Media workers and journalists in particular are irrepressible navel gazers. We all know this. It is a deficiency in the breed. Prominent business people who want free publicity for their brand, or – whisper it – for themselves, have always understood that one way to achieve it is to play up to journalists’ propensity to talk about their own issues.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary perfected the art and stood out among the business establishment as a colossus of media manipulation. He often did this by capturing journalists' attention by talking about media organisations themselves. An insult here, a disingenuous compliment there, then a grain of truth, perhaps followed by a swathe of obfuscation. A potent cocktail, but O'Leary always knew how to shake it.
In recent years, Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave has emerged to challenge O'Leary as one of the most astute conductors of the media's coverage of himself and his business. Some of the similarities between the two men are striking: both are vainglorious, clever, successful, abrasive, occasionally one-eyed but genuinely visionary in their own fields. They're good at what they do, although they never just stick to what they do. Their egos often lead them by the nose onto less firm ground.
This week, Cosgrave, who was feeling either bored or mischievous, decided that he would garner some attention for himself by pouring a very personalised form of scorn on the entire Irish journalistic trade, safe in the knowledge that this would prick the navel gazers into a righteous fury. This column is obviously proof that it worked, although it is less clear how any of this benefits his company. Was he promoting Web Summit or promoting Paddy? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter which.
Grain of truth
In the context of the general election and the impact on citizens of the big parties’ policies, Cosgrave this week tweeted: “Most Irish journalists are groupies to the crony class that I grew up with & am part of. Much of the Irish media operates as a sort of propaganda arm for elite interests.”
His latter point contains, arguably, a grain of truth. But small truths are an essential part of a media manipulator’s playbook. Cosgrave continued: “Most Irish journos will fiercely deny they are charming lickspittles. But they are mostly likeable toadies . . .”
The latter comment, a puerile insult, at first glance appears completely gratuitous. But, in fact, it serves an essential function. It was the sauce on the steak. Poured on at a high enough temperature, it provides the sizzle that jolts everybody into action. Within minutes, Cosgrave had roused almost every journalist on Twitter into a defensive lather, and all the attention was on the founder of Web Summit. Bliss.
Cosgrave invariably presents himself as a champion of true press freedom. He regularly bemoans Irish libel laws, which are indeed a scandalous constraint on the proper scrutiny of the political and corporate establishments. He also often lauds the art of muckraking, the noble journalistic pursuit of digging for scandal among the rich and powerful.
As the heat built over his comments on Twitter, he then betrayed the yawning extent of his own egotistical prowess: Cosgrave committed to providing €100,000 worth of bursaries for student “muckrakers” over 10 years.
However, if you are going to present yourself as a champion of true press freedom and a voice against elite interests, you should first make sure you are on firm ground. In this respect, Cosgrave’s intervention was built on sand. Just look at some of the “partners” whose money he is happy to take at Web Summit.
The most egregious example is Cosgrave's partnership with governmental organisations in Saudi Arabia, that well-known bastion of press freedom. One of the oil state's government-backed investment agencies paid for a stand at the Lisbon event this year. That sort of partnership doesn't come cheap.
But is this not the same Saudi Arabia that has been under intense scrutiny for the past 20 months after a dissident journalist was butchered in one of its consulates? Cosgrave will have been as horrified by this outrage as the rest of us.
How did he feel when Saudi's crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, was this week accused of personally hacking the phone of the owner of the newspaper for which the murdered journalist wrote? The prince denies this, of course. The prince denies everything.
Did Cosgrave give the same chest-beating speech about media propriety and the protection of elite interests when he was accepting Web Summit’s cheque from the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority?
Or when he was accepting a similar cheque from a government-backed bank in Qatar that also bought a stand at Web Summit? This is the same Qatar that, just three days ago, as Cosgrave was posturing on Twitter, was criticised by Amnesty International for introducing a new "vaguely-worded law which criminalises a broad range of speech and publishing activities".
State agencies from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Hungary. none of these places are known, exactly, for championing press freedom. Quite the opposite. Yet Cosgrave – through Web Summit, which he completely controls – does business with all of them.
Journalists may be vain, and they may be navel gazers, and sometimes they are too quick to amplify the establishment’s messages or to give succour to the interests of the elite. But at least they are self-aware of this. Most media professionals know their own flaws, and the tendencies of their trade, and some try to compensate for it.
When it comes to his own comments on the media, however, Cosgrave appears remarkably unaware of where his own weaknesses lie. Then again, Web Summit is a huge commercial enterprise. It needs all the publicity it can get, and business is business. It always will be.
When Aldi and Lidl entered the market here about 20 years ago, they turned the economics of the entire grocery retail industry upside down. It is a story well told – how they forced incumbents to cut prices and roused consumers into demanding value. What is less remarked upon, however, is the effect they had on industry pay rates.
Next week, the State’s statutory minimum wage will increase by 30 cent to €10.10 per hour. Aldi, however, announced this week that on the day that takes effect, it will move its lowest paid workers onto the “living wage”, which is set by a committee of left-leaning advocates and sits at €12.30 per hour.
In the phoney game of one-upmanship between Aldi and Lidl, the former claims it is the first to “introduce” the rate. Lidl, however, announced back in November that it planned to move its lowest-paid staff onto the €12.30 rate. It didn’t specify at that time precisely when it would implement the change, just that it was the first to “commit” to it. Upon inquiry, it turns out the Lidl move will take effect at the start of its financial year in March. I had never figured Germans to be so Jesuitical about each other.
The difference between the statutory minimum and “living wage” rates for an entry-level retail worker is substantial: a gulf of €85.80 per week if the worker is on a 39-hour week. That’s most of the cost of a trolley of groceries in one of the discounters. Many supermarket workers get less than 39 hours, but the difference still adds up.
The willingness of Aldi and Lidl to meet the “living wage” concept has made the State’s minimum wage almost obsolete in the supermarket sector, one of the industries for which it was originally designed.
It has also put pressure on the discounters’ rivals. For example, Dunnes Stores and Tesco, which have both earned plenty of ire from trade unions over the years, have awarded pay increases in each of the last five or six years.
Would they have been as willing to do that if their non-union rivals Aldi and Lidl hadn’t kept hiking rates to meet the “living wage”? Hardly. The German discounters’ embrace of the living wage, which is supported by Siptu and Unite, also looks like a form of backdoor trade union engagement, even if neither side would ever admit it.