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Tag Archives: competition

Media coverage of Pat Kenny’s transfer from RTE to Newstalk was of two types: celebrity gossip and business news, neither of which pays the slightest attention to how public controversy should be presented by broadcast media. The move prompted not even a mention of content.*

Think about it: the biggest name in Irish broadcast politics moves to a rival organisation and editorial policy will be unaffected by his going or his coming. That should be pretty shocking; it should prompt people in the industry to question their understanding of “rival” – or indeed “competition” or “alternative”.

It is easily forgotten that Newstalk’s purpose was to have been an alternative to RTE. Purveyors of the public consensus or conventional viewpoints moving between stations is a measure of the failure of a basic policy: it is simplistic to believe that broadcasting stations under different ownership will deliver choice in any meaningful sense of the word. If we want challenging, alternative, discursive media – or media nailed to any other praiseworthy communication adjective – we will have to regulate to make it happen. At this stage in the history of media it is pretty silly to continue to believe that competition alone will deliver.

Of course no one ever seriously believed that competition would deliver the range or type of media that is thought desirable; that’s why there are regulations to ensure balance, Irish language content, news, limited advertising etc. etc. The notion that different owners would deliver different political perspectives, or alternative or challenging points of view was entirely unfounded but still formed the basis of a belief that competition would be good for Irish public controversy.

The problem of course is stations staffed by bien pensants, having a shared perspective on the world, will inevitably compete for audience by offering not different content but different formats and personalities. There is a great deal to be said for this detached professional approach but it does lead to sameness and at this stage of its development it is quasi-institutional.**

Public Service Broadcasters in Ireland, like the UK, are subject to regulations in relation to coverage of public controversy and other matters broadly political. If a citizen considers a regulation to have been breached, he/she is entitled to submit a complaint and receive an explanation. The complaint may go to the BAI for determination. Having to explain oneself and be criticised in public is considered sufficient to ensure compliance. A problem, however, is that staging a thorough debate is not an obligation and cannot be a matter of complaint. Bluntly, it’s not something that need overly concern the producers. Now, a dismissive response would be to say that “thorough debate” is too vague to constitute an obligation. Firstly, that’s not true; most citizens have a grasp of what is meant and a list of features could be produced. Secondly, the essential feature of complaint as a compliance mechanism is that it forces people to respond, to say what they were trying to achieve in the programme. In short, if we wanted a debate, we’d make it an obligation.


There are two reasons for having representative democracy rather than direct democracy. There’s the numbers reason and the deliberative reason. The former rests on the obvious; that in anything other than a tiny society, direct democracy is impractical and representatives are necessary. (Let’s leave to one side the decreasingly futuristic possibilities that ICTs offer for direct participation and their dangers.) The latter – the deliberative reason – refers to the requirement that decisions be made slowly, based on information, argument and thought. The idea is that a legislator needs to be “professional” in the sense that the deliberative role is a fulltime job.

Now, clearly parliaments and parliamentarians tend not to conform to the ideal and the Dáil is a particular example. There are many reasons for this but one is the people’s tendency to elect representatives who are not able for the role, never considered deliberation to be their role, or consider their role as one of “getting stuff” for their constituency. It is often argued that PRSTV should be abandoned as a reform aimed at ridding the Dáil of or reducing the numbers of “clientilist”, constituency workers.

This suggestion is met with two objections. Firstly, there is the inverted snobbery objection, that we don’t want the Dáil dominated by up-market, educated types with fancy notions. Secondly, there is the roots objection, that a TD who does not engage in enormous amounts of constituency work  and constituent contact will somehow become detached from reality and lose his or her true purpose: to represent “ordinary” people.

Leaving aside the argument that a low quota under PRSTV makes it easier for a well known, local constituency worker to be elected, let’s look at another but similar feature of PRSTV. It could be argued that the coming election will be the one in which Labour for the first time will have to face the full rigour of constituency competition in a Dáil election. Up to this, Labour’s ambition seldom extended beyond one seat in any constituency and so, intraparty competition was rare for Labour. From now on, Labour candidates will have to compete with other Labour candidates. They clearly will not compete on ideological grounds and will have increasingly to compete (like most FF and FG candidates) on the basis of constituency service, i.e. clientilism.

If it is accepted by Labour that clientilism is wrong in itself or that it produces TDs who are quite simply “the wrong stuff”, the conventional argument – that intraparty competition dictates that candidates must compete by offering constituency services – will have to be faced. Labour will then have to demonstrate that the conventional argument is erroneous or side with those who want to move away from PRSTV.

Paul O’Donoghue, writing in the Irish Times on Sept. 9th , draws attention to the minor scandal that is wasting health insurance on silliness. I too have been exercised about this. Quite some time ago I complained to the VHI. My point essentially is that medical insurers, in paying for reflexology and the like, are saying one of two things: that these practices are medical treatments within the meaning of the Act, or that medical insurers can pay out for anything they wish. Moreover, VHI approval confers status – a degree of official medical approval which these practitioners crave.

VHI assured me that their decision to pay conferred no recognition that reflexology etc. were medical treatments. The decision to pay was determined solely by competition. In other words, if there is a competitive advantage in listing a practice for payment, it could happen; medical and scientific considerations are irrelevant.

Given that VHI is one operator in a market, I was sympathetic to their position and turned my attention to the regulator, The Health Insurance Authority. My point was essentially unchanged. If the Regulator, as guardian of the Acts, allows payment to be made for Reflexology and the like, the Regulator defines them as medical treatments. Response was swift and brief: the VHI and others were acting legally but this did not mean that the Regulator accepted that reflexology etc. were medical treatments. I tried many times to point out that unless the Regulator had a compelling argument, this is precisely what the decision meant. The thinking behind the Regulator’s decision was withheld and I had to change tack.

I asked for the matter to be put to the Authority, the board, for their consideration. I had been testing this form of citizen initiative for some time and to the credit of the HIA, I received full and friendly cooperation. I was aware that no one on the Authority had a medical or science background and assumed that there would be delay as they sought professional advice.

It would appear that the advice sought was legal and the advice – accepted by the HIA – is that health insurers can pay for reflexology etc. as long as they first provide adequate medical cover under the “Minimum Benefits Regulations”. This brings me back to where I started. If this stands, “medical treatment” in the Act is either meaningless or can be ignored once basic provision has been established. This produces a bizarre outcome whereby a health insurer can pay for reiki, Hopi ear-candling or indeed replacement windows!

It is clear that the intention of the legislation was to confine payment to medical treatments. It is equally clear that the intention of later minimum-benefit regulation was certainly not to permit payments for other than medical treatments. It is clear too that VHI do not consider reflexology a medical treatment. It is the HIA’s position, supported by legal advice, that control can be exercised over only “prescribed minimum benefits”. Beyond these, health insurers are not limited to making payments for medical treatments only and the HIA accepts no role in determining what is or is not included in a health insurance contract.

The basic problem remains. Payment by a medical insurer IS recognition that something is a medical treatment. It is more than a matter of practitioners having access to insurance funds; it is about official sanction. Uncomfortable or not, health insurers and the HIA are effectively a part of the medical establishment.

There really isn’t much engagement in the debate over reducing pay in Ireland. A small part of the reason is that the protagonists retreat into their terminological camps. One side uses the value-free lexicon of competitiveness and the other side emotes with reference to a “race to the bottom” in wages.

The truth is that the boom years had two parts: an internationally competitive, largely exporting part and a property boom. The former helped fuel the latter but the former ended years ago and industry has been moving to exploit cheaper labour abroad. This movement certainly is not recent.

Let’s face facts. Ireland flourished by WINNING a race to the bottom. Holding on to the jobs necessitated staying below the competition. Other than state subvention which would not be allowed under EU rules, holding on would have meant workers accepting that their income could not rise unless international competitor wages rose first or worse accepting a decrease in line with international competition.


It may be plain to see but it is seldom said: Competition can prompt price increases. The Aer Lingus price increase for credit card bookings is a useful lesson for anyone naïve enough to believe that competition always operates in the consumers’ interest.

“An Aer Lingus spokeswoman told The Irish Times the latest increase had been implemented ‘to bring the airline into line with its competitors’. Its main competition is Ryanair, which charges handling fees of €5 per flight segment for credit card bookings.” (I.T. 22nd August)