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Tag Archives: Stephen Collins

 “A specially commissioned Irish Times poll in 2014 revealed most people had no idea the bulk of government spending went on social welfare payments, including pensions, and public service pay. Most people believed politicians’ pay accounted for more spending than either of these items.” – http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/stephen-collins-ireland-not-immune-to-virus-that-spawned-donald-trump-s-success-1.2747037

The media, according to the author of the article, Stephen Collins, must take some responsibility for this ignorance. He’s wrong. For once the media cannot be responsible. Ignorance – no, let’s be blunt, monumental stupidity – on this scale wasn’t caused by media. The survey result suggests a spectacular and basic failure in the Irish education system.

Regularly a citizen hears it said or reported in the media something along the lines of, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …” Average intelligence and slight education should prompt reaction, “Hang on, that can’t be true!”

Right, let’s admit intelligence for all. That means turning attention to education. It is unacceptable that the majority of respondents in a properly conducted survey are incapable of participation in a basic public controversy. That such mass incompetence has been found should prompt a rush to research in order to find the root of the failure.

Ok, let’s not over-react. It was one survey and its purpose was not to measure educational attainment, but it does accord with my experience as a lecturer, a consumer of media and a citizen who engages in casual conversation at bus stops.

Apart altogether from the concern that a significant number of citizens cannot participate in a public controversy, there should also be concern among those who view education as training for work. That is to say, there is little point in fussing over the proportion of students taking higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate or the general maths needs of industry, when it would seem that perhaps the majority have no grasp of numbers and quantity.

Returning to the degree of blame for public ignorance which journalists should bear, it may be that they are as much victims of a failure to educate as the citizens whose views they report. Consider the possibility that many journalists think it makes sense when someone says, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …”

In today’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins writes about media portrayal of the Irish economic experience. His title is “Things not nearly as bad as they are often portrayed”. I’ll leave it to others to make the justified response that inequality of income determines how bad things are in each citizen’s life. I want to draw attention to an interesting point that he makes: he says that there is a “dominant media narrative” in Ireland and that it is shared by “anti-austerity campaigners”. He is spot-on and he is saying something very important about an Irish paradox: “anti-establishment” has been assimilated and is part of the defence of existing structures of inequality.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Fianna Fáil was built on local service, on taking account of what ordinary people said to a party which had consciously insinuated itself into every part of Irish civil society. This of course contributed to making clientelism essential for anyone seeking election but it also made it possible for a party to govern the state for the greater part of its history while being anti-establishment. This is neither mad nor a joke. On the contrary it is an easily understood system with a plausible political theory. In Ireland today the media and the anti-austerity opposition play their part within the system.

It goes like this. The “political class” are said to control unlimited finance. Deficiencies in public spending are caused by the stupidity and/or meanness of the political class. Progress is made by putting pressure on the political class to fund one interest group at the expense of another. Pressure is organised and managed by the anti-establishment comprised of journalists, advocates, activists and non-government elected representatives. The anti-establishment position deserves the older and more elegant label, bien pensant.

While it has nasty, inegalitarian outcomes, as a stable, conservative structure, it is fascinating. The term “political class” is now accepted by leftists. Everyone can disparage the political class and side with a disadvantaged group without ever having to consider priorities.

Oh yes, and the majority of the top 10% of earners can regularly be described as middle income, while no one laughs.

In an interesting coincidence two articles in Opinion and Analysis in the Irish Times of March 10th share a common failing. They fail to recognise that journalists have a responsibility to facilitate a citizen who is trying or even willing to reflect on a public controversy.

The articles by Stephen Collins* (“What this next referendum is really all about”) and John Gibbons** (Shadow of a doubt: how they fooled us about a killer habit”) correctly blame tricksters for debasing public controversy but they neglect to extend the blame to those who publish the lies, flak, scare stories, doubts – call them what you will. The bizarre claims of opponents of EU integration and the bogus science presented to fool people into doubting the dangers of first smoking and then global warming, depended on compliant journalism. Naomi Oreskes, whom John Gibbons mentions, describes how well-organised bodies use the existing conventions and rules of journalism to undermine public understanding. She is spot on and unless Irish journalists choose to elevate truth above balance, the upcoming treaty debate will become a familiar circus.

* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107126.html

** http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107142.html