We are poorly served by the media’s uncritical support for austerity

Opinion: Survey found preponderance of articles in newspapers supporting Government’s approach to economic crisis

I suspect most people may be unaware of a substantial study of the Irish media's behaviour during the years since the onset of the economic crisis, published shortly before Christmas. It was compiled by Julien Mercille for the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and rather clumsily entitled "The Role of Media in Fiscal Consolidation Programmes: the Case of Ireland". The phrase "fiscal consolidation" is academic-speak for what is popularly known as "austerity". The study is rather more interesting than its title suggests. In essence it amounts to a close examination of tendencies and emphases in reporting and commentary on budgets between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2012, and considers 431 editorials and opinion articles discussing fiscal consolidation in The Irish Times, Irish Independent and Sunday Independent.

Analysis of articles
Mercille analysed articles relating to the Irish economy in which the word "budget" appeared in the first three paragraphs. This – rather that searches for terms like "austerity", "spending cuts" or "taxes" – was considered the most dispassionate approach to identifying the ideological trends in economic commentary. The articles were divided into three categories: (1) articles asserting that the government's fiscal deficit must be reduced to address the crisis; (2) articles arguing against reducing the government's fiscal deficit to address the crisis; and (3) "neutral" articles.

The survey found significant support for fiscal consolidation/austerity, with 236 of the 431 articles (55 per cent) coming down in favour of government policy, 50 (12 per cent) against and 145 (34 per cent) neutral. When neutral pieces were excluded, 83 per cent of articles supported fiscal consolidation and 17 per cent opposed it. No significant differences could be detected between editorials, articles written by journalists and articles authored by outside writers.

Our “economic debate”, then, at least as conducted in our main newspapers, was characterised by an overwhelming degree of uncritical acceptance of fiscal consolidation/austerity. In general, where opposition to austerity policies manifested, it was found to be predicated on disagreement with particular cuts, or an insistence on more “equity” in the execution of government policy, rather than on principle or on the basis of fundamental value-based critiques. There was, for example, negligible coverage of alternative approaches to dealing with the crisis. “This,” Mercille observes, “suggests that public debate in the media is framed around the ways in which fiscal consolidation can best be implemented, as opposed to comparing and contrasting it with other strategies . . . The economic debate therefore remains focused on what should be cut and what should not.”

In The Irish Times, 57 per cent of the surveyed articles supported austerity policies, 16 per cent were against and 27 per cent were neutral. In the Irish Independent/Sunday Independent, 52 per cent were in favour, 4 per cent against and 44 per cent neutral.

The study treats in passing the ideological role of media in stoking the conditions which gave rise to the boom, particularly in the housing market. Mercille cites a 2010 study of Irish journalism practices – "Irish Financial Journalism and the End of the Celtic Tiger", published in the Irish Communications Review, which found that journalists "were leaned on by their organisations not to talk down the banks [and the] property market because those organisations have a heavy reliance on property advertising".

Mercille notes the continuing effect on newspaper content of advertising revenues: “ . . . corporate advertisers tend not to subsidise television programmes or news stories that directly question or attack their own business or the political economic system of which they are part, which would be directly contrary to their interests”.

He notes, too, the nature of the news-sourcing process, whereby material is more readily available from large organisations, including government and corporations, with considerable resources to disseminate their viewpoints.

Equity argument
Mercille finds that, on economic policy, INM newspapers were "ideologically to the right" of The Irish Times, where "opposition to conservative economic policies" was slightly more likely to appear. This he attributes in part to the fact that The Irish Times is governed by a trust "that ensures some level of independence from commercial interests".

Boiled down, this means that The Irish Times was better on the equity argument – opposing cuts, supporting economic stimulus through government spending, arguing for reallocation of the tax burden on the better-off – but not significantly better on providing platforms for outright objections to austerity policies. In this regard, it appears, our culture continues to be poorly served by its major print media institutions.