Gas, Gender, and Ideology: Reflections on a Prime Time Debate

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As I sat in the audience of a Prime Time feature on Irish gas and oil (RTÉ, March 11, 2014), I wondered what I was doing there. I’m probably not the first person to ponder their attendance on such an occasion but it was a unique thought for me as I’ve been interested in the topic of Irish gas and oil for over 8 years. I’d also spent nearly 4 years conducting extensive research into the Irish state’s management of its gas and oil as the basis of my PhD in Sociology.

So why was I questioning my participation in the audience? This narrative piece explains why and illustrates how a seemingly innocuous event like a television debate can reveal issues of gender inequality, differing ideologies,  and questions of knowledge and ‘experts’, while problematising how the mainstream media frames discourse surrounding matters of public concern.

My reflection on the experience began with the question of why I wasn’t given the opportunity to participate in the debate. After all I’ve carried out comprehensive research into the subject of Irish gas and oil based on extensive documentary research, case studies, observations and interviews with 30 key stakeholders (including former Ministers, current and former senior civil servants, politicians, oil industry personnel, media, civil society, people affected by the Corrib gas conflict, and trade unionists).  I’d also assisted some of the other speakers with their publications. For example, I co-edited a new book by Own Our Oil (2014), contributed to Shell to Sea’s Liquid Assets (2012), and co-authored Optimising Ireland’s Oil and Gas Resources (SIPTU, 2011).

The lack of engagement didn’t make sense , particularly as during the equivalent of an hour of telephone conversations spanning two days, a Prime Time researcher had made it clear that the editorial team “really want[ed]” me there. While they couldn’t guarantee that I would have the opportunity to speak during the debate, it seemed most likely that I would be asked to contribute.

Indeed, this researcher and I agreed 3 key areas that I would highlight during my planned input: issues surrounding the control and ownership of Irish gas and oil, or  in plainer terms the privatisation of Irish hydrocarbons in exchange for one of the lowest rates of government take in the world; the absence of mechanisms for consultation or developing consent of communities for oil and gas developments; and fragmented and unsuitable permission systems as most evident in the Corrib gas debacle. I’d planned to locate these 3 topics within a broader statement around how the Irish state’s approach to the management of its gas and oil is fundamentally flawed and that the proposed review of Irish fiscal terms by Wood Mackenzie is insufficient to address the deficiencies inherent to the state’s model of hydrocarbon management.

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While languishing in the Primetime studio, listening to a discussion dominated by industry-speak and arguments justifying Ireland’s extremely generous taxation regime, I wondered why I wasn’t getting a chance to raise key issues. Unlike some of the commentators who expressed opinions premised upon experience or anecdotal evidence, I could contribute information based on social science research.

Was this an issue of gender discrimination? After all, the Primetime discussion panel was all male (5 men including 1 of the presenters) and contributions from the audience were skewed towards inputs from men – 5 men spoke, 3 of whom represented the oil industry. The content of these contributions were also biased towards the oil industry as 4 speakers worked in the industry while the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte maintained a pro-industry slant with his concern that Ireland be ‘attractive’ to companies through a lenient tax regime. Meanwhile, only 1 woman from the audience had the opportunity to speak during the feature on gas and oil.

Aside from a female presenter, that audience member was the only woman to contribute throughout the entire current affairs programme. Women account for over half the population of Ireland yet this programme was completely dominated by inputs from men. This was in spite of the fact that in correspondence with a researcher in advance of the show, I’d problematised the all-male panel and highlighted how knowledge on gas and oil has been constructed in equal measure by women and men. While there were several women in the audience who could have made strong contributions to the debate, they were ignored. Was this a case of patriarchal Ireland rearing its ugly head once again? It wouldn’t have been the first time, as Lucy Keaveney discusses in a Journal.ie article based upon her research on gender and the media.

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Or was this due to ideology? The ideological component can be understood in at least two ways – ideologies which surround resource ownership; and the neoliberal ideology prevalent in discourse and decision-making related to Irish gas and oil.

The basic issue of ownership and control of publicly owned resources was the elephant in the room largely ignored during the programme. Unlike some contributors who focused on low rates of tax returns (which are clearly problematic), I planned to emphasise how the problems surrounding the management of Ireland’s gas and oil are much broader than fiscal returns. The underpinning issues are political, economic, social and ideological in origin.

State management of gas and oil is a profoundly ideological process, as I outline in my dissertation (2013). The approach to resource management adopted by a state ultimately depends on whether the state views the resources within its territory as publicly owned resources or as resources which can be privately owned. Arguments about how much tax a state gets muddles the basic issue of whether a state allows control and ownership of its resources to be transferred to be privately owned companies.

While the US is one of the few countries in the world which permits some private ownership of resources in situ (Mc Beath et al., 2008), nearly every other country vests complete ownership of hydrocarbons in the state which in turn devises systems to permit the exploitation of its gas and oil (Easo, 2009). In over half the countries with oil and gas production worldwide, the state refuses to transfer complete control and ownership of its gas and oil to private companies. Instead those states utilises production sharing contracts or service agreements to ensure they maintains strong control and ownership to the point of sale. Those countries also tend to maximise benefits through higher rates of taxation, locally based operations and employment through state owned companies and associated service provision.

While Article Ten of the Irish Constitution (1937) and the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act (1960) vests ownership of hydrocarbons in the state, the Irish approach results in very limited benefits as once oil companies are granted a petroleum licence, ownership and control of publicly owned resources is transferred from the state to the company. Irish gas and oil is privatised and in return, companies are not obliged to sell the resources back to the country, companies don’t have to base operations in Ireland, nor are companies required to hire Irish-based workers. Not only does Irish society lose out by virtue of the transfer of public resources to private entities with limited socio-economic spin-offs, in return we receive one of the lowest rates of taxation in the world.

Of course perspectives on resource ownership are ideological, and in my view any gas and oil contained within the boundaries of the Irish state belongs to the people living in the state and as such should benefit those citizens first and foremost. And, despite the rhetoric of some politicians and industry representatives, such a view is in conflict with a neoliberal ideology that prioritises: a ‘free market’ and activities by private companies; the privatisation of natural resources; and efforts to make Ireland ‘more attractive to foreign investors’ – as the oft repeated line goes.

One can also understand the Prime Time debate as ideological in ways which intersect issues of gender, ideology, and knowledge, and which raises all sorts of philosophical questions. On one level the predominance of commentary by men can be interpreted within an analysis of patriarchy. As Pat O’Connor (2001) points out, the cultural depiction of men with particular careers as ‘appropriate authority figures’ is a subtle manifestation of patriarchal control.

On another level, the discussion was dominated by men with differing ideological perspectives, some of whom were considered as experts due to their experience of working in the oil industry. Ulrich Beck (2005) emphasises how in modern society, people viewed as authority figures or ‘experts’ can hold a ‘monopoly of truth’ based upon their ‘scientific judgement’. Interestingly, while some of the male commentators could be perceived as ‘experts’ due to their industry experience, none had conducted comprehensive research into the broader phenomenon of Irish state hydrocarbon management thus their status as ‘experts’ on that specific subject is debatable.

Nevertheless, in mainstream debates, the arguments of those viewed as ‘experts’ can be accepted more readily than those without ‘expert’ status. ‘Lay experts’, such as numerous activists who have developed deep knowledge on matters related to the management of Ireland’s gas and oil can sometimes be dismissed on the basis of not being ‘experts’ in the traditional sense of holding specific academic or professional qualifications. The Oral Hearings held in relation to the Corrib gas project illuminates how particular forms of knowledge and expertise are prioritised and valued above others.

Perhaps then, a key issue within the Prime Time debate was one of ‘expert’ knowledge’ and legitimacy? Maybe a contribution derived from academic research would not only add new knowledge and insights into the broader debate about Irish hydrocarbons, but could serve to further legitimise the arguments of people without ‘expert’ status who are vocal in their criticisms of the Irish state’s management of its gas and oil.

Alternatively, the composition of the debate could be construed as reflecting a broader trend of ‘anti-intellectualism’ which Cronin, Kirby and Ging (2009) suggest has taken root in Irish public life since the Celtic Tiger years. An academic input might also detract from the entertainment value provided through watching quite different men challenge each other’s points of view.

There is a multiplicity of possible explanations for the content and editorial decisions underpinning the Prime Time debate on Ireland’s gas and oil. Evidently the programme was limited in its focus, suffered from a gender imbalance, and provided yet another avenue for some politicians and the oil industry to reiterate their standpoints. As opposed to creating a space for critical and robust discussion on the wider issues surrounding Irish gas and oil, as one might imagine a current affairs programme to do. This raises key questions around the parameters of debate facilitated by RTÉ and one must wonder is this is a case of a national broadcaster toeing the party line and legitimising state policy? This might not be an unreasonable assumption to make given how the Department which manages Ireland’s gas and oil (the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources) is also tasked with responsibility for Communications and has influence over the functioning of RTÉ.

 Amanda Slevin is a sociologist who conducted her PhD research on the Irish state’s management of its gas and oil. She is currently writing a book based on her research and is developing a new website which focuses on the management of Ireland’s gas and oil (www.irelandsgasandoil.com).

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