Gas, Gaeilge and the Media

A Systematic ‘Trend’

“The private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers).” [‘Manufacturing Consent’ by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky] [1]

Ireland’s most influential news organisations are all to a large degree dependent on advertising as their principle form of revenue. And those revenues accrued are for the most part supplied by large corporations. In fact many of these news organisations are open about this dependency, RTE [Radio Telefis Eireann] state one of their guiding principles as; “[to] constantly re-evaluate our services in order to ensure that they reflect the needs of our audiences and customers in terms of content and platforms.” [2] It can reasonably be assumed that certain problems are bound to arise when the needs of RTE’s audience conflict with the needs of its customers.

The National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), the representative body for Ireland’s national newspapers, explains in no uncertain terms what sort of a commodity they offer potential clients; “Newspapers give advertisers the opportunity to carefully and strategically place their message in the editorial environment that will deliver the best results.” [3] The sceptical reader may wonder if this dependency, this need to provide a profitable ‘editorial environment’, could have an implicit effect on what and how news is reported.

We have all no doubt found inaccuracies of some sort or another during our daily consumption of news, whether it be an exaggeration, a misleading headline, a sound bite that doesn’t do the subject matter justice. These can generally be excused as mistakes, personal biases, or simply a lack of professional rigour. But when these inaccuracies or distortions become so prevalent and in some cases, near uniform throughout the political spectrum; when these distortions appear to run counter to the stated goals of the system (RTE strive to “Be accurate and impartial in all News coverage”) [2] and the social responsibilities one would expect from it, the sceptic would be forgiven for wondering if this is more than just a trend.

FAIR, an American media monitoring organisation, in their 2005 annual report had this to say; “The essential conflict of commercial news media was on full display when giant advertisers BP, the oil company, and Morgan Stanley, the financial services company, both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general.” [FAIR, quoting AdAge.com, 5/24/05] [4]

This ‘request’ that the ‘independent’ media adhere to self censorship, while shocking, should not come as too much of a surprise to those that are already aware of the corporate media’s penchant of pandering to elite interests. The question is, when can a trend be considered an intrinsic property of a system, not so much an explanation for every internal process or external output, but a value of the net product.

An unreasonable equilibrium

“Those who wish to exert power over other people or to seize their resources appear to use violence as either a first or a last resort.” [George Monbiot – The Age of Consent, p.g.33]

In late 2007 a corporation backed by their assistants in government escalated a localised issue, of national and global importance, through the forceful suppression of peaceful demonstration. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said that the negotiating is over and ‘that is it’. [5]

In early 2001 Shell Oil and Exploration Corporation filed a planning application through An Bord Plenala (the Irish Planning Authority). The application requested permission to construct a high pressure gas pipeline connecting an off shore rig to a proposed processing terminal approximately nine kilometres inland. Objections and appeals were submitted by local residents in what has become a seven year struggle between a small Gaeltacht community in county Mayo and the world’s seventh largest company, an organisation with revenues exceeding that of over 100 of the world’s countries, including Ireland. [6] [7]

The situation has escalated of late, with confrontations between protestors and the Gardai becoming violent. Bertie Ahern stated, “the rule of law has to be implemented and the work will go on.” [8]

It should be obvious to anyone who has any confidence in democracy that the monopoly of force maintained by the state must act in the interests and under the will of the population. To cede the coercive powers of the state to corporate entities is to supplant the democratic purpose that warrants its existence. The fact that some see the confrontations between protestors and the Gardai as illegal can be expected. The media’s unfortunate failure to accurately frame this debate is a major contributing factor to its misunderstanding.

“The institutional bias of the private mass media “does not merely protect the corporate system. It robs the public of a chance to understand the real world.”” [Ben Bagdikia’s observation quoted by Herman and Chomsky] [9]

In establishing a very narrow frame the media have distorted the issue in favour of those interests which, based on the grossly lenient terms agreed by previous governments, run counter to that of the Irish public. By condensing the debate into unrepresentative terms it is clear the reader cannot be expected to grasp the reality of the situation. For the reader to fully understand the issue, and each subsequent incident within, they must first be privy to the most basic facts. Only then can they reasonably resolve either support, contempt or indifference for the campaign; or indeed, the commercial venture.

This ‘lapse’ in balance is not an infrequent tendency, the dominant media have a history of skewing coverage in favour of those interests that par with their own.

A convenient mythology

While there are several exceptions, the narrow frame assigned to the issue of the Corrib gas project has given birth to a number of now prevalent myths, yet we only need dispel a few to bring this distorted debate into much needed focus.

1. The Corrib gas project represents a massive benefit to the Irish people

In a Primetime debate in August last year, the RTE Primetime presenter Keelin Shanley stated that “you [Shell to Sea] and the other local people opposed to this pipeline are really holding the country to ransom.” [RTE Primetime 4/08/06] [10]

This myth was of course dispelled years ago, yet the present media spotlight has seen fit to re-construct it. A 2001 RTE Primetime report examined the 1992 licensing conditions, acknowledged to represent “the most generous fiscal terms in the world, with no royalties, no state participation, and companies can write off their costs 100% up front.” [11] State benefits will not be accrued until the oil companies begin to pay taxes; unsurprisingly no-one has stood up to put a figure on this potential ‘fortune’. RTE reporter, Nick Peilow, stated that people were shocked at the fiscal terms. [11] That shock appears to have worn off.

A report conducted by the Centre for Public Inquiry in 2005 [12] put the potential value of the Corrib field at approximately EUR50.4 billion. Shell and it’s partners Statoil and Marathon stand to reap in the region of EUR9-15 billion based on the estimated size of the current find and current market prices. [13] They also have a substantial stake in the potential of the entire field. Since the gas is to be sold at market value [14], the only obvious benefits appear to be security of supply at a time when Ireland has no problems sourcing gas – and perhaps 50-70 permanent jobs after the initial construction work.

2. There exists much support for the project in the local community

“Families divided, friends estranged, neighbour turned against neighbour.” [Claire Murphy, RTE Primetime 23/11/06]

While a TG4 poll conducted in September 2006 revealed that 6 out of 10 people in Mayo want the terminal located at sea, and only 15 people out of 2,500 Erris homes disagreed with Shell to Sea, [15] a more recent poll conducted by Red C (for RTE and the Irish Independent) has been hailed as contradictory by the dominant media, thus casting doubt on one of Shell to Sea’s main arguments, the idea that the local community is behind them.

In actuality the poll revealed two very different viewpoints. On the one hand those polled felt the protestors are “an intimidating presence” being manipulated by outside forces,” and on the other hand they felt they “are just doing what I would do” and “are justified in their opposition.” The first, a result of the heavily corporate and state influenced media reporting and the second, influenced by the general public’s healthy scepticism and democratic idealism. The acute variance of these views goes some way towards highlighting the media’s power in shaping opinion.

Ciaran Byrne wrote in The Irish Independent under the headline ‘The People’s Verdict’, [The Irish Independent 24/11/06] [16] “the vast majority of people (70pc) in the county want the construction of the Corrib gas pipeline to continue without the work being impeded,” strangely enough the results of the poll did not reflect this support. The first question answered by the Independent was: “should the project go ahead as planned or not?” The answer to the question was not as emphatic as the article first suggested, with only a slight majority of those polled in favour. Interestingly this was reported very differently by RTE’s Primetime, who managed to explain the full context. The complete question begins: “If it were NOT an option to change the current proposal at all, do you think the project should go ahead as planned or not go ahead at all?” [17] A completely different proposition.

The remainder of the results are not too dissimilar to those found by the TG4 poll, though there has been a small drop in support. However, one cannot underestimate the toll which time and despondency must surely have taken on the communities’ spirit.

3. The protestors are simply against development

“Is it just selfishness on the part of a few people?” [RTE presenter Miriam O’Callahan to the Shell to Sea spokesperson, Mark Garavan, on Primetime 5/10/06] [18]

In November of last year an RTE news report on a documentary, made newsworthy only by the fact it was directed by an Irishman, commented subtly that the Shell to Sea campaigners are part of the cult of ‘environmentalism’ who oppose all forms of development. It was suggested that in their Celtic Tiger affluence they have failed to realize the benefits to others and “don’t require anything as basic as jobs.” [Donagh Diamond on RTE’s Primetime 2/11/06] [19] The absurdity of this claim exposes the depths to which some will go in order to undermine the campaign. Considering the documentary was directly funded by the mining company embroiled in the controversial plan it can hardly be deemed impartial, and it is simply inaccurate to conflate those globe trotting environmental campaigners, with alleged suspect motives, and a relatively apolitical community forced into action by alien corporate infusion.

Indeed, even the name given to the campaign by protestors, ‘Shell to Sea’ is emphatic enough in it’s position. The campaign approves the development of the resource, at sea.

Debating absurdities

In a commendable move towards offering a better understanding of the issue RTE held a debate between Shell and Shell to Sea representatives in November of last year. [23/11/06 Primetime] [20] Though the programme contained many inaccuracies, it was on the whole a fair opportunity for the two parties to converse on relatively level ground. Extraordinarily, Shell’s weak position was exposed by their attempt to use what the scientific consensus considers an impending climatic disaster as a defence of their position. A company that intends to sell 1 trillion cubic feet of a country’s natural resources, with no recognisable plan to offset the emissions, used the alleged personal comments of the Shell to Sea spokesperson, his approval of the Kyoto protocol, to undermine the campaign. And without a hint of irony.

This position is in stark contrast to Shell’s new ‘environmentally aware’ image. Shell Canada, part of the Royal Dutch Shell Group, stated over a year ago, “As corporate leaders representing a broad cross-section of the Canadian economy, we believe that all governments, corporations, consumers and citizens have responsibilities under the Kyoto protocol. The world must act urgently to stabilize the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and minimize the global impacts of climate change.” [21]

Lest we underestimate the impact of the symbiotic relationship between the media, the corporation and the state, Tony O’Reilly’s boast of his securing of the state-relinquished oil and gas resources off the west coast of Ireland, with a potential EUR1.4 billion value, to Forbes magazine in September 1983, should come as blunt realisation to those who doubt it. “Since I own 35 percent of the newspapers in Ireland I have close contact with the politicians. I got the blocks he (the geologist) wanted.” [noted by Frank Connelly, The Village] [22]

The dominant media have failed to accurately frame this debate and appear intent on regurgitating the same unsubstantiated myths to the detriment of public cognition and in contradiction to their stated goals of impartiality and ‘balance’.

The Corrib gas project could be worth up to EUR50.4 billion at current market prices. The Irish state stands to gain comparatively little. As former Labour Party leader Dick Spring commented, this deal is “an act of economic treason”. [12] In light of this disparity perhaps a pertinent question to ask RTE would be, “why have you not asked a Shell representative, ‘are you effectively holding the country to ransom?'”

Suggested Action

Please write to RTE and the Irish Independent in order to ask them to redress this imbalance:

complaints@rte.ie

Irish Independent Editor, Gerald O’Regan:
independent.letters@unison.independent.ie

RTE Prime Time prime.time@rte.ie

RTE News Editor: Michael.Good@rte.ie

Miriam O’Callahan: Miriam.OCallahan@rte.ie

MediaBite supports an open and constructive debate with the media and individual journalists, please ensure all correspondence is polite. Please copy all emails to editors@mediabite.org.

1. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Herman%20/
Conclusions_ManufacConsent.html
2. www.rte.ie/about/guidingprinciples2006.pdf
3. http://www.nni.ie/advertising.htm
4. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2848
5. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1110/mayo.html
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Dutch_Shell
7. http://www.photius.com/rankings/economy/
budget_revenues_2006_0.html
8. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1110/mayo.html
9. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Herman%20/
Conclusions_ManufacConsent.html
10. http://www.rte.ie/news/2005/0804/primetime.html
11. http://www.rte.ie/news/2001/0705/primetime.html
12. http://www.publicinquiry.ie/pdf/Fiosru_2_LOW_RES_Final.pdf
13. http://archives.tcm.ie/businesspost/2006/07/30/story16038.asp
14. http://www.villagemagazine.ie/article.asp
?sid=1&sud=40&aid=2134
15. http://www.rte.ie/news/features/election2007/polls/
nuachtmayopollrossport.pdf
16. http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.
php3?ca=9&si=1730478&issue_id=14931
17. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1123/primetime.html
18. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1005/primetime.html
19. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1102/primetime.html
20. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1123/primetime.html
21. http://www.cbc.ca/money/story/2005/11/17/kyotobiz-051117.html
22. http://www.villagemagazine.ie/article.asp?sid=1&sud=2&aid=1795

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