Folk Devils, Folk Angels and the Erosion of Real Discourse in Ireland


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The current economic crisis in Ireland has highlighted many of the problems in Irish society that perhaps we all knew were there to a greater or lesser degree. For me the one interesting aspect of the past three years has come in our media. It has been discussed elsewhere (see Gavan Titley’s piece in Look Left) that there exists a crisis in Irish media where he rightly points out that it is not that useful to simply gauge the extent of an ideological consensus. Within our media. This crisis is multi-faceted with a range of issues from ownership to political influence on Ireland’s media that need to be addressed. What I want to consider here is but one part of the wider crisis in Irish media.

I have borrowed part off my title from Stanley Cohen’s seminal sociological study on folk devils. Cohen argued that certain groups are marginalised and demonised in the public mind through media portrayals of them. A process that occurs through how problems are framed and what narratives are given more prominence in media reporting on public issues. Cohen’s arguments are complex but they have stood the test of time and we have seen numerous folk devils created since his books first publication in 1972. In an Irish context the construction of folk devils has increased apace during the financial crisis most notably in relation to public service workers (though not always) and social welfare recipients.

‘Folk angels’

However, we have also seen another phenomenon in Ireland and that is the creation of  ‘folk angels’. If folk devils are all we must fear and loathe then f’olk angels’ are bastions of goodness and wisdom when we need it most. The creation of these ‘folk angels’ is not entirely surprising as it fits well within the current  media narratives of ‘positivity’ and ‘moving forward with hope’. It also gives a ready made narrative for media outlets to discuss issues, on one hand we have the ‘folk devils’ representing the worst of what we are versus the ‘folk angels’ representing the best.

But this sort of simplistic argument has a range of harmful consequences. Firstly, it removes any nuance and reduces complex, multi-layered problems to a cartoonish battle between good and evil. Secondly, it creates an unchallenging, uncritical and unquestioning relationship between powerful stakeholders, the media and the public.

There also appears to be a backlash against anyone who dares to question the nature of Irish media, something Professor Kathleen Lynch would be able to attest to after her appearance on Tonight with Vincent Browne on the 14th of February 2011. To be critical of Irish media is not to cast aspersions on the audience nor is it part of some grand leftist conspiracy but this should be a given.

Agenda Setting

Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw noted in their work on agenda-setting in mass media that the classical assertion that the news media tells us what to think was incorrect. Rather they argued that mass media framed what was to be discussed and the parameters for that discussion. Sheena Iyenger refers to what she calls the ‘accessability of information’ stating that the public are capable of making decisions but that they can only do this based on the information that is presented to them-an idea important in the creation of folk angels and devils. Further she suggested that this was particularly the case in the area of public affairs.

Irish Folk Devils and Angels

One of the great ‘folk devils’ of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s was the ‘welfare scrounger’. Cohen describes this as the ‘deliberate construction of an atmosphere of distrust’. When considering the Irish context it is interesting to think of Cohen’s assertion that these assumptions were given official credibility. One of the prominent media messages of the current time has been that welfare fraud costs the state anywhere between €2 billion-€3 billion per year a year. This figure was quoted in Fine Gael’s election manifesto and they referenced it to RTE’s Primetime. When one watches the episode they will see Dr Edward Walsh, former President of the University of Limerick stating “if one in ten of the cases were fraudulently claimed and we spend twenty-two billion this year on welfare, that’s 2.2 billion. I’ve also seen a figure of one in seven welfare claims are fraudulent, if it’s one in seven its getting close to 3 billion”.

It seems incredible that a thirty second sound bite could be influencing government policy but this is the situation we find ourselves in. This is an example of the power of the ‘echo-chamber’ effect we see all too often in Irish media. It also illustrates the unquestioning and uncritical nature of our media where few appear willing or able to dig a little deeper. Although this example throws up numerous questions the answers may not fit with the construction of the welfare folk devil and so are not asked. Here we can see the constraints of the discourse on welfare. What will be discussed will be the apprehension of ‘cheats’. This framing leaves limited room for other debates and discourses which will appear to be coming from the fringes regardless of the amount of people being represented by these views.

Those who generally attempt to discuss the above are liberal politicians, activists and academics. This is a group who have in recent times been constructed as the ‘loony left’ folk devils in Irish public discourse. The branding of dissenting voices as treacherous or radical is not a new phenomenon. British journalist Mark Hollingsworth has written about the negative portrayal of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and black youths in the 1980s as these persons clashed with the Thatcherite culture.  Hollingsworth unsurprisingly connects the negative reaction against these dissenting voices to the protection of vested interests in societies upper echelons

In Ireland we have seen the ‘loony left’ narrative become particularly prevalent during the general election and in the weeks afterwards. This narrative contained some key features. Firstly, it allowed for the grouping of all left-wing/liberal or dissenting voices neatly into the ‘loony left’ category which could be dismissed quickly as ‘other‘, ‘radical‘ even ‘dangerous‘. This presentation became normal practice during the election cycle. For example during an episode of RTE’s Frontline in the aftermath of the election Pat Kenny described the United Left Alliance’s Clare Daly and Sinn Fein’s Dessie Ellis as ‘the radical left’. In the previous segment, Mr Kenny interviewed politicians from the neo-liberal/centrist parties without any comment on their ideological beliefs. The limiting power of this narrative cannot be under estimated. It sends a very clear message that any policy or statement coming from the left is ill-considered especially when compared to stability and ‘ideologically-free’ establishment parties. This is a worrying phenomenon as it allows for attack on ‘the left’ without correction or space to reply. This was brought into clear focus when comments by Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes that Sinn Fein were “anti-black” went unchallenged on RTE radio’s Late Debate in the run up to the election.

However, when we need to escape the clutches of our ‘folk devils’ who can we run to? Well, the Irish media have provided space for the creation of some ‘folk angels’. These are people and events presented to us as ‘glimmers of hope’. Similar to ‘folk devils’ we never move past easily digestible descriptions of these people and their actions nor are more searching questions asked. Why would we need to? As sure as the welfare recipient has their hand in my pocket the economist is sheltering me through troubled times and the foreign dignitary is pointing to a better future.

The presentation of economics and economists in Ireland has been fascinating to watch in recent times. Irish media appear to have abandoned the fact that economists are social-scientists. Rather they have turned them into all-knowing, ‘free from ideology’ rock star type figures who we should listen to carefully but dare not question. Unlike our ‘loony left’ folk devils, economists are left free from queries from our media about where they draw their ideas from and what value system underpins these ideas. Their status as ‘folk angels’ is confirmed as our media continuously return to a small circle of people many of whom have been completely wrong before. But why would one expect these analysts to be right all the time, they are after all social scientists drawing conclusions from past events and trends which are not always predictors of future events. What we should have  however is a robust challenging of these ideas and underlying assumptions. It is here that our media fail to respond.  The debate on economics has been so limited in Ireland that it excludes any alternatives other than that proposed by EU/IMF and supported the neo-liberal elite.

In the past week we have seen the development of  a surprising ‘folk angel’ with the media response to the visit of  Queen Elizabeth II. The unquestioning and uncritical nature of many parts of our media were brought into sharp focus with their treatment of the visit. This is not to say the visit was not a historical event with some symbolic significance but our media attached all manner of different meanings to the event while ignoring many important questions. If we go back to the work of McCombs and Shaw on ‘agenda-setting’ we can better understand the limiting of debate on the visit. The entire debate was framed within a context that the visit was ‘good’ with ‘good’ outcomes i.e. increased tourism, political maturity. Those making these claims were never asked to go past the statement of positive effect or to explain how these positive effects would happen. In this narrow frame all that gets discussed is the positive aspect to the visit. Those challenging that consensus can be framed as immature or looking to harm the image of the country. This was exemplified in RTE’s Six-One news coverage of the first day of the visit. Reporters spoke of how”most people were happy” with the visit and, more bizarrely, stated that those remembered in the Garden of Rememberance “would be happy”.  What either of these assertions was based on was never made clear.

This narrow frame offered no room for dissenting voices on the visit. This was illustrated when a reporter stated that not everyone was happy with the visit followed by footage of a gentleman complaining that he had not seen the Queen! No interviews were conducted with those who actually objected to the visit on practical, political or moral grounds. The news broadcast framed ‘the Queen in Ireland’ as the ultimate ‘folk angel’ with talk of a brighter future and ‘political maturity‘. In the rush to create the ‘folk angel’ image media outlets tended to ignore wider complexities and issues such as the restrictions on free movement of citizens, the Dublin-Monaghan bombing anniversary or the daily lives of those in Northern Ireland. These complex problems were replaced with positive, simplistic statements.

Let me conclude by saying this, nothing I have written here should be viewed as an attack on journalism or individual journalists. Far from it. It is however one aspect that has emerged within Ireland’s media crisis. Dr Marie Keenan wrote in a discussion of clerical abuse that in the rush to condemn much gets noticed and much gets missed. In the rush to cannonise some we ignore their faults and the flaws in their arguments. While in the rushing to demonise we exclude important debates and questions.  The social and economic problems facing Ireland are complex and multilayered. Solutions will not be found in an ever narrowing public discourse. It would be my position that diminished public discourse will add further problems as people feel their views unrepresented in wider debates. In the words of John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty’ :

“Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil. There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides”


15 Responses

  1. Siusaidh

    May 24, 2011 4:08 pm

    Many of the ‘folk devils’ described here have Canadian equivalents – to me most notably the smearing of Aboriginal people and calls for their rights human and Aboriginal to be demolished and their resistance further criminalized.

    Athough a lot of the rhetoric about ‘loony left’ is US-derived, there is plenty of blame to go around. Of course Canada is far from God and slam-up against the US, but clearly Ireland is also much too close culturally and economically to the falling superpower.

    My condolences to you – the queen and Obama in one week. So from here matters can only improve.

  2. William Wall

    May 24, 2011 7:02 pm

    I now no longer listen to whole swathes of Irish radio (and the TV is gone altogether). The whole thing is so permeated by right-wing values that virtually no discussion even gives half the truth. The problem is that the Right consensus is so strong that the entire population lives within its bubble and thinks there is nothing outside it except lunatics.

  3. Anna Maria Mullally

    May 24, 2011 9:07 pm

    Timely article – would love to see it published in the Irish Times..Enda’s delimitation of Irishness today was also very disturbing. We are being disciplined anew..

  4. phil

    May 25, 2011 12:53 am

    If you don’t agree with the neo-liberal crap we’ve been told is the ‘proper and correct’ way of dealing with the problems we are facing, the chances are you will be labelled as either a conspiracy theorist or an idiot. Fortunately people are looking away from the state controlled media for the truth and finding it. Answers are being found to help with cancer, to help with running your vehicle on sustainable fuels, answers are there for everything which takes the power and profit away from the very people and corporations that profit from ignorance. To quote a very unfamous song ‘Ignorance is their Bliss’.

    Well let their ‘ignorance’ be our bliss. We are the ignorant no more!

  5. Gerryboy

    May 25, 2011 7:47 am

    Besides folk devils and folk angels we are also fed the media intensive focus on folk fantasies, aided and abetted by government gesture politics and celebrity cozy chorus. We were treated to the Woman’s Own and Hello! magazine style fantasy of royalty worship followed by a shorter treatment of Obama worship, each highlighted visit ‘crowned’ by rock stars and dancers.If they can’t satisfy us economically they certainly know how to distract us with celebrity schlock fantasy shows that newspaper editorialists describe as ‘social and political maturity’. I think it’s time for satirical poets and novelists to get cracking with creative commentary on all this psychological massage.

  6. William Wall

    May 25, 2011 8:20 am

    Gerryboy, I suggest you take a look at the work of Kevin Barry, Gerry Murphy, Kit Fryatt, Dave Lordan, Colm Keegan, Sarah Clancy… among many others. There are plenty of writers out there who are critiquing the hegemony in various interesting and challenging ways. the only problem is… surprise surprise… the mainstream media ignores that aspect of their work or, alternatively, completely ignores them. An additional difficulty is that most of them are based too far from Dublin to register on the scale. Kevin probably has the biggest media footprint at present – his latest novel is a dystopian vision of…. well… of… Dublin actually. It’s a brilliant book, but if it had been about Limerick, where he was born, it might have been a harder sell.

  7. Gerryboy

    May 25, 2011 8:33 am

    Can you list some of the titles? Some of them I assume are novels and others possibly poetry collections. I enjoyed a couple of Dermot Bolger’s novels about dystopian Ireland during the 1980s into the 90s, (The Journey Home and the Valparaiso Voyage) and I’d hope that works by Kevin Barry, Gerry Murphy and the others fall into the same league of good reads by socially focused writers. Literary criticism in weekend supplements leaves a lot to be desired. Lots of writers and reviewers are happy to treat the novel as superior entertainment for the educated middle classes.

  8. William Wall

    May 25, 2011 8:47 am

    Here goes Gerryboy:
    Kevin Barry: City of Bohane (novel)
    Gerry Murphy: End of Part One, New and Selected (poems); or My Flirtation with International Socialism (poems)
    Kit Fryatt and Colm Keegan and Sarah Clancy are yet to publish a full work but you’ll find plenty of their poems on the internet. Depending on where you live you could also catch one of their readings or performances. This is a good place to find their work:
    Upstart is a great site in general.
    Dave Lordan: The Boy in the Ring; or Invitation to a Sacrifice. Also a fine performer of his own work.
    If you look for these names on Youtube you’ll find some of them have performances there. Good luck. If you track down any of them let me know what you think.

  9. Eoin O'Mahony

    May 25, 2011 8:48 am

    Years ago, I remember the force of Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis in delineating the ways in which dissent is socially produced. At least I think it was Policing the Crisis.

  10. Colin Quirke

    May 25, 2011 11:04 am

    Alongside Elizabeth Windsor and Barack Obama the most prevalent folk angels are “the people who will get us out of this mess”.

    Invariably this refers to some kind of entrepreneur who is complaining about the cost of doing business in Ireland.

    I have a business idea. I’m going to sell little paper bags displaying pictures of Irish entrepreneurs. The bag will have the words, “These are the people who will get us out of this mess”. Whenever you hear a journalist, commentator or politician utter this phrase you need simply reach for your bag.

    They are also suitable for dog walkers.

  11. William Wall

    May 25, 2011 11:11 am

    Brilliant Colin. Put me down for 1,000 units. You’re clearly the kind of entrepreneur that will get us out of this mess. Ireland needs more innovators like you. Going forward of course. What’s past is past. We need to draw a line in the sand under all that and get down to the bottom line – which is always competitiveness because competition is the only thing that’ll get us out of this mess. That and innovation, like yours, and entrepreneurship and 12.5% corporation tax. Oh and cuts to hospital beds. And firing teachers. And reducing people’s salaries. I could go on but negativititititity is not what we need (right now/going forward).

  12. Darren Broomfield

    May 25, 2011 12:34 pm

    Thanks for the kind comments and interesting points everyone.

    Colin, you raise a great point about the entrepreneurs as great ‘folk angels’. One that didnt even occur to me when writing the above despite talkings about it previously.