Our chattering arts-educated class fails to make the grade

THE ding-dong between the media and politics has been going on for nearly three weeks now, since Pat Rabbitte asked the question on Newstalk, “Where is this constant denigration of politics leading to?”

In truth, it’s less of a ding-dong than a dong-dong. The forum is the media and media own the media so the winner is, you’ve guessed it, the media.

I thought the media could not defend the media any more, but when the weekend newspapers brought another volley of articles in defence of the media, the cork blew out of my bottle.

I have something to say and I’m going to say it. The problem with journalists is not that we’re mean to politicians. It is that we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Considering we know nothing, we do very well. But it’s a big ask. And the ask got bigger in this country when the capitalist system of which we had gaily complained about all our careers came to a shuddering halt in 2008. “Hello?” we said, coming out of our cosy bunkers. “What’s a bond when it’s at home?”

The fact that, apart from a few financial specialists, hardly any of us knew anything about our own financial system was a drawback in our coverage of the financial crash. But it was a drawback we quickly overcame with our storytelling powers.

It was all a conspiracy by the head honchos in the capitalist system we’d been groaning under comfortably all our careers. The banks were bailed out because the politicians were friends with them. Nama was an organisation to protect bankers and developers from the results of their folly. If we let it be established we’d find ourselves with no public transport system except helicopters and no political party except Fianna Fáil.

And who was going to pay for all of it? Joe Soap, that’s who. By no coincidence, Joe Soap is the person who buys newspapers, listens to radio and watches TV. So not surprisingly, Joe Soap gets a free ride in most of the coverage. And given that the politicians were “all the same” it wasn’t long before Joe Soap and the media were working on their own political futures.

This is what prompted Rabbitte’s question: “What is the alternative to politics? Do we want to see the emergence of a strongman? Hand over the running of the country to some sort of dictatorship?”

Fintan O’Toole did indeed suggest the temporary suspension of democracy on RTÉ’s Frontline in Nov 2010. Three unelected negotiators — he suggested banker Michael Somers, Mary Robinson, and businessman Niall Fitzgerald — were to be appointed to negotiate with the troika instead of the government to “restore some pride internationally to this country.”

Then minister Tony Killeen commented wearily that the last time such a suggestion was made (by Shane Ross), the name put forward to serve the people was Seán FitzPatrick. He said that as a politician in those terrible times his job was to keep his head while others were losing theirs and “focus on bridging the gap between our income and our expenditure”.

These humble truths put no dent in the audience’s enthusiasm for the technocrat revolution. In fairness to O’Toole, his point was that once the troika deal was done the election would be meaningless. But an ill-informed and credulous media allowed the electorate to forget the realities of “bridging the gap” and turned what was always going to be a majority for Fine Gael and Labour into a landslide.

They weren’t even spooked by the fact that both parties were prepared to drop confidence motions so that the most draconian budget in the history of the State could pass, before voting against it. They didn’t seem to notice.

Anyone who knew anything knew that the new government was going to do hardly anything differently. Hell, they were even going to run Nama, a bog-standard asset management agency which Joan Burton had brilliantly managed to spin as the Freemasons meet Casino Royale: “Nama could well be the Gubu of the noughties,” she blogged.

But hardly anyone in the media did know anything. So the lies kept coming and people kept believing them and now they are left with a huge sense of anticlimax.

The reason hardly anyone in the media saw through the lies peddled during the general election campaign was because few of them are properly educated. It’s not fair to single people out, but take a look at the biographies of most of the best-known journalists and you’ll find they have journalists’ biographies: Degree or diploma in the humanities and lots of journalism.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with an arts degree. In fact, nobody should be called educated without an arts education. But an arts degree is in itself no qualification for commenting on finance or science.

And we have made a priest class of our arts-educated commentariat. We wouldn’t accept theatre criticism from a farming expert but a theatre expert is expected to know about farming. We don’t sully our arts degrees with sordid details about how the money markets work. According to a tradition which goes deep into European civilisation — and probably goes back to the days when physical work was so hard that you couldn’t do it if you wanted to think — we believe in protecting thinkers from all that is practical.

OUR education system needlessly divides the arts from finance and science and agriculture and all the other disciplines we need to understand to be informed citizens. We are happy to turn out arts graduates who do not know how this country makes the money that paid for their education and don’t care to ask.

People like me. Fit for nothing but journalism. Of course, entrance to journalism should never rely on qualifications but always on native talent. Anyone who makes a success of journalism has a real ability to communicate.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they know anything. They certainly don’t deserve ordination as the priests of the new republic. Especially as their reign is coming to an end. My generation of journalists got on a bus with very fat cushions as it was leaving town and have been hanging on every since. The power, influence, money and respectability which we had, some of us with little reason, will not be there for the next. The internet has seen to that.

The next generation will not have the luxury of being as lazy as the media elite who let the country down so catastrophically both before and after the banking crash.

But for them to be educated enough to understand the world they are meant to interpret we would have to bring revolution to a place where the elites are unmoved: Our education system.

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