In Praise of Subversion

By Kieran Allen

A recent Irish Times front-page article was headlined ‘O Brien nets €700 –800million in Caribbean deal’. The story was written in an apparently objective style, describing how the Irish businessman will receive the money in cash while other associates such as his father Denis Snr and PJ Mara, Fianna Fail’s PR man will also make huge gains.

The tone of the article was distinctly celebratory. There was not the faintest hint that extracting this vast sum from the impoverished islands of the Caribbean might be a trifle unfair. No connections were made between O Brien’s aggressive approach to profit making and his unsavoury activities in Ireland. This, after all, is the man who in 2000 sold Esat for €2.3 billion and then avoided paying €55 million in tax by declaring himself a resident of Portugal. When some concerned citizens protested, he lashed out by saying:

‘There is too much shite going on inside Ireland at the moment. I think people are too negative towards politicians, Government, and entrepreneurs. We are fast turning into a communist state. We are fast moving towards communist doctrine.’ People in this country should be thankful for what they achieved in the last ten years. Instead I come back to Ireland and people are screaming like spoiled children. [1]

The Irish Times article was framed as another personal success story of an Irish hero. The mysterious bond of nationality, it was implied, allowed us all to bask in his glory, much like we might celebrate when our team won an international soccer match.

It would be wrong to portray this type of journalism as a conspiracy. Stories like it are a routine and their authors have internalised certain norms about how to write. However, these norms contain many unquestioned assumptions. So in a society shaped by corporations, O Brien’s success is seen as just the outcome of a ‘natural process’ of competition. Breaking from this assumption requires an active, critical and political approach. But journalists are told they should not be political because it might damage their objectivity.

But would ‘objectivity’ be really lost if journalists wrote from a particular slant? I encountered this question frequently when I served as editor of the radical newspaper, Socialist Worker.

My answer was always simple: objectivity in the sense of a desire to uncover hidden power structures is not guaranteed by staying neutral. The person who considers themselves neutral in a conflict between Denis O’Brien and the poor of the Caribbean is more likely to gloss over significant and interesting facts. By contrast, an investigative journalist who is consciously opposed to corporate interests is more likely to uncover patterns of behaviour that they want to keep hidden.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once argued that all genuine social research must be subversive because it should to reveal what is hidden and sometimes repressed. Once it tries to do this, however, it will come up against dominant groups whose

“…interests are bound up with silence because they have no bones to pick with the world they dominate, which consequently appears to them as self-evident, a world that goes without saying.” [2]

Many of these sentiments could apply to investigate journalists who work either in the conventional or alternative media. For there is much to be unearthed and made visible in Ireland today.

The great irony of most modern societies is the enormous disjuncture between their official rhetoric and how actually existing capitalism functions. It is a bit like the gap between the banal language of high Soviet speak and the realities of privilege and corruption in actual Russian society before the fall.

Neo-liberal rhetoric suggests that the world is a pure market place where rugged individuals like Michael O’Leary compete unhindered by cumbersome state policies. The neo-liberals despise an ‘inefficient’ public sphere – by which they mean any space that has not been turned into a commodity, assigned a price and made subject to the ‘rigours of competition’.

The reality, however, is that the more the neo-liberals talk about global markets, the more they try to colonise the very state that they claim to despise. Modern corporations aim for a ‘frictionless’ relationship with the state so that it readily serves as their immediate handmaiden.

How else do we explain why donations from pharmaceutical and oil companies to Bush’s political clique have grown with every word spoken in praise of privatisation and de-regulation? If the state did not matter, the major US corporations would locate their headquarters in the Deep South where rent is cheaper rather than in K street Washington where they are close to the centres of political power.

These same intermeshing of the political and corporate elite is at work in Ireland but it has largely been under-investigated by the media. Let’s suggest just one area of inquiry for the subversive journalist.

Ten years ago, few people heard about the lobbying in Ireland. Yet today it has become a private industry in its own right. It is undertaken by Public Relations firms who have developed a ‘public affairs’ or lobbying function. They tend to recruit individuals who have been former members of the political elite or who have worked closely with government ministers or top party officials. These individuals are prized for the connections they can open for clients.

So Alan Dukes, the former Fine Gael Minister for Finance, for example, works as a public affairs consultant with Wilson Hartnell Public Relations and was involved in lobbying TDs about Babcock and Brown plans for the purchase of Eircom. [3] Drury Communications offers clients a range of public affairs services including, ‘putting key clients and key decision makers together’. [4] The head of this lobbying unit is Iarla Mongey who once worked closely with Mary Harney as deputy government press secretary. Q4 is another PR firm that offers a lobbying service to corporate clients. It is headed up by two former key figures within Fianna Fail – Jackie Gallagher, a former special advisor to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Michael Mackin, a former General Secretary of Fianna Fail. The lobbying activity of MRPA Kinman is headed up by Stephen O’Byrnes, a former key figure in the Progressive Democrats and a member of the RTE Authority. The drinks industry used this particular company particularly effectively to scupper plans to outlaw advertising of drinks to minors.

US corporations look for a little more punch and have two key lobbying agencies: The American Chamber of Commerce and the US Ambassador. The American Chamber of Commerce hosts a number of business lunches and special conferences with key decision makers. It boasts that it has ‘excellent access to Irish and European policy networks’ and can ‘keep Irish decision makers focussed on the factors that contribute to the continuing attractiveness of Ireland as a location for foreign direct investment.’ [5] The Chamber vigorously lobbied against an EU directive, which would oblige employers to consult their staff and provide them with information on issues affecting them. Instead of an automatic right to such consultation, they demanded that it could only be triggered by a written request signed by 10 percent of workers. In this way, the names of the employees might be noted by very management which was reluctant to consult them in the first place! The Irish state duly agreed and the Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Act bore, according to Industrial Relations News, the ‘indelible stamp’ of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland. [6]

The Chamber works very closely with the US Ambassador, who, it appears, intervenes extensively to lobby for US business interests. A dramatic example of the clout that this particular lobbyist yields was evident in the chewing gum affair.

In a rare moment in 2003, the former Environment Minister Martin Cullen appeared to be on the verge of imposing an extra cost on business after he was handed a consultancy report on litter. The report proposed a special €4-5 million levy on chewing gum and fast food firms and banks that used ATM machines to help bear some of the cost of cleaning up litter. The levy on chewing gum was to be raised by a 5-cent consumer tax on every packet. The justification was quite straightforward. Anyone who takes a cursory walk through the streets of any major city will find dark spots on most pavements that are the remnants of discarded chewing gum. These require special equipment to clean them off. The levy would be the chewing gum companies’ contribution to defray costs. Wrigley’s, however, approached US Ambassador James Kenny who duly set up a meeting between the company, government representatives and himself. The result was the withdrawal of the proposed levy.

When a sovereign government appears unable to impose a minor chewing gum tax, there should be concerns about the fate of its democracy. But when it is casually explained that this type of intervention is perfectly normal, one really wonders. The US embassy in Dublin explained that ‘The ambassador makes these interventions in a whole range of sectors in pursuit of US interests and on behalf of US firms. This was a just a case where the ambassador saw US interests at play and decided to get involved.’ [7] ‘US interests’ it seems are synonymous with large corporations such as Wrigleys and McDonalds.

Irish industry tends to rely on organisations such as the Construction Industry Federation and Irish Business and Employers Confederation to lobby state agencies. These have a major advantage over the unions as their members command the resources that determine whether or not investment takes places. Not only can they engage in extensive research and forward planning but they also have access to information that is normally shrouded in ‘commercial secrecy’. In a rare interview about their lobbying activities, one IBEC executive gave a glimpse of the information asymmetry which employer organisations enjoy:

“I am surprised how often they (ministerial civil servants) ring me up looking for data… Maybe it’s just a matter of us having access to several thousand members, and they (the members) trust us, so we survey them. I think we are a good source of data.” [8]

Control of information about business decisions means that IBEC lobbyists can constantly exaggerate the negative implication of any government regulation. ‘We can tell them pretty much anything – how would they know?’ is how the anonymous IBEC executive rather crudely put it.’ [9]

IBEC’s ability to scupper plans for regulation testify that there is an important grain of truth in this. At one point Ireland’s rising level of carbon dioxide emissions seemed to lead to an emerging consensus in policy making circles about the need for a carbon tax. But a negative lobbying campaign by IBEC led to its withdrawal. IBEC has also lobbied for a removal of ‘unnecessary’ planning delays on major infrastructural development – and has been rewarded with the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill (2006). More broadly IBEC has consistently lobbied against ‘costly’ and ‘cumbersome’ regulation and its efforts have borne fruit with the Department of the Taoiseach’s paper on ‘Regulating Better’ which sought to reduce ‘red tape’. [10]

On major issues of economic policy, IBEC and the CIF have consistently been able to come up with initiatives that win acceptance from state officials. One of the most crucial decisions made about state services has been the formation of Public Private Partnerships. This proposal, however, originated in a joint IBEC/CIF document in April1999 which was drawn up by a committee composed of representatives of National Toll Roads, AIB, Arup Engineers and a number of legal and finance houses. Although these groups are precisely those who stood to gain commercially from these projects, their plans were accepted right down to very specific details. [11]

Most of this lobbying activity takes place behind closed doors and in an arena where ‘connections’ and ‘networking’ play a vital role. It is a de-politicised arena that is less subject to democratic scrutiny – and this is precisely why it benefits the corporations.

But surely, there is material here for our subversive journalist. What code of conduct applies to figures who move from the political sphere to the lobbying industry? How much do lobbyists get paid? What sort of access have they to politicians? Have they made donations to their electoral funds? What laws have been the result of lobbying?

But be warned. Casting a search light on hidden networks of power can carry a cost. Just before their demise, the Centre for Public Inquiry had begun to look at lobbying.

They were closed down precisely because such activity was considered dangerous. It illustrated how our rulers go to great lengths to intimidate people from investigating the truth by using financial sanctions or the laws of libels to stop them.

Don’t let that put you off, however. Any serious attempt to bring about a world whereby the people of the Caribbean rather than Denis O’Brien keep their millions will require people to stand up for their beliefs. Moreover, they can be assured of the support of many, many people who have had enough of the dictatorship of the big business.

MediaBite are proud to introduce this guest commentary from Kieran Allen, ‘In Praise of Subversion’, a challenge to any journalist who considers themselves critical of concentrations of power. Kieran Allen is lecturer in sociology at UCD and former editor of the Socialist Worker newspaper. His forthcoming book ‘The Corporate Takeover of Ireland’, examines corporate infusion into Ireland over the last decade, and is due to appear in March 2007.

 

1. ‘O’Brien turns his back on negative Ireland’ Irish Times 24 October 2003
2. P. Bourdieu A Science That makes Trouble in P. Bourdieu, Sociology in Question London, Sage 1993
3. ‘Dukes to lobby on behalf of B&B’ Sunday Business Post, 19 March 2003.
4. Drury Communications website www.drurycommunications.com/face_government/face1.htm.
5. American Chamber of Commerce Ireland website
6. C. Dooley, ‘US Influence on employee Bill denied’ Irish Times, 1 August 2005.
7. A. Beesley, ‘Roche gives up Chewing Gum’ Irish Times, 16 March 2003
8. P. Bernhagen, ‘Business political power, information asymmetry and structural constraints on public policy: Two cases from environmental politics and banking regulation in Germany and Great Britain’. Paper prepared for Annual national Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association 3-6 April 2003 Chicago. p. 9.
9. Ibid. p.10.
10. ‘A Chink of Light’ IBEC News May 2005
11. IBEC and CIF, Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) Briefing paper April 1999.

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