Don’t shoot the messenger – Part 2

Political and business leaders, regulators and economists all fell down on this job, as can now be seen in retrospect. Since these are principal decision-makers and wielders of power they set and frame the terms on which the media report their activities.” [Paul Gillespie, Why so many failed to see the crisis coming, Irish Times]

Over the last year or so we have been in contact with a number of journalists from Ireland’s broadsheets, seeking their views on the media / property relationship. We asked why the issue has been ignored and suggested that the topic deserved open discussion – that perhaps it pointed towards a deeper issue of compromise between funding and journalism. Surprisingly, and without exception, journalists agreed that this was indeed an unhealthy relationship.

Although we have agreed not to make these conversations public, we thought it was worth sharing some of these media insider thoughts with you. Though the authority is somewhat lost given the anonymous nature of these quotes, they are nonetheless valuable insights and admissions.

Reacting to our point that “the Irish media is deeply complicit in the financial crisis, by virtue of its self-evident vested interest in the speculative bubble,” one journalist had this to say:

“These are compelling points…Your media criticism is particularly valid…The media was complicit: I cannot defend it. We bought into the myth too, and the ad revenues were not the only reason, although I am sure they were a factor.”

another responded:

“I [have] made the very point about the media’s, and particularly the Irish Times’, role in this cheerleading. But no one ran with that particular ball. Why? Because the Times was about to plough its cash into guess what – my!”

and another:

“There is for sure (or there can be) an uncomfortable relationship between advertisers and journalists but in here, there’s a Berlin Wall between editorial and commercial.”

Commenting on one of the deluge of articles about opportunities for overseas property buyers, one journalist explained their predicament:

“All in all, I accept that we, like almost every other media outlet, have given acres and acres over the years to property and, for want of a better expression, ‘boom talk’, but for the most part, we’re just the messenger…Where I think there are difficulties for media is in the question of by reporting matters to what extent, if any, is one promoting the subject being reported? I don’t know the answer to that one – it’s the journalists’ chicken and egg question; the best I can say is that one should report matters soberly and not sensationalise them… but we’ll never get it wholly right.”

And another responded on the failure to identify the warning signs:

“I don’t think people were either unaware or unwilling to comment. In the professional circles of economics and finance these issues were from ’07 on anyhow well aired, analysed and discussed. However, one of the characteristics of any bubble is that we all, to a greater or lesser extent, get caught up in same. Now, the job of newspapers is ultimately to sell newspapers – if you cry stinking fish stinking fish then few will purchase…So, was I wrong then? Yes, in retrospect. As new information comes I adapt my views.”

These candid accounts are so rarely revealed in print. Few reading their daily paper will be exposed to admissions that newspapers are there to sell, primarily, and to inform, secondarily.

There is also a worrying acknowledgement that journalists don’t even aspire to be the ‘Fourth Estate’, check and balance of power, that they often portray themselves as – “For the most part, we’re just the messenger.” A messenger for whom and for what? Those with the power to influence? Those with money, political clout and business connections? What is the media then, other than an extension of that power?

Paul Gillespie, quoted above, answers these questions, explaining that political and business leaders “frame the terms on which the media report their activities.” The journalist’s hands are tied before they even put pen to paper.

Putting your hands up

Despite this depressing conclusion, there are journalists with a willingness to discuss this issue, journalists who reject the pressure to act as “corporate stenographers.” Eamon Dunphy is one such journalist.

Dunphy certainly has his blind spots, a propensity to defend the ownership of the Irish Independent for one. Even to compare Tony O’Reilly’s stewardship with the investigative spirit of the Washington Post during the Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward era (the journalists behind the Watergate story). A hallucinatory vision that prompted this response from Vincent Browne:

“Ludicrously, he compared O’Reilly to Catherine (sic) Graham of the Washington Post, who stood by Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate scandal. Does Dunphy know about what happened to Joe MacAnthony?”

Of course Dunphy could not know about Joe MacAnthony (interviewed by MediaBite in 2008) and hold the same regard for today’s Irish Independent, the two thoughts cannot exist together. Nevertheless, Dunphy has chosen to take on the most powerful lobby the media is forced to go up against, the media itself.

Speaking on Newstalk’s ‘Lunchtime with Eamon Keane‘ with Irish Times Assistant Editor Fintan O’Toole in April this year, Dunphy reacted to the recent emergency budget and, to the shock of host, reflected on a decade of failure in Irish journalism.

In a lesson on media openness to self examination, and even when tabled alongside Fintan O’Toole, one of Ireland’s few respected left wing media commentators, he comes up against the standard reaction – diversion:

[EK – Eamon Keane, ED – Eamon Dunphy, FO’T – Fintan O’Toole]

“EK: Eamon, what was your initial reaction to the budget?

ED: …the biggest story in the budget is undoubtedly the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). This idea of taking over bad debts and delivering responsibility to the taxpayer. We don’t yet know how this will work out, but it could potentially double the national debt, which is a problem for our children and our grandchildren.

It is not just developers, its the whole of the Irish establishment that created this. The spivery, the cronyism, in the media, not just the developers and bankers…

EK: How do you mean ‘in the media’?

ED: The media were a huge part of this conspiracy to seduce, lure or terrify the Irish people into borrowing the amount they did. Principally for property, but not just for property.

While the finger pointing has to begin with those who are most responsible – the government, Brian Cowen present Taoiseach and Minister for Finance for four years, where he threw petrol on this fire. If he didn’t know what David McWilliams, Richard Curran and an awful lot of other economists knew then he shouldn’t have had that job. The Department of Finance, the Central Bank, the Regulator – who failed to regulate the banks, they are principally responsible.

But, there were others. The builders and the developers of course. And also the media, who are either cheerleaders for politicians or who are conspiring through property supplements and motoring sections, among other things, to conceal from people the reality – that you have to live prudently and that you have to have a certain modesty about your life.

EK: Eamon, I’m glad to welcome Fintan O’Toole Assistant Editor at the Irish Times to join us. Fintan, would agree with Eamon’s assessment?

FO’T: Broadly I would, yes. The key issue, when you get over the initial shock of budget, that you are faced with is that all of this pain and it is real pain for people is just in the margins, the big story is the bank bailout.

The context you have to put it in is to say, look you are taking all this pain in order to limit the growth of the national debt and at the same time we’re doubling the national debt by taking all these bad debts completely into the public realm. The ordinary person in Ireland is effectively taking on the debts of Sean Dunne, Bernard MacNamara and all of the property developers and bankers who with absolute recklessness and greed lent these people money, including to buy properties which are not even in Ireland. A huge amount of this money borrowed was to buy property in the UK, half of London is owned by these people. Property in Bulgaria, in Hungary.

It is very difficult for people to get there heads around this fact – that they are taking this pain, but at the same time someone is telling them “by the way, all that pain you are taking is all only a tiny part of the real story, which is that the people who caused this have to be bailed out and you, the person who is already suffering because they are paying ridiculously inflated mortgage because they were suckered into buying houses which were probably worth half of what they paid for them, people who were on forty year mortgages, you now have to stump up for the bankers.”

People aren’t stupid, they realise we are in an absolutely appalling crisis and that have to take pain to get out of it, but we needed two things. One, we needed not to be told that [we need to reduce the national debt and] at the same time the national debt doesn’t matter because we can double it at the stroke of a pen. And two, we needed some articulation of how the country will look in three years time. If you go through this sequence of pain after pain, what kind of society might we get out of it?

I was shocked that there wasn’t even a gesture, an attempt, to put some kind of context on these events. To say, the system that we have operated and driven into the ground is over, here’s what we are putting in its place. Nothing, not a single gesture to say we can have a decent sustainable society which provides some sort of basic security for the majority of the population.

EK: Fintan, something Eamon said there struck me – maybe I’ve colluded? What he said in terms of the media, I’m interested to hear what you think about this. We had property features on radio programmes, we had newspapers doing property supplements and motoring supplements. There was a general collusion. So it is perhaps simplistic to just blame the government, the financial regulator and the central bank. We all colluded in this, including media organisations.

FO’T: I’m slightly worried about ‘we all’ and the term ‘media’, media is a plural term. Within all media organisations there is a plurality. Eamon is right to point to the fact that undoubtedly the advertising industry, of which the media is essentially an arm, as every organ of the media is completely dependent on advertising, and as we are of course finding out now there isn’t any…

EK: Unless you have a license fee, you are somewhat buttressed…

FO’T: But even RTE can’t function without ads. So there is no part of the Irish media which is outside that circle. Everyone was in the business of advertising, and advertising is in the business of selling optimism and is in the business of selling debt – selling you things you can’t afford to buy.

So Eamon is absolutely right in the sense that the entire media was part of that process. I think it fair to say however that part of this story is that a large number of people in the media have been saying for 8 or 9 years now, not just last year and the year before, really going back to the turn of the century, and not just as a matter of opinion, but saying in a very reasoned way – that looking at examples from around the world – this process is unsustainable, it is going to crash.

I know some people in the media came under enormous pressure, for instance when the Irish Times printed Morgan Kelly’s (Professor of Economics at University College Dublin) very stark piece about 2 years ago, the property crash is his subject, saying that based on research from around the world Irish property prices are going to fall by 40-50%. When then happens is that the property industry goes…

EK: I just want to let Eamon Dunphy back in…

ED: Fintan, where that warning should have been published should have been in the property supplement of the Irish Times. Journalism is really about serving the community and the reader. Where that particular, and I’m not blaming the Irish Times solely, the Irish Independent had a supplement and so did all the Sunday’s, but really if the Irish Times was cognisant of this fact and it had this contributor, Morgan Kelly, then he should have been published in the property supplement. This is where we all went wrong.

Why is it that now people can stand back and point fingers without looking at themselves. I think this is a case for all Irish media, not just at the Irish Times. Though its fair to say it had the most lavish and inflationary property supplement, despite the fact it is supposed to be the paper of record in the country, a campaigning newspaper. The question is who was this serving? Principally, in this area of property values? It was serving the developers the builders and ultimately the tax revenue of the government. I don’t see any hands up there, I think we should all put our hands up.”

Eamon Keane’s shock at the suggestion he might have “colluded” in inflating the property bubble is telling (it is worth listening to the exchange to hear just how surprised Keane is to hear Dunphy’s remarks). Only someone who has been living under a large rock for the last 10 years could reasonably deny Stewart Lee’s summation of media priorities: “Before all this happened all that was on television all day was programmes about how to buy a house, do up a house or sell a house for more than you payed for it, or do all three simultaneously.” Yet even an experienced journalist such as Keane, presenting thefreshest, wittiest and most challenging programming on the Irish airwaves, is oblivious to the issue.

Fintan O’Toole’s defense is as predictable as it is infuriating. He admits without reservation that “the entire media was part of that process – selling you things you can’t afford to buy” and yet cites Morgan Kelly’s warning in 2006 as evidence that the media supports a “plurality” of views, failing to mention that much of the negative response to Kelly’s piece came from the media itself.

And despite Dunphy’s appeal, there is little evidence to suggest the media will ‘hold its hands up’, without that is, a concerted effort by readers to force them to.

As one prominent journalist told us:

“I agree with the generality of your criticism – of course we (the media) need to be held to account and people like yourself (ie readers) are the best ones to do it.”

To read Part 1 of ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ click here.

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