Friday, August 02, 2013

Dismal Reporting of the Dismal Science

First published in the Western People on Tuesday

Of all the many surprises adulthood has in store – some wonderful, some completely horrid – one of the least-expected is a sudden and intense interest in what Victorian philosopher and critic Thomas Carlyle called the “dismal science,” economics.

Prior to about 2008, the nation was happy to be interested in economics only insofar as it affected the price of beer, wine or Ryanair flights. And then suddenly Lehman Brothers bit the bullet in the States and we all turned to each other and asked “who or what in blazes are Lehman Brothers, and why are they scaring me so?”

Five years of relative misery later, we’re still no wiser. Not really. Some people have read up on economics, in a desperate attempt to get some sort of handle on what’s going on. They’re still reading. An Taoiseach told the nation at Christmas 2011 that “these are not our debts,” but still continued to pay them. Why would we pay bills that aren’t ours? Aren’t our own bad enough?

And then there are the good-hearted innocents of Ballyhea, County Cork, who still protest the bank bailout weekly, turning the village into something out of one of the poorer episodes of the Irish RM. God love them.

Into this general confusion stepped one Mr Ashoka Mody, who spoke at length on the News at One on RTÉ Radio One last Sunday week. Mr Mody, who was part of the original IMF team that visited Ireland when the then Government were saying there was no way, no how the IMF were coming here, told the News at One that the current policy of austerity is wrong, and that innovative alternatives were needed. He did not say what those innovative alternatives were, of course, even though we’d all be curious to know.

The IMF itself reacted quickly on Monday, saying that Mr Mody didn’t work for them any more and did not represent their views. “There is no evidence that Ireland’s fiscal consolidation is self-defeating”, they said.

So who to believe? This is where it gets interesting, especially for those of us who always feel a bit thick when we can’t keep up with economic conversation.

RTÉ describes Ashoka Mody as the former IMF chief of mission to Ireland. However, a November 19th, 2010 article in the Irish Times describes Ashoka Mody as “assistant director in the European Department of the IMF.” Mody is described in a November 19th Irish Times article as “the IMF’s expert on Irish affairs.”

When Ashoka Mody was described as IMF chief of mission when he was interviewed on RTÉ in April of this year, also criticizing the bailout, but when exactly was Mody chief of mission? The current chief of mission is Craig Beaumont. When did he take over? How long did Mody reign?

The questions continue. Do any of these titles matter? What exactly is a chief of mission anyway? Is it better or worse than Head Bottle Washer?

Sometimes, when the plain people of Ireland scratch our heads at this stuff, we’re told it’s our responsibility to inform ourselves. And so it is, but it’s also journalism’s job to explain these things a little better too. Not everyone has a degree in economics.

This is a quote from the RTÉ interview with Ashoka Mody – brace yourselves: “At this point it looks like, given the debt dynamics, if debt levels remain where they are and growth remains where it is, there is never going to be a reduction in the debt ratio the foreseeable future and so logically we are left with the only other option: Generating growth by abandoning the severe commitment to austerity and hoping there will be a short-term boost to growth, which not only improves growth, but brings down debt levels.”

What does that mean, exactly? Debt dynamics are what, exactly? What’s a good debt ratio? What’s a bad debt ratio? Who are you people? How did I get here?

If you read the quote carefully, you’ll notice a hostage to fortune in the text. It’s “hoping.” Mr Mody is “hoping there will be short-term boost to growth.”. Mody hopes that abandoning austerity would work, but that’s really not the same as counting on it. Not least if you’re in Government, and have to put the nation’s money where your mouth is.

So how has it come to pass that this man addresses the nation instead of someone else, like the lugubrious but straight-shooting Colm McCarthy? Why aren’t we quite sure of what exactly Ashoka Mody’s job title was with the IMF? And why isn’t he asked these questions?

There’s no doubt that Ashoka Mody knows his stuff. He lectures at Princeton, he has a knockout CV, he’s very far from a daw. But it’s journalists’ duty to be accurate in how they describe people, what those people do, and what those people say.

Journalists have to break the jargon down into terms the people can understand, without breaking down so much the people can’t understand them. That’s the job.

Which is another reminder of what a terrible loss George Lee is to RTÉ News. George may have been one of the most hopeless politicians ever, but as a newsman on economic issues he was superb. Standing in the rain outside the Central Bank or the Dáil, blinking behind his glasses, reaming off fact after fact.

There was also something in his delivery – a certain tension, a repressed twitch, an edge to voice that suggested that George had seen the books and they made the Third Secret of Fatima look like something out of Spongebob Squarepants. Ireland needs George. We need to know what’s going on. We are surely owed that much.