A study of Irish press coverage of austerity between 2008 and 2012 conducted at University College Dublin confirms that the media have been relentless cheerleaders for austerity. The case is so overwhelming that it may even surprise proponents of austerity. The full report is available here.
Ireland has distinguished itself among European countries by implementing austerity at the outset of the current crisis, while a number of other governments reacted by first enacting Keynesian stimulus packages, in parallel to bailing out their banks, before turning to austerity. Austerity might be good for elites, but it attacks ordinary people by cutting government spending on social services, health care and welfare. It seeks to make labour more ‘flexible’ by dismantling and downgrading work conditions and protections to give more power to employers over employees. On top of that, it raises regressive taxes like the VAT and encourages privatisation of state-owned enterprises and assets, often sold to investors at bargain prices.
European authorities themselves have announced explicitly, and even proudly, that austerity is used to attack the welfare state and ordinary people. Mario Draghi, the ECB president, declared in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the European ‘traditional social contract is obsolete’ and that ‘there is no escape from tough austerity measures’. He further said that continuing ‘shocks’ would ‘force countries into structural changes in labor markets’. Accordingly, Europe’s population faces repeated attacks from corporate and political elites, a fact noted by the New York Times recently when it observed that ‘Americanized labor policy is spreading in Europe’. It remarked that in 2008, 1.9 million Portuguese private sector workers were covered by collective bargaining agreements, but that the number is now down to 300,000. Greece has cut its minimum wage by almost a fourth, Ireland and Spain have frozen it, and in general labour protections have been reduced in peripheral Europe, so that austerity is ‘radically changing the nature of Europe’s society’. The developments will transform so deeply the social fabric that the chief economist of the International Labour Organisation described them as ‘the most significant changes since World War II’.
Therefore, in order for elites to convince the population that austerity is good for them, or to reduce the intensity of protests against it, a lot of ideological work is needed. This is when the media step in.
Ireland might be a somewhat special case on the European media landscape because all its major news outlets are right-of-centre. While that’s bad for those who want to know what is really going on, it’s good for the Irish and European elites who want a favourable spin on their policies.
The Irish Media And Austerity
The study examined over 400 editorials and opinion pieces in Ireland’s three leading newspapers (Irish Times, Irish Independent and Sunday Independent). It found that only 12% of articles oppose fiscal consolidation, 55% support it, and 34% don’t voice any clear opinion. Worse, those numbers arguably overestimate the extent of the small opposition to austerity, because many of the articles opposing fiscal consolidation simply reject specific cuts without proposing any alternative policy. It is astonishing that only 3% of all articles support an increase in government spending, which could form the basis of a Keynesian stimulus programme. The media debate thus revolves around how best to implement austerity, without questioning it. Totalitarian regimes would surely be impressed by the effectiveness of this information control.
The media have not been shy about announcing their role in convincing the public that austerity is good for them. At the outset of the crisis, in November 2008, an editorial in the country’s newspaper of record, the Irish Times, called for a campaign to ‘educate’ the population about the need for austerity and ‘civic discipline’. The problem was that Irish people did ‘not appreciate the possible extent of the economic downturn’ because only 10% of them thought the budget should be tougher while two-thirds thought it should be less tough, according to a national poll. The editors thus concluded that ‘the Government will have a major job to do in educating public opinion about unpalatable economic realities and the need for civic discipline’.
The media have helped the government extensively in that task. One reason that explains why only about 12% of articles oppose austerity is that a large majority of writers come from elite institutions that favour austerity. Excluding regular journalists, 29% of the authors of opinion articles in the press on austerity are mainstream economists, 28% are working in the financial or corporate sector, and 20% are political officials in the three main political parties, which have all supported austerity. In short, the overwhelming majority of writers (77%) come from elite political or economic elite institutions. The remainder is composed of 9% of academics (excluding mainstream economists), 7% of members of progressive organisations, and only 3% are trade union officials. It is thus a very conservative cast of writers who are allowed to take part in the debate in the national media. Elite sectors dominate, but institutions like academia and trade unions are also relatively conservative, further reducing the number of progressive ideas.
The media’s favourable view of fiscal consolidation can be assessed through the following sample of article titles published since 2008: ‘Commitment and Stamina are Required for Fiscal Consolidation’ (Irish Times), ‘New Budget will Prove Tough but Necessary’ (Sunday Independent), ‘Austerity Vital to Maintain our Economic Sovereignty’ (Irish Times), ‘We Need to Stop Living in Denial and Cut Costs Even Further’ (Sunday Independent), ‘We Must Suffer the Pain Now—Or Else we will Blight Future Generations’ (Sunday Independent), ‘Bill is Tough but Necessary’ (Irish Times), ‘Tough Budget Would Restore Confidence’ (Irish Times), ‘Supplementary Budget can Begin Urgent Task of Restoring Depleted Tax Revenues’ (Irish Times), ‘Budget May Cut Wages and Raise Taxes to Restore Competitiveness’ (Irish Times), ‘[Austerity] Budget Will Restore Confidence and Hasten Economic Recovery’ (Irish Times) and ‘Tough Budget Needed to Stave Off Grimmer Future’ (Irish Times).
The media also follow IMF and European authorities’ preference for expenditure cuts over tax hikes. Overall, 126 articles preferred expenditure reduction, whereas 63 argued for the necessity of raising taxes. This position is easy to understand: it is the poorer segments of society which are most dependent on public spending for services, whereas raising the issue of tax hikes opens the door to taxing corporations and the wealthy. As such, Ireland’s infamous 12.5% nominal corporate tax rate is something akin to the flag in the United States: you just can’t attack it.
After five years of austerity, there might be a small space opening up in the mainstream media for slightly more critical views, because the failure of that strategy can’t be hidden indefinitely. It is now becoming more common knowledge that fiscal consolidation in a downturn does not succeed in reviving an economy. Nevertheless, the alternative media remain the best outlets to read and write about the truth, such as the excellent blog Notes on the Front written by Michael Taft.
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