Unthinking self-apologists

By Gerard Cunningham

If one thing was apparent from the parade of senior newspaper executives and editors before the Oireachtas banking inquiry and the subsequent opinion pieces, it is that newspaper-folk are far less upset at missing the bubble that at the idea that they did so because of anything the advertising department said.

Take Geraldine Kennedy as an example. “The same editorial standards applied in the property supplements as elsewhere in the newspaper”, she told the committee. “Advertisers did not write editorial copy”, she added, addressing a strawman no one had raised.

But perhaps her finest moment came when she rejected the idea that Irish Times editorial policy was subject to political pressures. “I wasn’t bullied by Charlie Haughey when in my 20s so I wasn’t going to be bullied by lesser politicians in my 50s”, she said. Whether this indicates that Charlie was a great leader, or merely that his successors are minnows will be left to the historians.

In her defence Kennedy was able to point out that her paper had carried the prophetic December 2006 article by Morgan Kelly. Likewise, Irish Independent editor Ger O’Regan was able to point to his decision to hire David McWilliams as evidence of his good faith. What percentage of these prescient newspapers’ newsprint went to these sages was not revealed.

McWilliams, for his part, told the inquiry a month earlier that while he was subjected to “personal and nasty attacks” and “slapped down” by fellow economists and senior bankers for his analysis, he was never “muzzled” by his editors, and was free to write what he wanted.

But while editors let McWilliams get on with it, Julien Mercille, whose appearance before the inquiry set the tone for the questioning of the editors and media executives, has since been the subject of several critical articles. The most coherent of these came from Dan O’Brien, who questioned Mercille’s research methodology (and his “hard left” ideology). Others were less focused. Ger O’Regan launched a rambling broadside in the Sunday Independent, starting off by quoting Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” and imagining committee member Joe Higgins as an Albanian “commissar for economics”, before ending with a dismissal of the “obscure academic” Mercille as a “self-appointed guru”.

Leaving aside how many pro-boom or doom-warning articles were published or broadcast, the media module did produce a few interesting statistics.

At its peak, property advertising accounted for 17% of revenue at the Irish Times, 14% at the Independent, and 7% at the Irish Examiner. By contrast, property advertising accounted for a mere 0.9% of RTÉ revenues.

In his research, Mercille identified three strands which compromise editorial independence and effective journalism: advertising revenues, sourcing of stories, and close ties with corporate and government interests.

The low level of reliance on property advertising by RTÉ could therefore suggest that whatever the problems were, they weren’t due to advertising pressures. Mercille is as critical of RTÉ and its ‘Prime Time’ specials on the property markets as he is of the newspapers.

However, while RTÉ didn’t profit directly from property advertising to the same extent as print, it did produce content which fuelled the boom, according to DIT journalism lecturer Harry Browne, who highlighted “property porn” TV programmes and print lifestyle features which “encouraged readers to constantly think about going higher and higher up the ladder. To think about how to get that bigger house; to think about how to decorate their apartment in Bulgaria, that sort of thing”.

Meanwhile, uncritical reliance on sources was explicitly identified by Examiner editor Tim Vaughan. “If we were guilty of anything, and I believe we were, it is that we believed and accepted that institutions, such as the financial regulatory authorities, were doing their jobs and doing them competently with due diligence and with appropriate compliance policies, and with proper political and departmental oversight”, he said.

“We are reliant on agents of the State to be competent, professional, open, honest and reliable in what they do and say, and then we report on that”.

Geraldine Kennedy echoed a similar sentiment. “The media, as always, was

reliant on reporting the views of the specialists, be they government, the Central Bank, the regulator, or the profession of economists”, she said. “Journalists were less well-placed than others to make an accurate assessment”. Whether such views stand up to any scrutiny in terms of the role of the media in a democracy is doubtful.

Of Mercille’s three strands then, advertising might not be the villain it is often presumed. Editors do guard their independence jealously in the face of commercial pressures, after all. That leaves the interlinked issues of story-sourcing and the close ties between media, government and corporate interests.

In a small country like Ireland, those may not even be compromises that editors are consciously aware of. •