Print and Power

Henry Silke speaks to author Julien Mercille

TCD’s Julien Mercille has recently published a much anticipated book looking at the role of the Irish media in the current crisis. Mercille’s work has looked at the Irish media’s treatment of the property market, and found that the media’s hugely favourable view of the market helped to sustain the pre-2008 rise in house prices. He also looked at the treatment of fiscal adjustment programmes in opinion pieces and editorials between 2008 and 2012, finding an overall bias towards support for fiscal adjustment in 55% of articles (with opposition in 12% of articles); however Mercille argues that the percentage of opposition articles may be overstated as in many cases the opposition was only against a single element of cutbacks such as library or education budgets, whereas only 3% of articles not only opposed cutbacks but also called for greater spending. In other words, newspapers overwhelmingly supported policies of austerity. LookLeft spoke to Julien about his perspectives on the Irish media, and how political ctivists might relate to what has proven to be anything but an objective observer.

Has Irish journalism failed in its so-called “watchdog” role?

Yes it has. There is of course a lot of criticism of Government policy in the Irish media, but this criticism is overwhelmingly minor or tactical, in that it doesn’t often challenge the main principles of policy. For example, the media has been overwhelmingly in favour of austerity, and the debate in the national media became how best to implement it, as opposed to saying what should have been said, that it does not work to revive economies in a downturn.

All along the economic crisis, the media consistently endorsed and supported virtually all government policies (the major ones, at least), confining debate to details and losing sight of the big picture

The media serves the interests of its owners and the corporate class of which they are part. They serve an ideological function in presenting government policy and interests in a positive light. All along the economic crisis, the media consistently endorsed and supported virtually all government policies (the major ones, at least), confining debate to details and losing sight of the big picture.

Do you think the severe concentration of media ownership in Ireland plays a role in this?

Yes, to some extent. A lot of the media is owned by Independent News and Media, for example. But an issue that’s probably more important to me is the nature of media entities. As of now, they’re all corporate or state-owned with significant commercial interests (RTÉ), so even if you had more of those, it would be better, but not that much. What’s missing is a diverse media in the sense of more alternative, strong media outlets. That would provide significantly more diverse coverage, alternative viewpoints, etc.

What about RTÉ? Has the public media been any better at covering the crisis?

No, it’s the same thing. It’s owned by the Government, so it’s no surprise that it reflects Government views. For example, during the housing bubble years, RTÉ’s Prime Time show, the leading current affairs programme, ran about 700 shows. Only 1% of its shows addressed the housing bubble, let alone criticised it.

What is your advice to political activists in terms of relating to the media?

On the one hand I’d say try to present your message in a way that’s “respectable” so as not to worsen an already difficult situation in reaching out to the media and getting covered. On the other hand I’d say that it’s not good to change your message and actions too much just so that the media will be more likely to give you coverage, it’s better to do what you think is best for whatever project you have, and not think too much about “convincing” the media to give you coverage, otherwise it can often lead to hitting walls and waste of time and going in the wrong direction. So a balance has to be struck and that depends on context and the specific case at hand.