Monday 9 December 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Journalism is being sent to the spin bin

The media can't tell it like it is because it has surrendered control over the language, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

In A Midsummer Night's Dream (a play I've never seen or read), Shakespeare wrote about the "poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling", glancing from heaven to earth and back. "And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown the poet's pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name."

I've no idea why or how I came to memorise that in my teens (probably trying to impress someone), but I loved that notion of giving "to airy nothing a local habitation and a name".

In the humdrum world of journalism, that would translate as "we name things for what they are". In journalism, when our eyes roll in a fine frenzy, it's usually the drink. But the notion of naming things for what they are is at the very heart of the business.

All around, there are highly paid mouthpieces trying to shape how the world is seen. On one level, they're selling products or political leaders. David Cameron's wife is being used to prove to voters that 'Dave' is human and various movie stars are employed to make a watch or a piece of luggage seem cool. On another level, to enslave a country an army's PR department announces its desire to 'liberate' it.

Long ago, when politicians found public unease about having a 'Department of War', they renamed it the 'Department of Defence'. East Germany was a Stalinist dictatorship, so they called it the German Democratic Republic. As we got used to the techniques of PR, some of us twigged that any country that had to put the word democratic in its name was assuredly a hive of despotism. To this day, I assume until proven otherwise that any outfit with the words 'freedom' or 'liberty' in its title is a party to oppression.

In short, much of modern life is about naming things as something they're not, in order to slip them past a preoccupied citizenry. Without getting po-faced about it, in such circumstances it's obvious that the journalist's business of naming things as they are ought to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, for some reason -- perhaps lack of confidence -- we've grown used to allowing the spin activists name things for what they're not. How much less risky it is to get an 'expert' to define what is happening. In recent years, journalists allowed regiments of 'experts' employed by the credit industry, or property pimps, to cheerfully name the credit bubble for what it wasn't -- they called it an economic revolution led by entrepreneurs.

The deference continues. For instance, the current Aer Lingus row is labelled a dispute ignited by stubborn cabin staff, who wouldn't accept a 'recovery plan'. And the result is unfortunate 'job losses' in the form of 230 'redundancies'.

You'd never imagine that Aer Lingus brought in a management heavy, Christoph Mueller, specifically to reshape the company for the benefit of the owners. The renaming of what's happening is too much even for Leo Varadkar, the impeccably conservative Fine Gael front bencher.

Varadkar believes the company is trying to use state money to finance phoney redundancies. "These are not real redundancies," he says. "If the company wants to buy out the terms and conditions of staff, it should be done by agreement and the company should use its own resources. Taxpayers should not be landed with the bill." He sees the the Aer Lingus manoeuvre as a "bogus redundancy scam". Having less confidence, journalists continue to use the company jargon.

Note how there are no 'job cuts', only 'job losses', as though the 230 jobs will accidentally go missing, rather than being deliberately axed. (It's the same linguistic magic that eliminated poverty. No one is poor or 'deprived' these days, they're the 'less privileged'. Johnny on a sub-minimum wage, and his boss on three hundred grand, are both privileged -- it's just that Johnny is 'less privileged'.)

Such sleight of tongue didn't just happen, it's the result of the hard work of the people who name things as something they are not.

Which is fair enough. We can't complain that property pimps, mouthpieces for politicians and the banks, as well as the battalions of PR people, name things as they wish them to be seen. That's their job.

There's no need for journalists to allow them hijack a supposedly independent media.

In the 1980s, tax frauds worth hundreds of millions of pounds were carried out with the knowledge of the then Taoiseach, the Central Bank and the wider banking business. To keep alive a ragged economy further ravaged by tax frauds, there were deep cuts damaging the poor, the sick and the handicapped -- forcing honest businesses to the wall and subjecting the sick to pain and unnecessary, premature death.

The PR battle was won by those who named this as 'the rescuing' of the economy. Truly named, it was a massive transfer of resources to the wealthy, in which the sense of entitlement of the credit bubble was born.

Today, the economic collapse is such that the range of suckers targeted includes not only the poor, the sick and the handicapped -- but goes way beyond them. A similar transfer of resources is under way, this time it has been misnamed as 'getting credit flowing', the 'recovery plan' and the 'only game in town'.

On Friday, the media told us that the economy is "on the right track". This is a recurring story -- it could be (but never is) translated as 'Cowen is doing as we're telling him to do'. Friday's story came from Bloxham's stockbrokers.

It's hard to know why stockbrokers should be trusted to know any more about the economy than hairdressers or rat catchers. (In fact, since stockbrokers have a vested interest in how the economy is seen, I'd rather hear a hairdresser.)

Three months ago, businessman Michael O'Sullivan said, "Arguably the Irish bond market is being saved at the expense of Irish society."

Since he works outside the country, O'Sullivan can name things as they are.

Last week, in the Economix blog of The New York Times, Peter Boone and Simon Johnson named things as they are: "The (Irish) government has cut take-home pay of public-sector workers by roughly 20 per cent . . . guaranteed all the liabilities of banks and then began injecting government funds . . . The ultimate result of this exercise is obvious: One way or another, the government will have converted the liabilities of private banks into debts of the sovereign (i.e. Irish taxpayers)".

"Ireland had more prudent choices. It could have avoided taking on private bank debts by forcing the creditors of these banks to share the burden . . . But a strong lobby of real-estate developers, the investors who bought the bank bonds, and politicians with links to the failed developments (and their bankers) have managed to ensure that taxpayers rather than creditors will pay. The government plan is -- with good reason -- highly unpopular, but the coalition of interests in its favour is strong enough to ensure that it will proceed."

That coalition of interests is served by those journalists who name things as Mr Cowen's spin activists would wish them to be named -- who tell us we're 'Getting credit flowing' with a 'recovery plan' that is the 'only game in town'.

"There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn't." Not Shakespeare, Leonard Cohen.

Sunday Independent

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