The Tiger years: how well did Irish media hold financial elites to account?
Several studies have criticised media outlets for their reporting of the boom years. But financial journalism could be said to have had a good recession
Few, if any, opinion articles in this newspaper’s history captured public attention as did Morgan Kelly’s post-Christmas analysis on The Irish Times business pages in December 2006. Under a headline, “How the housing corner stones of our economy could go into a rapid freefall,” Kelly, a professor of economics at UCD, departed in dramatic fashion from the established narrative that the Celtic Tiger had an indefinite lifespan.
Many in the business and political worlds were deeply unhappy with Kelly’s forecast of impending doom. When she retired in 2011, Geraldine Kennedy recalled the severe criticism she received as Irish Times editor not just for damaging the commercial interests of the newspaper but also the national interest.
In their recent book on the economic collapse, Anton Murphy and Denis O’Donovan identify the media as one of the groups that, explicitly or implicitly, shaped the environment in which major economic mistakes were made during the boom years.
Debate is ongoing as to how well the media fulfilled its role in holding financial elites to account in the period leading up to the financial crisis. In numerous international academic studies, financial journalists have been strongly criticised – and have also engaged in a degree of self-criticism – for their failure to report the banking crisis in advance.
Conor Brady, who edited this newspaper from 1986 to 2002, has highlighted how some pundits and academics issued warnings but that only a “very small minority” of journalists joined them.
There were dissenters from the party atmosphere of the boom. Along with Morgan Kelly, other contrarian voices included UCG economist Alan Aherne in this newspaper, Shane Ross in the Sunday Independent, David McWilliams in the Sunday Business Post as well as RTÉ broadcasters George Lee and Richard Curran.
During the 2002 general election The Irish Times in its editorial articles, and Garret FitzGerald in his weekly column, registered concern at the extravagant spending policies being pursued by Charlie McCreevy, the then Minister for Finance. “This election is taking place in a dream world which is about to become a nightmare,” FitzGerald warned.
Subsequent economic figures driven by the continued property boom proved the former Taoiseach wrong in the short-term but his assessment of the underlying situation was entirely correct.
Mark Coleman and later Paul Tansey, who held the position of Irish Times economics editor, also questioned optimistic government and opposition growth forecasts. During the 2007 general election campaign, Coleman asked all the main parties about the validity of their economic projections. But, at that stage, nobody – including the politicians and the wider public – wanted to think beyond a continuation of the good times.
Financial journalism in Ireland was born in earlier era of similar economic expansion. The development of business journalism in the 1960s followed on from the new outward looking industrial policy promoted by Sean Lemass and TK Whittaker.