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Sunday, 3 October 2010

Doomsday...

Doomsday media coverage and the matter of the truth...

A bit like the rain in a Frank McCourt novel, the bad news on the economy never stops pouring down on us. That picture of Ireland now seems firmly set in the opinion of the international media. Once the sick patient of Europe dutifully taking its medicine to help it get better, we are now, as the doctors might say, experiencing an adverse clinical event that is threatening our very life. The cure might be killing us.

Last week's extremely disappointing news that the economy had contracted again by 1.2% in the second quarter added yet another symptom to the many more that erupted within just a few days: international bond market rates at record levels upping the price of government debt and therefore necessitating an even worse budget; long-term unemployment up; emigration up; 110,000 households in arrears on electricity and gas bills. The list of damaging symptoms was endless.

All last week, international
commentary from the Wall Street Journal to the Financial Times, from the Guardian to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, conducted postmortems over what has gone wrong as Erin goes ever more broke.

Even Ed Balls, a close colleague of former British prime minister Gordon Brown, has joined in the dissection of our economic entrails. "These figures are a stark warning to governments across Europe including our own," he said. "[Ireland's] is not a credible economic strategy because lower growth and fewer people in work and paying taxes ultimately leads to a bigger deficit, not a smaller one."

The role of the media in the negativity gripping the country was raised last week by some of the biggest names in business and finance. Has media coverage become part of the problem? Gerry Keenan, chairman of the Irish Association of Investment Managers, condemned the "almost hysterical endorsement" of doomsday scenarios surrounding our ability to borrow on the bond markets.

Communicorp chief Denis O'Brien argued that Ireland's credit rating was being damaged by "cheap shot" commentators. "Irresponsible, speculative articles, while they make great headlines, are impacting our international credit rating around the world," he said. He also condemned one newspaper's coverage of the worldwide travel of Sean FitzPatrick's daughter as chronicled on her Facebook pages. It's not a view that would garner much support from the people of Ireland, and their children, who will pay for FitzPatrick's reckless choices for a long time to come.

John Corrigan of the NTMA asked the media to step into the shoes of a bond dealer to find out how s/he thinks about Ireland. The idea, from a man earning €490,000 a year (with a possible bonus of up to €390,000), that the interests of international speculators come before the concerns of taxpayers will not receive much welcome from those struggling to make ends meet.

Minister Brian Lenihan took a more pragmatic line. It was facile, he said, to expect "national back-patting" from the domestic media, but good and bad news had to be reported in a balanced way. The minister is right. The media has a responsibility to be balanced, responsible and credible in its reporting of this country's economic woes. But, as the late Vinnie Doyle, Irish Independent editor for almost 25 years, who passed away last week, said, the duty of truth to the reader comes first.

The biggest problem with the handling of the crisis is the failure of our political leadership to construct a comprehensible and honest narrative to help us understand what is going on and offer a step-by-step way out. As Danny McCoy of Ibec pointed out, if the debt crisis was deconstructed into digestible bites, like how much extra it will cost each household per week, there would be a better understanding of how to tackle the situation without losing the confidence to spend.

That failure is why both Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny are collapsing in the polls. Neither has connected with the public. Brian Lenihan's clarity has earned him trust. But Eamon Gilmore's articulation of the nation's anger is the reason he is riding so high in the polls.

At the same time, Gilmore is professionally cynical because he has not put any flesh on the policies he says he will implement in government. It's a clever game to promise that there is "another way", but until he provides a more detailed map of the course he intends the country to take, he may find that, in the real poll, his popularity is based on what the electorate regards as empty PR.

Frank McCourt, said of Angela's Ashes that he "just wanted to tell the truth as I experienced it". That is the motivation behind most media coverage of the economy. The trouble is, the truth as most people experience it these days is more misery than unbridled joy.


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