Category Archives: Analysis

Irish Water has brought us together

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For five years the press has warned the public that since “we all partied”, we must now all make sacrifices. In 2008 the relentless billowing of the property bubble naturally segued into an equally relentless build-up to the next “courageous[ly] masochis[tic]” budget.

But when the post-Tiger ‘we’ is not acquiescing to the next austerity measure, it is largely absent. It is often silent or simply gagged, and sometimes, it is even denied it exists at all.

There is no property or travel supplement for the post-tiger ‘we’. Because ‘we’ do not experience austerity. The effects of public service cuts, regressive taxation and emigration are experienced by ‘them’. And ‘they’ do not own or operate the press.

Sometimes, when we talk about the press, journalists respond by saying:

“you can’t talk about ‘the press’ as if it’s a collective entity, ‘the press’ is made up of thousands of people and hundreds of organisations, with a diversity of politics and agenda”**

So, for the purposes of this article, perhaps it might be less controversial to speak of ‘the press’ simply as shorthand for ‘those media organisations owned by Denis O’Brien and the State’*. Because Ireland’s media landscape is arguably dominated by just one vista, from Leinster House looking out towards Malta.

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Forget what you’ve heard, Israel isn’t losing the media war

Shift in the media balance of power has been greatly exaggerated

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Despite optimistic claims that “Israel is losing the social media war over Gaza”, the mediating influence of the news industry remains dominant in our cognitive understanding of the conflict; contorting information through both bureaucratic and institutional parameters; determining what is sayable and unsayable, what is visible and what remains hidden.

However, there is certainly a sense that this power is beginning to be eroded. Whereas television was said to bring war into our living rooms, social media realises the uncensored sights and sounds of war in realtime. Paul Mason’s recent essay on the role of social media in informing a new generation of hyper-connected news readers makes a strong case for a shift in power. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence this has translated into a broader media shift.

Continue reading Forget what you’ve heard, Israel isn’t losing the media war

Blessed with nothing but good intentions

Finally, the long heralded debt deal has arrived, and with no small fanfare. As the Dail Debate ended, Enda Kenny declared “[t]he Anglo promissory-note payments are gone“, which made for catchy, if misleading, headlines. The deal, as you’ll have read, postpones payment of IBRC debt for up to 30 years. While Anglo’s debts aren’t quite gone (we still being forced to pay them), they have been pushed far enough in to the future so as to make them look much more…manageable.

This is obviously great news, which is why the Irish Times asked economist Pat McArdle to explain to us lay people why. McArdle made the point: “every borrower knows, a longer mortgage is easier to service as inflation and time erodes the real burden of the repayment“, which offers us “some light at the end of a very dark tunnel“. For the ungrateful among you still disappointed that you’re paying off bondholder’s mortgages, the Irish Times was quick to declare that the deal was the best we could hope for “given that debt write-offs were never on the cards.”

Continue reading Blessed with nothing but good intentions

The Household Charge – How They Failed to Shape Our Perspectives

“The media…is by far the most powerful agency in shaping people’s perspectives on social and political issues.” [Vincent Browne, Irish Times, 18/04/12]

Discussing the highly concentrated ownership of Irish media on the eve of Gavin O’Reilly’s departure from Independent News & Media, Vincent Browne makes a statement his former editor Geraldine Kennedy would be proud of. Yet gone are the days when the Irish Times could credibly boast to be ‘leaders’ or ‘shapers’ of public opinion, save for a small subset of influential south Dubliners.

Successive campaign failures over the last few years, including the Lisbon Treaty and more recently the household charge, have shown the limitations of the media’s agency to sway public perspective. On the other hand, the media’s ability to influence or at least reinforce government thinking on certain important policy issues has not been undermined. Successful campaign wishes for austerity budgets since 2008 have been granted, with politicians responding to the media “call to arms” by throwing caution to the wind, “sticking to their guns” and delivering the required “tough medicine” over and over.

This dynamic makes the case of the household charge “fiasco” all the more interesting. Here again the media and government collaborated in a campaign, this time for a new tax. Which, three weeks since its introduction, only 900,000 have registered to pay, from a total of 1.7 million liable. A lacklustre result you might say, but not one that’s completely spin resistant. The Irish Times made the sensible point:

“the campaign [for] modest household charge has been a fiasco. yet about half those liable have paid up”

Although this glass-half-full enthusiasm can’t completely disguise the campaign’s “abject failure“. It’s fair to say the public were decidedly un-shaped.

Continue reading The Household Charge – How They Failed to Shape Our Perspectives

‘The false reality of news journalism’

Reporting Palestine and the Mavi Marmara

One of the most interesting features of mainstream reporting on Israel and Palestine is the disparity between the way violent attacks by each side are presented. Israel’s actions are chiefly explained in terms of its right to “self defence“, while those carried out by Palestinians are more often than not portrayed as attempts to undermine Israel’s “security“.

Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets are depicted as random acts of violence, with no mitigating or explanatory considerations whereas Israeli attacks are predominantly reported as responses to a Palestinian threat. For instance, a recent Irish Times report on the killing of four apparently unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) offered the following by way of explanation: “Palestinian militants in Gaza frequently try to attack Israeli border patrols and sporadically fire rockets and mortar bombs at Israel.” In the same report Israeli actions were described as follows: “An Israeli naval patrol killed at least four Palestinians…on their way to carry out a terror attack.” This narrative presents Israeli aggression, the killing of unarmed persons in foreign waters, as a necessary response to Palestinian terrorism. In effect, it serves to ligitimise that aggression.

One possible explanation for this imbalance can be found in the very words journalists chose to use. Journalist Robert Fisk claims that “journalists have become prisoners of the language of power.” Addressing the Al Jazeera Annual Conference in May this year, he said:

“We are drowning our vocabulary with the language of generals and presidents, from the so-called elites, from the arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or those of those of the Rand Corporation or what I call the ‘TINK THANKS’. Thus we have become part of this language…And when we use these words, we become one with the power and the elites which rule our world without fear of challenge from the media.”

On the 8th June Fisk appeared at the Dalkey Book Festival in conversation with Vincent Browne, where I asked him:

“Why do you think journalists relinquish control of language to the institutions of propaganda so easily? For example, following the flotilla attack, journalists responded by adopting Israeli government language, so when the activists were freed, it was reported they were ‘deported’. In the same way Israel always ‘detain’, whereas Palestine always ‘kidnap’.”

Fisk responded:

“Journalists now use the words that are provided for them by power. For example, journalists use the term ‘spike’ in violence and there’s a reason for that, Americans like to see the word, because a ‘spike’ goes up and then a ‘spike’ goes down. If you were to refer to an ‘increase’ in violence, there’s no guarantee that it will go down. In the same way a ‘surge’ suggests a tsunami, or a massive natural force. In real terms this ‘surge’ is a reinforcement and you need reinforcements when you are losing a war. Similarly a ‘wall’ becomes a ‘fence’, a ‘settlement’ becomes a ‘colony’, which becomes a ‘neighbourhood’ or an ‘outpost’.

Again and again journalists use the words of power in this way – ‘officials say’, ‘officials say’, ‘officials say’, ‘according to an official’. In effect we are now using the words of the Defence Department, Downing Street and so on. I think the reason for this is because it is easy, it is less likely to invite criticism. But the problem is that in using these words we desemanticise the war, because, while I disagree with all violence, if you see a Palestinian throw a stone and you know it is because there is a ‘wall’ being built around his house, you can begin to understand. But if that dispute is about a ‘fence’, you might be led to believe all Palestinians are generically violent.”

On the 31st May an event occurred in international waters off the coast of the Palestinian territory of Gaza which has highlighted the pervasive influence of the “language of power.” A flotilla of vessels, manned by hundreds of activists and carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid, was intercepted and boarded by the Israeli navy. On the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara nine activists were killed, most of them shot repeatedly at close range. Scores of others were injured, including several Israeli soldiers.

The media news storm that followed the event can be defined by three characteristics: 1) The Israeli government version of events dominated coverage 2) Where the testimony of activists was reported it was generally in the context of denying Israeli allegations 3) Israel was presented as acting in self defence, whether as a state enforcing a blockade, or as individual soldiers protecting themselves; those aboard the flotilla were for the most part presented as instigators of the violence. The reason there was a media storm at all, unlike the killing of the Palestinians described above, is that this incident involved the kind of “bloodshed that would spark an international outcry” or to put it bluntly, Israel had killed non-Arabs.

At approximately 4:30 am on the 31st May the communications systems aboard the vessels were blocked by the Israeli Navy, cutting off all contact with the outside world. Israeli commandos then stormed the ships in an operation conducted by hundreds of soldiers using an array of combat craft, including “four Frigates, three Helicopters, two Submarines and twenty Zodiac boats.” Once the crew and passengers had been subdued, the vessels were commandeered and “escorted” by force to the Israeli port of Ashdod. Here activists were stripped of all cameras, computers, telephones and recording equipment and “detained” against their will, only to be “deported” several days later on the condition they sign forms declaring they had entered Israel illegally. In contrast to the capture of British soldiers by the Iranian military in 2007 few commentators dared to submit that the activists had effectively been “kidnapped.” Where the term was used it was primarily in response to comments made by government officials, in this case Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The flotilla was just the latest in a series of aid convoys that have attempted to break the “blockade” of Gaza – an escalation of those restrictions imposed in 2006 in response to Hamas’ victory in elections deemed free and fair by the international community. According to the Israeli government the blockade is “an exercise of the right of economic warfare” “intended to achieve a political goal,” namely to undermine support for and ultimately oust Hamas. According to Gideon Levy, columinst for Haaretz *, Dov Weissglas advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister joked that the blockade was like “an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.” It could however more accurately be described as a “siege” (a term seldom used), as Israel maintains almost total control of both Palestinian borders and airspace, it also makes regular military ‘incursions‘ into the territories, while continuing a process of colonisation that results in ever expanding Israeli borders and a corresponding shrinking of Palestinian borders. The United Nations has called for Israel to lift the “siege” and has described it variously as “collective punishment“, a “crime against humanity” and a “war crime.” Ironically, a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times described how Israelis live under a “suffocating siege mentality” as a result of their “self-inflicted isolation.” The same piece makes reference to the “checkpoints” Israel enforces around Palestine, ensuring near absolute control of their “only exit.”

As with the navy patrol incident described above, the “blockade” is almost always portrayed as a response to Palestinian violence. The Irish Times claimed in a report last week that the blockade has been “in place since Hamas seized power in the strip three years ago,” another claimed it is “designed to stop arms and “dual-use” equipment reaching Hamas and other militant groups.” More recent reports erroneously claim it was “first introduced in June 2006 when [Israel’s] soldier Gilad Shalit was captured.” In all cases Israel is presented as reacting to a violent incident, as opposed punishing Palestinians for voting for the ‘wrong party’ in democratic elections. The idea that the blockade is actually a security measure is contradicted by the terms of the blockade itself, such as details of the banned goods, most of which would prove entirely useless when used as weapons: “items such as school supplies, books, computers, kitchen utensils, mattresses and toys.”

The events that took place during the attack on the Mavi Marmara are still disputed and will likely remain unclear in the absence of an independent investigation. This uncertainty has prompted some journalists to euphemistically describe them as “clashes“, suggesting a shared premeditation and thus an equal apportioning of blame. Details of the casualties aboard the ship do not however support this – injuries were ‘disproportionately’ sustained by passengers. Autopsy results revealed “nine Turkish men…were shot a total of 30 times and five were killed by gunshot wounds to the head. The results revealed that a 60-year-old man, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back. A 19-year-old, named as Fulkan Dogan, who also has US citizenship, was shot five times from less that 45cm, in the face, in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. Two other men were shot four times, and five of the victims were shot either in the back of the head or in the back.” While the Israeli government claims one soldier sustained gunshot wounds, the navy recorded no fatalities.

In the hours and days following the assault Israeli spokespersons dominated the media narrative. Access to the passengers was restricted, preventing any alternative narrative from emerging. The IDF and the Israeli Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs drip fed statements and selectively edited video and audio footage (less than 4 minutes of video footage has been released). This policy of providing video footage has had the effect of devaluing the authority of eye witness testimony, whilst also satisfying the media appetite for immediate, easily digested information, preferably with an authoritative stamp. At the same time footage taken by passengers remained under Israeli lock and key, with only those recordings concealed and eventually smuggled out made public. In contrast to the IDF videos this footage has not been publicised prominently.

Israeli officials made repeated allegations that the navy were “set upon” in a “planned” and “premeditated” “ambush“. Readers were told the navy had encountered “unexpected resistance” and that the soldiers had simply acted in “self-defence.” This in turn led to discussion of whether the violence was “disproportionate” or “legal“, not whether the use of violence was justified at all. Further claims alleged passengers were “allies” or had “links” to “terrorist organisations” including “al-Qaeda,” or were just “sympathetic” towards them. Other reports simply implied the connection: “the main umbrella group…preach non-violent resistance…[however] many [are] linked to Islamic organisations.” These claims were repeatedly reported without any further examination. A number of opinion articles did expand on the allegations, with one writer referring to them as “government propaganda,” however they were reluctant to dismiss them entirely and so made vaguely incriminating suggestions that while “the vast majority of those involved did not have any violent intentions,” the “well-meaning people” had been “used as tools by those with ulterior motives.”

Eyewitness accounts which appeared four days after the assault told an entirely different story: “Patel claimed that as soon as the Israeli Defence Force helicopter appeared above the Mavi Marmara, “it started using immediately live ammunition” without any warning being issued. Harrison, 32, from Islington, north London, also witnessed the Mavi Marmara being stormed from above by helicopter and said the Israelis started firing before their troops touched down on the boat.” Yet articles suggesting the ships passengers had acted in self defence were in the minority.

Much was made of the fact the passengers were “armed“, with reports describing passengers as “pipe and knife wielding pro-Palestinian activists,” a “knife-wielding mob” and “protesters wielding knives and clubs.” The array of “weapons” including “knives, metal rods, chains, broken bottles” can no doubt be found aboard any boat, but was still considered of major importance. Other more extravagant accounts stated “two pistols had been found on the Turkish ship” and that the navy “were shot at.” Later reports explained that “activists had fired guns they had seized” from the armed soldiers. Activists were therefore continually forced to deny in the first instance that they were armed and then to prove their peaceful intentions. The guns, we were eventually told, had indeed been taken from the soldiers, they were then thrown overboard or ‘made safe’.

The weapons carried by the navy commandos were also the subject of reporting, but from a very different perspective. Where the activists’ metal rods and table legs were discussed solely in terms of their potential to cause harm, the Israeli weapons were discussed in terms of their use in “riot-control“. Commandos were armed with “non-lethal” “stun guns” and “paint ball guns in place of their usual rifles.” Admittedly, they also carried handguns or pistols, but it was stressed the soldiers were “under strict orders to only use them in life-threatening situations.”

In light of the deaths and the specific details of the injuries suffered Israel was forced to admit that the “marines [had] opened fire.” However, the life threatening situation they were allegedly responding to changed from paragraph to paragraph. In one sentence the soldiers claimed that “they came under fire before shooting back.” In the next “they opened fire in response to a “lynch”.” Despite the absence of video evidence reports repeated the claims, providing some intuitively implausible sentences: “activists…tried to lynch the heavily armed naval commandos who stormed the ship.” But on the basis of these unsubstantiated claims some commentators justified the use of “lethal force” saying the navy had been “goad[ed] into excessive action“, and minimised the consequences of it as “heavyhanded” or “excessive“. While Israel’s actions “may be inexcusable, they are explicable.”

Just one day after the raid, an opinion writer in the Irish Times deemed the action: “excessive force to prevent a humanitarian aid convoy.” Which raises the improbable question, is there an acceptable amount of military force to prevent a humanitarian aid convoy? This type of discourse has had the effect of reducing a “violent” and “bloody” encounter to a “botched” raid, full of “errors and misjudgments” and “wrong-headed decisions.” Few journalists chose to dispel the tenuous mitigating circumstances conjured by the IDF and simply state: “What happened…was not an accident. It was a crime.”

Whether articles were condemning the assault or supporting it, opinion writers and editors were virtually unanimous as to its significance; it was a “disastrous self-inflicted wound” for Israel. It had fallen for the “political provocation” and into the “media trap“, which has “dealt another blow to Israel’s international image” and “will only benefit” the “extremists.”

And with that we come full circle. Despite recent talks over the “easing” of the blockade, the nine dead peace activists have become not a symbol of Israel’s aggression, but a reminder of the threat it faces. This seemingly irrational conclusion could be considered a natural consequence of the compromises journalists make in their choice of langauge. From “escorted” to “detained” and “deported”, from “blockade” to “dual-use equipment”, from “militant” to “extremist” and from “security” to “self defence” journalists have relinquished control of language and in the process they have allowed the news to be framed by power.

In a recent article published in the UK Independent Robert Fisk expanded on the reason why the media and power have become one and the same:

“Many of my colleagues on various Western newspapers would ultimately risk their jobs if they were constantly to challenge the false reality of news journalism, the nexus of media-government power.”

If Fisk is right, it’s time we looked elsewhere for our news.

 

 

* Correction – Gideon Levy is a former deputy editor of Haaretz. He currently works as a columnist and a member of the newspaper’s editorial board.

Our new kick-ass financial regulator

The arrival of Matthew Elderfield a.k.a. The Financial Regulator a.k.a. The Regulator a.k.a. The Sheriff of Dodge City has been universally heralded by the media and political establishment as the second coming of Christ. Well, the Christ of ledgers, calculators and informal speeches at the Financial Services Ireland Conference anyway.

At a time when public sector workers and government are almost uniformly pilloried in the press, this hyperbolic enthusiasm for a single high profile public servant appears all the more unusual.

The regulator is presented as the singular solution to the crisis that resulted from Ireland’s unique version of capitalism. The “straight-talking” “no-nonsense” gunslinger is portrayed by the media much as your typical Hollywood Western hero might be written into a script. The “polite, occasionally diplomatic, but mostly just blunt” former Chief Executive of the Bermuda Monetary Authority “rode in to clean up the town,” firstly “disarming the critics with his openness” before “shooting straight from the hip.”

The use of the metaphor is pervasive. While some journalists don’t directly refer to him as the sheriff, they apply common idioms that resonate similarly. We are told Elderfield “sticks to his guns” and “takes-no-prisoners.” The enemies he has been tasked with “eliminating our beloved banking bad boys,” the country’s formerly “untouchable” financial gangsters.

Unlike “his hapless predecessor” he has no interest in winning friends: “No doubt he will not now be wined and dined by the Irish Bankers Federation.” Displaying only his keenness to break-up the “cosy relationship” previously enjoyed between regulators and bankers.

Other journalists have taken to using strikingly religious overtones: Elderfield is a “ray of hope” who’s enemies invariably “bow” to him. One notable headline read: “The Gospel according to Matthew.” The irony of which wouldn’t be lost on Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman who described the driving ideology behind financial deregulation since the Reagan era as “free-market fundamentalism.”

The man himself is described in much the same way successful businessmen like Michael O’Leary and Sean Quinn are portrayed in the kind of articles found in Sunday newspapers – the ones which pay tribute to their tumultuous careers. Quinn for instance is portrayed as a “man from humble beginnings who has created a multi-billion-euro empire,” “a doughty opponent of establishment monopolies.” In 2007 Quinn invested €570 million in Anglo Irish Bank, the “anti-establishment” bank. Quinn, we are told, made “business buzz” (The Quinn family currently “owe Anglo Irish Bank €2.8 billion”).

Similarly, Elderfield is painted as an unassuming character, a “slightly gangly, ever-so-polite Englishman called Matthew,” with a “toothy smile and mild manner.” He is described as wearing a “well- cut grey suit, light blue shirt and quiet striped tie.” If a journalist wanted to stress the point they might say he is “tall, fit, tidy, polite and perfectly groomed.” Yet beneath this reserved exterior lies “a man who means business,” he is not afraid to “flex his muscles” in public, but prefers to “talk-quietly-and-carry-a-big-stick.”

Highlighting this fanfare is not intended to undermine the importance of financial regulation, after all there is little point having laws if there is no responsible person around to enforce them. It is simply an attempt to understand why the media can be so easily worked into a fever about certain things and, in this case, certain people.

One of the principle aims of regulation, aside from oversight, enforcement and prosecution, is to maintain confidence in the financial system. What better way for a government to overturn a crisis of legitimacy, in itself and the financial system that bolsters it’s power, than by restoring public confidence in that system?

The media too could be seen to be taking advantage of a prime opportunity to shirk the record of the last decade, where it failed to take the worlds of politics, banking and business to task over their intrinsic “irregularities“. A history that is peppered with embarrassing moments of deference to power, such as the Irish Independent’s hard hitting interview with the now disgraced Sean Fitzpatrick, where the question was asked “If you had a spare million?” to which he answered quite proudly “I’d do something for the homeless; provide day-time facilities.”

With that in mind, the idolisation of “Sheriff Elderfield” begins to make sense. The appointment and support of Elderfield, does much more than “show the world that the wild west of European finance has been tamed and is now a safe place to invest and do business,” it effectively provides a new facade behind which the business of politics can go on unchanged.

The only wing of the establishment to make official grumblings on the occasion of his appointment was the financial sector, who are, understandably, concerned about the implications of someone potentially applying the rule of law as it is written.

More recently ruminations from government have surfaced, albeit from rather more forthright party members. Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East Ned O’Keeffe addressed the Dáil in the last weeks saying: “There is nothing worse than overregulation. It brings further mischief, contempt and blackguardism because people will find their way around it. We have seen that occurring.” A blunt reminder of the “tacit discouragement” of regulatory “determination and tenacity” by senior politicians in the preceding decade.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Cooper responded to this inversion, seemingly without irony: “He seems to think so little of those who run Irish banks, and by extension the Irish mentality, that he believes they would concentrate on beating, bending or breaking the rules rather than doing the right things.” A strange statement from a journalist who has not been shy to voice condemnation of Irish banking, referring to “arrogance“, “recklessness” and “criminality” as their principle economic contributions.

On the other hand Noam Chomsky has described the history of financial regulation, in broadly similar tones to Krugman, as a continual effort by business to undermine the regulatory apparatus, such that it is inevitably overtaken by the systems it is designed to regulate:

“The deregulation mania of the last 30 years, based on fundamentally religious concepts about efficient markets is gone… So there will be reconstruction of some regulatory apparatus, but the history of this is pretty clear and understandable. Regulatory systems tend to be taken over by the industries they regulate. It’s natural, they have concentrated power, concentrated capital and enormous political influence.” [Noam Chomsky in interview with Paul Jay, The Real News Network]

This “deregulation mania” was obviously not an American phenomenon. As Krugman writes, “the most striking similarity between Ireland and America was “regulatory imprudence”” driven by ideology. An ideology that led the formerly popular figure Sean Fitzpatrick to pronounce, “There are those who appear to want to establish Ireland as the perfect model in corporate policing and regulation . . . But why? What has been done here over the past decade that demands such a reaction?” at none other than the Irish Times Property Advertising Awards 2005.

We are again beginning to see hints of this again – the regulator’s move to put Quinn Insurance into administration was followed by large scale public and private lobbying of government ministers, the mobilisation of thousands of workers to protest and what amounted to a coordinated PR barrage against the regulator in the press. The obvious question arises: If the country was not embroiled in the current economic predicament and if public awareness did not extend to the complexities of insurance solvency ratios would these protests have been met differently by both press and government?

Enda Kenny the leader of the opposition has also recently cautioned “against an over-regulation of the property sector,” in response comments made NAMA’s chief executive Brendan McDonagh, who told an Oireachtas committee the agency would go after developers “tooth and nail” for debts.

Further afield the warning signs are growing, Paul Krugman commented this week: “after taking a big hit in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, financial-industry profits are soaring again. It seems all too likely that the industry will soon go back to playing the same games that got us into this mess in the first place.”

It’s quite clear then, no matter whether your Financial Regulator chews tobacco, looks good in a Stetson or walks on water, as appointed representatives they remain susceptible to the influence of higher powers.

Not until the structure of our economic and political institutions and the ideological orthodoxy that underpins them are challenged will we ensure history does not repeat itself. The media for their part have shown an unwillingness or inability in this regard.

 

[Title courtesy of Will Hanafin, ‘Thank the banks for really great villains‘, Sunday Independent, 25/04/10]

Favouring the Rich – A Media Prerogative?

“[The ruling class has constructed] two parallel universes, one in which there seems to be an endless amount of money that can be put into the banking system and another where we have to attack the blind, the disabled, children and the unemployed. It’s remarkable how successful this crude strategy of distracting and dividing people has been.” [Fintan O’Toole, Tonight with Vincent Browne]

The media response to last week’s ‘cowardly‘ ‘budget from Hell‘ has been suitably contradictory and best summed up by the Sunday Independent Editorial writer who described it as ‘courageous masochism‘. While commentators are for the most part agreed that the budget, which focused almost entirely on cutting public sector spending, specifically spending on social welfare and public servant pay, was ‘tough medicine‘, the overriding sentiment is one of satisfaction.

Noel Whelan writing in the Irish Times praised the Taoiseach, “for carrying his Cabinet, his party and his Dail majority through for these necessary draconian measures.” Stephen Collins gave tribute “to the skill with which the public was softened up for the measure and the way it was packaged and delivered.” The Editor summed up the official line on the “harshest budget in the history of the State,” describing it as “courageous, bold, above party politics, above sectional interest and appears to have put the country first.

The Independent too, while not as openly celebratory, editorialised their feelings under the headline ‘Cowen finally walks the walk‘, writing, “despite being probably the most unpopular [leader] in the history of the state, [he] is managing to get a lot done,” with only one small reservation: “This week’s strong start could be undermined by any weakening of resolve.”

The Irish Examiner’s Jim Power on the other hand had little time to celebrate the forgone conclusion, being too busy looking forward to the next round of cuts: “Despite the harsh nature of the budget, there is still a lot of pain to come…Some measures to stimulate employment would have been welcome, but we can’t have everything.

A convergence of opinion Garret FitzGerald was surprisingly oblivious to. Writing in the Irish Times the former Fine Gael Taoiseach protested, “no one is actively celebrating the achievement of a further €4 billion fiscal adjustment.” The reader taking for granted he had accidentally omitted the word ‘fantastic’.

In light of the comment above by Fintan O’Toole, author of the much revered ‘Ship of Fools’ and, some might say conflictingly, Assistant Editor of the Irish Times, it may be instructive to look back at the media’s build up coverage to the budget in order to discover whether the media played a role in affirming the ruling class’s “crude strategy of distracting and dividing people.”

There are two prominent features of the reporting in the two weeks leading up to the budget, the first of which is that the nature of the budget had been apparently predetermined, as Jim Power’s comments highlight. The cut of €4 billion was a forgone conclusion and the areas where those billions were to be ‘saved‘ lay in public service pay and social welfare, the ‘big targets‘ according to the Independent. The Government, readers were told, could not “afford to undershoot the €4 billion target.

The second is that the media were fiercely supportive of the cuts and this support manifested itself in strongly worded calls for Brian Cowen and the political establishment to ‘walk the walk’. The budget provided an opportunity for “clear leadership and good example,” a chance “to resist pressure from vested interests” and “a time for the Government to lead public opinion in the national interest.” “The media,” according to Matt Cooper writing in the Irish Examiner, did “not want to see him fail.”

Other journalists went further still, declaring a state of war: “Decks cleared for budget,” with calls for the Taoiseach to “stick to his guns” and “face down unions” at a “career-defining line in the sand.

The symptoms of this perceived lack of political manliness were also made abundantly clear, “tax increases are the last resort of weak government;” “the easy option” according to the Irish Times. While the “weakness and indecision” in entering talks with the unions hinted he had “appeared to lose his nerve,” raising “question marks about his continued leadership.” Their eventual collapse saved him from “a political disaster.”

This flirtation with union negotiation, which according to Stephen Collins “exasperated even some of his most loyal supporters,” gave rise to a popular euphemism among journalists, again intended to question the leaders courage, or perhaps his sweet tooth: “There may have been no fudge but some of his colleagues certainly believed they were looking at the beginnings of one;” “Government sources made it clear there was no similar fudge in the offing to avert cuts in child benefit or social welfare rates;” “a fudge could not be ruled out.” As the talk’s ultimately ended in failure, the insult became a warning, “let’s not fudge it next week,” “there is no longer room for mere fudge.”

Of course Cowen did rise to the challenge, implementing the desired cuts and declaring “war on the poor” according to Fintan O’Toole – writing in the Irish Times in one of a small minority of examples of dissenting journalism. Upon fulfilling this call for ‘leadership’ with the ‘draconian’ budget Cowen and his Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan were appropriately rewarded for their “intellectual rigour” and “political determination and courage” in facing “down the trade unions.” The budget was hailed as their “watershed moment,” though one journalist lamented that “the compliments of future historians for addressing the economic crisis will be of little comfort.”

As mentioned above, the nature of the budget had been predetermined long before the details of “one of the most leaked budgets in history” made it into the newspapers. In the weeks ahead of the budget journalists’ time was dominated by search for new and inventive ways to cut towards the magic €4 billion target. As the Irish Times’ Pat McArdle put it, “it is always tempting to play God and outline one’s personal budget.” A temptation he fulfilled seven days later: “What savings can we expect from falling staff numbers over the medium term? What is the minimum size of the public sector required to run the country? Will a property tax be necessary? Will further pay or social welfare cuts be required? Will capital spending have to be eliminated completely?”

Writing in the Irish Times John O’Hagan reiterated the “widespread agreement among independent commentators” that the case for cutting the “over paid and inefficient” public sector was “almost unanswerable.” Epitomising the success of what Gene Kerrigan called the government’s “media team-players” who never fail to depict “the public service as a “bloated” entity, overpaid and lazy.”

An Irish Times Editorial writer declared, “People want the Government to…introduce a budget next week with €4 billion in savings so that we can start believing in ourselves again,” while also intimating that anyone who disagrees doesnt “live in the real world.” There was, we were consistently assured, “general agreement that a €4 billion package is needed.”

Yet an Irish Times/Behaviour Attitudes poll published less than two weeks before the budget found that “more than two-thirds of those surveyed were opposed to welfare cuts, while some 56 per cent said they oppose [public sector] pay cuts.” Clearly then, a general agreement had been made without the consent of the Irish public, a general agreement of the ruling class perhaps.

Alternative budgetary proposals, such as that designed to engender a stimulus plan were for the most part ignored or treated as an after thought. Where this infrequent consideration did arise, it was mentioned in parting, at the end of articles. Even then, the stimulus plans offered were rudimentary at best. One journalist suggested “The car scrappage scheme as an obvious one,” a measure that was in fact introduced to little fanfare: “it will be short term, but may help some businesses survive.” Anything more significant than this was regarded as impossible since “our fiscal position inhibits our capacity to introduce a major stimulus programme.”

Proposals to increase tax where shot down by the likes of Danny McCoy, who insisted that “OECD data show that effective tax rates for high-income earners in Ireland are higher than those in many European countries, including Germany, France and the UK.” A claim which confounded the ‘discovery’ by another journalist “that many lower-income earners pay either no or very little income tax.”

The claim was disputed by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, importantly, five days after the budget: “According to accountants KPMG, the current effective tax rate (including PRSI) for someone earning the equivalent of $100,000 in Ireland is just 34 per cent and for someone on $300,000 it is 44 per cent.” While “unit labour costs (the ratio between productivity and earnings) hardly rose at all in Irish manufacturing between 2000 and 2007. The growth in labour costs last year was slower than the average in the euro zone. This year, unit labour costs are expected to fall by 7 per cent here and rise by 3 per cent in the rest of the euro zone – giving us a relative advantage of 10 per cent this year alone.”

Instead, the debate was as mentioned earlier entirely skewed towards cuts, aimed at increasing ‘competitiveness’ by driving down wages. The assumption being that Irish workers are paid too highly and that “we now need to get back in line, particularly with economies in Europe.” An assumption that is not supported by reputable sources, unquoted in the media. Destatis, the German equivalent of the CSO, found that for all manufacturing employees the “average Irish manufacturing wages are 2.3 percent below the EU-15 average and 17 percent below the average in our peer group (top-10 EU economies).”

During a post budget exchange between Vincent Browne and Fintan O’Toole on Tonight with Vincent Browne, O’Toole described what he saw as a complete failure in responsibility on the part of the media, saying that the media bought into an analysis which says ‘there is no alternative’ (a favoured slogan of former British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). He gave the example of a recent ESRI report on subsidies for Irish pensions, which indicated that the introduction of pension relief at a standard rate could bring in a billion Euros, yet there was not a single piece of discussion of this in the Irish media.

Browne asked in response: “Why did that not get headlines in the Irish Times?”

To which O’Toole limply explained: “I think it is because the narrative has been shaped around the fact we are vastly over taxed, which is completely untrue and that wages are far too high, which is also completely untrue. Anything that doesn’t fit into that narrative doesn’t strike people as being news.”

The great irony about this clamour to find ‘savings’, to cut public expenditure and to increase the burden on the poor, is NAMA, the National Asset Management Agency. Set up to take property development-related loans (amounting to an estimated €54 billion) off banks’ balance sheets, NAMA, as one commentator put it, is designed to “overpay for dud assets” in an effort to “prop up insolvent private banks.”

Yet in the 10 days leading up to the Dail vote on the legislation, the media build-up was what you might call mute. Of the dozen or so opinion and analysis articles published between the Irish Examiner, the Irish Independent and the Irish Times, the strongest worded criticism was, “the banks’ fetid loan books” have the “potential to wreck us all.” Somewhat predictably this criticism came only in the context that the public finances have just as much ‘potential’.

Writing on the Anglo Irish fiasco in the Irish Examiner Ivan Yates admitted, “The taxpayer is likely to have to fork out up to €10bn to clear up the mess. NAMA is scheduled to take €28bn of their €70bn loan book.” Plainly, Yates had summed up the massive economic burden one relatively small business venture had condemned the Irish public to bear. Yet in a deftly designed about turn, Yates declared, we “must move on from the blame game and convulsions of public anger” and act to rebuild what his colleague called “this bruised, misused and ransomed country” by “confronting the unsustainability of our public finances and restore economic competitiveness.”

Yates’ position typifies the general media consensus on the economic crisis. While it is widely recognised that a rich elite caused the downturn, the general public should ultimately pay for the recovery.

So where the banking bailout is concerned, there are no calls for ‘leadership in the national interest’, no calls for a ‘war on corrupt financial institutions’, no calls for the slashing the pay of all the ‘greedy, incompetent bankers’ and most importantly no calls ‘to resist pressure from vested interests’.

This “complete failure in responsibility on the part of the media,” paired with the media’s central role in cheerleading the property bubble makes increasingly clear that Noam Chomsky’s observation on the role of the US media is just as applicable to Ireland:

The U.S. mass media, far from performing an autonomous and adversarial role in U.S. society, actively frame issues and promote news stories that serve the needs and concerns of the elite.”

Iran vs Honduras – A subtle difference

The furore over Mahmoud Ahmajinedad’s apparent success in last months Iranian presidential elections tells us a few important things about how the dominant media feels democratic deficiencies, alleged or otherwise, should be reported.

According to the Irish Times Iran’s “suffocating theocracy”1 sustained a crisis of legitimacy “after it lost the trust of millions of Iranians”2 following the “stolen elections”3 of 12th June.

Readers were warned that the continued protests against the result posed serious risks for “opposition sympathisers, faced with the prospect of more broken heads, and worse.”4 The regime had “reverted to barbarism”5 – opting to corroborate the voting slip with the “baton and teargass.” Yet, despite this threat of violence, “tens of thousands again returned to the streets in defiance of an interior ministry ban,”6 in a display of “resistance”7 that has “rocked the country.”8

Opinion pieces recounted personal stories of the plight of dissenters within the “democratic rebellion”9: one “highly regarded social scientist” stood “baselessly accused of working with a US research organisation to foment a “velvet revolution” to overthrow the Iranian government,”10 while another was gunned down “collapsing like a young faun shot by poachers”11 as she watched street protests.

Clearly the possibility of election fraud is considered a very serious matter, offering, according to the Irish Times, a “case study in the argument between interventionists and those who say political change must be allowed to develop autonomously within authoritarian regimes.”12 Important enough then to potentially justify compromising a country’s sovereignty.

Yet, at the very same time the media magnifying glass was coinciding with US gun sights by focusing on Iran, a much clearer case of repression was occurring in Latin America. This time though, readers were spared personal accounts of violence and imprisonment, they were not compelled by footage of youthful street protests and more importantly, they were offered no clear cut narrative of good vs evil, democratic vs autocratic. In this instance, anti-democratic violence is somehow mitigated by spurious justification.

Last month “amid the rattle of gunfire”13 a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected government of Honduras. The President, Manuel Zelaya, was kidnapped and exiled to Costa Rica. He currently resides across the border from Honduras in Nicaragua, where he is attempting to negotiate the terms of his return.

The military response to ongoing protests that followed the coup has resulted in a number of confirmed deaths, with scores injured, 45 in just one single day.14 The OAS, the EU, the UN and numerous world leaders have publicly condemned the coup and sought to put pressure on the coup leaders to relinquish their grip on power and allow the elected president to return.

All this has been reported by the Irish media, in so far as copying and pasting wire stories constitutes reporting. Surprisingly though, the passion and arguably unfounded certainty of the reporting on Iran is no where in evidence this time round.

The Irish Times’ first article on the coup led with the following overview: “The Honduran Supreme Court said it had ordered the army to oust Mr Zelaya today because of his unlawful plan to hold a public vote on presidential re-election.”15 Another Irish Times article reported that Zelaya was thrown out of the country after he “upset the army by trying to win re-election.”16 The Irish Independent too, described “a left-winger overthrown by a military-led coup for trying to extend his time in office.”17

From the outset then, the narrative is skewed in favour of the coup leaders: the “Supreme Court” ordered the removal of Mr Zelaya when “fears were confirmed”18 that the president intended to hold a public vote on term limits. In fact, the vote was “designed to assess the public mood for a constitutional referendum that would allow Honduran presidents to serve more than one term.”19 A constitutional change that Zelaya could not have availed of since even “if the November referendum had been held and passed, the same ballot would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped down in January…The most that could be said is that if a new constitution were eventually approved, Zelaya might have been able to run for a second term at some future date.”20

Mass protests and mass strikes followed the coup, causing the military to respond with a violently imposed curfew, under the cover of widespread censorship. Yet far from highlighting the oppressiveness of this prison state control the media reported that the coup leaders had put the country “under lockdown” as they “attempted to return the country to a state of order.”21 RTE uncritically voiced the concerns of the coup leaders, now referred to as the “interim government,” who initiated the curfew simply to counter “’open threats by groups who seek to provoke disturbances and disorder…and to protect the people and their goods.'”22

The Irish Examiner went to great lengths to manufacture some semblance of balance in order to justify the existence of an “interim government” as opposed a military backed regime. Describing a “showdown” between sides – the Examiner pitted Mr Zelaya’s supporters, “mostly the country’s poor and middle class” against “the largely well-to-do backers of the coup that ousted him.”23 A more lopsided balancing act would be hard to come by.

On 6th July an attempted return by President Zelaya was scuppered when his plane was refused permission to land. Protesters who had gathered to welcome the exiled president were instead greeted at the main airport in the capital Tegucigalpa by military gunfire, leaving two dead. Yet, unlike the Iranian “young faun shot by poachers” media reports chose to focus on the excuses for killing unarmed protesters. They were “trying to break down a perimeter fence” and attempting to “storm the runway”25 explained the Irish Independent, devoting only a single sentence to the murdered protesters. RTE, similarly, described how troops “fended off”26 thousands of Mr Zelaya’s supporters.

Even the basic facts of the coup were to be disputed. Not until half way through the first Irish Times report on the coup does the reader hear the perspective of the elected leader, even then, his account is somehow put in doubt: “The president told Venezuela-based Telesur television station that he was “kidnapped”27 by soldiers.” The word “kidnapped” placed in quotation marks, as if a president led by soldiers to plane in his pyjamas and transported out of his own country against his will did not reasonably constitute kidnapping.

The next day the Irish Times expanded on the wire story, filling in some gaps, and inadvertently evoking images of an unappreciative Late Late Show holiday winner: “troops came for Mr Zelaya, an ally of socialist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, around dawn and took him from his residence.” He was then “whisked away”28 to Costa Rica.

Even the choice of complementary facts accompanying reports appears to lend misplaced credibility to the ousters, for instance one report ended with the loaded factoid: “Recent opinion polls indicate public support for Mr Zelaya has fallen as low as 30 per cent.”29 Marking perhaps the first time opinion polls have been used to justify armed takeover of government. A fact that must have sent shivers up Brian Cowen’s spine.

Despite this lacklustre reporting style, the gravity of the situation is not lost on many reporters. The coup is recognised as “a key test for democracy in Latin America.”30 A simple question, according to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of “whether democracy in Honduras continues.”31 Yet opinion writers have not been as expectedly vocal in calling for US mediation and / or intervention, depending on their political bent. Despite the fact the “United States still has 600 troops stationed at Soto Cano air base,”32 and more interestingly, that the two generals who led the coup were themselves trained by the US military in the infamous US School of the Americas.33

Historical context too is limited to vague and misleading comments such as: “Honduras was a staunch US ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight left-wing guerrillas,”34 which falsely indicates US support for Central American democracy. In reality this supposedly benevolent alliance was in fact the operation of turning “Honduras into a base for the US attack against [the popular left wing Sandinista government of] Nicaragua.”35

And while journalists go to great pains to mention that Zelaya is a friend of the “radical”36 “socialist”37 president and US Latin America region archenemy Hugo Chavez, they somehow fail to mention the US backed attempt to oust Chavez in 2002.38

These subtle differences in reporting between Iran and Honduras expose to some small degree how a history of western intervention, delineated by outright support or passive acceptance of countless coups against popular governance, can be repeated over and over without public outrage. A nuance that is best summed up, again with continuing predictability, by “the authoritative and independent commentator and analyst on important events,”39 the Irish Times:

“There is a conflict of rights at stake. Which one should have precedence? – defending the existing single four-year term or allowing an existing president to sound out voters’ opinions on making a constitutional amendment so that he can seek a second one?”40

Clearly then, if the ‘paper of record’ deems that a proposed constitutional amendment paired with low opinion ratings spells military coup, Brian Cowen should really be packing for a few weeks in the sun.

The Climate Change ‘Debate’ – Part 2

“ExxonMobil is the world’s most profitable corporation. Its sales now amount to more than $1bn a day. It makes most of this money from oil, and has more to lose than any other company from efforts to tackle climate change. To safeguard its profits, ExxonMobil needs to sow doubt about whether serious action needs to be taken on climate change. But there are difficulties: it must confront a scientific consensus as strong as that which maintains that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV causes Aids. So what’s its strategy?” [George Monbiot, The denial industry, The Guardian, 19 September 2006]

In Part 1 of this MediaShot we discussed how the media can often skew debate in their search for a balancing argument or ‘the other side of the story’, specifically in the case of climate change. Ken O’Shea, RTE Editor of Current Affairs defended RTE’s decision to challenge the scientific consensus on the basis that ‘dissenting voices…feed and inform the debate’, allowing ‘people to make up their own minds’.

While there is some truth to this, presenting a ‘daring challenge to the consensus’ on a respected current affairs programme has the potential to undermine current pressure to tackle climate change and justify inaction.

We responded:

Ken,

Thanks for taking the time to respond, it’s much appreciated.

At no point was the documentary ‘Not Evil Just Wrong’ described as controversial, in fact the introduction to the programme claimed the documentary makers had ‘dared’ to challenge ‘these kind of scares’, framing them as courageous mavericks tackling a ‘scare’*.

Assuming though that the intention was to paint Mr. McAleer’s stance as controversial, the expectation of an informed debate on global warming was not forthcoming, at least on one side. Mr. McAleer was actually unwilling to discuss global warming at all. When asked by Dr. Hickey to focus on the issue Mr. McAleer replied “Let’s not talk about climate change” and this was his position throughout the programme, where he discussed everything from BSE and DDT to former US Vice President Al Gore.

When he did refer to climate change he did so only in dismissive terms, such as ‘global warming hysteria’ and ‘flawed science’. At no point did he challenge the science. And since the documentary has not been released, viewers are none the wiser as to whether there’s any actual evidence in the documentary.

The underlying purpose of Mr. McAleer’s appearance was to demonise and ridicule ‘anti-development’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ environmentalists, who see ‘poverty as a lifestyle choice’ – a platform he has been offered by RTE on several occasions, when he has a film to promote. On the eve of the release of his last documentary ‘Mine Your Own Business’ RTE spliced clips of his film with footage of the Corrib protests. So it would seem that to some extent at least RTE and Mr. McAleer have similar positions.

My complaint is not that there shouldn’t be debate over the science of global warming if there is a serious debate to be had, and which I don’t believe there currently is, but that there is little value in the spectacle of a scientist forced to defend the environmental movement against charges of wanting to keep the poor poor – other than to cause confusion and sow doubt over the issue.

The implementation of ‘balance’ in this instance, required that climate ‘sceptics’ be consulted on issues they have demonstrated no authority on, and even when they are quite obviously compromised by financial links to the carbon industry.

I appreciate the fact you brought George Monbiot over by ferry, but to watch this programme on RTE.ie viewers have to watch an advertisement for the Opel Insignia, repeatedly, depending on the quality of your connection, so perhaps there’s somewhat of a contradiction in RTE’s environmental policy.

Best wishes,

David Manning

And Ken then closed the feedback loop:

I don’t agree with all your points there David (and I’m not responsible for the ads on the website) but I’ll take your views on board. Remember though, Prime Time is a forum for topical debate and different ideas. I think any reasonable person watching that item would be well able to make their own mind out about the merits of the arguments being put forward. And we will always retain the option of bringing the odd contrarian on, to keep things interesting.

Regards,

Ken O’Shea

While this may not answer all our questions we greatly appreciate RTE’s honest attempt to engage with viewers. Institutions such as the Irish Times and the Irish Independent have no such relationship with their readers. While they often print critical letters in the back pages, they are entirely unwilling to have their own reporting held to account.

Another Agenda?

This Prime Time debate obviously had little to do with climate change. It did however allow thinly disguised space for another debate. This debate centres on the intentions and motivations of the ‘environmental movement’.

 

As in 2006, when RTE invited Mr. McAleer to promote his documentary supporting the exploitation of mining resources in northern Romania (and funded by the mining company positioned to exploit those resources) the agenda was one of demonising environmentalists. Mr. McAleer’s claim that he is a ‘reformed’ environmentalist makes his scepticism all the more intriguing for a media obsessed with ‘balance’.

American political scientist Norman Finkelstein commented on this phenomenon of the apostate, or ideological turncoat:

“Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated, apostates almost always make their corrective leap in that direction, discovering the virtues of the status quo…If apostasy weren’t conditioned by power considerations, one would anticipate roughly equal movements in both directions.  But that’s never been the case.  The would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power’s magnetic field, rarely away.” [On Christopher Hitchens, The Rise and Fall of Palestine]

And so it is exactly the case with Phelim McAleer. He is now consulted as an authority precisely because he has turned his back on a position unpopular with industry, to one where industry finances his projects.

This corrective leap towards the considerations of power is deemed by the mainstream media as a virtue – though it’s “hard to figure why an acknowledgment of former errors should enhance one’s current credibility.” Apostates are nonetheless highly regarded when they revert from positions unpopular with the mainstream to ones that defend the status quo.

Environmentalism, the new religion

“Is it just selfishness on the part of a few people?” [Miriam O’Callahan, Prime Time, 5th October 2006]

In October 2006 RTE Prime Time presenter Miriam O’Callahan asked this question of Dr. Mark Garavan, the Shell to Sea campaign spokesperson, referring to their six year protest against Shell’s planned construction of an onshore high pressure gas pipeline in the north west of Ireland.

In November 2006 a Prime Time segment titled ‘Environmentalism in Irish Life’ reported on Phelim McAleer’s recently released documentary ‘Mine Your Own Business’ (the film was also reviewed by the Irish Times and very favourably so by the Irish independent).

The film claimed to expose what it called the ‘dark side of environmentalism’ and the ‘campaigns that want to keep people in poverty’. The RTE report appeared to uncritically accept the thesis, implying that the Shell to Sea campaign provided an ‘echo of the film’s theme’. Prime Time correspondent Donagh Diamond suggested that in their Celtic Tiger affluence campaigners have failed to realize the benefits of the project to others and “don’t require anything as basic as jobs.” [Donagh Diamond, Prime Time 2 November 2006]

In the following studio discussion Phelim McAleer referred to the ‘new religion of environmentalism’ and to co-panellist and current Minister for Communications, Energy & Natural Resources Eamon Ryan (at the time an objector to Shell’s gas project) as its new ‘high priest’.

He said environmentalists are ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-jobs’, they would ‘ban the car’ and ‘they are killing children by opposing development’. Fundamentally he charged: ‘they don’t want humanity to advance’.

Presenter Mark Little attempted to make the argument locally relevant, suggesting that the Corrib gas campaigners ignore the “energy needs of the country,” thereby reinforcing the frame that environmentalists are not concerned about the needs of people.

Now two years later RTE and the Irish Times are promoting Phelim McAleer’s latest documentary, in which he again refers disparagingly to what he calls ‘neo-colonialist’ environmental campaigners:

“Who anointed free earth, save the earth, global warming crowd, anti-DDT crowd, that the blacks and other third world people suffer with malaria and mosquitoes and so we can save birds, I can’t believe Al Gore has greater regard for people, real people.” [Quoted interviewee, Not Evil Just Wrong, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

“There is a lot of anti-capitalism, anti-development people behind this global warming hysteria, they don’t like industrialisation, they don’t like capitalism, they don’t like people of the third world getting developed.” [Phelim McAleer, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

And again Miriam O’Callaghan plays devils advocate:

“There is a perception that environmentalists care more about fish eggs than children and the lives of children. That doesn’t mean the science is wrong.” [Miriam O’Callaghan, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

It is hard to imagine an RTE presenter commenting to a representative of the oil industry: “There is a perception that Big Oil cares more about crude than children and the lives of children”, even though it would be much closer to the truth.

The ‘other side of the story’

Whether it is climate change, nuclear proliferation or the case for war, the fundamental flaw in the implementation of ‘balance’ is that where the consensus fails to support the dominant power structure, the mainstream media often search for some mitigating argument or point of view, however unconvincing.

So accusations of nuclear proliferation are resurrected to balance statements of compliance by international authorities, allegations of clandestine warfare are echoed uncritically to balance military reports that weapons are not linked to enemy states and industry funded experts are consulted to balance evidence that urgent action is needed to stop the earth dangerously warming.

Whether this is a susceptibility to the PR tactics of government and big business or simply an alignment of common interests is difficult to say. But one thing is not in doubt; this ‘traditional pillar of good journalism’ supports the already disproportionate balance of power and does a disservice to readers expecting reporting that is fair, impartial, accurate and challenging.”

Suggested Action

Please open the debate with journalists and editors on these issues:

Complaints complaints@rte.ie

Letters to the Editor, Irish Times lettersed@irish-times.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.

 

 

 

* The term ‘scare’ was actually introduced by Mr. McAleer. The RTE introduction was: “dared to challenge the consensus.”

The Climate Change ‘Debate’ – Part 1

“This debate will go on and on. It’s been an interesting discussion and hopefully we’ll come back to it again.” [Miriam O’Callaghan, RTE’s Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

Miriam O’Callaghan concluding a recent Prime Time segment ‘Questions raised over global warming’, making the surprising claim that there exists a ‘debate’ over the science of climate change.

All the more surprising given the preceding segment raised no questions about the validity of the science. It offered no new discoveries and only half heartedly revisited old criticisms.

But ‘Ireland’s flagship current affairs programme’ saw fit to hold a debate, so perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye. [Star of the Day, RTE Guide]

Balancing Act

Prime Time, RTE and their broadsheet counterparts consider themselves opinion leaders and shapers. They present themselves as conduits for informed analysis and claim to ask the ‘hard questions’, sometimes making for ‘tie-loosening telly’.

In this edition of Prime Time, RTE sought to satisfy ‘one of the traditional pillars of good journalism’, the need for a ‘balancing’ argument – to counteract a possible perception of bias towards coverage of climate change science.

In doing so RTE have sought out ‘sceptics’, unqualified in the field and who have been in the pay of an industry whose survival depends on undermining the scientific consensus, to ‘balance’ the ‘debate’.

US media watch dog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting explained the potential pitfalls of this balancing act:

“By giving equal time to opposing views, the major mainstream newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming. Certainly there is a need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served. Meanwhile, the world dangerously warms.” [Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias, Jules Boykoff and Maxwell Boykoff, FAIR, December 2004]

A judgement reiterated by professor of Social Sciences, Media and Communication, Sharon Beder:

“In their attempts to be balanced on a scientific story, journalists may use any opposing view even when it has little scientific credibility in the wider scientific community. This can be very misleading. In the case of global warming, the fossil fuel industry has taken advantage of this convention by funding a handful of dissidents and demanding that they are given equal media coverage despite their poor standing in the scientific community.” [The Age, Caving in to ideological critics, October 18 2006]

Don’t get too technical or I’ll lose my audience

Global warming sceptics are most likely not professionals in the field of climate science. They are however suitably adept in the art of polemics. And debates lend themselves to polemics far more readily than they do to facts, making the climate expert’s task far more difficult than the sceptics.

Simply giving the appearance of wielding facts is often just as good as, and arguably far more effective than, inundating listeners with complex theories and formulae. For instance, the following exchange took place during the ‘debate’, the only discussion of climate change in the whole programme as it happens:

Dr. Kieran Hickey: “Global temperature has risen 0.2 degrees centigrade every decade since 1980, in Ireland it’s actually 0.4 degrees.”

Phelim McAleer: “But Kieran must know that in the last 13 years it has not warmed up on the earth.”

Dr. Kieran Hickey: “If you take each individual year it does show change. If you look at the underlining trend you can see clearly that that the underlying trend is upwards.”

Phelim McAleer: “Two minutes ago you said in every decade since 1980 its gone up by 0.2, you’re now agreeing that in the last thirteen years it hasn’t warmed at all.”

Dr. Kieran Hickey: “I haven’t said that at all, the warming trend is there, you can’t compare the decadal figure with the yearly annual variability.”

From this exchange it may appear to the uninitiated, and no doubt even the initiated, that Dr. Hickey was forced to concede the point to Mr. McAleer. That the sceptic had caught the climate expert out; perhaps there are some holes in the science.

But this is obviously not the case, as we’ll see in a moment. The difficulty is that science, and most scientists for that matter, are not ‘designed’ to convey complex information in sound bites – the commodity of mainstream media discourse.

This forced and unnatural succinctness is designed to maintain audience interest, as presenter Miriam O’Callaghan made abundantly clear: [to Dr. Hickey] “Don’t get too technical or I’ll lose my audience.” This imbalance of discourse lends itself to the ‘sceptic’, who need only question a certain complex part of the thesis in the knowledge that the expert will have insufficient time or audience attention to refute the claim.

A Seed of Doubt

It might be useful to address Mr McAleer’s claim to show just how complicated it can be to tackle some of the more disingenuous arguments against climate change. To do this it may be simplest to use a graph. The following graph shows the ‘Global average temperature anomaly 1975-2007‘:

As you can see from the graph the global average temperature measured on a decadal interval between 1998 and 2008, indicated by the highest blue line, shows a temperature increase of only 0.09°C. However, as Dr. Hickey says, you cannot compare the decadal figure with the yearly figure.

Depending on the interval you choose to measure, be it 10 year, 8 year or 2 year the trend may change. If you were to take a 2 year interval you may find global temperatures decreasing in some of the two year periods, but it would be impossible to say on the basis of this that the underlying trend has not been upwards. This trend, indicated by the red line, shows that the climate has been warming consistently since the 1980’s.

This assertion is supported by the vast majority of climate experts:

The fact that “over the last ten years, global temperatures have warmed more slowly than the long-term trend…does not mean that global warming has slowed down or even stopped. It is entirely consistent with our understanding of natural fluctuations of the climate within a trend of continued long-term warming.” [Met Office, Global warming goes on, 23 September 2008]

Unfortunately for the scientist, he is bound by certain terms of reference and modes of discourse that the polemicist or sceptic is not. Dr. Hickey is compelled to concede that the decadal figure does not reflect the magnitude of warming in the underlying trend.

However, this is no way concedes support for Mr. McAleer’s contention, it is simply to say that if you isolate smaller arbitrary parts of a systematic analysis you can find data which conflicts with the underlying trend.As Harry McGee commented in his article on Mr. McAleer’s forthcoming film “None of these arguments are new.” And yet for some reason the serious, ‘quality’, liberal media, which provide the ‘best journalism in Ireland, seem inclined to continually entertain them. [Film-makers taking on our ‘global warming hysteria’, The Irish Times, 15th November 2008]

A Contrarian Policy

We wrote to RTE to question their judgment in hosting this debate:

Dear Sir/Madam, [sent to complaints@rte.ie]

The segment titled ‘Questions raised over global warming’ on the Tuesday 25th November edition of Prime Time, including excerpts from the as yet unreleased documentary ‘Not Evil Just Wrong’ and discussion between Dr Kieran Hickey and Phelim McAleer, was designed to lead viewers to believe there is an ongoing ‘debate’ over the validity of the science underpinning the theory of Global Warming.

Presenter Miriam O’Callaghan concluded the segment commenting: “This debate will go on and on. It’s been an interesting discussion and hopefully we’ll come back to it again.”

The programme was misleading in that, despite what the title of the segment suggested, the former corporate documentary maker Phelim McAleer [Mine Your Own Business, Phelim McAleer’s last documentary was funded by Canadian mining company, Gabriel Resources] did not raise any valid questions over the science of global warming. He simply reverted to a fundamentally flawed and reductionist line of reasoning which alleges that since the proposed solution to global warming is a decrease in carbon emissions, moves by environmentalists to encourage that necessity evidenced an anti-development, anti-capitalist motivation and in his view demonstrated a preference for animals over humans.

On the contrary, George Monbiot, a popular and respected figure in the environmental movement (there is obviously no real cohesive movement called the ‘environmental movement’, there are simply millions possibly billions of unconnected or loosely connected people that recognise the negative impact on health and the economy that degradation of the environment will likely have) recently wrote: “Forget the sodding polar bears: this is about all of us.”*

When all the experts agree that urgent, costly and potentially unpopular action is required to combat global warming how can RTE justify presenting discredited opinions as informed debate?

Yours sincerely,

David Manning

Ken O’Shea, RTE Editor of Current Affairs, responded the next day:

David,

Thank you for your email re: Tuesday night’s programme. I’m sorry you disagreed with our choice of story on the night in relation to climate change. However, I disagree with some of the points you raise. First of all, it was made abundantly clear in the studio introduction to the piece that we were intentionally going to hear the other, “controversial”, side of the climate change debate. We made it very, very clear that the vast majority of international scientific opinion believes that climate chance/global warming is a deeply serious reality.

But we also said that there are some people who believe the gravity of the situation may have been overstated. Although you may not agree with that, there are a substantial number of scientific and non-scientific individuals who do not agree with the current consensus on climate change.

We said we were going to show excerpts from a controversial – and we stressed that – documentary which challenged the consensus. Throughout the excerpt, we ran a caption which made it clear that it was not a Prime Time report, but a cut-down of somebody else’s documentary.

And after that, we had a debate with an internationally known Irish scientist who vigorously and coherently challenged all aspects of the filmmakers thesis.

Regular viewers will know that we have extensively covered the climate change issue in recent years, investing considerable resources both and home and abroad in telling what we know to be a vital, urgent and serious issue. We have had many scientific experts – national and international – on our show talking about the gravity of the situation. For instance, a few months back we paid for a ferry (!) ticket for George Monbiot to come over from London to talk about his work.

But one of the major functions of any current affairs operation is to examine all sides of an argument and I think we should always have a little room for dissenting voices on every issue. That feeds and informs the debate. And, crucially, it allows people to make up their own minds, once they are presented with both sides of the argument.

Thanks for taking the time to write to us, audience feedback is critical to what we do.

Regards,

Ken O’Shea

To read Part 2 of this MediaShot follow this link.

* George Monbiot’s point is that projections which suggest the Arctic’s late-summer sea ice is likely to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century is not just a concern for polar bears, it “is about all of us.”

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