MICHAEL CLIFFORD: We all had the economic blinkers on

THE media was all over the news last week, says Michael Clifford.

Economist David McWilliams is considered to have been a dissenting voice during the Celtic Tiger years of alleged plenty.

Pat Rabbitte had a serious cut at RTÉ in the Dáil, accusing the broadcaster of bias in covering the water-charges protest. “RTÉ has acted as a recruiting sergeant for those who have taken control of, and are manipulating, the water protests,” he said.

His Labour party colleague, councillor Dermot Lacey, has lodged a similar complaint of bias against The Marian Finucane Show.

But the protestors are claiming the bias is in the opposite direction. They regard the fourth estate as a fifth column for the Government.

It was always thus. In times of political conflict or controversy, those under pressure view the messenger as the problem.

In the Dáil, on Wednesday, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald described Rabbitte’s comments as “bizarre”. Many in McDonald’s party are hopping mad at the media for asking questions about the cover-up of child sex abuse. Different issue, same old story.

The media was also under the cosh in another corner of Leinster House, where the Oireachtas banking inquiry was in session. The committee was inquiring into the role of the media in the property bubble and banking collapse. The media fell victim to the group-think that infected all levels of society through the years of property madness, but to what extent, and for what reasons, remain issues of debate.

The notion of ‘the media’ as some homogenous beast that takes a line and follows it like a political party, for instance, is complete garbage. But in covering the property bubble, the fourth estate collectively failed to bark at a crucial time in history.

Finding out why was never going to be easy, but the inquiry got off to a pretty poor start on Wednesday. Before newspaper editors, including the Irish Examiner’s Tim Vaughan, the first witness was an academic chap, Julien Mercille.

Dr Mercille lectures in the department of geography in UCD and is the holder of a Phd on ‘the political economy’. He has written academic publications on matters such as the war on drugs, but he is not a media academic, and has never worked in the Irish media. He has penned a book based on the newspapers’ coverage of the property boom and bust.

The thesis of his book is that the media is largely a tool of “the elites” and reflects their views at the cost of telling “the truth” or catering for “ordinary people”. It’s not clear whom exactly the elites are, but it’s safe to say Dr Mercille does not include among them highly-educated, well-paid and pensioned academics. Those souls are far more likely to be “ordinary people”, in search of “the truth”, whatever that is in a political context.

Dr Mercille’s thesis on the media derives as much from his political perspective as from any neutral examination of the function and performance of newspapers. His columns and media appearances suggest his politics chimes with that of the so-called far left, although Dr Mercille told the inquiry he would consider himself “progressive”, rather than left- or right-wing.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Diversity of opinion is a positive feature of public life. What is baffling is why an important Oireachtas inquiry, on a very tight schedule, found it useful to hear about the media from a man who could not be described as either a practitioner or an expert. Perhaps the politicians thought this passed for the ‘balance’ they habitually contend is lacking in coverage of their affairs.

For what it’s worth, the useful idiot writing this column has an opinion on the failings of the media during those illusory halcyon days. Most who work in the media were caught up in the national mood that believed the country had stumbled on a magic formula.

Critical faculties were somewhat suspended. I, among many others, frequently wrote of the distasteful aspects to the bling and greed of the times, but not for a minute did I think it was all based on sand, because, like everybody else, I relied on the experts who told us the job was Oxo.

It’s notable that the two figures who are frequently cited as offering the contrarian view at the time — Morgan Kelly and David McWilliams — are economists, not journalists.

One accusation that could be levelled at the media is that it took as gospel the forecasts of economists who worked for financial institutions, but, then again, plenty of other experts agreed with their outlook.

What is worrying is that the group-think of the times still persists on some issues. One example is coverage of evidence at the banking inquiry.

When an American banking academic, Bill Black, told the inquiry that the 2008 bank guarentee was “the worst decision in history”, his words featured in numerous headlines.

He was feted throughout the media. This guy was telling us exactly what most people still want to hear. If it wasn’t for that goddamn guarentee, we would have been sorted.

This notion is also frequently peddled by both Government and most of the opposition.

Strangely enough, when another authority on banking featured at the inquiry, some of his home truths were quietly brushed over by the media. Earlier this month, Central Bank governor, Patrick Honohan, told the inquiry that any alternative to the guarantee could have reduced austerity “somewhat, but not all that much”.

He also suggested that the arrival of the Troika here actually lessened austerity, rather than increased it.

This is the kind of stuff that most people don’t want to hear. The general narrative that is peddled is that without the guarentee or the strictures imposed by the Troika, most of the pain could have been avoided.

The excesses and recklessness of the years spanning 2002 and 2007 could have been simply wiped clean.

There is certainly a case that austerity was imposed in a way that impacted hugely disproportionately on those at the lower ends of the socio-economic ladder, and that many at the top have skipped free. But the idea that two decisions — the guarentee and the arrival of the Troika — are at the root of our ills does not add up. It’s nice and simple, though. It provides a focus for understandable anger among the public. The body politic, apart from Fianna Fail, which can’t wash its hands of those decisions, happily feeds into that line also.



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