Michael Clifford - 'The media can take comfort it is doing something right when bias is being screamed from all sides'
The messenger is under fire. A number of senior politicians – and one who has departed but obviously still pines for the bright lights – have come out with guns blazing.
Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern, Michael McDowell and Martin Mansergh are among those who are having a pop. The media is accentuating the negative, disrespectful of politicians, ignoring the work of the Oireachtas, and generally not togging out in the green jersey. The media, to wade further into the mire of hackneyed sporting metaphors, is playing the man and not the ball.
The Fourth Estate in its current guise has plenty to answer for, from coverage of the ludicrous circus of Ronan Keating's marriage, to the hyping of crime. Blaming the media for the state we're in is another matter. The cynic might point to a simple explanation for these attacks. The government realises it has a communication deficit, and is now intent on shooting the messenger. But let's instead approach the issue with a semblance of logic.
Dermot Ahern reckons that coverage of the Oireachtas isn't receiving due status. He is correct that a low priority is given by the media to the Houses, but a peek in the mirror might provide him with some clues as to how we got here.
The Dáil and Seanad have been reduced to rubber stamp forums, although at least in the Upper House there is a modicum of independent thinking and perusal of the issues in wider society.
For the greater part, however, laws are proposed, drafted and decided on by the executive. There is minimum input from backbench TDs, and practically none from the opposition. A private member's bill is a rare exotic animal, one which is routinely hunted down and shot on sight.
The executive has corralled all the democratic power that is supposed to be shared with the legislature. This trend has accelerated greatly since 1997, from around about the time Dermot Ahern and his ministerial colleagues first put their feet under a ministerial desk. Irony is obviously not a strong point of his.
McDowell said in a recent speech that the media treat politicians "as a sub class barely deserving of an audience". He was particularly appalled at the manner in which politicians are interviewed on Morning Ireland. It is most certainly the case that interviewers on programmes like Morning Ireland have a low tolerance threshold for the ramblings of politicians, and with good reason.
An exception that proves a rule occurred last Wednesday on said programme when Labour senator Alex White was asked whether the HSE should continue to have control of childcare services.
"I'm a bit conflicted," White began. "I'll give you an honest answer to it…" An honest answer instead of the political line? Hats off to that man for a brief interlude of candour. Politicians only give the political line. It is the job of interviewers to delve behind that. Spin is now a major component in politics. Politicians receive media training on how to get their message across while stepping around landmines. (To be fair, some don't require any training).
In the electronic media, this also involves playing down the clock. Keep talking in order to ensure that less, if any, space is given to the awkward topics which an interviewer wants to explore. It is increasingly necessary to interrupt, cut across and persist in an impatient manner with politicians if the listeners are to garner anything of value from the interview.
Brian Cowen's problem is that the media is overly negative. "Let the positive voices start overwhelming the wave of negativity which I think people are frankly fed up of and they want to move on," he told a Tullamore audience last weekend.
Four years ago, when some in the media were warning of the impending crash, they also were accused of negativity. The soundtrack in newsrooms these days is a classic song from The Who, 'Won't Get Fooled Again'.
According to the IMF the crash in Ireland "matches episodes of the most severe economic distress in post-World War II history". Standards of living for those not on serious money have plunged. The unemployment rate is 13.4%, which has virtually tripled in the last three years. Is Cowen suggesting we should all ignore these realities?
Comparisons with the bright shiny outlook in the UK's media are misleading. Unemployment there is a comparably manageable 8%. Irrespective of deficits, jobs are the real measure of any economy, and things are dire right now.
It's not as if journalists derive any pleasure from the bad news. They are humans too (no, seriously) and their line of work is particularly walloped at the moment. But unlike politicians, they have an obligation to tell it like it is, not like how it might go down in the next election.
Cowen isn't the only one who feels he's not getting a fair crack of the whip. The recent Public Service Executive Union's conference included three motions decrying the media. Like most trade unions, it believes the media is too unquestioning of the government's prognosis for the economy. When bias is being screamed on all sides, the media can take comfort that it must be doing something right.
Shane Coleman - 'We in the media over-hyped the boom. And now we refuse to see beyond the worst-case scenario'
WE in the media are very good at dishing it out, but we're not always so good about taking it. It's the job and responsibility of the press to shine a light on all aspects of Irish society. But when it comes to self-analysis, we don't always apply the same rigorous standards.
So when somebody suggests that we might be calling something wrong – as Brian Cowen very tentatively inferred last week – the automatic reaction is to go into hedgehog mode.
Despite the knee-jerk reactions on Sunday morning talk shows, what the Taoiseach said was eminently sensible. After 20 months of overwhelming negativity – the majority of it, let it be stressed, entirely justified – it might just be time for the media to move on and to begin also focusing on some of the positives that are starting to emerge.
It certainly is a difficult call for the media to make. It's a balancing act between not brushing matters under the carpet and giving the public an accurate account of what is happening on the one hand. And, on the other, not going over the top in a manner that may exacerbate the crisis by damaging consumer confidence.
Ireland certainly did not talk itself into the economic crisis – despite predictions from some a couple of years ago that we risked doing so. Bad policies got us to where we are today. But we shouldn't underestimate the importance of psychology in getting out of a recession. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that many people in completely guaranteed jobs have altered their spending patterns over the past year or two despite their circumstances being largely unchanged (sure, they are paying more in tax now but that is at least partially offset by a sharp fall in prices).
The country is a long way off a return to a feelgood factor, but there are solid grounds for cautious optimism. At the beginning of last year, there was a real risk the state would not be able to foot its bills. Given the serious issues surrounding the euro and the eurozone banking system, there are no grounds for complacency. But Ireland's situation has improved quite dramatically over the past 16 months in that regard.
The media demands political leadership, yet Brian Lenihan was excoriated for declaring in his budget speech last December that the worst is over. There is a feeling that many in the media won't accept that the worst is over until there is full employment once again.
We in the media over-hyped the boom. We failed in many cases to ask the right questions. And now we are steadfastly refusing to see beyond the worst-case scenario. That is despite a whole raft of economic data that points to a turnaround (though admittedly tentative) in the state's fortunes and indicates that Lenihan was right.
Anyone who dares to suggest that is regarded as delusional and running the risk of repeating the mistakes made a few years when blind optimism prevailed.
It was extraordinary to hear commentators' reaction to the spat between UCD's Morgan Kelly and the Department of Finance. The latter was roundly criticised in some quarters for having the audacity to put up a strong opposing case to Kelly's thesis that it was a matter of when, and not if, Ireland went bust.
Kelly is a fine economist. The fact that he predicted the banking collapse means he is always worth listening to. But, no more than anyone, he is not infallible. Patrick Honohan, the country's foremost banking expert and now (thankfully) the governor of the Central Bank, does not agree with Kelly's assessment of the bank guarantee and its likely impact on the state. Kelly has a right to make his point, but so too does the department – in fact it has a duty to do so.
We've come full circle. Five years ago, those who were warning about imminent disaster were ignored or told to go off and commit suicide. Now, those who dare to suggest that Armageddon can be avoided are treated in the same manner. Only the more calamitous outcome is acceptable to some. There is – or at least there should be – such a thing as a happy medium.
And that goes for the extent of the coverage of the economic recession. One could have a debate for hours upon hours as to how bad Britain's economic and fiscal crisis is relative to Ireland's. But two things can be said definitively: They are also in a mess, even if it isn't as bad as here. And the media's coverage of the economic situation is a tiny fraction of what it is in Ireland, even during the recent general election campaign.
Only a fool would suggest that the situation has not been, and continues to be, extremely serious here, particularly for the tens of thousands of people who have lost their jobs. But that doesn't mean there can't be some perspective in the debate.
We've had recessions before and come through them. We will come through this one – hopefully learning some serious lessons in the process. And there's nothing wrong with pointing that out. In fact, it's long overdue.