By Rónán Lynch
A vast amount of energy and effort has gone into development of a narrative in the Irish media that goes something like this: we all lost the run of ourselves a bit but now we’re getting back on track because we’ve shown restraint and embraced austerity. So there was cursing and gnashing of teeth in Irish newsrooms when Joe Higgins sprang a last-minute invitation to the media to attend the Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis.
Higgins said that media organisations had questions to answer for their role in reporting on the property market. “They have to answer, like other major organisations and influential organisations in society, in regard to how the property bubble developed and what their role was in relation to reporting and how they reported on, for example, the price of a home going up by the equivalent of the average industrial wage for ten years up to 2006”, said Higgins.
Making a similar point is Julien Mercille, the UCD lecturer who has found rich pickings in the relatively barren field of media analysis surrounding the property bubble. In the New Political Economy journal, Mercille wrote that the housing bubble was largely sustained by mainstream media, due to their links with corporate and political elites, a shared neoliberal viewpoint, pressure from advertisers and a reliance on ‘experts’ (read so-called) from elite institutions.
Writing in the Sunday Independent, Dan O’Brien claimed that politicians should not be able to hold media to account. Yet it’s not just about the reporting or advertising pressure. At issue is the cross-ownership of news businesses and property businesses. The Irish Times still owns myhome.ie. Ironically, however competitor property websites such as daft.ie have themselves evolved into news and entertainment news with ownership of dailyedge.ie and thejournal.ie. Exasperated Irish Times enthusiasts have often accused thejournal.ie of piggybacking its news stories on Irish Times’ research but now it is devouring the old lady’s bread and butter also. The cross-ownership of property interests and news sites doesn’t augur well for the citizen but concentration is the future.
It’s been a long time coming. When Ben Bagdikian wrote ‘The Media Monopoly’ in 1983, its controversial thesis was that the 50 corporations controlling 90% of American media outlets would eventually shrink to five or six. Bagdikian’s claims were considered laughable, but have proven uncannily accurate. Six corporations now control that same 90% share. Bagdikian has just issued his seventh edition of the book and added ‘New’ to the title. The ownership of 90% of the media by six organisations is alarming enough, but what other businesses do those organisations control?
At a September session of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Irish NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley called on the Minister for Communications Alex White to set up a commission on the future of media in Ireland. An article in the Guardian by Roy Greenslade who frequently beats Irish media to stories about Irish media scandal, noted Dooley’s call for a commission that would address issues including the control of Irish media by a small group of powerful forces. Greenslade suggested that Dooley “surely had in mind the dominance of the media company Communicorp, which is run by Ireland’s richest man, Denis O’Brien”.
O’Brien’s Communicorp group has stakes in Independent News and Media, and controls Newstalk and TodayFM, along with swathes of regional newspapers. In an interview in the Sunday Business Post at the end of September, O’Brien told Niall O’Dowd that Ireland could end up with “only one or two newspapers”. Management teams refusing to co-operate were “cows on the line”, he said. “At the end of the day there has to be pollination between online, radio, and TV and newspapers”. O’Brien told O’Dowd that a Canadian media businessman “fell off the chair laughing” when he heard about Ireland’s media restrictions and described the situation as “Stone Age stuff”.
As this page has previously noted, the concentration of media is only one issue. There’s also the concentrated pool of guests on mainstream programmes. Why are there so many PR people on news programmes? There’s been a profound change in the last decade in the composition of the opposing teams of journalism and PR. A Pew Research study in the US found that in 2003, there were 3.2 public-relations professionals for every reporter. By 2014, that number had grown to 4.6 to every reporter. The study also found a widening gap in pay in favour of PR people, who now earn 50% more than journalists.
Each of the issues is important in itself, but in combination they suggest significant shifts in the news business: a concentration of ownership contributing to a lack of diversity and competition; the shift of advertising towards digital, the rise of branded news and native advertising delivered outside of news channels; and the increase in press releases masquerading as news because of a drop in newsroom staff to question press releases. There are solutions, of course, of the caveat emptor variety.
The crisis of confidence in home-grown analysis is symptomised by the thrilled reaction to the September 22 editorial in the Financial Times declaring that Ireland was “showing struggling Europe the way ahead”. The editorial noted the “swingeing cuts” imposed on our “bloated public service” and added that “wage restraint and a flexible English-speaking workforce” had made it a choice destination for international companies such as Apple. Not only that, but the success of NAMA had “cleared the way for lending to start again”.
Former chief economist at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Paul Sweeney wrote to the FT noting that although “we Irish love praise from foreigners”, the editorial contained factual errors. Sweeney disputed that our “bloated public sector” was to blame for the crisis, pointing instead at banks and property speculators and claiming that wages had remained stable. Meanwhile, the FT’s claims of a restart in lending in Ireland sent puzzled banking officials back to their books to check and see if their reports over the past several years of a decrease in lending to households and businesses were completely wrong. Days later, news of Apple’s favourable tax arrangements in Ireland were filling the FT’s pages imbuing it with a soupcon of august schadenfreude, and suggesting struggling Europe may want to hang back a bit longer. Meanwhile it’s increasingly unclear where we go to get a quality, truthful, unvarnished perspective on Ireland’s economy. And where we will go for it in ten years. •