Sunday 15 July 2018

Media struggled for balance on property boom coverage

Stock photo
Stock photo
Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

At least the Central Bank is not accusing Michael Fingleton of destroying Irish journalism. That was the charge made by a colleague who said the news business was finished once journalists were able to get mortgages.

That is where Mr Fingleton came in. His Irish Nationwide was the first to actively take on the risky business of lending to journalists. It worked out quite well, what with the nice risk premium involved, but perhaps its success made him overconfident in later years.

This all came to mind when a blogger recently echoed my old colleague's opinion; saying that over-optimistic coverage of the 2003-07 property bubble was because journalists, with their houses and mortgages, had a vested interest in blowing the bubble and trying to make sure it did not burst.

Irish Nationwide was not involved this time. The blogger was commentating on - and taking issue with - a new piece of research on newspaper coverage of those extraordinary events. The author, Ciarán Casey of the Faculty of History at Oxford, finds little or no evidence that journalists' personal circumstances had much to do with how the property bubble was reported.

This study, like others of its kind, uses statistical techniques to analyse thousands of articles; in this case from the Irish Independent, the 'Irish Times' and 'The Economist'. The last-named has a philosophy mostly abandoned by others in the 1970s; its writers are anonymous but have sufficient expertise for it make little use of direct sources from outside.

This gives its articles particular force, as in the row over its predictions of an Irish property crash, and a particular relevance to Casey's analysis. With the Irish newspapers, as well as finding no support for the idea that journalists were minding their nest eggs, the analysis also dismisses ideological 'neo-liberal' bias, or control by managements and advertising departments.

Most journalists, including those in business sections, have a distinctly pinkish hue and are liberal only in the popular meaning of the word. The idea that they take their orders from the people in the better-furnished offices upstairs misunderstands how newspapers are produced. As the research says, and everyone knows, the newspapers' own opinion writers, like David McWilliams or Fintan O'Toole, were among the most sceptical about the boom.

Casey's findings are more subtle and seem closer to reality as perceived in newsrooms. They say that, while there may have been no direct bias in favour of those who argued that rising property prices posed no threat, there was an imbalance in the amount of coverage they got as compared with the critics.

Casey also identifies the reason: there were simply more on the optimistic side and they had something to say more often - in some cases every day. The problem was that too many of them worked for banks or stockbrokers. They are the people who are able to generate daily media material but quite clearly they have skin in the game.

This resonates because journalists at the time were very conscious of the resulting imbalances. There were hardly any voices on the other side of the argument, including official and supposedly independent institutions. The number-crunching does not pick up the fact that the regular press conferences by the Central Bank and Department of Finance became right bunfights, as reporters tried vainly to elicit any concerns or warnings from these bodies.

When they did get some morsel, it tended to get more coverage than the content strictly deserved; partly on the grounds of giving the readers the other view and partly that news, after all, is when the man bites the dog. For the same reason, analyses from bodies like the ESRI get bigger coverage than those from commercial outfits.

Casey acknowledges that an astute reader had enough information to decide to stay out of the property game, while pointing out that those who are that astute are probably also a minority. Booms create particular psychological infirmities. He quotes a survey from the period which found that the great majority believed house prices never fall.

He makes valid criticisms that newspapers could have done more to remind readers of the role, background and interests of those they were reporting. It is also true that the Irish media lacked expertise in some key areas, especially banking. It stretches credulity, however, to suggest as he does that they could become so expert as to adjudicate authoritatively between the competing views.

Financial bubbles present particular difficulties but are rare. The imbalance between majority and minority views, and the resources available to each, is a permanent issue for the media. In these days of Brexit, for instance, the issue of whether the European Union will fall apart through its own internal contradictions is clearly important, but only a handful of people in Ireland are saying it will.

Their views are reported from time to time but should it turn out that they are right, they will be entitled to feel hard done by in media coverage. But then, Europe presents particular difficulties too; some of which are examined in a recent paper from the Brussels think tank Bruegel.

We are familiar with this one too - the tendency to see the boom and bust through national eyes, which means coming to radically-different conclusions. The research examined four of Europe's leading newspapers; Germany's 'Süddeutsche Zeitung' (SZ), France's 'Le Monde', Italy's 'La Stampa' and Spain's 'El País'.

The analysis, says Bruegel, showed that SZ blames everyone but Germany for the disaster; the chief suspects being Greece and the European Central Bank. Le Monde blames everyone including France, but largely refrains from criticism of European institutions.

La Stampa sees Italy as the victim of unfortunate circumstances, including German-led austerity and Italy's own politicians. In an echo of our own, very similar situation, El País largely blames Spain itself or misconduct during the boom years preceding the crisis.

Of most interest, and perhaps concern, are the widely different attitudes to the ECB. The German paper sees ECB laxity as a cause of the crisis, while the others, to varying degrees, blame ECB harshness, albeit promoted by Germany. Irish media hostility to the ECB is even stronger than these examples, but they did not endure an ECB-led bailout.

There should be no surprise that the same events are seen through national prisms but it creates difficulties for eurozone policy-making. The absence of a European 'public sphere' means EU matters are not reported in the same way as are far less important national matters.

The Bruegel authors say even formal economic analysis of the monetary union tends not to take this difficulty into account. "If problematic developments occur outside the scope of dominant narratives, they may not be detected, and dealt with, in a timely fashion," they say.

"All the news that's fit to print," said the old hacks, but where and from whom to get it is always the major challenge - a challenge that can only grow with the decline of newspapers and the explosion of social media.

Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business