this has enormous implications for the country, nobody has picked it up in the media.

So that’s what I’m talking about – maybe the media don’t read things but they certainly do no not pick them up. In that sense, of course it is a softening up to accept hardship. If you read about neo-liberalism and capitalism and Harvey’s work internationally, it is part of the strategy. You never give facts. You give vague statements which can be read in a multiple of ways which give people the impression that something is being done. A lot of the conservative think-tanks in the US no longer produce research; they just produce propaganda in the form of statements. The fact that the media don’t see through those is unbelievable. Maybe it’s their training or their education – or maybe it’s their ideology. There is a strong anti-intellectualism in Ireland.

MB: We don’t contend that apart from a few cases there is an actual conspiracy to suppress information. It goes to the point you made earlier about people being educated and trained and coming up through the ranks through highly conformist processes and coming out the other end with generally identikit views in all the essentials – Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael orthodoxy is ‘realism’ or ‘pragmatism’ because to most journalists what these parties say reflects what they themselves believe is normal or usual. But they are nevertheless fully convinced that they are being completely objective and balanced in their journalism – and astounded by the suggestion that this might not actually be true. Again, when Sinn Fein or the United Left Alliance talk about the need for social justice most of our political correspondents cackle in unison at the idea and accuse them of ‘populism’ or of indulging in ‘bar room rhetoric’. Apparently they don’t notice a word of the entirely pro-elite rhetoric and policy spewing from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael!

KL: It’s a very closed community. It would be interesting to look at the degrees media people are studying. Have they the same class and cultural backgrounds? Have they lived outside the country? It’s a very important social-scientific fact, your biographical assumptions influence your paradigmatic assumptions – i.e your biography influences how you think intellectually. The problem we have is that we have a very homogeneous media intellectually speaking. I don’t regularly analyse the media, but if you only go to buy a Sunday newspaper, there is no significant difference between them except for the obvious ones that have the sensationalist headlines. There are no choices anymore. If you want to read a critical analysis of something there is nothing there. In that sense I think people’s minds are kept under control and are being closed off from dissenting voices. I agree it is not a conspiracy but our thinking is being kept under control by default. I think what might be called the feminist left movements in the country have been naïve – extremely naïve – in not starting their own newspapers and TV stations.

MB: As you know, it has been Brian Lenihan’s proud boast that there would have been riots if the same austerity measures had been attempted in any other country. Well that lesson has been learned well – all the political parties now know we will apparently meekly put up with anything.

My third question to you is about the extraordinarily sexist backlash on twitter during your last appearance on TV3’s ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne. It was particularly virulent and I believe the reason that was so was because you said some things that were true and that struck home. You had, in effect, threatened some of people’s treasured ‘givens’ and assumptions. You made a factual observation about how the media is all but ignoring social justice issues beyond insisting that the unfairness is a regrettable ‘necessity’. By any objective measure what you said is demonstrably true – that this is the largely unqualified media consensus. But leaving the media aside for the moment, would you agree that gender equality appears to be going backwards in Ireland – at the very least where political representation is concerned? You were speaking as a Professor of Equality Studies with decades of research and knowledge on the subjects you were talking about and yet you were actually called a ‘bitch’ and a ‘moron’.

What do you think are the main obstacles to gender equality in Ireland and would you agree that Ireland still has a deeply chauvinist culture and that this too is a major factor underpinning the meek acceptance of gross injustice as a solution to what is essentially a crisis of and by the richest people?

KL: Ireland has an extremely chauvinist culture. I travel abroad a lot – in Northern Europe and have a lot of contacts outside the country. I have been a Visiting Professor and I work with many people in Germany and in France – which isn’t exactly devoid of sexism either. I also work in Brussels. I would say that we are going backwards because in terms of political representation it is self evident. We have only 16%. The two main parties have only 15% each and it’s almost nothing. The smaller parties have more. I think there are so many factors at play. Women are too polite. We have been socialised not to offend as women – don’t be too strident, don’t be too this or that. I suppose the backlash that you mention when I raised things that people don’t want to hear is one of the reasons that women will not put themselves forward because they are abused in a different way than men are abused. Men are abused for their ideas but they are not abused in terms of their appearance in the media if they dissent. Women are subjected to sexualised abuse. I think the political class in our society has no interest in this issue and women have not been resistant. We have been too conciliatory and accepting. My view is we should have marches on the Dáil – we should sit down in the middle of Dublin and stay there until something changes. We have no proper childcare, we have no infrastructure. Quebec in Canada has a very successful, non-profit childcare system because the women went out there and organised it. The Irish Women’s Council has no money, for example. There is no-one to organise it here. There have been all kinds of backlashes in the media against women who have dissented. The have actually been called nazis – or ‘feminazis’. A lot of women are afraid of that kind of abuse and it’s a form of violence against women that is accepted in Ireland.

MB: Lucinda Creighton recently felt the necessity to preface something she said with the qualifier “I’m no crazed feminist but…” – as if it would be a terrible thing to be thought of as a feminist.

KL: There are lots of sociological reasons that can explain that but if you have a young woman going into politics who is so fearful of that, what will she ever do? If she can’t defend herself as a woman, I’d be worried about what she will ever defend. You have to stand up for what you believe in and women are not equal to men in this country. For many, many years we have had second class citizenship. I’m not saying that I want a whole group of middle class women coming into politics. I’ve always said this – if we want gender balance we want it of men and women from different backgrounds which I think is as big an issue as gender. There is research from Norway and from a number of countries where they have gender balance, relatively speaking i.e. 40% and which shows that even women from conservative parties actually promote health, education and social welfare. It’s because they are closer to the vulnerable in society. It isn’t because women are morally superior to men – I would never say that, I think that’s nonsense. Or that men can’t care for children as well as women – of course they can. But because of the way our society is, women are the primary carers and a lot of the vulnerable people in society are cared for by women most of the time. Therefore policies that affect the vulnerable are more visible to women and they are more likely to vote for policies that are supportive of childcare, disability, healthcare and education. That is a simple empirical fact – observable from countries that have large numbers of women in their parliaments. I believe we will never get women in politics in sufficient numbers in this country without some sort of a quota system.

MB: I’ve argued before that in any other circumstance where you have such an obvious imbalance or social lack it’s only natural for some sort of remedial action to be taken to restore the situation to health.

KL: We need only have it for a period of time to overcome the problem, otherwise it’s not going to happen.

MB: And yet very disappointingly women in the Dáil – over half of them – are saying they are against gender quotas.

KL: Well you only have to look at who they are, a lot of them. Many of the women who succeed in politics in this country have family associations in politics and they get selected on the basis of their family connections – and that in my view is a form of a quota. They have already benefited from the family quota and they should remember that. And many of the others have benefited from their money. I’m sorry, but there are some women with wealthy backgrounds and that has greatly helped them. You’ve probably been to privileged schools and enjoyed all the privileges of your class and therefore of course you don’t need a quota because you belong to the privileged upper middle class. So bully for you! The vast majority of women do not. Any woman from a poor community down the country hasn’t a hope.

MB: Beyond gender and media bias there seems as much as anything to be an absence of ordinary humanitarianism in media coverage about what is being done to the country right now and in all of the party political pre-election debate. To call for being ordinarily decent about your fellow citizens is to be accused of being a rabid communist. It’s as if for a substantial core of Irish people it’s in the DNA that you have to step on other people’s faces to secure an advantage and that this is the only ‘realistic’ way of doing things.

The facts that emerged from the Ryan report go to the heart of the same attitude, I believe, in that you can see something of the same hard, cold chauvinist attitude evident in the lack of concern now for social justice and fairness.

All of the main parties are wading, eyes wide open, into creating what are entirely predictable and avoidable, further, social and economic catastrophes – but from which the very rich will also emerge safely unscathed. That’s all in the plan. Whether or not you subscribe to the belief, we are supposedly a very Christian country but where is the evidence for it?

KL: I think what happened was that we had a ritualistic Catholicism. People obeyed the rules and when they became wealthy there was no intellectual basis for that deference. And I don’t mean intellectual in the elitist sense. There was no civic culture created outside religion so we have no sense of civic responsibility. Their Christianity was a box people could tick to say they were a part of it. I am astounded by people’s lack of compassion – genuinely shocked. I wonder what has happened.

Take emigration – I cannot believe that people are so complacent about it. It is a national tragedy. There is no country that would take emigration the way we are taking it. We have a birth rate of approximately 60k per annum. About 1,000 people per week are leaving. That means we are losing our entire birth corp. It is an extraordinary crisis – a huge emotional crisis as much as anything. Why do people have children? Because they want their company – not to service the economy. The associational loss and the sense of community that is lost are enormous. It’s not just even your own children, it’s your neighbours’, your friends’, your nieces and nephews – they’re gone. Nobody is saying it’s an absolute disaster. I was shocked too at the 5-way leaders debate, I thought it was appalling that there was such a lack of initiative about alternative economic models. But that goes back to the elite again – their own children, on average, will not have to emigrate because they are well connected.

MB: What’s being done is breaking down our fundamental nature as human beings – we’re collectively losing perspective because we’re so steeped in the false, unquestioned neo-liberal orthodoxy.

KL: Most people don’t work to become millionaires, they work to support their life with their families and to enjoy their friendships. They are more concerned with the affirmation that comes from being with the people they love. When people are taken away from you, that affirmation goes too. The party political system we have is a disaster. They blame intellectuals – people like myself – for not participating. But I have often addressed political parties during my working life and I find that they don’t want to engage because ‘The Party’ has become the object of desire. ‘The Party’ is their raison detre. They seem to have forgotten it’s there to service people – not the other way around.

The media seem to think of politics as a football being kicked around between the two main parties and they don’t seem to think in any depth about what the parties stand for or what their policies are. I find it extraordinary as well, the lack of connect between people who are avowedly Christian – who declare it prominently – and their lack of concern for their fellow human beings – not just in Ireland but globally. It is a cruelty.

I read an article published about 30 years ago – not in Ireland – and it said Irish people were indifferent to their own children. They were again talking about the birth rate and emigration and the question was asked “Why do Irish people have all these children if there is no plan in the country to enable them to survive?”

The same question could be asked now but the difference is that in our generation, people did plan for their children, they were not expecting them to emigrate. People put a lot of money and effort into their children to ensure they didn’t. But at the collective level of political responsibility there is still an appalling indifference about this.

I’m not a particularly religious person but from childhood I always took very seriously the message “love thy neighbour as thyself”. It’s a very important message, regardless of belief. Solidarity, feminism – it’s all the same thing and I can never understand people who profess a Christian belief and then go out and behave with complete indifference to people who have no jobs, or to travellers or asylum seekers. Most politicians don’t enter into the world of such people. To do so would be to understand them. I had a woman in here the other day who is living on €365 gross income for herself, her husband and two children. It can’t be done.

MB: Last question – Gene Kerrigan at The Sunday Independent and other commentators have lamented the media consensus – even now when Fianna Fáil’s crisis policies have clearly been a disaster – that “there is no alternative”. The bank guarantee was editorialised and written authoritatively about as being the only way forward at the time. Many of the correspondents who advocated it as such in 2008 are now unblushingly describing it as a disaster, their own role in promoting it apparently forgotten. On Tonight With Vincent Browne you mentioned the Mondregon Corporation as a highly successful, alternative business model. What do you think are the reasons our journalists appear to be incapable of rational analysis and discussion about other economic models?

KL: Because they don’t know them, have never read about them and therefore don’t understand them. I think there is a serious problem in the country among the people who work in the sphere of economics. I say that as someone whose first degree was in economics. We have literally thousands of people who are studying economics but they are all studying the same thing. We have classical economic theory and nothing else. There is no department in this country teaching a substantial amount of feminist economics, or even institutional economics – they’re certainly not studying Marxist economics! So we have ideological consensus very often as well within the sphere of certain disciplines. I don’t know what’s happening in the Business Schools but I do monitor what’s happening in Economics Departments because it interests me and I’m shocked at the lack of intellectual dissent within the academy. Yes, there are again individuals – to go back to what I was saying earlier – who are saying something alternative but you don’t have a whole strand of independent economic thought in Ireland that you could say was providing a different economic model.

I’d say that most of these people haven’t even read about Mondregon. And yet it’s the 7th largest industrial group in Spain. It’s around since the 1950s and it has a completely different concept of ownership because the workers are the owners of share capital. It wasn’t actually any different to the cooperative movement here initially. It’s just that ours never lived up to its ideals or developed in the same way. I don’t want to romanticise it because that would be foolish. The point is there are successful alternatives and I think part of the reason we never see them discussed is the ideological consensus. Our young people are educated to conform and that is a problem in intellectual life generally in Ireland. There is a lot of intellectual closure and people who dissent just go abroad and they stay broad and associate with colleagues abroad. I associate with a lot of people abroad because there are so few of us in Ireland who think like I do. And that’s the only way you can stay sane. A lot of people don’t engage with the Irish situation – they have emigrated abroad intellectually. That’s a far bigger problem in the country than people realise because we have a lot of really good scholars in this country and when you ask them why they don’t say certain things in public, they say “it’s because I’m going to get abuse” – like I did the other night on twitter. Whereas I can go to a conference in Berlin or Guttenberg and I can talk to people who think like I do and share ideas. Why would you bother sharing them here when you will be dismissed as a crank and a lunatic. We haven’t had a strong tradition of speaking out in the social services. There’s probably myself and Kieran Allen here at UCD who are the exceptions that prove the rule – and possibly Gavan Titley and Mary Murphy at Maynooth. You could go around the country and pick us up.

MB: I’ve seen each of the few you’ve mentioned referred to in the terms you describe. Vincent Browne for example introduced Kieran Allen as ‘notorious’ on his programme.

KL: You demonise the dissenter and so the dissenter is defined as ‘the other’ and ‘the outsider’ before they even begin. Whereas change in society always comes from the periphery – never from the centre. It’s naïve to think that it can. If you want to bring about change, listen to people on the outside and not at the table of power. We can be wrong like anyone else of course but I’m talking of the principle in general of listening to the outsider and learning from that perspective.

A lot of countries have far better intellectual frameworks for doing that. Whereas here, the country is so small and people take things personally that are not intended personally. I hold my views not because of some ideological perspective that I want to uphold but because I know the research. I know more equal societies are more sustainable. There are thousands and thousands of articles and books published on this. It’s not like I get up in the morning and say “I’d like to be a socialist so I’m going to find the truth that suits me.” You read, you do your research and find out over time. I don’t come from a radical socialist family. It’s education that has made me aware of how best to organise life in the world: solidarity, care, support, community, sharing – that is the way to create a good household and you can extend it to the local community, the nation state and beyond.

I think very often people don’t have the opportunity to study things that I have had the chance to. But also I think because it is so unusual to say these things in this country, people think you must be off your rocker or have some big agenda. I have no agenda – my life could be much easier. I could have had a very, very privileged academic life – gone to America and stayed there basically – for more money, for better quality of life personally. People who are successful academically – or who are lucky enough to be successful, who have had to good fortune – have many, many options. The fact that people choose to stay isn’t because there is anything to be gained except abuse most of the time.

MB: The public locus for that abuse is the media?

KL: I don’t listen to a lot of it. I’ve been successful in getting funding here. But yes, the locus is the media because they don’t engage in reflexivity. They don’t see their own self-interest.

MB: I’m thinking of Morgan Kelly for example whose economic outlook is hardly left-wing but who nevertheless merely made a series of factual observations and the thing that you described happened to him. It happened to Fintan O’Toole when he tried to become more directly involved in the issues recently. The Sunday Times published a vile, highly personal article which they have since apologised for but these apologies are never undo the damage done by the original.

KL: You have to look at the vested interests behind that newspaper. It’s a Murdoch paper and there is editorial control and people never talk about that. The newspapers are funded by big advertising.

MB: A distinction that could be made about the Sunday Times is that it is quite up front about what it’s doing. You know what you are getting. Better that than papers like the Irish Times which purports to be the great Irish liberal newspaper but is in reality deeply conservative and conformist.

KL: The fact that somebody like Dermot Desmond was given a full page to put out his views is absolutely ludicrous – an insult – somebody who isn’t, I believe, even tax resident telling us how to run the state! It’s to do with advertising and power. You always have to look at who has power. The pen is never controlled by the journalist. They might think they control it but their pen is controlled: RTE, the newspapers – they are dependent on advertising revenue.

MB: And yet even Fintan O’Toole denies that this is the case. He insists, in effect, that ‘the editorial firewall’ exists. But so far as what journalists believe about themselves is concerned, it’s the cooperative intellectual capital you were talking about earlier that ensures journalists are on message. They don’t even need to be overtly controlled. Their own thinking is already dependably under control. Beyond that, journalists are of course acutely aware that rocking boats is not a good career move. Access to power and the stories of the powerful is not possible if they tell the unvarnished truth. Cowardice is a lot of the reason why so much corruption and so much ideological orthodoxy goes largely unchallenged. Of course journalists are very good at telling themselves that this cowardice is in fact professional balance and objectivity.

KL: It’s time to tell it as it is – time to call a spade a shovel. This sort of control is going on everywhere – in academic life too. The sociology of knowledge is a major interest of mine so I’m keenly aware of it. Who controls your pen and who controls your voice is what I’d ask any journalist about – because somebody controls it. If you are under the illusion that you have complete control, try saying something that is completely dissenting and see how far you’ll get. The mind is a big site of political struggle and we need education about how people’s minds are being managed. On the positive side – and whatever about twitter – I got overwhelmingly positive emails after what I said on Tonight with Vincent Browne – many of them in support of what I said about the media and about Mondregon. These were people from all walks of life – ordinary people, strangers.


[For further interviews on this and other issues please check out our interview archive.]

Vinb, Kathleen Lynch and the Twitterati

It’s not often media commentators discuss the concentration of ownership, issues of political influence, convergence and plurality of opinion in the media, but having looked back at the twitter ‘storm’ that erupted after Kathleen Lynch’s comments on last nights ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’ it’s no wonder.

A twitter ‘storm’ erupted on Tonight with Vincent Browne (14/2/11) when UCD Professor Kathleen Lynch thought to question the version of reality presented in the mainstream Irish media.

Her fundamental argument was that a concentration of media ownership in turn permeates a consensus of opinion, with little opportunity for truly dissenting voices.

Since news, even at its most basic level, is mediated by people (often professionals), with ideological, political, cultural and religious views and motivations in the world, it is therefore infused, to differing extents, with a particular perspective. Complete impartiality is virtually impossible to achieve. Raw facts do not themselves find their way on to paper, they are selected and arranged by people.

Whether bias happens consciously or subconsciously is not really the question. No one can deny that journalists are forced to continually make choices, whether they take the form of word choices, decisions over which details deserve prominence, or where the story is placed in the paper, or whether it is reported at all (along with all the structural limitations described by Nick Davies).

Sometimes of course, these biases are of little consequence, sometimes they are of major importance. Either way, if taken systematically and if they are found to be ideologically or politically driven then of course it should be of interest to media consumers. There is a reason why opinion pieces are often framed by pen portraits of the writer.

Those watching and commenting via Twitter took serious offense to this suggestion, and many were not shy to express their disapproval. A selection of these comments (not all negative) are presented below.

But first, here’s a transcript of the bit that seems to have caused so much anger:

[The speakers are Kathleen Lynch, Jim Power, Vincent Browne and Nicola Cooke]

Kathleen: “I don’t think you’re right actually, I think people would be very afraid of Fine Gael if they actually read their policies. In the debates and the way things have gone on, people don’t read their policies, I really think these personality debates are irrelevant. Go and read what they are saying”

Jim: “I think you are doing people a disservice. People are reading their policies.”

Kathleen: “Where? on the web?”

Jim: “The newspapers!”

Kathleen: “Let me just finish. When you read their policies, for example, they are proposing taxes. They are not disclosing them. There are a lot of indirect taxes. A tax when you go to use a service is a tax.”

Jim: “They are not hiding their policies.”

Kathleen: “I am only saying…the media is wrong. These newspapers are all owned and controlled by people who are wealthy. We have no critical newspaper in this country. Independent newspapers control 60%. We have already seen a newspaper close down last weekend which was often very critical of the status quo. I am very suspicious as to why the Tribune closed just before the election. I don’t know anything about it, but I am very suspicious.”

Vincent: “I wouldn’t be suspicious of that.”

Kathleen: “You wouldn’t? Maybe you know. I find when I go to the newspapers, for example in Britain, you have the Guardian, which is very clearly different to the Telegraph. We have no equivalent of the Guardian newspaper in this country.”

Vincent: “Ah the Irish Times is slightly…”

Kathleen: “It’s not remotely like the Guardian.”

Jim: “Just because parties or papers don’t agree with your view of the world you think people are ignorant.”

Kathleen: “No, I’m not saying…We don’t have the dissent in this country that you have in other countries.”

Jim: “Of course we have it. You look at Tasc for example.”

Kathleen: “We do not have it. Look at RTE. RTE very very rarely has the news. The news is not the news. The news is the propaganda that somebody actually decides is going to come out as the news. People have this idea that the news is the truth, the news is not the truth. It is somebody who decides you will get this version of the news, you will this version of the newspaper. That is what somebody decides.”

Vincent: “But Kathleen, the fact of the matter is that RTE and TV3 and other broadcasters report what people are saying during the course of the election time. And you can call that propaganda if you wish, but it’s factually important information. What’s wrong with that?”

Kathleen: “What I am saying is that they report it, but they don’t report it critically, they don’t say these are the implications of these policies if we implement them. Like in health, for example. We have no systematic health education policy across the country, we have a very under funded policy.”

Jim: “The purpose of news is to report the facts, not to interpret the facts.”

Kathleen: “Newspapers always interpret the facts. That’s a myth. Newspapers never report. There is no such thing as the truth. There is always a position and the person who writes a newspaper…”

Nicola: “There is opinion and analysis, here’s Fintan O’Toole…”

Kathleen: “He’s an exception.”

Nicola: “Yes, he’s an exception. He’s one of the main columnists in the country…”

Jim: “Vincent Browne writes in Sunday Business Post and the Irish Times.”

Kathleen: “There area handful of individuals, you can name them on one hand.”

Jim: “There were none a few minutes ago and suddenly we are starting to point them out…”

Kathleen: “I didn’t say there were none.”

Jim: “You have two articles here, Fintan O’Toole and Brian Lucey, very very different…”

Kathleen: “Brian Lucey is not, he is writing about an economic issue. What I am saying, is that in general. The only point I am making, it is well supported in media analysis, I am not making this up. There are studies done in the Irish media that show newspapers are predominately conservative in orientation by people outside and inside the country. That is all I am saying. We don’t have widespread intellectual…”

Nicola: “The whole point was that you said people didn’t question policies. Fine Gael are publishing their full manifesto this week and they are canvasing door to door, so Irish people are not just picking up a newspaper, and saying ‘oh that’s it’ and believing. They can question the candidates, search the manifestos themselves…”

And below are selection of tweets culled from a Twitter Search history on the topic, found using the #vinb hashtag:

More on the Guardian, Morgan Tsvangirai and Wikileaks

The Guardian appears to have realised the true significance of the document implicating Morgan Tsvangirai only after they published it and subsequently sought to distance themselves from the fallout by shifting the flak onto Wikileaks.

The Guardian has recently been brought to task by Salon journalist Glenn Greenwald for their attack on Wikileaks over the release of a cable potentially implicating Zimbabwe prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in secret support for US sanctions against the country.

It is thought this alleged complicity may find Tsvangirai charged with treason and if found guilty perhaps even sentenced to the death penalty. Responding to news of this criminal investigation, the Guardian published what Greenwald rightly refers to as ‘a scathing Op-Ed by James Richardson‘ claiming that Wikileaks had caused ‘collateral damage in Zimbabwe‘ by releasing the document.

The article went on to claim Wikileaks may have ‘upend[ed] the precarious balance of power in a fragile African state and sign[ed] the death warrant of its pro-western premier‘. But it was at its most damning in the closing paragraphs:

where Mugabe’s strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed. Twenty years of sacrifice and suffering by Tsvangirai all for naught, as WikiLeaks risks “collateral murder” in the name of transparency.”

Greenwald responded to the vitriolic piece by drawing attention to the fact it was the Guardian that had released the document, not Wikileaks. Wikileaks had indeed published the document on its own website, but only after the Guardian had reported on it and published it on their site, as per the methodology agreed between the partners.

Eight days later on 11 January 2011, after the story had spread around the world and the damage done, the Guardian published a correction and made various haphazardly applied amendments to those articles charging Wikileaks with the release of the offending cable.

Then, following further pressure from Greenwald, Ian Katz, the Guardian’s deputy editor, published a meandering clarification of the correction, attributing the false charge against Wikileaks of ‘collateral murder’ to journalistic shorthand:

“It’s important to remember a bit of context: during the whole period “WikiLeaks” became shorthand used by virtually all journalists the world over for the entire project. This was partly – or even mainly – to give them credit for being the main source (or intermediary) for the material. So, day after day, news organisations such as the BBC and other newspapers reported that “WikiLeaks today revealed that …”

Katz also took the opportunity to close the discussion, in the hope of burying the story in the bog of bureaucracy that is the formal complaints procedure:

“if anyone disagrees they are free to refer the matter to the Guardian’s independent readers’ editor.”

[Its also important to note, as the Media Lens Editors have pointed out, the Guardian was studious in not linking to Greenwalds damning critique of their coverage in their clarification]

However, throughout this correction / clarification saga there seems to have been a significant oversight in the discussion. In Richardson’s initial attack against Wikileaks he concludes:

Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled – in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump – WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life.”

It is on this point that Greenwald appears to have gone a little soft. While he (alone, it seems) challenged the Guardian on their reporting of this, he seems to have backed off at the crucial moment. The Guardian has indeed corrected the falsehood, albeit with easy-to-miss corrections and minor and inconsistently applied word changes (from ‘Wikileaks’ to ‘the Guardian’), they have failed to address the central issue.

In the first instance, with the publishing of the cable, the Guardian simply failed to understand what they were putting into the public domain. They failed to predict the fallout in Zimbabwe and when an article deflecting flak towards Wikileaks came along (or was requested) they happily went with it, until that is, Greenwald called them on it.

Then in a moment of farce Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger attempted to deflect flak of the flak-deflection, suggesting that the Guardian’s editorial oversight is somehow suspended in the ‘Comment is Free’ section:

If Comment is Free was like Open Salon, as Rusbridger claims, then you’d be reading this piece cross-posted there. But you’re not and the Guardian has a set of contributor guidelines explaining why.

But going back to the initial report on the cable. When first commenting on this the Guardian highlighted the following passage, under the headline ‘US embassy cables: Tsvangirai tells US Mugabe is increasingly ‘old, tired and poorly briefed’‘:

“7. (C) On the subject of Mugabe himself, Tsvangirai said that in his recent meetings, though Mugabe seems mentally acute, he appears old and very tired. He comes to many meetings unbriefed and unaware of the content. It appears that he is being managed by hardliners. Tsvangirai said his goal now is to find a way to ‘manage’ Mugabe himself. One way, perhaps, would be to give him something to give his hardliners. Precisely what that something is, he said, is something he is still wrestling with.”

The article that the cable was published in support of, ‘WikiLeaks cables reveal differing views of ‘crazy’, ‘charming’ Robert Mugabe‘, amounted to little more than diplomatic tittle tattle, describing various conflicting impressions of president Mugabe’s physical and mental condition.

These insights were of as much consequence as those cables which revealed Barack Obama referred to David Cameron as a ‘lightweight‘, or a US ambassador blamed Gordon Brown for ‘post-Blair rudderlessness‘ and the ones where Nicolas Sarkozy is depicted as a ‘self-absorbed, thin-skinned, erratic character who tyrannises his ministers and staff‘. Essentially highbrow-tabloid-gossip.

The Guardian and, surprisingly, their East Africa correspondent, Xan Rice, had entirely failed to understand the true significance of the cable:

“4. (C) ZANU-PF seems to have introduced a new tactic in its agenda – reciprocity. What this means, he said, is that Mugabe is asking, “What’s in this for us?” If MDC gets governorships, Mugabe asks, why can’t the sanctions against ZANU-PF be lifted? Tsvangirai said that it seems that Mugabe plans to use the governors as a trade-off against sanctions. He said he has repeatedly told Mugabe that MDC has no control over sanctions. But, he added, lack of any flexibility on the issue of sanctions poses a problem for him and his party. In this he assured us that Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Q In this he assured us that Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara is in full agreement with him. He also acknowledged that his public statements calling for easing of sanctions versus his private conversations saying they must be kept in place have caused problems.”

It is here that both the claim, made countless other times, that Wikileaks can’t do what the professional establishment media can and the blame game and its explanation / justification become untangled.

Greenwald on the other hand seems to tiptoe around this issue (unless that is I’ve confused tact for tempering of criticism). In tweets he sent to Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger he wrote, initially in response to Rusbridger’s promise of further clarification to the correction:

And after the Guardian published its explanation:

But something didn’t simply ‘go wrong’ and the Guardian’s explanation was not candid. This ‘mistake’ served a purpose, a purpose that benefits the Guardian, in that it deflects the flak arising from the leak, while also hiding the journalistic / editorial blunder.

From Katz’s article:

…Our judgment was that publishing the Zimbabwe cable would not place Tsvangirai, a high-profile elected politician who has been publicly highly critical of Robert Mugabe for years, in danger. If we’re wrong about that we’ll have to accept our share of the blame. But it is not right, as some have implied, to characterise the situation as one in which it was exclusively the Guardian rather than WikiLeaks which is responsible.”

If the Guardian had really understood the importance of the cable’s contents, and given the obvious sensitivities of Zimbabwean politics, it is unlikely they would have published the type of piece they did. In fact, given the reaction, they would likely not have published it at all.

In its damage limitation the Guardian has, consciously or subconsciously, drawn on a dominant discourse within mainstream media criticism of Wikileaks’ own brand of whistleblowing. It echos dishonest US government rhetoric that Wikileaks has ‘blood on its hands‘, and feeds fuel to the fire for those media pundits and political figures calling for the assassination of Assange.

So much for the ‘media partnership’.

This comes of the nub of this issue. Wikileaks is accused of being reckless, dumping masses of sensitive documents into the public domain without a care for the consequences, not understanding the rules of professional journalism, the complex nature of diplomacy etc. This incident shows that even the best of the mainstream media can, and often do, fail to live up to the very rules they apply to others.

True the Guardian’s coverage of the US diplomatic cables has been good, but this episode sends a message to future would be whistleblowers and Wikileaks emulators, by all means do spread the legal exposure and increase the potential impact of leaks by partnering with the mainstream media, but don’t be surprised when they hang you out to dry when the shit hits the fan.

‘Embedded’ with the police, Channel 4 and the UK student protests

I thought it would be worthwhile drawing attention to a blog entry relating to the recent student protests in the UK by a senior journalist in a mainstream news outlet in order to highlight prevailing media attitudes towards protest and, in particular, civil disobedience. It’s important to make a distinction here, as the right to protest, while perhaps not the importance or effectiveness of it, is generally supported by the mainstream press. ‘Protest’ in this approved sense could be characterised quite simply as the congregation of a large group of people, meeting at a designated location, followed by a procession down a designated route, with a number of speeches at the end point and then quiet dispersal homeward. Anything that deviates from this formula is not typically welcomed in the press.

Civil disobedience on the other hand involves protesters not only voicing their opposition, opinions, etc, but voicing them in a manner they see fit (it is therefore unlikely to be collectively agreed), not that prescribed by or mediated with the coercive powers of the state. This type of protest is therefore much more likely to be dominated by police physical enforcement, as well as more indirect methods, such as intimidation, whereby, for example, photographs and video footage of protesters are recorded to discourage attendance.

Anyway, the blog entry in question was posted by Channel 4 News correspondent Alex Thomson, who, it appears, posted the entry live from the scene of the last major demonstration on Thursday last week (9/12/10). Thomson has been covering the ongoing protests for some weeks now and has been on the ground with protesters and police on more than one occasion.

In this report Thomson begins:

“My earlier predictions that today’s protest would absolutely lead to violence on a wider scale then we have seen have, it seems, been entirely borne out by events. We witnessed a police officer knocked to the ground and injured before the protest had moved a mile from London University early this afternoon.”

Thomson is clearly not talking about police violence when he says “today’s protest would absolutely lead to violence on a wider scale“. Despite what we know now about the level of violence perpetrated by the police, a fact that went mostly unreported and presumably unseen by reporters on the day of the protest. Thomson writes “We witnessed a police officer knocked to the ground and injured“, reaffirming, presumably, either that the media had broadcast images or had shown footage of a police officer knocked to the ground or that Thomson and his colleagues had seen the officer struck. Either way, he is attempting to draw an affinity with the reader and the victim of violence, seeking empathy for the injured policeman. At this stage, we might also presume at least one protester had been struck or injured, but Thomson chooses not to mention that possibility.

“From the outset the mood today was different. Radically different. There were scores turning up already masked up and the mood was louder, angrier, than before. There were hundreds here who were plainly out for a ruck with the police and they were going to have it wherever the police decided.”

Here Thomson evokes a picture of protesters as a wild, unpredictable gang moving in packs. Speaking very generally about all protesters, he says, the mood (which he reveals later in the piece he derived from what he overheard or saw, in fact there is no reference to actual interaction with protesters in any of his blog entries) was “[r]adically different” and protesters were “masked up” as opposed to wearing scarves etc. Thomson is adamant this indicated protesters were “plainly out for a ruck“. This use of language, masked up* and out for a ruck sounds slightly like that which might be used in gang discourse, with Thomson, in one sense, identifying the perceived source of the potential violence, and in another, identifying himself with an opposing side, the police. This closely chimes with the type of identification typical of correspondents embedded with the military in war zones.

These observations, paired with an earlier account that “speakers [had] invited protesters to “bring down the government” and ” bring this country to a halt”“, suggested only one thing to Thomson, the protesters were intent on violence. On the other hand, statements by the police prior to the march that they would implement kettling tactics etc were not, as far as he was concerned, deemed provocations.

“The place where the police stop the protest is the battleground for these things. Today many hundreds of marchers peeled off at various points along the route to Parliament Square. But when they entered the Square it was clear they were going no further at this stage.

That did it. Hundreds burst across police lines. The half dozen mounted officers simply fled from the Square to be reinforced much later. Barriers around the lawns of the Square itself were soon torn up and the crowds spilled across what is a traditional protest area for the British people. So they have certainly reclaimed that today, if nothing else.”

Here Thomson refers to an issue he revisited in a later post the next day, that of the location where students planned to stage the eventual demonstration at the end of the march, Parliament Square. An iconic location Thomson notes, “a traditional protest area for the British people“. The police did not want the “battleground” to be Parliament Square, but failed to direct the marchers towards the designated point. After reaching the rally point the protesters concerned themselves solely with “[tearing] up” barriers. This constant, and it could be reasonably argued unbalanced, focus on the ‘troublemakers’ within the protest is tempered only by fleeting, throw away, formulaic references in the closing paragraphs to what you might consider important contextual information – “most of those in Parliament Square and on this protest were peaceful“.

“From then on, hour after hour there was mass shoving at lines of riot police whilst anything that could be thrown at the police was thrown.

The police tactics are basically to stand there and take it, it seems. No water cannon or tear gas for these officers. True they had batons and used them when necessary with considerable gusto but in truth the police that I saw acted with a restraint you would not see in many other countries

It got worse. It got dark. There were a series of police mounted charges as it grew dark next to Westminster Abbey. Police came under a hail of paint bombs – but in truth the protesters were not particularly tooled up.”

Clearly there was was physical violence directed towards police during the protest, however it is virtually impossible to say with any certainty (although that doesn’t stop Thomson) whether this violence was a result of the violent nature of a section of the protesters, or whether this was a reaction to police tactics on this and previous marches, which, while designed to discourage future participation (e.g. kettling, or ‘detaining’ as Sky News preferred to refer to it) may have actually incited aggressive behaviour.

However, even accepting that there was violence on the part of protesters, most, if not all of it documented and transmitted incessantly on the 24 hour news channels (in contrast to those acts of violence committed by police, which are either not shown, or shown to much lesser degree), Thomson here frames that violence as entirely unprovoked and in turn shows complete ambivalence to the ‘response’ to that violence. He writes that police used “batons…with considerable gusto“, but only “when necessary“. Again, with reference to police cavalry charges, Thomson merely notes that they happened – “There were a series of police mounted charges” – without even commenting on the very real dangers of such actions. Clearly legimitising the use of force, and in fact, suggesting too little force was used: “The police tactics are basically to stand there and take it, it seems. No water cannon or tear gas for these officers.” While also presupposing police pacifism, declaring they simply just “[stood] there and [took] it“, before contradicting himself with the “gusto” “baton” observation. What Thomson could not have known at this time was that one student struck by a police baton would later fall unconscious and have to undergo brain surgery.

Thomson elaborates on every act that could potentially be deemed ‘violent’, he writes “It got worse…Police came under a hail of paint bombs“, painting (excuse the pun) what seems to be a unnecessarily exaggerated picture of the scene. Paint ‘bombs’ are hardly dangerous weapons, a ‘hail’ of which would be unlikely to do significant damage to vehicle or person. A point he is forced to concede in the next sentence: “in truth the protesters were not particularly tooled up.”

“Inevitably as afternoon turned to night there were injuries and currently the police say three of their officers are seriously injured and I saw several protesters with various kinds of head injuries – all of them dramatic and colourful, though I sense few were particularly serious.

There was fighting on at least three sides of Parliament Square and you can only witness one small part of a wider disturbance. It may well be that the numbers of people injured grow into the night where various bonfires have now been lit across Parliament Square.

It remains the case that most of those in Parliament Square and on this protest were peaceful. Some broke into a spontaneous and just a little bit ironic rendition of “Silent Night” as we filmed other protesters bash the police and get bashed in return over the crush barriers not ten feet away.”

In this last section, Thomson concedes again that his perception of the protest is only one possible vantage point, although the scene, he writes, was not one of ‘protest’ but of ‘disturbance’: “you can only witness one small part of a wider disturbance.” At this point the purpose of the protest, to object to what for many people will be an intolerable burden of debt in exchange for a third level education, has been entirely subjugated by Thomson’s narrative of barbarity.

The sense that Thomson has identified with the police is reinforced when it comes to detailing the injuries incurred during the protest. He writes “police say three of their officers are seriously injured“, where it could be inferred Thomson had sought information from the police on numbers injured or treated. At the same time, he refers only to seeing protesters injured, suggesting he made no attempt to find out how many were hurt or how seriously (ambulance and hospital services could have no doubt furnished him with this information if it was sought): “I saw several protesters with various kinds of head injuries“. But he not only shows a lack of interest in those injuries incurred by protesters, he actually seeks to undermine their severity and intimate that they were put-on or played-up: “[protester head injuries were] dramatic and colourful, though I sense few were particularly serious.” This seeming indifference is reiterated in a post later that evening when he writes: “Nine police injured – three seriously. And the protesters? Well, there will be scores of injuries.” Thomson relies heavily, it seems, on information supplied by the police: “at least 22 offences, mostly for violent disorder.”

Only in the closing paragraph does Thomson acknowledge, with some reluctance, “that most of those in Parliament Square and on this protest were peaceful.” A fact he repeatedly mentions in an earlier post, reinforcing it with the introductory phrase “But in truth…“, suggesting perhaps that he is conscious his focus on the violent element is inherently misleading. Or perhaps he is cognisant that what he witnessed, while mediated, he feels, faithfully by his reporting, tends to feed into and reinforce a general prevailing media discourse on the subject of student protest – one which values imagery of violence, predominantly against inanimate objects (such as the lone police van left within a kettle at an earlier protest). This preoccupation with violent imagery had Channel 4, at an earlier protest, soliciting photos of violence from protesters via social network mediums, under the guise of supporting ‘citizen journalism’.

The fact that Thomson is forced to admit “protesters were [for the most part] peaceful” stands in sharp contrast with the preceding nine paragraphs of the report, and it is these dominant sections that will no doubt define readers memory of the report and the protest itself. Thomson, by the way he has structured his report, must be entirely aware of this, and could only have set out to portray the protests, the protesters and the police in this manner. This must be infuriating for those protesters who, by many accounts, managed, by some fluke it would seem (or perhaps just the avoidance of media coverage), to witness no violence during their particular experience of the protest.

* John S, writing on the Media Lens Message Board, suggests the peculiar phrase ‘masked up’ is invoked to draw the allusion with ‘tooled up’

Revisiting media headlines on Wikileaked cables

In a previous post ‘Hidden Message in reporting of Wikileaked cables‘ we simply listed the reports published to date on the Wikileaked cables.

While the subject deserves far more attention than a WordCloud, I (we) haven’t had time lately to do anything more substantial. However, there are a few hints of potential bias that are apparent just by glancing at the headlines themselves.

For example, of the 43 articles (19 from the Irish Examiner, 10 from the Irish Independent and 14 from the Irish Times) :

1) 14 of them could be broadly described as condemnation (or the reporting of condemnation) of Wikileaks for making public the leaked cables

2) 5 of the articles focus on the potential or actual ‘embarrassment’ brought by the cables on world leaders, personal and political

3) At least 5 articles focus on allegations of sexual crimes made against the Wikileaks founder in Sweden

4) Only 17 foreground the contents of the leaked cables, as opposed the political response / damage limitation arising from the leaked cables

Hidden Message in reporting of Wikileaked cables

Below are the articles published so far by the Examiner, Irish Times and Irish Independent on the latest leak from Wikileaks. Compare and contrast these to this account from Democracy Now! An interview with Noam Chomsky.

If you plug the headlines in to Wordle a hidden message seems to appear:

Affected countries condemn Wikileaks, Irish Examiner
World capitals on alert ahead of third WikiLeaks onslaught, Irish Examier
Cameron set for embarrassment by new Wikileaks documents, Irish Examiner
Wikileaks disclosures ‘will put lives at risk’, Irish Examiner
WikiLeaks: Arab leaders sought US strike on Iran, Irish Examiner
Sweden seeks Wikileaks founder in rape case, Irish Examiner
Sweden seeks to detain WikiLeaks founder, Irish Examiner
Ecuador offers home to WikiLeaks founder Assange, Irish Examiner
US orders security review in wake of Wikileaks fiasco, Irish Examiner
Karzai ‘pardoned suspected drug dealers’: WikiLeaks, Irish Examiner
China ‘would accept united Korea’: WikiLeaks documents, Irish Examiner
US prepares response to Wikileaks barrage, Irish Examiner
Iraq: Release of confidential cables ‘very unhelpful’, Irish Examiner
Australian police investigate Wikileaks founder, Irish Examiner
Leaks show Netanyahu backing for land swaps, Irish Examiner
The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Turkey have US nuclear weapons situated on their soil., Irish Examiner
Arab leaders ‘asked US to attack Iran’, Irish Examiner
Downing Street condemns publication of leaked cables, Irish Examiner
President voices outrage over North Korean attack, Irish Examiner

US braced for Wikileaks release, Irish Independent
Allies braced for WikiLeaks claims, Irish Independent
Leaks may endanger lives, US warns, Irish Independent
Cameron ‘faces leaks embarrassment’, Irish Independent
Arab rulers ‘asked for Iran attack’, Irish Independent
Review call after WikiLeaks release, Irish Independent
Australian police probe Assange, Irish Independent
Assange fights rape probe ruling, Irish Independent
China ‘would accept united Korea’, Irish Independent
Karzai ‘freed connected suspects’, Irish Independent

Pentagon braced for more WikiLeaks, Irish Times
US warns allies of new release of files from WikiLeaks, Irish Times
Arab leaders sought attack on Iran, Irish Times
Arab leaders urged US to attack Iran, says WikiLeaks, Irish Times
Israelis claim WikiLeaks PR boost, Irish Times
US condemns WikiLeaks release, Irish Times
Unvarnished reports offer insight into true diplomatic thinking, Irish Times
‘Potential threat’ to UK security stressed, Irish Times
Berlusconi scornful of ‘parties’ claim, Irish Times
Proof Arab states fear Iran, says Israel, Irish Times
44 ‘secret’ cables among 910 sent from Dublin, Irish Times
Wikileaks embassy cables: the key points, Irish Times
Release of reports ‘an attack’ on world community, Irish Times
US in damage limitation mode after latest WikiLeaks exposé, Irish Times