By Mark Kernan
The Irish Times is an “independent newspaper primarily concerned with serious issues for the benefit of the community throughout the whole of Ireland free from any form of personal or of party political, commercial, religious or other control”
— Geraldine Kennedy, former of the Irish Times, defending the paper at an inquiry into Ireland’s post-2008 banking and financial crisis and the media’s role in the lead-in to that crisis.
Mainstream Journalists in Ireland cling to the self-serving myth of objectivity and impartiality. These values we are told are meant to ensure professional fairness. Recently it seems though that many Irish journalists, in both print and broadcasting, are working backwards from these supposed values, filtering inconvenient facts to serve the establishment’s dominant narrative on how our society and its economic system should work, filtering the facts that is according to pre-existing beliefs.
In Ireland recently however something new is happening, if only at the nascent stage and it is something that is slowly puncturing the self-satisfied consensus of our very own domestic ‘political-media-corporate’ complex. More and more, the conceit of media neutrality is under scrutiny from an engaged public, and the notions of objectivity and fairness in reporting and commentating are now openly questioned as never before.
The current protests over the imposition of water charges and the installation of water meters-part of an ongoing process to increasingly privatise public utilities and state assets-and the at times near hysterical reporting of those protests by the states’ commercial and public television stations and newspapers ‘of record’, have highlighted serious questions concerning media pluralism generally, and the presumed impartiality of journalism in particular. In short: is the Irish media fair in its representation of public affairs, particularly the protests over the imposition of water charges? The answer is, unsurprising for some at least, a resounding no.
It is in this context that the ideological conformity currently on show by print and television journalists, the seemingly Pavlovian reflex of the Main Stream Media (MSM) in the service of elite power, has been nothing short of extraordinary to witness. The vehicles of ‘public record’, the Irish Independent, the Irish Times, independent radio station Newstalk and the national broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE), lead the Pavlovian groupthink. The media in Ireland, as in any other modern industrial society, acts as an intermediary, interpreting social reality and deciding what is of interest from all the scattered data out there, the question is of course who decides what is of interest in deciphering social reality.
In a recent paper by University College Dublin academic Julian Mercille, hyperlinked above, the concept of fiscal consolidation (the reduction of government deficits and debt) as government policy was investigated and evaluated in light of its presentation by the MSM to the Irish public. Between 2008 and 2012, roughly corresponding to the introduction of austerity-neoliberal speak for lower government spending, deep cuts to public services in the service of lowering budget deficits-Mercille found that of 432 editorials and opinion pieces examined, the vast majority supported fiscal consolidation.
It would be tempting to regard these results as just mass media subordination to elite influence and power, but it also bears all the hallmarks of a more deliberate ‘propaganda’ offensive. By any measure anyhow Mercille’s findings are an extraordinary indictment of the Irish media’s subjugation and subservience to the conjoined crucible of right wing Irish politics, and, somewhat more obliquely, the vested interests of Irish business. The findings, unsurprisingly, have been mostly ignored: empirical facts must not get in the way of the dominant propaganda narrative. In light of this, any notions of objectivity or impartiality-or a ‘diverse range of opinions’ in the Irish media-is little more than fanciful conceit. The parameters of acceptable discussion and opinion are indeed ideologically narrow.
In truth though there is little or no objectivity or impartiality in the Irish media, or any other MSM for that matter. But the malaise in which the Irish MSM presently finds itself is much more deep-seated than this. Rather it is that ‘journalistic objectivity’ itself is really nothing more than a highly convenient ideological mechanism, a slight of hand, something taught in the ethics class in journalism 101, but soon to be forgotten once the pressures of working in the modern media environment exert themselves. The commercial pressures for instance of which we have heard much of from the British Daily Telegraph of late.
As Glenn Greenwald argues, the ‘holy grail’ of objectivity so beloved by MSM journalists-where straight facts are presumed untarnished by ideology or agenda- is the great founding myth of liberal journalism. And it is the myth upon which all other myths rest. For if you believe yourself to be objective and impartial, at least within your own ethical value system and the value systems of your peers, well, then, why bother examine those unexamined assumptions.
The framework of assumptions upon which the ‘news’ is interpreted is therefore sacrosanct, and the institutional groupthink, especially incestuous in the Irish context, is both produced and reproduced by professionals who no doubt truly believe that their news choices, emphases, and omissions are objective and fair.
Similar to the idea which liberal economists cling to, that limitless economic growth is possible without grave environmental devastation and social dislocation, so too then does mainstream journalism attach itself to the idea that it is genuinely impartial and objective. So in this equation we are lead to believe that: the news is the object ‘out there’, the raw data waiting to be interpreted; the journalist is the ‘neutral’ and subjective observer, free of bias and opinions; and the media ‘end product’-the journalistic output-is the ‘impartial’ truth, or, as the legend goes, as close as can be to the truth.
But if we apply commonsense, and if we also borrow, loosely for the sake of analogy, the idea from quantum physics that the observer of a phenomenon can never be separated from the subject they are investigating, in other words in the context of social reality there can be no such thing as neutrality and objectivity in human affairs, never mind even in the study of sub-atomic particles, then journalistic objectivity is either a convenient myth, a ruse, or both. It follows then that we are all intrinsically interconnected with the social world, there is no privileged position of objectivity, the moment you engage with social phenomenon in all its messy complexity; you are part of it. There is no escape from your biases, preferences, opinions, or subjectivity. There can be no neutral or impartial observance of human affairs, no privileged position of objectivity.
Moreover, any interpretation of ‘the facts’ is always value-laden, and never value-free. Bias, conscious or otherwise, always exists. For example, even the choice of a particular topic is not a neutral act. In the mid-twentieth century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper challenged the notion of objectivity in the social sciences, asserting that all observation in the social sciences comes from a subjective point of view, up until then it was largely accepted as an unassailable fact that objectivity existed as unquestionable reality. Empirical objectivity as a concept was therefore, he suggested, inherently limited. However despite this he did not suggest it was of no importance, conversely, he saw empirical evidence as being important in gaining understanding of social reality, albeit a cognitively bounded reality.
What we do have though is a willingness to be consciously aware of our biases, and to guard against them as best we can. Our cognitive biases are after all not completely immutable. In other words, if we strive to be intellectually honest, and strive to be aware of our intrinsically subjective way of perceiving the world, then we must employ a critical consciousness rigorously, something which has been sorely missing in media coverage of the protests against the privatisation of water in Ireland.
The Silence of the Ideological Lambs
MSM Journalistic ‘objectivity’ is a carefully crafted veil of distortion, an exercise in ‘taking out the people’s eyes, and an ideological exercise in the blatant mystification of social reality ‘out there’- varying only in degrees of distortion rather than in any real substance.
The production of mainstream news in Ireland is carried out by journalists who are ‘culturally reliable’, and who are socially amenable to the deeper values and norms of both their editors and proprietors. They have internalised those values to the extent that they have become unexamined truths, ‘objective’ and obvious truths even: on other words, ‘just the way things are’; the de facto explanation of all deeply reactionary people when all critical analysis fails them in the face of reasoned argument.
These presumed values now amount to a journalistic catechism, doctrinal in nature, ideological in output, and therefore unquestionable.
The great shibboleths of liberal journalism-‘balance’, ‘fairness’, ‘impartiality’, ‘independence’-are hollow claims with little basis in reality if examined closely. Rather they serve an ideological purpose, to protect the hidden structures of social, political and cultural dominance, rather than seriously expose them.
The vast majority of Journalists in the Irish MSM are in their positions not necessarily because they are the best people for the job, rather it is that they fit the designated role, a role with specific predetermined functions; they won’t rock the boat and they are collectively and individually: they are in other words ‘a safe pair of hands’. The incisive and probing questions, the multifaceted why questions you could say, will not be asked by people who probably don’t even think to ask those questions in the first place. In a very real sense, this institutional groupthink resembles a form of ‘neoliberal-induced’ totalitarianism in the Irish MSM; not only must journalists not ask the difficult questions, but also they won’t even think about them either, or perhaps, more accurately, they won’t allow themselves to think about them.
The parameters of acceptable discourse and investigation have been hermetically sealed, and thus are largely impervious to authentic democratic enquiry. A state of affairs which even the European Commission felt the need to address in 2013, concluding that, amongst other things, consolidated-corporate media ownership now actively, ‘reduces the quality of journalism’. Even more ominously for democracy is the Commission’s’ finding that the, ‘excessive influence of media owners…on politicians and government and the covert manipulation of political decisions [is now] in favour of hidden economic interests.’
In this context, in the current media landscape in Ireland, a landscape long since co-opted by a particularly virulent strain of Neoliberalism newspeak, to ask critical and awkward questions about the political and economic hegemony of national and global elites would be unimaginable and unthinkable-bad form even. To ask even more serious questions about the opaque relationship between concentrated media ownership and the objectivity and impartiality of the global and domestic media is even less likely-particularly bad form. It could get deeply embarrassing, an inverted conflict of interest you might say.
The Structural Context: Complicitous Silences and Objective Truths
In recent decades, media ownership has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of billionaire businessmen and large multi-industry conglomerates. In consequence, the global media industry is for all intents and purposes owned by large corporations and wealthy people. In Ireland as elsewhere these large transnational corporations are arguably the dominant institutions of our day with immense financial and economic power, consequently they have disproportionate political influence and leverage with and within the political system, to the detriment of other groups in society .
Large media corporations operate in exactly the same way as any other large corporations. They are legally bound to pursue and maximise profits. In other words delivering profits to stockholders takes precedence over all else.
This analysis can also be applied to what could be loosely described as a ‘multinational corporation-global finance industry nexus’, a globalised nexus argued by some as now no longer subordinate to the regulatory state. In effect a detached globalised elite, and therefore, it is posited, largely out of reach of both national and international law. They are also largely out of reach of real critical scrutiny by the MSM. The reason being is that the MSM is now a constitutive and an inter-woven part of those elites.
In Ireland we now have our very own media tycoon, who has through his corporate media empire a worrying monopoly on public opinion. Denis O’ Brien, Ireland’s richest man now owns or has a controlling share in a large part of the Irish media landscape.
O’ Brien recently increased his stake in Independent News and Media (INM), the biggest private media group in the country, to almost 30%, as a result he is now the group’s largest shareholder. Additionally, he is also the founder and owner of media holding company Communicorp Group Ltd which has extensive radio interests in Ireland, including two of the country’s most popular stations. Unsurprisingly he is also highly politically connected, having extensive ties to the current majority government party, Fine Gael.
To round off the incestuous political, economic, and media nexus, and sometimes bewilderingly nebulous loop that is Irish political and commercial life, O’ Brien also owns GMC Sierra. In 2013 GMC Sierra procured a state contract to install water metres in Ireland.
Currently there are demonstrations against the installation of water metres by GMC Sierra by a mobilised and increasingly politicised public. Earlier this year four protestors were jailed for breaking a high court injunction ordering them to stay 20 metres away from meter installations. Other protests are currently ongoing.
There has at times been aggression at the protests between the water protestors, the Garda (Irish Police) and the GMC Sierra workers fitting the metres, although as general rule the Irish media has chosen to frame the violence as attacks on the workers and the Garda, and not as citizens resisting the imposition of ultimately the privatisation of their water supply. The protests have occurred predominately in working-class urban areas, the very areas that have suffered the most from years of brutal austerity policies enacted by successive right-wing governments. Again, the MSM almost overwhelmingly has failed to expose this fundamental truth as crucial contextualisation in the ongoing water protests. Water may be the catalyst in these protests, but deeper is a widespread disaffection not only with neoliberal economic policies but also with the way Irish politics in general is organised and practiced.
Yet the unexplored cause and effect relationship between events and the general failure by the Irish MSM to connect the investigative dots should not come as a surprise. As Harold Pinter observed brilliantly in his Noble speech lecture, Art, Truth and Politics, in the context of deliberate media myopia in relation to deaths caused by American foreign policy wars, but just as applicable to the discussion here: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.” Pinter’s last two sentences in particular pinpointing precisely the problem of deliberate media blindness.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted that not only do elites control, influence and maintain power by dominating the political and economic levers, but also by controlling the cultural discourse as well and hence reproducing its cultural power and influence through what he described as institutionalised cultural capital. By control of the cultural discourse or ‘legitimating discourses’, Bourdieu stressed ideological cultural organs, newspapers for instance, by which information and knowledge is disseminated to the wider public. Whereby, amongst other consequences, alternative discourses are delegitimised, or as he noted: “The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need of words, and ask no more than a complicitous silence.” In other words, what is not said by omission of content and context is as important as what is actually said and printed. Moreover, it is worth noting that the complicitous nature of self-imposed silences by journalists is in stark contrast to the supposed pluralistic values of liberal journalism.
In a somewhat similar vein, and emanating from a political economy viewpoint, but probing deeper into the actual mechanisms by which these ‘objective silences’ are achieved, Noam Chomsky argues, in relation to the relationship between the media and liberal democracies in western societies, that media professionals rather than being ‘adversarial’ and ‘speakers of truth to power’ largely function well within the ideological structures and framework of the state. Consent and conformity therefore is not only manufactured by commercial ideological discipline, for example the commercial interests of owners, or, in the case of public broadcasting, the implicit political values and attitudes of the board of governors of RTE, but also by an internalisation of values by media professionals that correspond to the doctrinal values of the media institution, should that institution be a newspaper, or for that matter the state broadcaster itself. RTE’s twelve person executive board for instance is made up from a very narrow socio-political spectrum. Moreover, the selection process is based on the nomination of the minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, who has six nominations. Followed by The Oireachtas (parliament) Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources which proposes four members to the Minister, the Minister then decides on their ‘suitability’, which criteria this suitability is based on is not completely disclosed however. All that is available on ‘suitability’ is a reference to section 82(1) of the Irish Broadcasting Act, 2009, which states that a person must have competency or experience in for example media affairs, public service broadcasting, business or commercial affairs, legal affairs, trade unions, or digital technologies.
In reality however the process is open to the charge of political patronage and is lacking, to say the very least, in any real democratic accountability.State board appointments are notoriously partisan in Ireland, partisan that is in the service of elite influence and power. Good corporate governance, albeit a nebulous term at the best of times, means the inverse of what it is meant to mean in crony capitalist Ireland.
There have been numerous examples of Bourdieu’s complicitous silences in recent months in Ireland from the MSM in regards to water protests. In fact the silences are unvarnished in their partisanship, and there is good reason for this. There is a sense of raw panic in the air in halls of media power, panic over losing the dominant news narrative, social reality is now much harder to manage and public opinion is in a state of flux: democratic protest has broken out in all its messy and often unmanageable reality. The dominant legal and political forces in Irish society have reacted predictably to this unexpected tumult from a previously quiescent population with, for instance, blatant political policing.
As a result there have been accusations by many on the left of a concerted legal and political effort by the state to impose a deliberate ‘chilling effect’ on the protests. The MSM almost overwhelmingly have played their designated role as defenders and cheerleaders of the establishment’s response to the protests.
The wave of democratic dissent and protest has been purposely delegitimised by the Irish media through wielding, as Bourdieu would have it, their institutional cultural capital.
Firstly, in favour of respecting of ‘the rule of law’, for the law (often hailed as a neutral public good, in theory at least; rather it is a disciplinary tool) when it suits, is seemingly above reproach. We have a two-tier judicial system functioning along similar ideological lines as the mainstream media, the bulk of whose members probably truly believe that they act independently and objectively, and without prejudice. ‘Equality before the law’ is the familiar canard, reverently affirmed again and again by people within the establishment echo chamber, yet the degradation of this noble concept, rarely actually practiced in any real sense, is ongoing.
And secondly, in favour of constitutional Irish politics as it has always been practiced. That is, the cosy economic consensus practiced by successive governments, and the culturally stagnant political order, where open clientelism and gombeenism (shady wheeling and dealing) still reigns supreme. Indeed just below the lofty cynical political rhetoric, gombeenism is the default position of the official body politic. Certain establishment media commentators have recently even begun to bemoan the population’s growing loss of faith in political institutions, failing to make the crucial link between the corrupt institutional ‘cause’, the kleptocracy masquerading as democracy, and the inevitable political and social effect; the rage of a disempowered citizenry. Yet again, the deeper ‘why’ questions are not satisfactorily asked by the MSM, or even understood.
The employment of propagandised cultural capital as an ideological tool by the MSM in Bourdieusian terms has been striking, and the uniformity of MSM responses to the ‘threat’ to democracy as it is practiced in Ireland even more so.
But importantly, possibly for the first time ever in Ireland, there is now a crisis of legitimacy in relation to large sectors of the MSM to add to the scepticism over other elite institutions. Large numbers of people’s eyes ‘have been put back in’, and they are highly sceptical and even angry at what they now see.
Media institutions are of course not completely monolithic in journalistic output or even news content however, variance in attitudes and opinions does, and can, occur, even if it is only within a very narrow spectrum of acceptable opinion. For every George Monbiot in the Guardian or Fintan o’ Toole in the Irish Times there are scores of other conformist voices. Occasionally even, some decent journalists actually do their job despite the ideological strictures. And the prosaic demands of news gathering, and sub-editing are undoubtedly important factors in producing and condensing the news. Nevertheless, the analysis employed here asserts that there are very real pressures to conform to certain ‘standards’ in the name of ideology, should those standards be the fiction of objective impartiality and balanced reportage.
However as has been pointed out by Chomsky and others, the problem with balance and neutrality is that it is more often than not a mechanism to deflect away from where the actual blame lies, thus distracting and minimising the real problems. A technique more akin to damage limitation techniques of public relations mitigation than serious investigative journalism: ideology is masqueraded as ‘neutral’ fact
The ideological filtering out of inconvenient facts by the complicitous silence of much of corporate journalism has serious consequences for citizen’s understanding of the social world around them. The myth of liberal pluralism as it relates to the current model of the fourth estate as an independent watchdog, autonomous and objective, a pluralism of competing views in the market place, or so we are lead to believe, is just that: a convenient myth, a means of surreptitiously putting out the people’s eyes. Rather than exposing Irish society’s panoply of economic, social and political illnesses the MSM instead reinforces and perpetuates the hegemonic interests and values of elites. The record, unsurprisingly, is not being set straight. Instead all we have is near silence.
Mark is a member of the People Before Profit Alliance in Cork and is a freelance journalist, writing on human rights, development and the media, and an independent researcher, covering areas such as indigenous rights and control over natural resources and the exploitation of indigenous and nomadic peoples lands by the extractive industries. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org