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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:

Prime Time Late Debate: ‘Ooo Sweden, very attractive’

According to RTE’s Donagh Diamond the purpose of education is to make money, working hard means being wealthy, equality is taxation and taxation is concerned with taking money from wealthy people, Sweden is an example of economic neo-liberalism and, most surprisingly, the banking bailout bonanza never happened.”

Donagh Diamond’s contributions, interjections and questions to panelists on RTE’s ‘Prime Time Late Debate‘:

To Richard Boyd Barrett:

“Would you be in favour of absolute equality?”

“Interestingly the man from Tasc said that leveling down was his exact expression” “in your ideal society…does everybody end up with pretty much equal wealth? In short, what the plain people of Ireland might call, are we talking about communism?” “A more attractive style of communism?”

“…you’re talking about a very very even divvy up of the resources, a very even divvy up of wealth. I mean, just how even are we talking?”

“In your ideal, I’m trying to get a straight forward thing, in your ideal society are there wealthy people?”

“I’m just talking about slightly better off people, when people work hard can they keep their money?”

To Cormoc Lucey:

“Is it possible to level everybody up?”

“That comment of Michael McDowell’s, that wasn’t seen as very centrist.”

To Ivana Bacik:

“Where do you stand on this whole question of equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity?”

[McDowell seemed to be striving for inequality in society] “Of course he never said that, though all of you on the Left seem to imply that he did.”

To Mary Fitzpatrick:

“Where do you stand on this question of equality of outcome, equality of opportunity? I suppose I might ask, where does Fianna Fail stand? Because people seem to suggest that Fianna Fail stands where ever it suits them at any particular  moment in history.”

“…should people have equal share of the pie? Should they just get health care, equal education and then compete? These are the issues we are discussing…”

“…let me suggest that maybe it’s the furthest possible from abstract, because if you believe in some very very real form of equality of outcome you would take a lot of tax from people who are wealthy you would redistribute it to people are less wealthy. The question of tax immediately arises as soon as you talk about the question of equality, I think that is something your constituents are deeply concerned about.”

“…in a system where we are having equality of outcome, much much would have to be taken from the wealthy people and redistributed to people, where do you stand on that?”

To Michael Taft:

“Where do you stand on this whole question of, I mean you’re involved in Tasc, we had Nat O’Connor there, where do you stand on equality of outcome or equality of opportunity?”

“Just let me stop you there, there is always this reference to the Nordic countries, I always wonder quite how much people here know about the Nordic countries, Sweden, which is the country referred to most often, has just re-elected a centre right government, it cut back welfare dramatically because it thought there was no incentive to work. The incentive to work was so bad that 16% of its entire current budget was spent on sick pay. Their finance minister says one of the key things they did was introduce more private provision in health care. They’ve introduced free profit making schools. This model, the Left cites, it’s not the sort of model you would really be citing if you knew what was going on in Sweden.”

[The centre-right government was only elected when they abandoned their free market type of Thatcherite policies and actually adapted the social democratic model] “They cut back social welfare though.”

To Lucinda Creighton:

“Where do you stand on this debate? Which, in essence, there seems to be a trade off between the amount of growth you want in an economy, the amount of incentive, perhaps an American style, it was mentioned, perhaps a Boston style economy versus a more European style economy which may be much more equal, but…might not grow so quick.”

[Investment in education provides a level playing field, or well it ought to] “But it doesn’t really though.”

“…no matter how fair your education system, there are going to be lucky people and unlucky people, there are going to people that by the time they are four years of age will have very involved parents who are going to probably be involved teaching since they were virtually born. They may be just lucky in terms of genetics, so if you have a system, if you have a dynamic American style system that focuses only on the equality of opportunity, wouldn’t that essentially mean that the person who is not so lucky or not so smart is just never gonna get rich?[my emphasis]

To Eoin O’Broin:

“One of the catch cries of Sinn Fein for as long as I can remember was equality, and it might not have caught the public’s imagination in 2007, but do you think it’s going to catch the imagination this time? Exactly what sort of equality are you looking for?”

[The Swedish Christian Democratic government…rejects the idea that we are all individuals struggling against each other to try and get on in society and they…] “We are all individuals aren’t we?”

“Since we insist on talking about Sweden, and despite how doubtful I am about talking about it, would you be in favour of their sort of taxes as well?…It’s not a million miles from twice the total tax take.”

“Do you think people watching this programme will think ‘Ooo Sweden, very attractive’? About the total tax take.”

“It is not slightly higher…It is not slightly higher…They don’t get more take home pay in their pocket.”

To Eamon Ryan:

“You’ve actually been in government and had to make decisions, where do you fall in this debate?”

[The governments job is to put some constraints on the market, still leave it free to operate in some instances, but to avoid the inherent…] “Only free in some instances?!” […instability and unfairness in the free market system…]

To Ivana Bacik:

“One of the key issues of course is how much money people get to keep, among the three largest parties you’re the party that is suggesting that this correction, if you’ll excuse the use of the term, that we have to undergo will be done by about half taxes and about half expenditure cuts. That’s the direct opposite of all the economic advice, the OECD advice, the ESRI pointed that out to us. Everybody says that the most successful adjustments are done by a greater proportion of expenditure cuts. Why does the Labour Party know better?”

“It might interest your voters in south county Dublin, you could be a fairly ordinary teacher and another public servant and between them they’d be on €100,000 a year.” [No, it’s an individual income]

To Cormoc Lucey:

“…fortunately we have an accountant here…the budgets during this economic correction we have been going through, have they been focused overwhelming on the poorest in society?”

To Ivana Bacik:

“We have seen, essentially, what the government was saying is that we can’t have huge numbers of people outside the tax net. If you were in government you would have had to do the same thing.”

“What troubles me about this is there is a huge amount of economic literature that says that if you are to through these sort of fiscal problems, and a large number of countries, including Ireland in 1989 is included in the OECD study, and they say that people who know these things and who study these things say that the preponderance, if you wanted to succeed, should be expenditure cuts, and the Labour Party seems to be blithely rejecting that.”

To Eamon Ryan:

“Just a straight forward issue, privatisation of services, we are going to have to deal with it aren’t we?”

[We shouldn’t be ideological on it] “We have no money so we don’t have to worry about that.”

It goes on for another 10 mins.