New book by by Sean Phelan, Neoliberalism, Media and the Political, some of which discusses Ireland.

Neoliberalism, Media and the Political presents a novel critical analysis of the condition of media and journalism in neoliberal cultures. Emphasizing neoliberalism’s status as a political ideology that is simultaneously hostile to politics, the argument is grounded in empirical illustrations from different social contexts, including post-Rogernomics New Zealand, Celtic Tiger Ireland, the Leveson Inquiry into the UK press, and the climate-sceptic blogosphere. Phelan draws on a variety of theoretical sources, especially Laclau and Bourdieu, to affirm the importance of neoliberalism as an analytical concept. Yet, he also interrogates how critiques of neoliberalism – in media research and elsewhere – can reduce social practices to the category of neoliberal. Against the image of a monolithic free-market ideology that imposes itself on other domains, the book identifies the potential sites of a cultural politics within neoliberalized media regimes.

Table of contents
Introduction: Disfiguring Neoliberalism
1. Articulating Neoliberalism in Critical Media and Communication Studies
2. Neoliberal Discourse: Theory, History and Trajectories
3. Neoliberal Logics and Field Theory
4. Neoliberalism and Media Democracy: A Representative Anecdote from Post-Rogernomics New Zealand
5. The Journalistic Habitus and the Realist Style
6. Media Cultures, Anti-Politics and the ‘Climategate’ Affair
7. Neoliberal Imaginaries, Press Freedom and the Politics of Leveson
8. Media Rituals and the ‘Celtic Tiger’: The Neoliberal Nation and its Transnational Circulation
Conclusion: The Possibility of a Radical Media Politics

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New paper: Post-politics, crisis, and Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’ by Cian O’Callaghan, Mark Boyle, and Rob Kitchin published in Political Geography. The paper is available here (open access until 27 September 2014).

Abstract: This paper argues that the global economic recession provides an instructive point to reconsider recent theorisations of post-politics for two reasons. First, theories of the post-political can help us to understand the current neoliberal impasse, and second, current transformations provide us with an empirical basis to test the limits of these explanatory frameworks. While the resurgence of neoliberal policies, evidenced through the state-sponsored rescue of the financial sector and the introduction of harsh austerity measures in many countries, appear to confirm post-politics, various protest movements have testified to a concurrent re-politicisation of the economy. Furthermore, crises constitute periods of disruption to the discursive and symbolic order, which open a space for hegemonic struggle, however fleeting. We focus our analysis on Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’ – residential developments left abandoned or unfinished after the property crash – and their treatment within mainstream print media. We argue that in the context of crash, the ‘ghost estate’ functioned as an ‘empty signifier’ through which hegemonic struggles over how to narrate, and thus re-inscribe, the event of the crisis were staged. We explore the double role played by ‘ghost estates’: firstly, as an opening for politics, and secondly, as a vehicle used to discursively contain the crisis through a neoliberal narrative of ‘excess’. We argue that our analysis offers an instructive example of how post-politicisation occurs as a process that is always contingent, contextual, and partial, and reliant on the cooption and coproduction of existing cultural signifiers with emergent narrations of crisis.

Both the Irish Independent and The Irish Times have, in recent months, discussed a supposed shortage of housing stock, and associated price-rise, in South County Dublin. While, when taken at face value, there may be some form of truth to the claims, there is a need for extreme caution in focusing the wider debate on one particular geographical location, particularly in light of such uncertain economic times. In line with recent posts on this blog, the role of the media is of significant importance in influencing these discussions. To take just one example, in the last number of days The Irish Times ran with the headline: House prices in south Dublin up 12.2%, survey shows’. Through reading this article, however, it became apparent that what was being referred to was asking prices as opposed to selling prices. This may seem relatively harmless, yet it has some important repercussions. In another piece later the same day, Michael Noonan, in response to the previous article, mentioned the need for 30,000 new dwellings per year and commented as follows: “Dublin as in many other areas is giving the lead and south Dublin is giving us a strong lead according to one survey prices are up 12%… These things can change very rapidly.”

Such rhetoric raises some important questions. Should there be a rush to build more housing in South County Dublin? Is it in the interests of good planning to maintain housing levels in this area and further pursue a completely disjointed approach towards the delivery of housing more generally. While it may also be argued that this shift is indicative of a more general turnaround in property prices throughout the country, there is a much wider debate to be had. When viewed another way, the rise of property values in one specific geographical area of Dublin could be looked as being indicative of a severely imbalanced social, economic and political system.

Eastern Docks, Amsterdam

As I have argued before, is now not the time to put in place measures that might actually promote more socially balanced cities? As highlighted by Michael Noonan in the above-mentioned article, there is an assumption that market forces will lead to families departing from apartments to houses. However, and not withstanding the importance of wider debates about one-off housing etc., within the larger urban areas, a key challenge lies in dealing with issues such as suburban sprawl, high levels of vacancy within central areas, and the promotion of more socially-balanced cities.

While we should be careful not to place those cities often cited as having a high quality of life, such as Amsterdam, Vienna or Copenhagen, on a pedestal, it is of note that, relatively speaking, they each have a history of strong centres and suburbs as well as more balanced social structures. The relationship between these various factors is, I would argue, a much more important debate to be had. The current obsession with house prices in one particular part of the country does little more than to replicate the same problems of the boom years. Mainstream media can play a key role in ensuring that such rhetoric is challenged and debated at every turn. I would go as far as to say that it has a duty of care to do so.

Philip Lawton

This piece originally appeared on Broadsheet.ie yesterday.  It is reproduced here with the reference footnotes.

In April, Broadsheet.ie published articles about some work I have been doing on the media’s coverage of the housing bubble in Ireland, here and here. My point was that the Irish media supported the hype about the housing market and contributed to inflating the bubble that collapsed a few years ago, leading the country into a deep economic crisis. One media commentator, Marc Coleman, formerly Economics editor at the Irish Times and now running his own radio show on Newstalk, wasn’t so happy about it, and responded to Broadsheet.ie here, attempting to defend his record.

I decided to examine Coleman’s record on the housing bubble in more detail, and so I took a look at all the newspaper articles on the property market he has written since 2004 as well as his two books, The Best Is Yet To Come (2007) and Back from the Brink (2009).

Perhaps the clearest examples of how wrong he has been come from the following pieces. In September 2007, he attacked those who warned of a housing collapse like David McWilliams as ‘careless talkers’ who make meaningless ‘simplifications and generalisations’ and threaten to ‘run down our economy’. Coleman claimed that ‘Far from an economic storm—or a property shock—Ireland’s economy is set to rock and roll into the century’. He thought the economy was so strong that he wrote that ‘Ireland enters the 21st Century in a position of awesome power’, which ‘promises a future more flourishing than ever before; a future that will turn economic prosperity from a statistical fact to a reality’. Apparently, the country was doing so well that worldwide, ‘hundreds of millions of people are one the move, looking for a country like Ireland to make their home’. After all, ‘Far from collapsing, our economy and property prices will do more than hold up’. Supposedly, all we needed to do to protect ourselves against a crisis was not to talk about it, because ‘unless we talk ourselves into one, an economic storm is not going to happen.’ All we had to do is proceed as if there was no problem at all: ‘If we keep our eyes fixed forward and our heads cool, then the best is yet to come’.[i]

Also, in March 2007, just as the housing bubble reached its peak, he wrote confidently that ‘Nothing exciting is in prospect for the market over the next two or three years, but nothing dangerous is in prospect either’.[ii] Later that month, he wrote that ‘some commentators on the property market… are predicting the downfall of the market, the collapse of the economy and the sky falling on our heads’. He said that those people were ‘talking nonsense’, and ‘dangerous nonsense at that’. He continued: ‘Doom merchants and indulgent parents are bad for the market’. He didn’t like those ‘irrational predictions of doom’ because he said ‘the market is correcting, not collapsing’ and in any case we shouldn’t worry because there is only a ‘modest amount of overvaluation in the market’ and ‘the safety nets for house price levels in 2008 are effectively already in place’.[iii]

But those are not his only contributions. He wrote a number of articles over the years that reinforced the notion that house prices were set to climb higher or, at worst, would gently stabilise in a ‘soft landing’. For example, he penned articles entitled ‘Housing Demand Set To Stay Strong’ (Irish Times, 28 September 2005), ‘Risk From Collapse in House Prices “Has Receded”’ (Irish Times, 2 November 2005) and ‘House Prices “Set for Soft Landing”’ (Irish Times, 22 November 2005). In another article, entitled ‘“Ryanair” effect adds to confidence in housing market’, he wrote that ‘The Irish housing market will experience another strong year, due in part to Ryanair making Ireland a more accessible place to work, according to Irish Intercontinental Bank (IIB) chief economist Austin Hughes’ (Irish Times, 25 January 2006). He presented another entertaining thesis in an article entitled ‘Legalisation of Contraception a “Major Factor” in House Price Rise’, reporting on a study entitled ‘Condoms and House Prices’ by Alan Ahearne of NUI Galway and Robert Martin of the US Federal Reserve Board (Irish Times, 1 May 2006). Another piece, entitled ‘Economists Forecast 15 More Years of Strong Growth’ (Irish Times, 23 March 2006), stated that ‘As a result of population growth, the number of houses is expected to continue growing by around 65,000 units a year until at least 2020’. Later, he wrote an article entitled ‘Housing Market Set for “Soft Landing”’ (Irish Times, 28 February 2007) and stated reassuringly that ‘Negative equity is here—but only for a tiny percentage of the market’ (Irish Times, 14 June 2007). One could say that some of those articles were merely news stories and that Coleman was only reporting the opinion of others, but that confirms my point: he chose to report the views of those property ‘experts’ who were cheerleaders for the market, but ignored those who warned that it was in bubble territory, such as Morgan Kelly, David McWilliams, or The Economist magazine.

In January 2006, in the Irish Times’ Property section, Coleman advised his readers on how to buy property overseas. The article started thus: ‘Thinking of investing abroad? Don’t just check out the bars and the beach—research the economy of the country you’re buying in if you want it to be a good long-term prospect. Economics Editor Marc Coleman shows you how’. For example, he wrote that ‘The absence of serious political discord in a country is a necessary if insufficient condition to making a sound investment, in that it helps underpin confidence in the property market’.[iv]

In August 2006, he wrote the introduction to a Daft.ie report on the property market. In it, he claimed that the housing market’s ‘price resurgence is “fundamental” in nature’ and thus that it was ‘unlikely’ that ‘a downturn in the market [was] going to happen’.[v]

In January 2008, Coleman encouraged his readers to buy property, writing that ‘provided you are not paying 2007 prices, 2008 could be an excellent year in which to buy’. Some might have wondered whether ‘you should wait until 2009 before buying a house?’ But Coleman said assertively that ‘that idea is nonsense’—as such, ‘many will this year have perfectly good reasons to buy houses in 2008 and—provided they pay 2006 prices—they should go ahead in confidence’. He believed that the property market would ‘bear out my prediction of a quick correction in 2008 followed by resumed growth’. [vi]

In March 2008, he wrote another piece entitled ‘Property: bottoming out—so it’s time to spend’.[vii] He minimised any worries about the market: ‘Less about a boom and bust, Ireland’s current economic story is more like a property bulge passing through the gullet of our economy’. He thought that by early 2009, ‘at the very latest, house price growth should turn very modestly positive’.

In October 2008, he attacked those who suffer from ‘illiterate panic-mongering’ and talk down the property market and who ‘with no quantitative discipline to back their statements, tell us that house prices are going to fall by another 40 per cent’—well, they’ve actually fallen by about 45% since then.[viii]

His optimism was displayed again in a January 2010 article entitled ‘All Signs Indicate We Are Turning the Corner on to Recovery’ (Sunday Independent, 10 January 2010) and in another one entitled ‘It’s Not “Hype”, the Worst Really Is Over’ (Sunday Independent, 7 February 2010) in which he wrote that ‘The armageddon brigade may argue otherwise, but the evidence suggests we are on the slow road to recovery’ and that ‘the signs of recovery are everywhere’.

A few of Coleman’s articles may appear to have warned against a housing crash, such as one entitled ‘Economy Vulnerable to Housing Crash’ (Irish Times, 4 March 2006), but in fact when one reads them, they turn out to have been reassuring about such an event, stating that ‘The good news is that, although possible, a crash is not yet probable’.

Coleman tried to defend his record in an article in the Sunday Independent in 2010, in which he gave examples of articles written by himself that purport to demonstrate that he had, in fact, warned us all about the impending collapse of the economy.[ix] However, none of his examples prove anything of the sort. All one can find are a few sentences saying that growth may not be sustainable, that credit is growing too fast, that the construction sector is a very large part of the economy, that the financial sector could be better regulated, etc. For instance, he says that ‘On March 31st 2006 in a piece that began “Stop the economy I want to get off” I warned that financial regulation had broken down’.[x] The piece says that the economy is overheating, but doesn’t warn about a housing bubble.

Coleman also wrote a book entitled The Best Is Yet To Come, published in November 2007. It makes a number of economic assumptions that are simply wrong or irrelevant, such as arguing that a country’s climate and a coastal location help its economic performance: ‘Situated on the temperate if rainy north-west fringe of Europe, Ireland has one of the world’s most fortunate locations’ (pp.11-12). Another one is the book’s main argument, that population growth will stimulate economic growth in Ireland. As Colm McCarthy and Dan O’Brien have noted in their reviews of the book, that doesn’t make any sense, as on that count sub-Saharan Africa, India and other poor countries should be rich.[xi] To grow an economy, you need the right policies.

The book presents a very optimistic picture of the Irish economy. Coleman finished writing it in early October 2007, and by that time, signs of an economic slowdown were apparent. For example, he wrote that ‘At the time of writing, latest forecasts from the ESRI indicate that the so-called Celtic Tiger would expire in 2008’ and that housing construction would decrease. But Coleman saw that as a mere ‘pause for breath’ on the part of the economy. In other words: ‘Ireland’s economic miracle is far from over. As anxiety mounts about the end of Ireland’s boom, The Best is Yet to Come argues that Ireland is not experiencing the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning’, as stated on the book’s back cover.

There’s one line of defence that Coleman may use, and it goes something like this: ‘My predictions were conditional on the government doing this and that, and it didn’t do it, so I can’t be proven wrong’. For example, in many of his articles and in his 2009 book, entitled Back from the Brink: Ireland’s Road to Recovery, he kept predicting that house prices wouldn’t fall too much or would stabilise soon, only to be constantly proven wrong by further falls in house prices. But he then says that his predictions were conditional on the government cutting stamp duty or enacting some reforms. He even said that his predictions would materialise provided ‘the kamikaze commentators stop killing confidence’ (p.75). But that line of defence is worthless. Anybody can predict anything and then blame the government or anybody else for not having done this or that, or not enough of this or that, or having done this or that, but not at the right time, or having done this or that, but not well enough, etc.

Julien Mercille, UCD (author of the forthcoming book, The Media and the Irish Economic Crisis: A Political Economy, Routledge).

 


[i] Marc Coleman, ‘We need these expert scaremongers’, Sunday Independent, 23 September 2007.

[ii] ‘Market view’, Irish Times, 1 March 2007.

[iii] Marc Coleman, ‘Market view’, Irish Times, 15 March 2007.

[iv] ‘Location, location . . . and the economy too’, Irish Times, 12 January 2006.

[vi] ‘Property market in need of tough love’, Sunday Independent, 6 January 2008.

[vii] ‘Property: bottoming out—so it’s time to spend’, Sunday Independent, 30 March 2008.

[viii] ‘Let’s fight the battle closest to home’, Sunday Independent, 12 October 2008.

[ix] ‘Don’t shoot messengers, especially if they’re right’, Sunday Independent, 11 April 2010.

[x] ‘Growth threatens to spiral out of control’, Irish Times, 31 March 2006.

[xi] Colm McCarthy, ‘An optimistic prognosis for the wounded Celtic Tiger’, Sunday Independent, 20 January 2008; Dan O’Brien, ‘The curse of local cronyism’, Irish Times, 19 January 2008.

A new paper on housing and the Irish crisis has just been published in New Political Economy by Julien Mercille: “The Role of the Media in Sustaining Ireland’s Housing Bubble”.  It seems to be open access to download from the journal page.  There is also a short piece about it here.  This is the abstract:

This paper examines Irish mainstream media coverage of the housing bubble that burst in 2007 and plunged Ireland into economic and financial crisis. It is shown that news organisations largely sustained the bubble until the property market collapsed. As such, news stories reflected the views and interests of the Irish corporate and governmental sectors, which had adopted neoliberal policies during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (1990s to 2007). A political economic conceptualisation of the Irish media outlines four factors explaining why this is so: (1) news organisations have multiple links with the political and corporate establishment, of which they are part, thus sharing similar interests and viewpoints; (2) just like elite circles, they hold a neoliberal ideology, dominant during the boom years; (3) they feel pressures from advertisers, in particular, real estate companies; and (4) they rely heavily on ‘experts’ from elite institutions in reporting events. The last section presents a detailed empirical analysis of Irish media coverage (newspapers and television) of the housing bubble that confirms the above claims. It is shown that prior to the bubble’s collapse, the media made little mention of it, remained vague about it or tried to refute claims that it even existed, thus sustaining it.

Launched last month, ‘Rap Nuacht na hEireann’ (RNE) is a project by Darragh Kenny which aims to release a series of videos on youtube that combine a television news format with music and a rapping anchor in order to explore “news and views that shape Ireland but are often on the peripheral of the mainstream”. Episode 1 seeks to ask broad questions concerning “who controls the scope of the media debate”. In an effort to extend the level of debate generated, the author of the video has asked a number of people (including myself) to write pieces that comment on issues raised in different episodes. With that in mind, the intentions of this post is to function as a ‘critical plug’ for the project and to provide a space for discussion of both the video itself and the issues it raises.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about how political discussion in Ireland, as filtered through the mainstream media, can be limited in scope. While minor policy issues can be covered in great detail, more structural factors, such as the legitimacy of the form of capitalism currently practiced in Ireland, can be completely excluded from the debate. This continues to be the case even when those minor policy issues are effectively locked in place by the constraints of this overarching system.
The explosion of forms of new social media has significantly altered the media landscape by incorporating a range of new voices and modes of communication. In different ways this has changed how most of us receive and consume news. However, the presence of new voices in the media landscape does not preclude that we are now exposed to more diverse opinions or that our critical capacities have been sharpened. In one sense all the competing voices may cancel each other out. In a different sense, because we are inundated with so much content through new social media channels, we tend to be selective about which sources (websites, blogs, twitter feeds) we get our information from. Hence, the internet has a tendency to turn into an ‘echo chamber’ where likeminded individuals come together in particular corners of cyberspace. Thus, mainstream media remains an important conduit for public discussion, in contrast to the sometimes diverse publics catered to by new social media.
As a media commentary and media product, RNE fits right into the ambiguities of this space. The project aims for a populist appeal by presenting what is perhaps challenging content in an accessible and fun manner. It mirrors the format of a televised news programme, wherein news anchor Seamus O’Dea mediates between a number of other guests (an Occupy protester, an economic correspondent, and an investor) who offer a range of different viewpoints on events. O’Dea is intended to represent an impartial perspective. He is, according to Kenny, meant to be ‘one step ahead of the public’, and hence guides them through a series of issues that are articulated by the other guests. As such, a debate unfolds between the guests and O’Dea that is intended to open up spaces not normally covered by mainstream news.
While RNE draws on mainstream media tropes, it is very clearly a product of the new social media terrain. The project is hosted on youtube and disseminated through twitter and facebook. It also aims to take advantage of the blurring of identities offered through these mechanisms: Seamus O’Dea has his own facebook page for instance.
Whilst O’Dea and co don’t have Mos Def’s flow, the project should be commended for presenting a lot of complex information in a concise and easily digested manner (and in verse!). The news programme format functions as a way of distilling several voices and demonstrating their points of friction. The video isn’t always entirely successful in this regard. At times, O’Dea oversteps the boundaries of his supposed impartiality, and investor Vlad Doich Cuaill comes across a bit of a cartoonish villain.
Nevertheless, the project raises a number of pertinent questions about the shape of the current media landscape. In satirising the television news format, RNE calls attention to the proclivity of the mainstream media to uphold the status quo. When peripheral perspectives are drafted in they are often discursively marginalised as ‘extreme’ points of view and used to play against more minor differences between ‘moderate’ (Centre Right) responses. However, for these very reasons RNE is also perhaps in danger of falling into the chasm of an ‘echo chamber’, preaching only to a left-leaning choir while missing the ‘popular’ audience that it sets out to address.
These opinions are not intended to be a definitive pronouncement on RNE’s successes and failures. Rather they are open questions that need to be addressed through more general discussion. As a socially engaged internet public, the readers of this blog are in a good position to conduct such a debate, to ask questions like: How effective are projects like RNE? How can new social media extend the public debate? How can fragmented ‘online publics’ be reconciled with a ‘general public’? To address these and other issues, please send your comments to Seamus O’Dea below.
Cian O’Callaghan

A couple of weeks ago a BBC journalist, Tom de Castella interviewed me for a piece he was doing on renewed Irish emigration.  In the course of the interview I observed that new media technologies would make it easier for present day emigrants to retain ties with home than was the case for previous generations.  I pointed out that even in the 1980s in New York City a myriad of resources were available to people to maintain a psychological identification with Ireland.  They remained connected to both host society and society of origin. My point was that the capacity for direct and instantaneous identification with home while ensconced in the host society was already discernible twenty-five years ago. It has, if anything, accelerated and intensified since then.

Furthermore, I suggested that Irish people leaving Ireland now would in all likelihood return in time if the economic situation stabilized and improved.  This is what happened in the 1990s and early 2000s and there is no reason to assume that it will not happen again.  In many respects, those who are leaving now might be better thought of as transnationals– making a temporary commitment to another country while retaining strong emotional and psychological ties with the home country, and highly likely to move in time to either another destination country or back home.  Transience rather than permanence is what defines these labour flows.

Tom de Castella quoted me on the point that new technology was making it easier to stay in touch for the new generation of immigrants.  He did not however, make the wider contextual point that that capacity to stay in touch with home was already discernible among 1980s emigrants the group with which the current generation are most often compared.

David Stringer of AP picked up on the BBC story and interviewed me a few days later.  His piece subsequently appeared in The Globe and Mail on Nov 30, 2010.  In his piece he put a completely different spin on what I actually said.  According to him I said  that new emigrants would be less likely than previous generations to eventually return home, whereas in fact I had said the opposite given my work on return emigrants in the 1990s.  Stringer adduced that if people had more technological capacity to retain ties with home while abroad they would not feel the need to return.  Whereas I had told him that it was precisely the fact that people missed the visceral, real, organic connections with family and community that drew people back to Ireland, even more so that the opportunities offered during the Celtic Tiger era.  Stringer also confused my point about the technological ties, suggesting that satellite screening of important matches is “new” whereas it was an embedded part of emigrant culture since the mid 1980s.

On Friday, December 3rd the Irish Examiner had a front page story reporting on a survey that indicated that one third of 18-24 year olds planned to emigrate in the next 12 months.  I was surprised to see myself quoted in the piece though no journalist from the newspaper had contacted me. The quote used had been culled I assume from Stringer’s piece as it said “new emigrants may be less likely that previous generations to return home,”  which was not actually what I said, but rather was the erroneous spin put on a more nuanced statement by me to the journalist in question.   I have learned to speak in sound bites over the years as I realize that clarity of expression is crucial in getting your point across. Nevertheless, it is impossible to be sure that what one says coincides exactly with what one is reported to have said.

Mary Corcoran