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.

Nicholas Leonard’s appointment as the first financial editor of The Irish Times in 1963 was a significant moment in the history of business journalism in Ireland. The business pages moved away from listing stock prices from Dublin and London to include more detailed news coverage and analysis.

It was a different world, and one in which transparency and accountability were less prominent concepts. Reporters had restricted access to information, and they were prohibited from attending some annual meetings. Leonard has written about how at one agm the company chairman brought him out a glass of sherry when the meeting concluded before informing him that all resolutions had been carried without dissent.

Financial journalism quickly emerged as a separate strand of news reporting. Other newspapers followed in expanding space allocated to business news. In later years weekly business supplements became a stable of every newspaper.

Business reporting has become more challenging in recent times as the financial world has become more complex. Even experts with specialised knowledge are sometimes unsure about some financial instruments. Robert Peston – the BBC’s business editor – has spoken of this challenge: “I was very concerned about the explosive growth of CDOs [Collateralised Debt Obligations] and I tried to explain them through my reporting. Doing so was a challenge, when even bankers creating CDOs were unable to describe them in terms than make sense to non-specialists.”

Financial data is not just increasingly complex but the expansion of online services mean reports are published earlier than every before. The time for analysis has shortened. Verification times have been reduced.

In this area of journalism the business reporter has undoubtedly acquired significant prominence. For a forthcoming research study, I recently examined the experts invited onto RTE’s Morning Ireland and its equivalent on Newstalk, Breakfast, to discuss economic and financial stories in the three months after the bank guarantee in September 2008.

The largest single category of guests on both programmes were journalists. And of those journalists finance or business was the dominant journalistic beat (57 per cent) against political (21.5 per cent) and foreign-based (21.5 per cent). Irish Times business journalists were the most prominent group of reporters asked onto these two programmes as contributors.

One of the features of this journalistic beat is that financial and business journalists tend to work in small circles dominated by financial sources. In a research study published in 2010 my DCU colleagues, Declan Fahy, Mark O’Brien and Valerio Poti, concluded that during the economic boom Irish business journalists “essentially became advocates” for bankers and property developers so as to maintain source access.

Other studies have highlighted the unequal relationship between financial journalists and their sources with the balance tipped in favour of sources. In this regard, insufficient attention has been paid to the increased power for the PR industry in Ireland in interpreting and explaining stories for reporters.

The ultimate objective of the two sides is very different. Journalists perform public-interest functions. PR executives work for the legitimate but vested interests of their clients. These relationships need greater consideration if we are to make sense of the media’s role in reporting the Celtic Tiger era.

Of course, the media as an industry also benefited from the boom. Newspapers saw their profits increase on the back of expanded property supplements. Broadcasters drew in audiences with television programmes celebrating property speculation in Ireland and abroad.

Property – and recruitment – advertising assisted commercial expansion, in the case of The Irish Times with a reported €45.78m purchase of property website The acquisition opened up questions about a potential conflict of interest, and still leaves open the speculative question of what impact even a fraction of that money would have contributed if invested in editorial expansion.

This is an important question in any examination of the role of journalists in reporting the boom. Over the last two decades as reporting has become more investigative in its nature, the Irish media has had a decent record in rooting out financial wrongdoing.

Cliff Taylor, a former Irish Times business editor, and Sam Smyth at the Irish Independent, respectively uncovered the unethical relationship between certain businessmen and politicians such as Charlie Haughey and Michael Lowry.

Might there have been more of this type of journalism during the Celtic Tiger era? Perhaps rather than focus on the responsibilities of business journalists as others have done, if the managers and proprietors of media companies are to learn lessons from the boom period it is that greater investigative work requires the resources to commit staff to to deal with the avalanche of complex financial information.

Today business journalists in The Irish Times face the same challenges as their counterparts covering other areas of Irish life – principally a lack of resources, both financial and time. One of the concerns of the ongoing crisis remains the huge imbalance in resources between struggling media outlets and the companies they report upon including, even still, the main financial institutions.

Dr Kevin Rafter is a senior lecturer in media and politics at Dublin City University