Today, less than nine months after the joint committee of inquiry into the banking crisis published its report – including a section on the role of the media – we face a second significant crisis, in which the role of the media will be at least as important.
This is the situation in which the Irish and EU governments converge on the final stages of a major decision: whether to sign up to the the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty (TTIP) and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), each of which will have enormous impact on citizens and their environment for generations to come.
Nine months ago, the question was asked: was there any sign of scepticism in the mainstream media about the sustainability of the housing boom and the broader shape of the economy linked to it? In shaping the public sphere at that time, were the media playing watchdog or cheerleader, or something else?
In the current significant crisis, the Irish and EU governments will have to decide whether to sign up to these far-reaching international agreements. Negotiated far from the glare of publicity over many years, they are now ready for final approval by heads of government and the European parliament, but without any debate in the Dáil or Seanad. And, crucially, with little discussion in Irish media.
This silence is in sharp contrast with other parts of Europe, especially Germany, where public engagement with the implications of these international trade deals are being examined and frequently opposed in public protests. These demonstrations of public concern are undergirded by civil society groups demanding that social and environmental standards in Europe are respected, maintained and improved. There is little sign of similar public and political engagement in Ireland.
TTIP and CETA will cut tariffs and regulatory barriers to trade between the EU and both the US and Canada. They are driven primarily by multinational corporations seeking access to new markets: pharmaceuticals, car manufacturing, tobacco, energy, agri-business, food and drink. The impetus behind the deals is also the geo-political argument for a counterweight in global trade to China’s growing economic power.
Food safety concerns
The problem surrounding these very large ambitions is the growing fear among consumers in Europe about what the “harmonisation of standards” will mean for food. The integrity of food in the future is a major problem. If the trade agreements are put in place, we will have to accept practices routinely used in US food production but banned in the EU. These include the use of genetically modified organisms, carcinogenic pesticides and growth-promoting hormones in cattle and pigs.
The EU’s “precautionary principle”, whereby food producers must prove that chemicals are safe before they can be used, will be swept aside as a “barrier to trade”, allowing a common regulatory regime, where any substance can be used until it is proved unsafe.
Besides “harmonisation”, there is a second fear driving public protest, one that should resonate in post-Troika Ireland: the real fear that there will be a loss of sovereign power to control the tensions that will inevitably arise between the interests of citizens and those of investors. One is concerned about the integrity of food and the environment, while the other is anxious about the commercial interests of multinational companies in expanding their markets and profits. Laws brought forward in national parliaments to protect food, health and the environment will trigger lawsuits against the state by multinationals when they believe those new laws will damage their earnings.
The recent history of tobacco regulation should demonstrate the chilling effect of Big Tobacco on legislation designed to protect public health. Both TTIP and CETA include the creation of special transatlantic courts to rule on these tensions between national governments and multinational investors. These special courts, presided over by judges from both sides of the Atlantic and allowing only limited media access, will issue investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) that will seriously undermine the power of national governments and courts to act in the public interest. ISDSs have been used by multinational tobacco companies to bully the Australian government into dropping legislation on cigarette packaging.
No national debate
Why is there no national debate on TTIP and CETA in Ireland, as these trade deals move close to completion (perhaps as close as a few weeks in the case of CETA)? Why is there so little public concern in Ireland (unlike Germany) that these treaties are more a charter for attacking EU regulation and pushing through radical, investor-favouring change in how decisions are made, than they are about boosting jobs through international trade? Responsibility for generating public debate must lie primarily with politicians and journalists, both powerful voices capable of setting the agenda for national debate.
There is anecdotal evidence that many members of the Oireachtas are clueless about TTIP and CETA. And the media? Researchers agree that the media may not tell us what to think, but they certainly tell us what to think about. They shape national opinion by setting the agenda for public (and frequently political) debate. In contrast to the banking crisis, where terms such as "troika", "austerity" and "bank guarantee" were understood and argued about up and down the country, mention of TTIP and CETA evokes widespread bafflement. There are reasons for this, as media researchers point out, especially the traditional lack of journalistic interest in what appears to be "European" issues, unless they are clearly seen to be linked to national problems.
This time, with TTIP looming over us as a "European" treaty, there needs to be a consistent, weekly reporting on all aspects of these trade deals as they move towards ratification, so that the country isn't sleep-walked again into another crisis of sovereignty. The watchdog role undoubtedly should be strongest for RTÉ. Because of its audience reach, its explicit duty of public service, its network of foreign correspondents and its direct subsidy by viewers and listeners to lessen the commercial pull towards a dumbing down of journalism, we should expect of RTÉ and TG4 a higher level of performance than all other media in enhancing public understanding of what is facing us.
Farrel Corcoran is the Emeritus Professor of Communication at DCU and former chairman of RTÉ