Did the media fail to sound alarm bells before the financial crisis?

 

Many people in key positions were aware of problems before our financial tsunami struck, yet these did not make it into the mainstream media in a coherent and authoritative way

COVERING THE Crisis was the topic of a recent two-day seminar organised in Brussels by the European Journalism Centre. Participating journalists concluded that their colleagues had “failed to sound the alarm bells effectively”. The seminar also looked at the Irish situation, probing how journalists might report events if this country were to follow Iceland into the economic abyss.

It prompts the question of how Irish journalism has covered the story so far.

There has been much fine reportage on the evolving crisis in the banks. Painstaking inquiries revealed the structural abuses in Fás and elsewhere in the State’s expenses regime.

Various news media have presented vivid detail about the extent to which regulatory responsibilities were abandoned by the State. Others have outlined how banks dodged around the rules to advantage favoured individuals.

But there are broader issues to be addressed in regard to the role of the news media.

Did they do enough to bring the various developments together in a way that enabled people to form a picture of what was happening?

Was the forming of this crisis reportable earlier? Were emerging trends apparent? Did they do as good a job as they might have in flagging the approaching storm?

The news media do not carry the solemn responsibilities of government, senior public servants or, indeed, of regulators or economists in the employ of the State.

They will rightly say that theirs was not the primary responsibility for identifying the emerging crisis. Why should they be expected to have seen what politicians and civil servants apparently did not? But they have a public role. They are “the gatekeepers of change”, “society’s looking-glass” and “the watchdogs”.

They have, or should have, the role of standing back from the consensus, of asking the hard questions – especially when the rest of society appears to be in comfortable agreement on most of the answers.

Irish society – as in most other western democracies – has accorded many privileges to the news media. They have access to all levels of government, and they are enabled, to a considerable degree, to examine all of the components of the decision-making process.

We have seen the evolution of a banking crisis; a crisis of public finances; a crisis of competitiveness; a failure of political and administrative competence; a failure of regulation. We can recall instances of focus upon some or all of these. But can it be said that these were linked together and raised as sustained concerns in any of the principal news media until the tsunami had struck?

Why did Irish journalism seemingly not achieve the same clarity of perspective as some of its counterpart practitioners elsewhere who were looking in upon us?

As far back as 2005, for example, the New York Timesreported that Dublin had become “the Wild West of European finance”.

In the same year the Economistsingled out Ireland’s housing and construction industry as the most vulnerable in Europe. A year earlier, the Economist warned that Irish property prices were overvalued by 42 per cent.

Irish news media had access to the same data. Moreover, in recent decades all of the principal Irish news media have appointed correspondents in many specialised areas who are possessed of relevant professional training.

Is it possible, paradoxically, that over-specialisation by journalists has had the effect of making it more difficult for the news media to see the wood for the trees?

Perhaps they did not fully join up the dots and see the bigger picture.

Perhaps, in spite of the proliferation of journalists engaged in political coverage, the news media did not sufficiently grasp the nexus that ran between political corruption, ideological arrogance, regulatory abdication and greed – all of which created the conditions for the development of the present crisis.

Or could it be that some were influenced subliminally by the rebuke issued by the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern, when he wondered why those who were talking down the economy did not “commit suicide”.

Perhaps some of the news media organisations, riding high with buoyant revenues and plentiful advertising, also became complacent and preferred not to see the stormy waters ahead.

It has been argued that the property supplements helped to fuel the unsustainable boom. They certainly reflected it. But to focus unduly upon them is to miss the mark. They were never more than a small sub-set of the news media. Their existence did not inhibit or curb the other elements of the news media or those who worked in them.

Perhaps the shortcomings in reportage were due to the difficulty that often characterises news media – and not just in Ireland – of standing back from the individual story and seeing the wider set of connections beyond the minutiae of events that are local and immediate.

Or it may be that the Irish news media have not been as good in penetrating the thinking in the more powerful echelons of the financial community in the same way that they have penetrated other sectors in public life.

The answers to these questions are not clear. But the questions should be asked.

It is evident now that many people in key positions were aware over time that there were serious systemic issues in the business and economic sectors. Yet this did not make its way into the mainstream news media in a form that was sufficiently sustained, coherent and authoritative.

Where sustained concerns were raised for the most part the authors were academics or commentators rather than news journalists.

Yes, there were some exceptions. But they were just that – exceptions that constituted a very small minority.

To take perhaps the most salient case: a review of the archives of the principal news media over the past five years shows minimal focus, beyond routine reporting of official publications, on the office of the Financial Regulator.

But is it not now clear that a shocking process of “regulator capture” had long been in the making, with politicians and influential bankers effectively subverting the institution and reducing it to a cypher?

I do not have answers to these questions. But I have concerns that I do not hear nor read much analysis of them.

I believe it would be good for Irish journalism if such analysis were to take place. Perhaps it might lead us to the conclusion that the Irish news media did as good a job as was possible and that it would be unreasonable to have expected any better.

As we strive to make our way out of this crisis, the news media are rightly devoting extensive resources and energies to the scrutiny of performance and standards across public life.

Some time spent on self-examination would be well spent, not merely to analyse what has gone by but in order to learn lessons that may strengthen the journalism of today and tomorrow.

Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Timesfrom 1986 to 2002. He is a Garda ombudsman commissioner

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