Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Finance Bill, there is no alternative

Even in the absence of a functioning government the Irish Times continues to campaign relentlessly for passage of the Finance Bill, a move that will seal “the abnegation of our economic sovereignty“.

Both the parties and media pundits realise that if the bill is not passed before the Dáil is dissolved it will be rejected by the public in the election.

“Today’s controversy will surround the enactment of the Finance Bill. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan claims that it would be logistically impossible for him to get the Bill through the Dáil by Friday. The normal timetable for the passage of the Bill would be the end of March. The main Opposition parties, now including the Greens, want it done by Friday so that the election can be called. It is worth remembering that this is no normal Finance Bill. Rather, it is the domestic requirement to satisfy the terms of the bailout by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. There is little wriggle room in this Bill for any party, including Sinn Féin. All of the hours of debate in the world won’t turn back the clock on our loss of sovereignty.” [A time for reckoning, 24/1/11]

“The Green Party will now be on the Opposition benches along with Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and a number of Independents. The challenge facing all of them is to find a way of ensuring that the Finance Bill is passed over the next week or so, despite the absence of a government. All agree with Fianna Fáil that the Bill should become law before the general election begins. The problem is that there is a serious difference of opinion between Fianna Fáil and the rest as to whether it can be done.” [Drama far from over as FF seeks to pass Finance Bill, 24/1/11]

AT ANY other time, the publication of the Government’s Finance Bill might be expected to generate much discussion and debate but the current political turmoil dominates the media to such an extent that the Bill published yesterday is little more than a sideshow. However, the Finance Bill, which will put into legislation the measures announced in last month’s Budget, is the only reason the Government is still in existence. If there is one major item that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party are still in agreement on, it is that the Finance Bill must be passed by the 30th Dáil. Most of the significant measures in the Bill are necessary to fulfil the terms of the bailout that the Government negotiated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. This State no longer has sovereignty over its fiscal policy and it will not reclaim it until many years have passed and many billions of euro have been repaid.” [Bill is tough but necessary, 22/1/11]

“The Green Party is standing by its commitment to remain in Government until the Finance Bill has been passed. It hopes that climate change and other legislation can also be secured. Spurred on by the farming and business lobbies, Fianna Fáil backbenchers are preparing to revolt over carbon control legislation and in the circumstances, Mr Cowen is unlikely to upset them any further. Political observers have suggested that Mr Gormley would have improved the party’s chances of avoiding annihilation in the election had he left Government, offering to support the Finance Bill from the Opposition benches.” [What a difference a day makes, 21/1/11]

“Passage of the Finance Bill will bring the 30th Dáil to an end. That legislation is due to be introduced next week. While the Opposition parties have offered to facilitate its speedy passage, Mr Cowen is sticking with traditional timing, much as he did in rejecting EU pressure to introduce an early Budget. The upshot is likely to be a late February/early March completion date. In the meantime – and in spite of grumbles of “jobs for the boys” from the Green Party – the Taoiseach is likely to refresh his Cabinet by replacing Mr Martin, Mary Harney, Dermot Ahern and perhaps others who have announced their retirement.” [Deckchairs on the Titanic, 20/1/11]

“The Opposition parties should guillotine the passage of the Finance Bill and bring on the election.” [They are where they are now, 19/1/11]

“As political events unfold, it might be in the national interest for Fine Gael and Labour to agree that they would guillotine the Finance Bill through the Dáil and Seanad – if their primary aim is to have a general election as soon as possible.” [Fianna Fáil convulsions, 17/1/11]

“This amounts to an unwillingness to face the electorate. Only one piece of legislation is required before the Dáil is dissolved and that is the Finance Bill. It could be enacted quickly if the political will exists.” [Edging towards a general election, 8/1/11]

“THE NEED for a general election at the earliest possible opportunity has increased, rather than diminished, in the aftermath of the Budget. There should be no question of a long, drawn-out debate on the Finance Bill in the New Year or waiting until special legislation on climate change or corporate donations has been adopted. The sooner the electorate is given an opportunity to shape the political future of this State, the better. We are at debt’s door and it is simply not good enough to revert to party politics.” [Election required as soon as possible, 10/12/10]

The irrationality of the Irish electorate

Irish Times editorials often characterise the Irish public as angry and irrational, responding emotionally to economic and political crises instead of pragmatically.

View from the Irish Times building

I initially wanted to write a post titled ‘The Dáil Gazette, or as its commonly known the Irish Times‘ looking generally at the how the Times’ opinion pages are so often adorned with analyses and editorials that seem to have been lifted from the crib notes to a speech at the Fianna Fáil tag-rugby club awards evening, for instance:

“THE FIANNA Fáil leadership issue will now be brought to a conclusion. Brian Cowen put it up to his critics, particularly Micheál Martin, to put or shut up.”

“The Taoiseach played a blinder in his press conference after a 48-hour consultation period with his parliamentary party last evening.”

“His message was courageous, open and democratic.”

“He hit the right note by stating that his decision to stay on as Taoiseach was in the interests of the country, not the party.” [Fianna Fáil convulsions 17/1/11]

But more specifically, I wanted to find out whether the Times’ seemingly populist calls for an early election were always immediately followed by various justifications for a delay of that necessity. For example, here is the Irish Times in December 2010 calling out for a general election:

“THE NEED for a general election at the earliest possible opportunity has increased, rather than diminished, in the aftermath of the Budget. There should be no question of a long, drawn-out debate on the Finance Bill in the New Year or waiting until special legislation on climate change or corporate donations has been adopted. The sooner the electorate is given an opportunity to shape the political future of this State, the better. We are at debt’s door and it is simply not good enough to revert to party politics.” [Election required as soon as possible, 10/12/10]

“THE SOONER a general election is called the better. Public approval for the way the State is being run has shrunk to 8 per cent while the level of dissatisfaction with the Government has ballooned to a staggering 90 per cent. Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s approval rating has shrunk to an all-time low of 14 per cent while, taken together, the Coalition parties now command a shrinking support base of 19 per cent. Such a comprehensive rejection of policies, personalities and parties should not be ignored.” [Volatile movements, 16/12/10]

However, before we get around to the difficult business of elections, there is a pressing issue at hand – a very good reason why an urgently needed election must be postponed just a little bit longer. If it’s not NAMA, or various bank nationalisations, or negotiations with the ECB and IMF, or emergency budgets etc, its the Finance Bill:

“This amounts to an unwillingness to face the electorate. Only one piece of legislation is required before the Dáil is dissolved and that is the Finance Bill. It could be enacted quickly if the political will exists.” [Edging towards a general election, 8/1/11]

“As political events unfold, it might be in the national interest for Fine Gael and Labour to agree that they would guillotine the Finance Bill through the Dáil and Seanad – if their primary aim is to have a general election as soon as possible.” [Fianna Fáil convulsions, 17/1/11]

“The Opposition parties should guillotine the passage of the Finance Bill and bring on the election.” [They are where they are now, 19/1/11]

But, trawling through the archives I was distracted by a phrase that kept popping up – ‘the angry electorate’:

“Brian Cowen will lead on. The general election may be deferred until March. But the outlook for the Government parties is so bleak that only a miracle can save them from the anger of the electorate.” [‘Looking towards a fresh start‘ 27/12/10]

The angry electorate is everywhere in the opinion pages of the Times, especially in the editorials.

“The anger and volatility of the electorate has been revealed in the latest Irish Time /Ipsos MRBI opinion poll that also shows an unprecedented shift of support between the Opposition parties as uncertainty grows about the composition and policies of the next government. The findings reflect the political turmoil that beset the State as the Government sought a financial bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union; published a four-year economic plan and introduced an unpopular Budget that broadened the tax base and cut welfare payments.” [Volatile movements 16/12/10]

“The public has become angry and frustrated by the incompetence of the Government and the apparent insulation of many Oireachtas members from the realities of the daily grind.” [Facing up to the realities, 28/10/10]

“The frenzied reaction of the media was not pretty to behold but did reflect the level of anger that exists among an electorate shocked and bewildered at what is happening to the country – and the seeming inability of the Government to get to grips with it.” [Traumatised electorate deserves a leader at the top of his game, 16/09/10]

“For more than a year now, I have spent most of my working weeks mixing with people from many parts of Ireland. I have had time to gauge the public mood. There is deep anger and a feeling of helplessness; a fear of the future and a profound sense of betrayal. There is, to a worrying degree, disillusionment with the whole political system.” [FF and Greens must bow out while sanity still prevails, 13/1/11]

“Nobody has been held accountable for the damage done to the State. Public anger is palpable. Structural, indeed moral, reforms are needed.” [Holding banks to account, 15/12/10]

“At this stage, the public is so angry and disillusioned by economic mismanagement and the shenanigans of government ministers that it doesn’t really care who leads Fianna Fáil […] The anger out there is palpable.” [They are where they are now, 19/1/11]

In the last two cases, ‘the anger out there is palpable’ and ‘public anger is palpable’, it sounds as if the editor, or whoever was tasked with writing the editorial, imagines themselves trapped inside the Dáil along with the elected officials, attempting to save or salvage the country’s economy while the hounds of public opinion attempt to ram the gates with a cement truck.

This ‘anger’ is used as a unsubtle means of implying the public simply doesn’t understand economic realities. It is predicated on the assumption that the public is inherently irrational, that the reason for their disapproval of various measures, such as austerity budgets, bank guarantees and bailouts, is down to the fact they simply don’t understand there, is, no, alternative:

“[In Argentina] The failure to navigate between an angry public and the fiscal constraints of IMF conditionality cut short a dozen careers in the Argentina finance ministry in the last decade. Is this the future that awaits a potential Fine Gael-Labour coalition?” [Next government must be able to take decisions, 6/12/10]

“Growing and understandable public anger, coupled with extreme economic events, has prompted the political system to table a range of policy and legislative changes that could only be described as a mixed bag. Some measures, such as those aimed at reducing the cost of doing business and the broadening of the tax base, are sensible and long overdue. Others though are ill-advised, populist or poorly thought-out and will stifle economic regeneration.” [Danny McCoy (IBEC) and Paul Sweeney (ICTU) head-to-head, 31/12/10]

“From conversations with Opposition figures, I know they are genuinely angry at Government failures, and believe strongly it should be replaced. But I also sense a genuine desire to do what is right for the country.” [Strategy for tackling deficit widely seen as incomplete, 28/09/10]

That anger is a euphemism for the public’s perceived irrationality is demonstrated by those instances where it is mitigated with words like ‘justifiable’, ‘understandable’ or ‘righteous’:

“President Mary McAleese said the crisis engulfing Ireland “obliged” us to “to take a step back” and discuss the country’s future. Ireland needs to channel the “righteous anger” people are feeling into national debate” [Ireland needs a national forum for cogent debate, 26/10/10]

The ‘angry electorate’ is such a staple phrase of political reporting that journalists even make joking references to it:

“I think journalists’ fondness for public office, which usually strikes the journalists concerned in late middle age – hey, I am so there – comes from our communal conviction that we are running the country already. We shout about the state of the nation quite a lot when we’re on the phone to each other. We laugh knowingly. We curse and swear. We do a little bit of swaggering at our keyboards. Because we know the score. Politicians are idiots. These conversations constitute our political experience, and qualify us to dash out looking for a nomination, a book deal or a chance to address the angry horde and give it the benefit of our opinion.” [Being a TD could add up to being the perfect job, 17/1/11]

Politicians, on the other hand, can be seen showing the public how it should be done:

“IT SAYS something for the shell-shocked state of our politicians that yesterday’s Budget, certainly the most savage in living memory, was spelled out to a Dáil chamber that, for the most part, was resigned and subdued rather than angry and boisterous. The public was waiting for the hit that will determine their living standards, not just for Christmas but for the next couple of years or so. At least there is some certainty about the expectations we can have about our living standards now.” [Everybody takes a hit, 8/12/10]

‘Resignation’ is the proper, logical, adult reaction to necessary budgetary ‘tightening’ and tax base ‘broadening’. A sentiment hammered home in the headline, ‘Everyone takes a hit’.

There is also the inbuilt idea, that the public is tempestuous, or perhaps even childish, that they simply want to vent their frustration by voting for a different party or leader:

“The only argument for Cowen remaining on is that he would act as a lightning rod for all the pent-up anger felt by the electorate at the country’s plight. Once the voters have vented their frustrations on Cowen in an election, a new leader might be able to pick up the pieces and rebuild the party.” [Sharp decision on Cowen will return focus to election, 15/1/11]

“They have had time to reflect over the break. They have spent more time with their constituents and come face to face again with the extent of public anger at the party. They have also come to appreciate the extent to which that anger is focused, somewhat unfairly, on Brian Cowen in particular.” [Senior Fianna Fáilers hold fate of party in their hands, 15/1/11]

“An increasingly angry electorate has already demonstrated its determination to punish the junior Coalition partner with a severity that has shocked the Green base. The party went into the 2009 local elections with 15 city and county councillors and emerged with just three, making it practically impossible to keep Green issues anywhere near the top of local government’s agenda.” [Besieged Greens focus on electoral survival, 16/09/10]

And if this anger is not adequately “navigated” by politicians and journalists alike, it can lead to the masses being swayed by “crackpots”:

“In short, they are mostly realists because they have always had to be. But at times like this, they too can be swayed by crackpots offering easy solutions, particularly if these appear to be finding some echo amongst the elites.

The Irish public is being urged to “dismantle the power structures”, “take back the nation”, and “reclaim the Republic” by people who, given half a chance, would reduce the country to a perpetually bankrupt, pariah state. For just a start, they would default on international loans; leave the EU; and set about creating some pseudo-Marxist dystopia (a North Korea without the military hardware, a Cuba without the sun).” [FF and Greens must bow out while sanity still prevails, 13/1/11]

A potential that was clearly evident in the Lisbon Treaty referendum, where the public allowed the ‘crackpots’ to trick them into voting the wrong way:

“The potential of this dynamic, deeply angry at a political establishment perceived as out-of-touch, has already found expression in the two Lisbon referendums.” [I’m putting my money on a new political movement, 15/12/10]

It’s very easy for journalists to dismiss the public as angry and irrational, in fact, in a lot of ways, it is fundamental to what they do.

“One enjoying country, other military brig”

A recent article by Scott Shane in the New York Times contrasting the conditions of Bradley Manning, the alleged military whistleblower who leaked the diplomatic cables, and Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, sought to characterise the two men in wildly different ways.

The opening paragraphs vilify Assange, painting him as a playboy enjoying the luxuries of freedom:

“the flamboyant founder of WikiLeaks, is living on a supporter’s 600-acre estate outside London, where he has negotiated $1.7 million in book deals”

While at the same time valorising Manning, painting him as the victim of Assange’s desperate search for success:

“the young soldier accused of leaking the secret documents that brought WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange to fame and notoriety is locked in a tiny cell at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia”

The article went on to dryly discuss the conditions under which Manning is being held, quoting friends and family and military spokespersons in equal measure.

This piece was quickly picked up by BBC foreign editor Jon Williams who tweeted:

Instead of highlighting the severe conditions Manning is being held under and perhaps even criticising the US government for their intransigence, Williams uses Manning’s detention as a stick to beat Assange with. That tells you something about the way Wikileaks are perceived by some in the mainstream press.

More on the Guardian, Morgan Tsvangirai and Wikileaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And after the Guardian published its explanation:

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

From Katz’s article:

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

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

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

So much for the ‘media partnership’.

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

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