Banking Inquiry: ‘property porn’ in media fed economic bubble

Relationships with politics, corporates ‘stopped media being a critical watchdog’

Julien Mercille, lecturer at UCD and author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: the case of Ireland, told the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry journalists acted as ‘cheerleaders’.

Julien Mercille, lecturer at UCD and author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: the case of Ireland, told the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry journalists acted as ‘cheerleaders’.

 

Property porn in the media during the boom years helped push a social appetite for moving up the ladder, the Oireachtas banking inquiry has heard.

Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) media lecturer Harry Browne said such material existed in TV and print journalism in the form of property programmes and lifestyle features.

“[THIS] encouraged readers to constantly think about going higher and higher up the ladder,” he said. “To think about how to getting that bigger house; to think about how to decorate their apartment in Bulgaria, that sort of thing.”

Discussing the general media landscape during the boom years, Mr Browne, a former Irish Times journalist, said the “enormously high concentration of media ownership in this State is of course a danger and fundamental public concern.”

However he said there was not necessarily a “conflict of interest” arising between invested parties during the formation of the property bubble.

“It is tempting to conclude that there is no real conflict of interest at all but rather a congruence of interests between media organisations and the developers and financiers who were advertising with them and cashing in constantly on the speculative bubble.”

Mr Browne was addressing the banking inquiry’s media module which is dealing with how the economic conditions of the country were covered by the media before and after the crash.

Earlier, UCD academic Dr Julien Mercille said the media’s close relationship with the political and corporate establishment prevented it from being a critical watchdog of the growing property bubble in the build up to the crash.

“A number of journalists simply acted as cheerleaders for the property sector,” he said .

Author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: the case of Ireland, Dr Mercille said effectiveness in predicting an impending crisis was down to three key factors: close ties with corporate and government interests, reliance on advertising and sourcing of stories.

He said the media made money from advertising the property sector, often through supplements, and he pointed out both the Irish Times and Irish Independent had invested in property related websites.

Quoting Deputy Shane Ross, he said there was an implicit threat for any media organisations offering unfavourable coverage of events that “advertising would go elsewhere”.

A similar situation arose in the area of sourcing information. Dr Mercille said journalists were reliant on established institutions for information and that this could be denied to them, again in cases where coverage was deemed negative or unhelpful.

On considering whether journalists could have predicted the size of the property bubble and the crash itself, he said the answer was yes on both counts.

Many analysts working in the press said there was no bubble and there would be a soft landing for the economy. There was “invariably upbeat analysis”.

Broadcast and print journalism responsible

He said the same general principles applied to television coverage as print media.

However, once the economic crash arrived the situation could no longer be ignored and reporting on the property sector and its collapse increased significantly.

“Indeed, there is a clear discrepancy between coverage of the housing bubble before and after it burst,” he said. “Before 2008, the media tended to largely ignore it and it is only months after it had started deflating that reality had to be faced.”

He said that on average, the Irish Times had 5.5 times more articles on the bubble per year in 2008 to 2011 than between 1996 and 2007. The Irish Independent and Sunday Independent had an average of 12.5 times more such articles in the same period.

“Moreover, the few articles published during the earlier period often denied that there was a bubble,” he said.

Regarding how the economy should be dealt with in the aftermath, he said the media had described the prospect of defaulting on national debt as everything from “cataclysmic” to a “doomsday scenario”.

“The media have also strongly endorsed austerity since 2008,” he said, outlining a pattern in which it had continued to represent the perspective of the elites - which he described as those with that capacity to influence policy - even in the aftermath of economic failure.

“After the crash, the media also presented the government’s crisis resolution policies in a largely favourable manner, again in line with Irish and global elites’ views,” he said.

“The media enthusiastically endorsed the blanket guarantee and declared that it was the ‘cheapest bailout in the world’. Nama was called ‘bold and imaginative’ and the ‘holy grail’ while the The Irish Times claimed that it was our ‘best bet’.”

The hearings continue.