Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bias in the Media

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Although his politics are shared by very few people in the country, Joe Higgins, TD, has always been lauded for being a “diverse” voice in the Irish political landscape. Political correspondents often remark in their end-of-term parliamentary reviews how good it is to have Joe Higgins in the Dáil to provide “balance” to debates.

Well. We all must be careful what we wish for, and the national media discovered this the hard way when the terms of reference to the long-awaited Banking Inquiry were announced recently.

The Banking Inquiry was conceived, originally, as a fine instrument for dipping the previous government into a vat of boiling oil. However, that methodology would probably give some busybody in the UN another reason to give out to us, so the current government had to adjust the terms of reference.

The Banking Inquiry is now set to investigate all banking practice in Ireland from 1992 until the crash, some sixteen years. And just as everybody was about to sign off on this, Joe Higgins put his hand up and made a last-minute suggestion.

Higgins proposed that the inquiry examine “the development of a prevailing consensus, including the role of mass media and advertising and mortgage brokers, financial consultants and property development and sales companies.”

Since the crash, we’ve all heard a lot about “groupthink” in Irish political life. But Joe Higgins’s amendment to the Banking Inquiry is the first effort to discover what exactly this groupthink is, where does it come from, what does it do and is it a good or a bad thing.

Not everyone is happy about this. Ciarán Lynch, TD, chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was on Morning Ireland the week before last to discuss the Inquiry, and he seemed a little shocked to be hauled over the coals about the media angle.

“The media has no legislative power,” the Morning Ireland presenter kept repeating. Mr Lynch may have considered replying that a government backbencher doesn’t have all that much power either, but probably thought he’d only get into more trouble.

It is unlikely the nation wll be any the wiser after the Banking Inquiry. Anyone who expects anything other that stonewalling from witnesses and grandstanding from committee members hasn’t been following these Oireachtas Committee very closely.

People can be compelled to appear but they are under no obligation to say anything of any interest whatever once they’re there. So it’s all for show, really, a lot like the Houses of the Oireachtas themselves.

What makes this twist about the media interesting though is that it gives us an opportunity to consider the question of bias. All news reporting has to deal with bias, from the very start of a news cycle. By reporting one thing and not reporting another, any media organisation has already taken a step that may be affected by bias, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s how the media organisation deals with that bias inherent in the news-gathering process itself that’s interesting. And there are two schools of thought here.

The current fashion is for admitting bias from the start. More and more media organisations don’t even try to be fair, but simply tell their audiences what they want to hear. The right-wing Fox News in the USA is (in)famous for its partisan reporting, but there are plenty of channels in the US who shout for the Democrats too. The problem is that people don’t get to see both points of view at once, and this causes a democratic deficit.

The classical model of good reporting in journalism is to acknowledge bias but to strive to overcome it at every opportunity. This is the model practiced here in Ireland – in theory, anyway – but it seems Joe Higgins is inclined to double-check that idea, just in case.

Does Higgins have a point? Well. It certainly is a remarkable thing that the entire country was convinced that the housing market could provide infinite wealth for so long. It also a remarkable thing that when the crash came, the country was equally convinced there was only one reason behind it. How much of these twin illusions was due to the way the boom, the bust and the repercussions were reported in the media?

The media is all-pervasive in our lives. When you get up, you know if the shower was hot or cold, you know if you could find your socks, you know if there’s milk in the fridge when you open the door. You could look out the window to see what the weather is like, but you know that could change in fifteen minutes or less.

For everything else that impacts on your life, you need the media. Do you need a new car for the morning commute? Can you afford one? Are car prices going up or down? Are petrol prices going up or down? What will it cost to tax and insure the thing? Should you forget the family saloon and buy some sort of jeep, because the road is all potholes and it costs money to repair broken axles?

You don’t have time to study economics to see overall market trends. You can’t keep up with the geopolitics of the oil-producing countries, or the physics of all the new ways of getting oil out of the ground. And you certainly can’t pop in to Leinster House and find out what future taxation and infrastructure policy will be. There are plenty in there who have no idea no more than ourselves.

So you rely on the media for this information. You watch the news and listen to it on the radio and buy a daily paper along with your weekly Western and you take a sneaky glance at the web at work too.

But reader – can you fully believe what you read in the papers, hear on the radio or see on the TV? Is everybody trying really hard to maintain objectivity, or do they go on the occasional crusade every now again? Or not even that – could it be that one side of the argument is presented, and a balancing counter-argument just doesn’t make an appearance? Who exactly is telling us what to do?