How the newspaper of reference dealt with correspondence challenging an important article it published about equality
Brendan Ogle Of Unite submitted the following article to the Irish Times on 15 December 2020
Unite the Union
55/56 Middle Abbey Street
Dublin 1 D01 X002
Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland Head Office
15th December 2020
On 14 December 2020 Jerry Buttimer stood up in the Seanad and said that in terms of personal finances, Ireland was becoming a more equal place. ‘The reality is that income growth and inequality is falling in our country at this time’ he said, ‘and as Mr. Pat Leahy wrote recently in The Irish Times, people are getting richer and we are becoming more equal.’
Those seeking to help families and individuals suffering from shocking deprivation here this Christmas will be shocked at this news. And so they should be. Because it is false. It is not acceptable for Journalists to present as ‘facts’ things that are not facts and present them as seasonal gifts to ideologically driven Politicians practised in the policies of division, isolation, poverty and deprivation.
The article cited was published the previous week and contained the claim that rising incomes and falling inequality ‘is a neat trick, managed by very few.’ Both Buttimer and Leahy also criticised the naysayers and NGOs who argue otherwise in tones that remind me of Bertie Ahern’s infamous ‘pre-crash’ invite to those ‘talking down’ the economy to consider suicide. Leahy put himself out there as far as to say ‘the data is the data, the facts are the facts… we have been getting richer, and also more equal at the same time.’
So let’s talk about ‘facts’. Leahy highlights this quote from a 2020 report on inequality by TASC: “while inequality was on the rise elsewhere, it was falling here.” But the next sentence – literally the next sentence – says that ‘Another explanation for Ireland’s stability is that it is only apparent, and that inequality has actually been increasing. The data presented so far has ultimately been drawn from surveys, which have well-known limitations when it comes to the measure of income, and hence inequality.’
Leahy leaves this vital context out.
The survey in question is the CSO’s annual Survey on Income & Living Conditions (SILC). It supplies the information for calculation of the ‘Gini coefficient’, a formula used to calculate income inequality that Leahy presents as showing falling inequality.
The SILC is a sample survey of just 4,183 households out of 1.7 million in the state (around 0.2 per cent of the total).
The survey is voluntary and only 40% of those sampled agreed to take part. Almost 2,000 households refused outright, while another 2,800 gave various reasons listed as ‘other’ by the CSO.
So, while the CSO conducts a random selection of private households for the initial catchment, within that random selection there is a form of self-selection, there are households that will not share their income data, and it is only those that freely volunteer the information that end up in the survey.
But that’s not all. The CSO employs around 100 people to carry out this work, but often they call to a house and not everyone is at home. So they conduct interviews ‘by proxy’ – information is provided by ‘another resident of the household due to unavailability of the person in question’. 
Up to 50 percent of all interviews for the income survey are by proxy, which gives rise to issues ‘with the quality of data for proxy responses for certain variables’. 
This leads to acknowledged and well flagged ‘statistical bias’ that Leahy leaves out in his rush to declare what ‘facts’ are. He also fails to tell us that the report actually says ‘high incomes tend to be underreported when they do respond.’
It is no surprise then to hear that the data collected from household surveys has to be ‘cleaned up’ by the CSO before it ends up in the final survey. This requires the use of various statistical weights and assumptions to compensate for missing data and known bias.
However, even if the survey and its methodologies were absolutely flawless, there would still be issues with their underlying assumptions within an Irish context.
The ‘Gini coefficient’ formula strives to capture income distribution after income tax and social welfare transfers, which it labels as ‘disposable income’. However, the Irish welfare system is different from others within the EU in that it is geared more towards monetary transfers and less towards the provision of services.
Put simply, in Ireland the formula does not take into account the cost of housing, rent, health, childcare, utility services, transport, or education. In other words ‘Gini’ only measures ‘income’ before Irish people pay their bills. So much for ‘facts’!
It gets worse. The second source that Leahy draws upon is an article by UCC economist Seamus Coffey which is on RTÉ’s Brainstorm website.
Coffey argues that Ireland is ‘one of the few developed countries that has had high income growth and falling inequality’. He says that while people may disagree on the way forward, they cannot disagree on that point. As with Leahy, he says that the facts speak for themselves.
Coffey underpins his point with data taken from a paper that was published in the Journal of Income Distribution in 2018 entitled, ‘Rising Income Inequality and Living Standards in OECD Countries: how Does the Middle Fare?’.
Guess what he uses? Yes, you got it, the ‘Gini coefficient’. He even uses it to claim that Ireland ‘is the only country in the sample to achieve both high income growth and falling income inequality’.
However, the 2018 paper from which Coffey draws this information cites not one, but two, indicators of income inequality.
The first is ‘Gini’ which measures everything except what poor people need to live, and the second is the income share going to the top 1%. This shows income inequality rising. In fact it’s not only rising. Ireland actually had the third highest rise in income share going to the top one per cent – surpassed only by the UK and the USA. Yet Coffey does not mention this at all. It is completely absent from his article. Don’t you just love these ‘facts’?
The authors of the 2018 paper even helpfully address the apparent contradiction of a falling Gini ratio alongside a rise in income share to the top 1%, adding that the latter is calculated from non-voluntary data provided by the Revenue Commissioners of every single income tax return in the state (over two million individuals and couples).
So, of the two measurement’s, only one is genuinely national in scope and fact based and it happens to be the one which points to rising income inequality. It is also the one that Coffey and Leahy, and by extension Buttimer, ignore.
Coffey also interprets the singular Gini coefficient further to also argue that Irish taxation is highly progressive and those on higher incomes pay more tax than those who are not. But in doing so he makes another glaring omission – Value Added Tax.
VAT is a highly regressive form of taxation as it is a flat rate charge on every household regardless of income. It amounts to close to a 1/3rd (26%) of all tax collected by Revenue. Those on low to middle incomes pay out a much higher percentage of their income on VAT than those on higher incomes yet Coffey fails to incorporate this into his analysis at all. I suppose if you leave out the ‘regressive’ taxes then we are bound to be ‘progressive’.
It is for these reasons that many experienced researchers – such as the authors of the papers cited by Leahy and Coffey – use household survey data with extreme caution and care. I suggest it is much better to do so than to turn misrepresented ‘facts’ into mathematical boulders to fling at those who are concerned at poverty, deprivation and inequality.
There are ways to tackle inequality in Ireland, which is clearly growing when we look at it through real-world eyes instead of through the truncated goggles of the Gini coefficient and carefully selected quotations from otherwise nuanced and balanced papers, including this one.
Workers and their Unions, as the OECD points out, are crucial to addressing inequality. Ireland suffers from a scourge of low pay and involuntary part-time work which has a hugely negative effect on hundreds of thousands of households across the state. At the same time the state must invest in health, housing, education, transport and childcare. It must do this through direct intervention, not through its current approach which is to subsidise market price – a process akin to chasing its own tail. The solutions are well-known; it is the political will that is lacking. Unfortunately there is nothing not ‘factual’ about the unnecessary suffering many face in Ireland this Christmas. In a country of such riches, those riches should not just be for the few. Is there any chance at all we might honestly address that in 2021?
Senior Officer – Republic of Ireland
The submission for publication was followed by this exchange of emails
From: Ogle, Brendan
Sent: 21 December 2020 14:36
Subject: Fwd: URGENT: Attention John McManus [Irish Times Opinion Editor]
– Response Piece in Irish Times : 15th December 2020
Please find attached a response to an article published in the Irish Times on 5th December 2020. I sent this to Mark Hennessy on 15th December and Mark has advised that he passed it on to you.
For the reasons explained in the piece I believe that the 5 December article is seriously and grossly misleading and should be responded to. It has already lead to a false narrative being provided to the Oireachtas, as is set out in the response piece.
Given the time that has elapsed could you please advise me whether you are prepared to publish this article?
Begin forwarded message:
Please find attached an article in response to Pat Leahy’s article of 5.12.20 as I alluded to yesterday. I think it is vital that the record, and the necessary conversation, is corrected in this regard as the Irish Times piece is already being cited on the Oireachtas record.
Thanks in advance and I hope you are well.
Senior Officer, ROI
I am writing to you again about the ‘hit’ piece written by Pat Leahy and published on 5 December 2020 in the Irish Times, and the rebuttal/response piece I have sent in a number of times now.
Is it your, and the Irish Times, intention to allow this very damaging and inaccurate piece to stand as it is?
Sorry for not getting back.
As I am sure you know we offer right or reply via the letter’s page and if your purpose is to rebut Pat’s argument then that is the best vehicle.
We would be open to a piece for oped on how the measures of inequality relied upon by Government are not accurate and that this undermines public debate but it would have to be independent of Pat’s piece. As it stands the piece you have submitted is too long anyway.
You could also broaden the debate out a bit by looking at how we could better capture inequality levels as the obvious response to your points is that imperfect measures are better than no measures etc
From: Ogle, Brendan
Sent: 04 January 2021 14:42
To: ‘opinion’ <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: [EXTERNAL] RE: URGENT: PAT LEAHY RESPONSE PIECE
I have tried to ring the IT today to discuss this but can’t get through to anybody.
Unfortunately Pat’s piece is not a piece about imperfect measurement tools for inequality. In fact Pat’s piece, which has provided the basis for a political analysis now taken up on the Oireachtas record, is that falling inequality is an unarguable fact which must simply be accepted by all. In order to stand up this frankly bizarre position he relies solely on one set of measurement criteria without explaining it, while completely ignoring the other criteria in the same research that points to the opposite conclusion to Pat’s chosen one. Based on those facts it would seem to be at least arguable that ideological bias is the most relevant factor that led to the piece.
For these reasons your final point is not obvious. What is obvious is that a decision was made to provide a politically biased analysis of deprivation based on the deliberate selective use of measurement criteria that suited that bias while excluding other criteria that didn’t. I am surprised that the Irish Times doesn’t appear prepared to allow that decision to be critiqued or rebutted.
I do understand that my right to reply piece is long but no edit is suggested, and I further note that no option of online publication has been offered. I am not sure how an Op Ed piece could deal with this matter and have been trying to get some response on this for several weeks now. If there is a specific offer in this regard I would be happy to consider it as I think the Irish Times itself is the best forum to address the consequences of this piece. I think your Readers, and Journalism itself, deserve and demand nothing less. Otherwise I will have to seek publication elsewhere but I have to be candid and say that I am as surprised at the approach taken as I was at the article itself.
 Standard Report on Methods and Quality for the Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) 2019. (CSO, 2020): 55
 Standard Report: 30.
 Standard Report: 30.
By Michael Smith, February 2021