By Gerard Cunningham
Dr Julien Mercille is a lecturer in geography with the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy in UCD, working on US foreign policy, political economy and the economic crisis. He appeared before the Oireachtas committee of inquiry into the banking crisis inquiry during its module on media coverage of the property bubble.
Mercille’s critique of Irish property coverage is summed up best in the following two paragraphs from his Oireachtas appearance:
“There are two main measures to determine whether property prices are in bubble territory: the price-to-earnings ratio and the price-to-income ratio. The Economist magazine used those indicators to warn about property bubbles around the world early on. In 2002, it stated that the Irish housing market had been ‘displaying bubble-like symptoms in recent years’, and, in 2003, it calculated that Ireland’s property market was overvalued by 42% relative to the average of the previous three decades.
In Ireland, the economists David McWilliams and Morgan Kelly identified the problem and warned about it early on.
However, overwhelmingly, the Irish analysts and institutions, including the media, maintained that there was no bubble and that the boom would eventually end in a soft landing. Indeed, there is a clear discrepancy between coverage of the housing bubble before and after it burst. Before 2008, the media tended to largely ignore it, and it was only months after it started deflating that reality had to be faced. Once the housing market collapsed, the media simply could not ignore its downwards trajectory, hence the increased coverage. I have included two figures showing the number of articles on the housing bubble that appeared in newspapers by year. On average, the Irish Times had 5.5 times more articles on the bubble per year in 2008–11 than in 1996–2007.
Similarly, the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent had on average 12.5 times more such articles in 2008–11 than in 1999–2007.
Moreover, the few articles published during the earlier period often denied that there was a bubble. For example, there were articles in the Irish Times entitled ‘Study refutes any house price ‘bubble’’ and ‘House prices ‘set for soft landing’,’ while the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent had headlines such as ‘NCB rejects house value threat from burst bubble,’ ‘House prices not about to fall soon, insist auctioneers,’ ‘Price of houses ‘not over-valued’ says new report,’ and ‘There is no property bubble to burst, despite doomsayers.’ In particular, between 2000 and 2007, the Irish Times published more than 40,000 articles about the economy, but only 78 of these were about the property bubble, or 0.2%. This is small coverage for what was the most important economic story in those years”.
Were you expecting the Spanish Inquisition?
A: Probably, yes, maybe not as much as happened, but because the topic at the inquiry was the media I thought the media would cover it. I’d say I was surprised more by how they criticised my work, but [the Committee] used my studies, my work, for their questions on the following people who came, the newspaper editors, so in that way it was useful.
Were you surprised at the media reaction?
A: A little bit, yes. I’m not surprised that they criticised it, but I suppose I was expecting a bit less. Every newspaper, every national title, wrote something directly against me, against my work. I didn’t think they would be that aggressive, if I can use that word.
You were the subject of columns by writers from Dan O’Brien in the Independent to Michael Clifford in the Irish Examiner. What reasons would you put forward for that?
A: Yeah, officially I never even included the Irish Examiner in my work. I think it’s that the media is not often held accountable and they had to be, to come to the parliament for that, so I think that’s the main thing, they don’t like to have to explain themselves.
I think it is also the case that if you are a top journalist and you’re accepted as such in the media industry, when someone challenges the media you have to show that you’re defending the media, to show that you’re on the side of your employer.
Mick Clifford is not one of the worst, he is one of the better ones in the mainstream. I had been on Vincent Browne with him before, and we had the same kind of debate there. So in that way, I wasn’t surprised. Maybe they asked someone who knows me – maybe he had his thoughts ready to respond.
How does someone who starts off as a geographer become someone who ends up working in media analysis, media criticism?
A: Well, I did my PhD in US foreign policy, on geopolitics, and my main interest is current affairs, social sciences at large, so geography is good for that. It’s a pretty broad field, and that’s why I did the media. There is an economic crisis now, and I thought, it is essential to understand it if you are an academic in social sciences, so I jumped on it, and it’s more because of an interest in social science and current affairs generally.
At the Cleraun conference last year, Dan O’Brien said that he had asked you for the raw data from your research and you were unable to provide it, a statement he made again in a column after your appearance before the Oireachtas.
A: Yeah, Dan O’Brien, he asked me for my data and I told him I don’t have the data he is referring to, the study he is interested in is the media in the property bubble. I watched the ‘Prime Time’ shows on RTÉ, and he says that, and I said he remained vague, he didn’t give any clear warning about the housing bubble, and then he says that he did in fact, but then again after that he says again that he never saw the housing bubble. I don’t know how both can be correct, but that’s his thing, so I said Dan, I don’t have statistical tests and all, I just watched the TV, that’s what I did.
I don’t really understand exactly what it is that he wants, I could always watch the shows with him.
But another problem is that the shows are gone. When I did my study, they were online, and now they’ve been taken down by RTÉ. I don’t know if it had any thing to do with my study.
What should media do differently? Not necessarily to spot the next property bubble, since we’re probably hyper-vigilant to that risk, but to spot the next impending disaster? What should the media be doing in order to spot the next big problem before it becomes a big problem?
A: Well there are two things. Encouraging more investigative work on the part of journalists, encouraging more critical viewpoints, hiring journalists who don’t just repeat what the government says more or less. The other point is that the media needs to be decentralised, to become more diverse so that instead of having two or three big companies who control most of what we read or see, having maybe smaller, more people-controlled media outlets if you want to use that term, as opposed to corporate controlled or government controlled media outlets – and cut down maybe advertising revenues because that has an influence on property advertising for example.
There are a lot of commercial interests in other words that come into play, and if you reduce that influence, depend more on funding from foundations, readers subscriptions, you gain independence and accuracy.
Of course, you cannot pay your journalists as much as when you have advertising revenues and you cannot have a corporate structure that’s really big. Journalism has to be based, not on money and profits, but instead based on finding the truth of whatever is going on.
You’re been writing a weekly column for Broadsheet (http://broadsheet.ie). Is that a comment on the need for a diverse media, or were they just the ones who happened to ask you?
A: It’s a way for me to write what I think is important. In Ireland there are not many alternative media outlets, so that is one of them. There are maybe small ones, but this one is also read by young people.
What you you read yourself? Blogs, mainstream media?
A: I read everything. The Sunday Business Post is very good, it’s very serious, it’s not as fluffy and as vague as some of the other newspapers. The Irish Times has some good reporters, all the papers have some good reporters. The alternative press, yeah I read whatever is out there, mostly individuals that I think are good, if we triangulate like that we can get at the information. •