White noise, bleak hope: Irish media in the crisis

Gavan Titley takes a look at the grim reality of the southern media’s approach to the crisis but also sees cause for hope that their spell may be broken.

It would be strange, the 18th century philosopher Georg Lichtenberg remarked, if all that was worth knowing in science was discovered in Prussia. Yet ‘reality’ is fully known in The Irish Times HQ.

Writing in that paper on April 9th, political editor Stephen Collins perfected a line he has been crafting for months; we are where we are and there is no alternative, so it’s time to face reality. Anything that deviates from this is, of course, ‘populist rabble-rousing’. An unusually unkind editorial decision juxtaposed Collins article, on the same page, with one by economist Joseph Stiglitz.

In outlining how the ECB-IMF deal will strangle growth, increase inequality and lead to social unrest, Stiglitz pointed out that there are ‘high costs to postponing facing reality’. So, whose reality is it anyway?

The answer to this depends on what we expect mainstream media to do. On the one hand, The Sunday Independent will soon be issued in a special laminated edition, to help keep the bile on the page. On the other, the fumes of eviscerated politicians, wafting from TV3 studios after another night with Vincent Browne, have become opium for ‘the twittering classes’.

This is the conventional spectrum of mainstream adversarial debate, and the radical and progressive left knows well its openings, boundaries and limits. Indeed, traditional liberal conceits – that a vigilant media hold power to account, and engage in meaningful agenda-setting – are now transparently fictions in a context where the ideological flimsy of ‘we all partied’ so ‘let’s share the pain’ has had such structuring force.

In his new book Global Slump, David McNally argues that the current mutation of neoliberalism involves a concerted shift, not only of private debt to public debt, but to the ideological establishment of an austerity agenda designed to ensure the security of this transfer.

Sweeping media generalisations are risky, yet by and large mainstream media in Ireland has normalized this mutation. The general acceptance of the public and private sectors as cardinal ideological points – as if these people don’t know each other, or share lives, or as if these sectors aren’t economically interdependent – is an obvious example. Corporation tax is principally discussed as the totem that separates us from the apocalypse.

Or take a specific example: when the Dragon’s Den Democrats (or Ireland First, as a group led by business figures Dennis O’Brien and Dermot Desmond prefer to be called) produced a blueprint for ‘reform’ that, incidentally, mapped onto the conditions for their own further enrichment, they were handed the keys to the public sphere. Stung by criticism, an Irish Times editorial defended this in the name of ‘the public’s right to know’. Liberal conceit at work; the public had a right to Unite’s Alternative People’s Budget in December 2011, but I don’t remember a PDF placed helpfully on www.irishtimes.com.

Nevertheless, it is not all that useful to approach mainstream media in the crisis by simply trying to gauge the extent of an ideological consensus. This often ends up running like this: someone like Gene Kerrigan writes for The Sunday Independent therefore some critical stuff can creep through, versus, Kerrigan is the ideological exception, the acceptable dissent,that masks the broader rule. It is not useful because what is more important is that the extent and dimensions of the crisis in Ireland far exceed the capacities of media coverage to adequately map it. There is, as commentator Hugh Green has pointed out, a ‘systematic denial that there might be anything wrong with capitalism other than a severe bout of cronyism’.

There is also an over-concentration of media power, an ease of access for powerful lobby groups, routine intimacy and dependence on official sources, and, as the Fianna Fail meltdown and general election showed, a reductive professional fascination with the spectacle of power. And there are also good journalists, and good reports. But this is a given.

What the juxtaposition of Collins and the very mainstream Stiglitz shows is something else; that those evangelizing the neoliberal mutation are currently clinging to an analysis and set of prescriptions that are fast unraveling in a deepening global crisis.

This, perhaps, is the bleak hope: the general normalization of the ‘austerity’ agenda, and the fiction that this partly naughty, partly unlucky little nation has to take its pain, cannot survive contact with the global context for long. Not because it will rationally be disproved, but because securing the magical nature of this ‘reality’ requires more and more work, drawing more and more attention to its operations. Maybe this is too fanciful, but it is an attempt to think about what is emerging.

I was struck, listening to Morning Ireland the morning after ‘Black Thursday’, when further billions of euros was poured into a broken banking system, by a kind of hysteria. A series of bankers and economists, with not even the pretence that a dissenting voice would be interviewed, queued up to say that, in fact, only €24 billion was a relief, and that they really believed we have turned a corner.

But this is not the really real for the vast majority of people ‘taking the pain’ in this country. In the crisis, there are certain things that can be expected from mainstream media that, at present, are in short supply.

The new rhythms and pressures of the digital era, and reduced capacities for investigative journalism, do not mean that a concerted focus on the impact of ‘austerity’ on people’s lives and the social fabric is not possible. The ‘global crisis’, as philosopher Alain Badiou points out, is chiefly reported like a Hollywood thriller with an elite cast, and its impacts on the cinema audience, sitting suffering in the dark, underplayed or ignored.

Similarly, there has been little attempt to report on and think through the consequences and reactions to different types of default. The situation in Ireland needs to be meaningfully internationalized, beyond bare coverage of referenda in Iceland and riots in Athens.

However, the bleak hope also requires the progressive and radical left to inform and shape this internationalization, insistence on the toxic social costs of austerity, and the need, in a crisis, to think about futures that cannot be put back together in the image of the past. Stephen Collins is right; it is time for some rabble-rousing, in mainstream discourse and a lot of other spaces besides.

This article was published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.6