Irish Economy: Irish media and holding ministers to account
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Sep 8, 2008 - 11:09 AM

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Finance Minister Brian Lenihan has blamed the Irish people and the Fine Gael Party for the out-of-control housing boom of the past decade. Don't expect Lenihan to agree to a forensic media grilling on the monumental mismanagement of the economy, that will visit misery on thousands in the private sector. Ministers generally call the tune on such media events.

Irish Economy: In the Irish media world on Sunday, Shane Coleman  the political correspondent of The Sunday Tribune wrote in relation to the earth-shattering decision by the Government to present Budget 2009 six weeks early, that the "real positive to take from last week is that the finance minister now seems to know what is required. It's only the start, but it's a good start." One hundred and twenty days after the two Brians, Cowen and Lenihan, filled the two most important political positions in the state, they finally seemed to seize the initiative said Coleman who also wrote that a government figure commented that the decision  was more about "optics" than anything else.

So much for the school-boy pat of approval on the head. This is the Irish realm of low expectations and the politicians calling the tune as usual.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen made an appearance on RTÉ Television's The Late, Late Show on Friday and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was a guest on a RTÉ Radio programme on Saturday.

One certainty is that neither Cowen nor Lenihan will subject themselves to a forensic grilling on the monumental mismanagement of the economy, that will visit misery on thousands in the private sector, in coming years. Cowen's predecessor Bertie Ahern got away with State broadcaster RTÉ facilitating him with his format of choice for 11 years and who would stand up to ministers setting participation rules now?

Why expect the comfortable RTÉ Director General Cathal Goan, who was paid €441,000 last year, an increase of 22% on his previous year’s remuneration (his performance-related pay of €108,000 in 2007, was up from €44,000 the previous year - thank you Celtic Tiger), to start rattling cages at this stage in his career?

“You know, we’ve got to be honest about this as a people. We decided, as a people collectively, to have this housing boom. We decided not to have property taxes, to demand reductions in stamp duties, to demand interest for those who bought to-let properties, and there was no questioning in any part of the political system about that,” Lenihan said on Saturday. He went on to suggest the Government had acted prudently on the housing front by ignoring Fine Gael demands for further stamp duty reductions.

“The Government, if anything, held a very firm line in the last election on the stamp duty issue against Richard Bruton and his party who wanted to do a massive further installment of stamp duty reduction, that would have given us an even bigger headache and an even bigger hangover now.”

Lenihan and Cowen will avoid being challenged on facts and politicians like them are often helped because economics is a compartmentalised sector while the only way to deal with spoof and spin, is to challenge with facts.

The Dáil only sits for about 90 days annually and the format is not effective in holding ministers to account. When the chamber is shuttered, an anonymous spokesperson is often used to spoof spin in response to inconvenient truths.

In the period before the 2007 General Election was called, the then Progressive Democrats' leader Michael McDowell got top billing on the RTÉ Radio flagship news programme Morning Ireland, with an announcement that the PDs election programme would include a proposal to increase the old age pension to €300 per week. It was a contribution to alleviating pensioner poverty, McDowell said.

The interviewer failed to raise the pertinent issue as to the link between the fact that more than million Irish workers had no occupational pension after a decade and a half of the Celtic Tiger, and pensioner poverty.

For two years, stamp duty has been an issue of debate in respect of house cost, between politicians and journalists. VAT at 13.5% on new housing units and what is in effect a huge tax, that is the land rezoning system, hardly get a mention.

"We have a strong and vibrant indigenous exporting sector," the Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea, said in his Sunday Independent column on Sunday.


"We also have a range of major world-leading international companies based and investing in Ireland and exporting to foreign markets,"O'Dea also said.

How can we have a strong domestic exporting sector if Ireland is likely more dependent on US firms than any other country in the world?

- Foreign-owned firms were responsible for 90.2% of Irish exports in 2006 - including both merchandise goods and internationally traded services

Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Even in 2006, the high point of the recent phase of the bubble, of the 83,000 jobs that were created, only 6,000 related to the tradable goods and services sector (the type of firms supported by State agencies - IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta): half by Irish-owned firms and the rest by foreign ones. 1,187 jobs were added in 2007.

Irish full-time employment in manufacturing and internationally traded services fell 10,297 from 315,418 in 2000 to 305,121 in 2007 while the total workforce expanded by 605,000 in sectors such as construction, public services, distribution, retail and other services.

RTÉ in particular, should cease being a jellyfish and journalists covering national politics should have the facts to confront spoof. Ministers should not have the option of setting the ground rules and information on refusals to grant interviews, should be periodically published.

There is no shortage of economic illiteracy and politicians can easily enlist parrots for their spurious soundbites because they are not challenged.

I would like to see the format that was pioneered by the late Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press, used in Ireland. Challenging directly with facts and past statements on the screen - both government and opposition politicians.

For example, when Green Party's John Gormley joined up with FF, he didn't really have to defend himself. It was akin to Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler, when he declared inconvenient past statements on Watergate as "inoperative."

Ministers can go unchallenged on claims for example that "Irish" firms are having success in Asia when it's really Intel and Microsoft.

We can spend up to €8.2 billion on becoming a "knowledge economy" and no minister has to defend this aspiration.

Forensic grilling in the broadcast media using facts (pensions, housing, education, exports etc) won't win over everyone who peddles bar-stool economics, but it would at least bring some realism to public debate. 

Ministers and policymakers can begin to believe their own propaganda as fact.

The danger is clearly evident when for example, the heads of State enterprise agencies, also spin as good as the politicians.

The private sector is not immune either from being duped by spin e.g: - Irish Economy: IBEC and understanding the world East of Suez 

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