As much by luck as by design, I have found myself in recent months spending some days in two of the world’s great conurbations, Chicago, Illinois, and Naples, Italy. It occurred to me that the cities had something in common other than my visits, and even beyond the great food and largely, astonishingly, good-natured citizenry.
The poor and working-class people of both Chicago and Naples can see every day the expressions of their culture, mostly but not exclusively musical, celebrated and valorised by élites at local, national and international level, even while they themselves are crushed by poverty, discrimination, oppression and crime. Chicago blues and canzone napoletana remain not only globally popular but integral to the self-image of the cities — even while jazz and opera are far more highly subsidised — and in both places an aura of dangerous authenticity hangs around “the baddest part of town”, where homeboys and scugnizzi are not only picturesque, but probably up to no good.
The people of both cities have, over the centuries, exercised some of the most memorably robust resistance to the plans of their rulers, and have been on the receiving end of some of the most savage repression. The rulers themselves have of course been notable both for the ambition that helped to make the cities among the most beautiful in the world, and the corruption that helped to block any equitable or democratic sharing of that beauty. In Chicago, at any rate, a pair of reactionary local newspapers have been, despite a spirited journalistic tradition at newsroom level, bastions of the power structure.
Naples and Chicago are, in these and other respects, not unique cities — otherwise it would be pretty pointless writing about them here — but rather archetypal ones. It’s not difficult to project some similar characteristics on to, say, Dublin, with its “Rale Dubs”, captured memorably by writers from Seán O’Casey to Roddy Doyle, those Dubs with their problematic historical relationship to both colonial and national élites. Dublin of course has the added spice of being the capital of a state that has not generally been run by Dubliners, which may be part of the reason that the city’s middle class finds it so easy to express the most vicious snobbery about the inner-city poor, a contempt that was especially evident in the coverage of, and social-media discussion about, the small protests that accompanied the British queen’s visit. Poor Chicagoans and Neapolitans are of course despised too, but I think not quite so openly by local élites.
In Dublin the local élites are also national élites. And their “local” newspaper, the Irish Times, is able to think of itself as a national institution despite its readership being overwhelmingly based among the capital’s middle and upper classes. The newspaper’s senior ranks are more geographically diverse, though you’ll rarely hear a working-class Dublin accent among them.
The nearest thing to an exception is Fintan O’Toole, in many respects the outstanding, albeit often overstretched, Irish journalist of his generation. O’Toole’s misfortune, if he can be said to have one, is to have attached himself to the Irish Times just as it emerged as the definitive journalistic expression of the needs and priorities of the national bourgeoisie (much of which had previously regarded it as suspiciously Protestant). This meant that O’Toole, with his strong personal and political connection to the historic radicalism of working-class Dublin, could never be editor. To my mind it may also help explain why O’Toole can be seen to flit from a devastating left critique of Ireland’s predicament to a piecemeal reformist strategy in partnership with irredeemably bourgeois figures such as McWilliams and Ross.
Our market is too small to afford several upmarket newspapers distributed along a left-right spectrum, in the British manner. The Irish Times must be the Telegraph, Times, Independent and Guardian folded into one. For a while that wasn’t really a problem, as Ireland’s social-liberalising, anti-clerical mission of the late 20th century enjoyed broad cross-class support, especially in Dublin, so the likes of O’Toole were welcome to join the crusade, as formulated in the Irish Times. During the boom years the sideshow of cultural and identity politics could proceed unhindered, with the Irish Times a broad church that could, for example, welcome immigrants just as much as both ICTU and IBEC did.
But today the mission of that newspaper, like that of the class it embodies, is much simpler. Its needs and priorities come down to this: to preserve the status and privileges of bourgeois Ireland through this crisis, even if it means the devastation of ordinary workers and the poor. Indeed, if it can use the crisis to advance long-term ambitions, especially to reduce the role of the public service and the power of unions, it is happy to do so. It’s not Fintan O’Toole’s Irish Times. Instead, the newspaper’s economics editor Dan O’Brien, adept at concealing the iron fist of neo-liberal retrenchment inside the velvet glove of reasonableness and “regrettable necessities”, is the living embodiment of the ideological “commonsense” that serves to protect and project these class interests.
In the context of the argument over the “bailout”, O’Brien and the Irish Times also reflect the natural habit of that class to kowtow to international corporate and financial institutions. This habit is not merely some cultural cringe but a fundamental consequence of the nature of Irish capital over the last half-century, essentially providing land and services to international companies, thus giving rise to financial and property speculation as the important sort-of-indigenous sectors. Recently I saw historian and blogger Conor McCabe give a terrific talk that previewed his new book, Sins of the Father. McCabe persuasively and humorously argued that Irish capital could not be personified as some Michael Corleone figure, clear-eyed and coolly cruel, but as something much more like Michael’s brother Fredo, making sure every important visitor at the casino had plenty of drinks and “girls”, and in the end, perhaps, too caught up in the fun and in the interests of those he was keeping entertained.
It is no surprise that people and classes act in self-interest, or what they believe to be self-interest, nor that, when they can afford to, they enlist media figures to dress up that self-interest as something more noble and necessary for the good of others in society. The best sort of hired mouthpieces are those, like O’Brien, who utterly and honestly believe that what they are writing is true. (Dan O’Brien’s track record, such as the 2005 piece recommending Bertie Ahern for the office of UN secretary-general, or the 2006 one predicting another decade of good times for the Tiger, doesn’t appear to have softened his cough.)
But the fact is that the Irish Times is read by tens of thousands of people who, while they may not be poor (yet), are also not part of the élite that benefits from the policies it advocates. Keeping those people signed on to the neoliberal package, or at least keeping them believing that “there is no alternative”, even when they would be better off fighting for exactly such an alternative, is a crucial, concealed part of the role of media institutions. In campaigns for real democracy and liberation, of the sort that swept the Arab world earlier this year and, as I write, threaten to ignite in cities across Europe, newspapers like the Irish Times are unlikely to play any role other than to scorn and deride those who believe another world is possible