The Irish people, we are constantly reminded, are an innately conservative lot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from that conservatism being present from birth, part of the DNA of the Irish, it is solely the consequence of cultural formation. At one time it could be argued that that conservatism was the result of a peculiar form of Catholicism, Ultramontanism, inflicted on the unfortunate people in the early 19th century. There is truth in that, but it tells only part of the story. The decline in the power of the Catholic church in recent decades has not led to a significant shift from conservatism. The answer to this prolonged ideological stasis lies in the media landscape of Ireland.
Ireland is virtually unique among European countries, and many countries in the wider world, in having no significant left-wing press. The three national daily newspapers in the ‘Republic’ of Ireland are to all intents ideologically interchangeable. The ideas and values they present to the readers are essentially conservative on politics, liberal on social matters, and neo-liberal on economics. The same is true about the Sunday newspapers, and about broadcast media whether privately owned commercial stations or the semi-state national broadcasting company, RTE.
In this media environment, any ideas, values or principles that come out of left-wing ideology are routinely rubbished and ridiculed, usually with an air of authority and often with a sneer. Socialised medicine was recently rubbished on RTE radio as ‘Utopia’ – used as a pejorative term of course – as if the health systems in much of Europe, far superior to ours, could be dismissed just like that, an unattainable daydream. A recent demand by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland that public funding of €100 million for private schools should be withdrawn and used instead for severely disadvantaged public schools met a similar barrage of criticism, much of it from privately educated broadcasters and journalists.
That the existing Irish media not only failed utterly to challenge the ‘Celtic Tiger’ neo-liberal ‘market driven’ economic policies but actually promoted the crazy construction ‘boom’ that those policies were designed to fuel, demonstrates not just the failure of the Irish media to perform its functions of informing the public and of holding the powerful to account, but its complicity in the creation of a national economic catastrophe. Instead of raising all of the pertinent questions arising from insane economic policies, those voices – most often of the left – which were raised against disastrous public policies were either silenced or rubbished.
The right-wing media hegemony must be broken if there is to be any basis for Ireland being able to claim to be a truly democratic State. The absence of fair presentation of ideas and values that offer an alternative to the political hegemony of permanent right-wing government by one or other of the civil war parties, the ideological twins Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, denies both the notion of a ‘free’ press and the repetitive claim that the Irish electorate is well-informed and well-served by its national media.
The defence of the Irish media that is routinely trotted out is that the media give the readers what the readers want. In the first place there is no alternative offered, secondly an audience is through repetition over time cultured into believing that what is presented is the ‘norm’ and is the ‘common-sense’ position, particularly when the same small panel of ‘experts’, drawn from the ranks of the political class and elevated to celebrity status by the same media, is used over and over again in print and on radio and TV shows.
The belief is fostered that there is no market for a daily newspaper with the capacity to challenge the Irish Independent, Irish Times and Irish Examiner. A newspaper needs readers, not just to recoup costs through the cover price but more importantly to attract advertisers. To do this it is necessary to have a readership that it is worth marketing products to, and so middle-class and wealthier readers are important, but so too are lower income readers who also consume products and services and need public service information ads.
The approximate circulation figures for the national dailies are: Irish Independent 140,000; Irish times 102,000; Irish Examiner 46,000. Could a new left-wing daily newspaper match those figures, even the lowest? And from which part of the population might it do so?
In the recent General Election the two conservative political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, garnered just under 1.2 million votes. The combined vote for those other parties that are, or claim to be, of the left was approximately 760,000, not counting leftist independents. Another figure worth considering is the total trade union membership in this State of about 600,000. Out of either of those numbers it is difficult to see how a good quality alternative to the current trio of conservative newspapers would not be able to match at least the lowest circulation figure, that of the Irish Examiner.
But what of setup and running costs? A creative approach would be needed, but one ally that a new newspaper has is new communications and printing technology, combined with the capacity to print simultaneously in different regions or provinces to reduce distribution costs and speed delivery. By setting achievable circulation targets and initially using freelance journalists and interns alongside a core of seasoned professional staff under a good team of editors it is feasible to challenge the existing Irish national dailies for readers, and more importantly to set out to win readers away from the Irish versions of British newspapers. There is also, very likely, a large cohort of potential readers who opt for a quality British newspaper, or for none at all.
The plain fact is that until an alternative to the existing conservative national daily newspapers is put in place, then the media hegemony which sustains the political hegemony will continue its work of distortion and propagandising, maintaining a roadblock on the journey to the day when we can legitimately say that this State is a democratic one.