Sunday 26 January 2020

Colum Kenny: No amount of 'good news' stories will lift this burden

Rather than shoot the messenger, it's time to tackle those responsible for this mess, says Colum Kenny

It was a grouchy, petulant comment. But if you still do not understand how we ended up with our banks running amok, and weak financial regulation, then listen to what Taoiseach Brian Cowen said last week.

He yearns for the days, not long ago, when people were "on message" about the Celtic boom. Tame regulation and tame commentators.

He was reacting to reports that Ireland's credit rating had again slipped. Cowen did not lash those who got us here. Instead, he had a go at the media. "We have enough of this pervasive negativity all the time," he complained.

Here was a reminder of Bertie Ahern slamming those who were not on board the good ship Fantasy. In July 2007, the former Taoiseach said, "Sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity."

Ahern added, "I don't know how people who engage in that don't commit suicide because frankly the only thing that motivates me is being able to actively change something." He later apologised for his choice of words.

We know now that Ahern and his then Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, "actively changed" the financial future of Ireland. Their carelessness has created a burden that no amount of "good news" stories will lift.

But shooting the messenger is one of the oldest ways of responding to bad news. Cowen and his colleagues are surrounded by so many spin doctors that they are easily tempted to believe that official press releases define reality.

But denying reality is not an option. Claiming that "pervasive negativity" runs through the Irish media is at best a case of the Taoiseach fooling himself, and at worst a sad ploy to garner sympathy or bully his critics.

Cowen's tongue-lashing came as he struggled to respond to a decision by Moody's international credit rating agency, which downgraded Ireland's government bond ratings by a notch. Cowen claimed that Moody's is in fact "supportive of what the Government is doing", and he asked the media to note that.

One negative version had reported that factors influencing Moody's decision included "the Government's gradual but significant loss of financial strength; Ireland's weakened growth prospects; and the crystallisation of contingent liabilities from the banking system". The problem for Cowen is that this version was Moody's own summary.

"I would ask the media to look at all of the report," said the Taoiseach. So I read the whole commentary, and was not heartened. Moody's describes the reversal of Irish public finance dynamics as a fall from "virtuous to vicious", hardly a ringing endorsement of Cowen's Government.

Moody's has indeed changed Ireland's outlook from "negative" to "stable", now that we are downgraded, but even that change is based on big assumptions.

According to Moody's, Ireland's future stability depends on our "impressive adjustment capacity". Just how much more "adjustment" most people will tolerate remains to be seen.

Moody's acknowledges that Ireland fares well in cross-country studies that judge competitiveness and the ease of doing business, but it describes ESRI and Department of Finance forecasts as "optimistic" and predicts that the number of house completions is set to fall further.

Moody's even warns that things could get worse if it transpires that the banks have been more reckless and misleading than we thought. It expects that Anglo Irish Bank, in particular, may need further State support.

Not a bother then, Brian?

"Correction without discipline" is how Karl Deeter of Irish Mortgage Brokers last week characterised the Government's failure to overhaul the banks thoroughly. It is not the only part of Irish society that has not changed enough. Ivor Callelly is not unique. Given the chance, some of the old hands reveal their hopes that they might yet restore the preferred pecking order.

A feature of that pecking order has been that people who said awkward things, who asked too many questions, were marginalised as moaners, people who might more profitably commit suicide. Haughey and his henchmen set a bullying tone that his successors have echoed.

And so it was made difficult for journalists to get the information they needed to tell the truth. Freedom of Information rights were rolled back or evaded, defamation laws not radically reformed and corporate practice kept wrapped in mist. Transparency was promised, but not delivered.

What has been delivered, by the media, is an independent mechanism, set up at the insistence of Cowen's Government, to judge complaints that the press is not accurate or truthful, fair or honest. Cowen can take his complaints to the Press Council or to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Does he dare?

Now, more than ever, Ireland needs a strong and fair media. But too few media organisations support the kind of journalism needed to uncover the practices and policies that got us into trouble.

In fact, the Irish media can be very restrained. Last week, for example, RTE news damped down fears about the US economy. RTE reassured viewers that Ben Bernanke, whom RTE described as 'Head of the American Central Bank', had told Congress that "he stands ready to do whatever is necessary to help the US avoid a double-dip recession".

Major media from Los Angeles to London saw that story differently. They gave Bernanke his actual title, 'Chairman of the US Federal Reserve', and honed in on his forecasts of an "unusually uncertain" outlook and fears of a double-dip recession.

It was a warning to Ireland that we are not out of the woods. Unlike the USA and UK, we have not had the benefit of a change of government. Those who got us lost are still behind the wheel.

Perhaps Cowen should go to America to lecture the US media on its pervasive negativity. And create a more positive mood back home by not returning as Taoiseach.

Sunday Independent

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