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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Gene Kerrigan: Damaging dodges and downright drivel

In a time of confusion, Gene Kerrigan gives us a short guide to interpreting the Irish media

Published 02/01/2011 | 05:00

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Almost everything we know about this wretched recession, and the Government response to it, is filtered through the media. Therefore, our understanding of what's happening is shaped by a relatively small number of people.

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And, most of those, during the Celtic Bubble, were admirers of the bankers and the builders and their political handmaids. They will always give the benefit of the doubt to the devil they know -- even to politicians as inept as Mr Lenihan. Therefore, the media is easily used by the powerful.

So, it might be useful to have a short guide on how to read the media in 2011.

First, we should be aware that much of what's happening is kept from the media. We had an example just before Christmas, when the Government transferred immense powers to Brian Lenihan -- powers to be exercised in secret. This was done hastily, with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. Mr Lenihan immediately sent lawyers into the High Court, which compliantly used the new laws to order reporters to leave the room. Behind closed doors, Mr Lenihan used the court to rubber-stamp his latest squandering of billions.

In this case, the billions were squandered on AIB. Had it not been for a couple of vigilant reporters who sniffed a rat and turned up to court early, we wouldn't necessarily know that anything significant had happened in the court that day. Wielding the magic phrase "commercially sensitive", Mr Lenihan can cast his Cloak of Invisibility over the most dubious decisions. Even when information must be disclosed, well intentioned experts have over the past couple of years found themselves trying to interpret the skimpiest data, poorly explained.

All of this would be regrettably anti-democratic at the best of times. But these are not the best of times. Mr Cowen is inadequate to the task, and Mr Lenihan has already made panicky, arrogant, poorly thought-out decisions that have taken immense private debts and draped them around the necks of the citizens. Those decisions crippled the country.

We have never been in greater need of plain data, lucid exposition and honest commentary. Yet, we have seldom been subjected to so much propaganda, special pleading and downright nonsense. Here are a few of the most damaging dodges used to obscure what's happening.

Sprinkle a little Honohan on the problem

Professor Patrick Honohan, governor of the Central Bank, has a deserved reputation for expertise and integrity. In his position, any negative comment could be used by ruthless speculators to damage the economy -- so Honohan's every word is carefully weighed. Knowing Honohan is unlikely to risk destabilising matters merely to ensure he's quoted correctly, Government ministers can freely interpret his words. "As Professor Honohan said... " All qualification and nuance is eliminated, so ministers can sprinkle Honohan's name over their desperate policies.

The foreign media love us

Any inane remark uttered by an ignorant foreign journalist is waved in our faces as evidence that our leaders are not fools. Most embarrassing was last year's Newsweek story that placed Brian Cowen among the top 10 world leaders. This was a piece of propaganda from the fans of austerity policies, which touted Mr Cowen's cuts as an example to the world of how to beat a recession. The Irish media repeated this as though it mattered -- failing to point out that once-proud Newsweek has collapsed financially and journalistically. Shortly after the Newsweek endorsement, the EU/IMF took over the country.

These people are even worse than us

The rise of Sinn Fein has provided a handy Bogeyman. Witness Willie O'Dea denouncing Sinn Fein's economic recklessness. In truth, the scale of the crisis requires a response far more radical than the Shinners have in mind. Instinctive conservatism led Sinn Fein, along with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, to support the catastrophic blanket guarantee of the banks. On the positive side, the notion of a senior Fianna Failer accusing anyone of economic recklessness has great comic value.

We all partied

No, we didn't.

It's the deficit, stupid

Regularly, with great sincerity, the media puts up conservative economists to lecture us that the money squandered on the banks is no big deal -- what matters is the deficit. There is, they gasp, a €19bn gap between Government income and expenditure. They use this to justify insane cuts and endless bank bailouts.

The deficit comes from the collapse of the tax base. It can be narrowed -- these are routine adjustments all economies make -- but it will not be eliminated by cuts, only by growth. It is the bottomless pit of bank bailouts that jacked up interest rates, rocketed borrowing and collapsed the economy. The deflationary cuts make things worse.

The rich lost most of their wealth in the crash

Eh, no. The evidence of such wealth is all around us. The austerity is applied by overpaid politicians and most savagely affects those on middle and low incomes. The current policy is to socialise the losses -- but to faint at the very thought of socialising the enormous profits made from inflating the bubble.

We can't keep scrounging off the Germans

Shamelessly, average citizens are portrayed as beggars, living off the generosity of thrifty Germans.

Eh, nein. Idiot German bankers invested money with idiot Irish bankers, who blew it. The EU is now lending Irish citizens money, at outrageous interest rates, to give to Irish bankers, so they won't collapse and leave German bankers in trouble.

We have the most generous Social Welfare rates in Europe

And the highest minimum wage. And the biggest public service. And Nama will make a profit. And it's the only game in town. These are just some of the untrue statements endlessly repeated as fact. And used to justify policies that protect those who created the mess and dump on the rest of us.

The Irish are too timid to protest

Walking to the Dail and chanting might well be good for the soul, but it won't change things unless the marches are massive. People know this. They want this awfulness to end. They will do what they are told, in hope that things will improve.

This makes sense. We are in the third year of the agony. There are many years to go. We have a generation of our sons and daughters to export. When walking to the Dail and chanting make sense, it will happen. What happens then, when the broad mass of the used and put-upon show that they're not timid but cautious, is where it gets interesting.

In the coming months, we will be offered a choice: we can get rid of the inept Fianna Failers and Greens, and replace them with dynamic younger politicians, with radical new policies that -- oh, well.

Unfortunately, circumstances and cunning have combined to offer us an alternative of jaded, wrinkled politicians, with jaded, wrinkled policies --hardly distinguishable from those of the current shower.

The media will seek to make a horse race of it, but the Fianna Fail and Green regime doesn't have a spoonful of democratic legitimacy -- having long exhausted the mandate they got in 2007.

So, with no great enthusiasm, we'll throw them out and take whatever government the numbers throw up. And the media will do its best to put a positive spin on it, and who can blame them, for are they too not human?

Sunday Independent

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