In this paper Henry Silke demonstrates how the mainstream Irish press contributed to the property bubble which helped crash the Irish economy in 2007-08. The rapid rise of the Irish economy was strongly tied to promoting the real estate boom and encouraging international investors and businesses to come to Ireland. In the process, a property bubble grew which both made homes unaffordable for most people and destabilised the economy. The media, with close links to both national political and international investment networks, first pumped up the bubble and then elongated it. Thus, mainstream media coverage of the housing market, supposedly produced for the public, was instead produced by and for market-linked interests.
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The Press, Market Ideologies and the Irish Housing Crash
There is a growing symbiotic relationship between business, communication networks and the mass media. Business depends on communication networks and the mass media in numerous ways; in the actual conduct of business, in the need for market information, for advertising and market creation, and as ideological apparatuses which acts to naturalise market economies and defend business interests. Such trends have been exacerbated in the media industry in recent decades as media has been increasingly consolidated into massive transnational corporations with interests far wider than journalism. In fact it is argued that the contemporary mass media, rather than simply reporting on economic issues, have become an integral part of economic processes.
A clear example of this process, and the growing links between business and journalism, is the coverage of housing and the property market in Ireland. The Irish property market suffered one of the greatest crashes in modern history, directly costing the state tens of billions in bank bailouts and hundreds of thousands of mainly working class livelihoods. A key discursive element of housing and property news has been the framing of housing as a commodity rather than a social need, as well as a privileging of market needs over society ones. This was the case in much of the coverage of the housing market by the Irish media in the run up to the housing crash of 2007/2008. This framing, as well as ignoring key social problems such as affordability, included an insidious and dogmatic belief in the primacy of the market that blinded much of the Irish media to the possibility of the crash, thus acting both to encourage and elongate the bubble. There is little evidence that this framing of housing as a commodity rather than a social need has changed as most discourse continues to be around ‘fixing the market’ rather than thinking outside of it.
The Irish Housing Crisis
The roots of Ireland’s economic crisis are long and deep. Ireland after independence remained a dependent economy, concentrating on the export of non-value added commodities and the country’s late industrialisation was centred on the enticement of foreign direct investment into the Irish state, rather than the development of indigenous industry. This type of development emphasised the service economy and the various sections of the property industry which, during the ‘Celtic Tiger’s’ boom years, became one of the key indigenous investment and speculative activities in the state. This had very serious repercussions for many Irish people as buying a property on the private market had become the only way to secure a home for most people. This was due to the near elimination of social housing supply by the state and the Dickensian conditions in the private rental market. The process led to a skewed domestic economy and eventually the development of a massive asset price bubble in property.
By the year 2007, however, even middle class home buyers were being priced out of the housing market. The deregulated banking system filled the gap in the market with innovative ‘products’ such as speculative ‘100%, loans’, ‘interest free mortgages’, and ‘buy to let schemes’. At the same time that consumer demand was dipping, huge amounts of vacant and half-finished properties were coming on stream, often in places with no manifest demand for housing at all. Like all Ponzi schemes (as the Irish property market had begun to resemble) the market was fictitious. Eventually in 2007, property prices began to dip and, following the so called credit crunch, the residential and commercial property markets collapsed entirely. This then uncovered huge holes in banking balance sheets, none more so than the poster boy for Irish ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’, Anglo Irish Bank. However, unlike an ordinary Ponzi scheme this crash brought down a whole generation of home buyers, the Irish economy, hundreds of thousands of jobs and the living standards of most of the populace.
The crisis in housing continues now. Thousands of people continue to be unable to pay mortgages, often trapped in negative equity (FinFacts 2013). In the last year a rental crisis has become evident in Dublin due to a lack of both private and public investment following the crisis (Irish Times 2014c). This has seen apartment rentals increasing by 10% on average (Private Rental Tenancy Board 2014), and in some cases rent hikes of up to 40% (Irish Times 2014a). The internet property portal DAFT, in a recent rental report, found a 14% rise in rents in Dublin in a single year; and reported a drop from 18,000 properties to 10,000 properties available to rent (Lyons 2014). Unsurprisingly the city is witnessing an unprecedented wave of evictions of individuals and families who are unable to pay, and we are witnessing what has been termed a ‘tsunami of homelessness’ (Irish Times 2014b, 2014d).
The Irish Business-Media Nexus
The Irish media sphere is becoming increasingly linked to international investor and political interests. Three distinct trends have developed in the recent past. The first has been the consolidation and concentration of Irish Media groups. Second has been one of increased foreign ownership and penetration. Third has been journalistic practice affected by technological change (Horgan, McNamara and O’Sullivan 2007 p. 35). RTE remains the prominent broadcaster but it continues to face challenges from new globalised media structures (Corcoran 2004) and platforms. RTE, while being state funded, is also dependent on advertising revenue and, as pointed out by Julian Mercille (2013b), has had connections with the financial oligarchy such as former RTE chairman Patrick J. Wright (who was also a director of Anglo Irish Bank throughout the boom years) and Mary Finan (who was a director of the ICS building society).
Within the print media sector the Independent News and Media (INM) group has developed a dominant position. It has expanded into the regional market (as much as possible under competition law) and owns or has interests in the major part of Irish national, evening and Sunday titles. It was estimated in 2002 that the INM group publishes about 80% of all indigenous national newspapers in the Republic of Ireland (Truetzschler 2010). Independent News and Media is also an international group with titles and interests in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and Indonesia (Independent News and Media 2010; Horgan, McNamara and O’Sullivan 2007 p. 37).
In a study of Irish director networks, interlocking boards and overlaps between the boards of the top forty private and public sector bodies (from 2005-2007), it was found that a key network of 39 directors were simultaneously members of two or more boards under examination. Half of this director network held positions in at least one of Ireland’s major financial institutions. Through this network, Independent News and Media directly interlocks with Allied Irish bank, Eircom and other interests (Clancy, O’Connor and Dillon 2010). Indirectly this ‘director network’ places INM close to the heart of Irish capitalism which raises the question of absolute neutrality or objectivity in reporting the Irish economic crisis. Moreover INM’s major shareholder Denis O’Brien also has huge interests in Irish private radio and international telecommunications. The awarding of the second private mobile phone network license to his company Esat Digifone in 1995 became the subject of a judicial inquiry. This found that the then Minister of Communications Michael Lowry received €50,000 from O’Brien and it was ‘beyond doubt’ that O’Brien was given substantive information and help by Lowry during at least two meetings between the two (Irish Times 2011).
While Ireland’s ‘newspaper of record’ the Irish Times is a trust it also has connections with finance capital. For example, David Went, the former chairman of the board of trustees (2007-2014), was also a major figure in the finance industry, being Chairman of Irish Life and Permanent, Chief Executive of Ulster Bank, and a non-executive director of Goldman Sachs. Politically the Irish media sphere is generally homogenous occupying a conservative economic and political position on most issues. Interestingly, the Irish media tend to hold what are generally more liberal social values (when compared to other social forces such as the Catholic Church or mainstream political parties); which is not in contradiction to some aspects of contemporary neoliberal ideology.
The Irish News Media and the Property Crisis
The Irish media system, especially the press, played an important role in the Irish property bubble and following crisis. Newspapers are one of the main sources of market information and act as the main advertising source for property companies. While it could be argued the internet has challenged the dominance of the printed press, newspaper groups have adapted by using their websites as portals in property listings (for example the Sunday Business Post and the Irish Independent). Some newspapers have also bought property websites, the Irish Times for example purchased www.myhome.ie in 2007 for 50 million euro (RTE Business 2006). Newspapers are also an important point of information on the property market, property sales and planning issues. RTE, the Irish public service channel, (and arguably the only media company not overly dependent on property advertising), did belatedly produce a documentary on the possibilities of a housing crash (RTE 2007). This was met with some derision by the printed press (for example see Irish Independent 2007). The broadcaster also produced two series of a reality TV show where an estate agent turned presenter shamed the populace onto the property ladder in the insidiously named ‘I’m an adult, get me out of here!’ (RTE/Animo Productions. 2007). RTE also produced and broadcast the standard property improvement reality television shows and in a return to Celtic Tiger days it is currently running a ‘property porn’ series entitled ‘Home of the Year’, sponsored by the Permanent TSB bank (RTE2015).
One important article did get published as an opinion piece in the Irish Times in December 2006 written by the academic Morgan Kelly (Irish Times 2006). The article was based on a paper released a week earlier (Kelly 2006). The paper and op-ed piece did warn in no uncertain terms of the oncoming crisis. This article however was met with derision across the media and public sphere to the point where the Taoiseach himself, infamously in a public speech (said to be in relation to the economist), asked why people engaged in such negative commentary ‘don’t commit suicide’. He subsequently apologised about the remark due to its insensitive nature in relation to sufferers of depression and their families but the sentiment towards those who ‘talk down the economy’ was made clear (Finfacts 2014).
Thus far there has been little discussion about the media’s role in the property bubble in the Irish mass media itself. The media’s role however did get a dishonourable mention in the 2011 Nyberg Irish state report on the Irish housing crash (Nyberg 2011 pp. ii, 6, 50). In addition, the role of the media is being investigated by the state inquiry into the banking crisis (see Critical Media Review 2015 for video of inquiry proceedings). Newspapers and editors have defended their role. For example, former editor of the Irish Independent, Gerry O’Regan, in his evidence maintained that there was no ‘hidden agenda’ to ‘artificially bolster the property market’, while former Irish Times editor, Geraldine Kennedy, claimed that the property sections in the newspapers maintained the same level of editorial standards as were applied to the rest of the paper (The Journal.ie 2015). Tim Vaughan, former editor of The Irish Examiner stated; ‘We are reliant on agents of the State to be competent, professional, open, honest and reliable in what they do and say, and then we report on that … If we were guilty of anything, and I believe we were, it is that we believed and accepted that institutions, such as the financial regulatory authorities, were doing their jobs …’ (Irish Times 2015).
There is also a small but growing area of academic research into the role of the media in the Irish economic crisis (Fahy, O’Brien and Poti, 2010, Cawley, 2010, Preston and Silke, 2011, 2014, Mercille, 2013a, 2013b, 2014). Antony Cawley (2010) researched newspaper treatment of public sector workers in the early days of the crisis, finding a division framed between private and public sector workers, the ‘othering’ of public sector workers, the framing of the public sector as a cost, while the market economy was framed as the sole ‘reality’. Preston and Silke (2011) looked at the treatment of the Irish property market from an ideological perspective (some aspects of which will be discussed below). They also argued that the media took part in an ideological re-framing of what was a private banking crisis into a fiscal crisis, which then helped lay the political justification for severe austerity measures (Preston and Silke 2014). Julien Mercille (2013b, 2014) performed a content analysis of the Irish Press and television and found a hugely favourable view of the property market before 2008, which he maintained sustained the rise in house prices. Mercille (2013a) also performed a content analysis on the treatment of fiscal adjustment programmes in Op-ed and editorials between 2008 and 2012, finding an overall bias towards support for fiscal adjustment (Mercille 2013a). This author recently completed a PhD regarding aspects of financial journalism between 2007 and 2009 looking at the housing crash and policies enacted in its aftermath, some of which will be discussed below (Silke 2015).
The Role of the Irish Times and Irish Independent in the Property Bubble
As part of a doctoral thesis the author investigated the Irish Times’ and Irish Independent’s coverage of issues around housing and property between May 1st and May 25th 2007. The time period was chosen for two reasons. Firstly the drop in house prices first began in the second quarter of 2007 and secondly because this coincided with the general election that year which was held on the 24th of May.
This election was probably the last major opportunity for debate in the ‘public sphere’ on the property bubble before the crash, and certainly it was the last opportunity for people to vote before the crash. Therefore this can be seen as a ‘critical discourse moment’ (Carvalho 2008 p. 167) where discussion on issues around housing and the property market could and should have been debated and discussed. The key search words ‘property’, ‘housing’, ‘stamp duty’, ‘rent’ and ‘mortgage’ were used to find articles from the Irish Times and Irish Independent in the Lexis Nexis database. Altogether in the Irish Times 446 relevant articles were found between the dates in all four sections and in the Irish Independent 410 relevant articles were found.
As can be seen in Table 1 the Irish Times and Irish Independent gave approximately equal attention to the issue and generally in the same manner. Most articles where housing or the property markets were discussed or mentioned appeared in the property supplements, followed by the news sections and then closely by business sections and finally by opinion and editorial. Overall, we can already see a clear trend towards a commodity frame in this allocation of articles with the issue of housing being more prominent in business and advertising rather than societal sections. This is of course a very crude measurement as an article in a business section may easily put forward a societal frame and vice versa, however it does give us one insight into the overall framing of the issue.
In the coverage of property in the Irish Times and Irish Independent a key finding was the dominance of elite sources connected with the property and finance industries as compared to ordinary sources such as home buyers and renters. In fact, out of 800 articles, only one reflected critically the views of tenants. This is especially the case in the property and business sections. The greatest total single overall source on the issue of housing is comprised of estate agents, accounting for some 28% of total sources and 29% of sources by frequency. This high skewing of estate agent sources is due to the large number of advertorial articles in the property sections but nonetheless the lack of critique within the property sections even from a consumer perspective (never mind a public interest, business or societal perspective), still leaves much to be desired.
In the residential property sections 64.5% of sources in the Irish Times and Irish Independent are estate agents, while in the commercial property sections estate agents make up 72.5% of sources, 78% and 65% respectively. In the combined business sections banking and finance sources make up 35% of sources while property industry sources (including estate agents) make up 13%. In the news sections official sources, especially politicians are most prevalent with 69% of total sources. This can be broken down to 29% government parties’ representatives and manifestos; 34% opposition parties representatives and manifestos and 6% local government and government agency sources. 17% of articles also included sources from the finance and property industries.
In party political sourcing, the parties with pro-market polices make up the vast majority of sources in the papers although it may be argued this reflected party political support at the time. When compared, the Irish Independent and Irish Times have a roughly similar ratio of party political representation. Economically right wing political sources make up the majority with approximately 65% of representatives being openly free market parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats). If we include Labour who had a 2007 policy of subsidising the market by offering large grants to be used to buy private housing (the number would go up to approximately 77%). Representatives of parties that call for non-market solutions to housing make up just under 9% of sources (Sinn Fein, The Socialist Party and People Before Profit Alliance), while the Green Party, which called for stricter market regulation, come in at 10.5%. Most party political sources appeared in the news sections.
Figure 2 Total Sources Irish Independent and Irish Times Combined
The most striking figure is that of what we term use value sources, that is sources such as renters and home buyers who are interested in the property solely for its use, i.e. to live or work in it. Use value sources make up only 2% of total sources and appearing in only 2% of all articles. This compares to ‘exchange value’ sources (from the property and finance industries) making up 43% of total sources and appearing in 44% of all articles. A key observation from this research is that statements from sources in private industry are generally reported as fact with little or no critique. There is an absence of critical engagement with the claims advanced by such manifestly partisan sources and the consequent lack of any independent or investigative journalism orientated to a wider public interest. This overly skewed sourcing could be described as a manifest ‘capturing’ of the press by property and finance sources and may help to explain the downplaying of the oncoming crisis, and the lack of critique of the massive inflation of the cost of housing as will be discussed below.
Treatment and Framing
The research uncovered key trends in the Irish Times and Irish Independent reporting. The key trends included an overall market-orientated frame: that is that housing was primarily looked at from the point of view of the market rather than society. Elements of this included the privileging of exchange value over use value, non-critical reporting of markets and market sources, and a ‘fragmented imagination’ – that is the artificial division of events. For example, while corruption on housing issues such as rezoning was heavily covered in the news sections on the political side, the industrial side of the corruption was completely ignored and corruption itself was not covered in business or property sections of the papers. The role of the state, following clear neo-liberal norms, is seen positively, as existing to serve the market, to return it to stability; or negatively as a malign force causing instability in the markets.
The residential property supplement in both newspapers displayed an uncritical, aspirational and advertorial discourse when reporting individual properties. At times, advertorial type articles also find their way into the business and news sections. Not one article questioned whether an individual property may be overpriced, the minimum expected of even a consumerist publication. Overall in the newspapers, including the news sections, the key issue is of the market and ‘market stability’ rather than either consumer or social good. In the news sections there is an acknowledgement of a need for a second tier housing supply for those who cannot afford to purchase on the open market. But the third tier of private rental accommodation (beyond one article) remains invisible. In the property and commercial sections the rental property market is framed from the perspective of landlords and investors. Even second tier housing is framed on a market basis from the point of view of private companies or developers involved in the supply of public housing. In Op-Ed articles, market stability is the major issue again trumping the crisis of affordability or the social need for housing. The only questioning of rental prices is from the point of view of business focusing on the danger of wage demand inflation arising from higher rents.
The discussion around state policy played into the neoliberal trope of state ‘interference’ distorting a functioning market. Material issues such as overproduction and price inflation are ignored and assumptions of market self-regulation (without state interference) appear implied. This is an important finding as it reflects the neo-classical viewpoint that markets work and are self-regulating and that crisis came not from markets themselves but from behavioural, psychological and political interferences that cause irrational exuberance, crashes and crises. Again, given the non-critical sourcing of both papers from orthodox neo-classical economists and the lack of any evidence of independent fact checking or investigation, this is probably not surprising.
Both newspapers acted defensively when it came to the question of future property price trends. Both privileging a market slowdown (in positive growth) rather than crash with many articles denying that house prices themselves would be affected. The business sections especially acted to play down the dangers of a crash with some articles even going so far as to attack those who said otherwise. Many articles considered the problem to be political interference, specifically over stamp duty reform and expected a post-election ‘normality’ to resume.
For some articles, discourse in the media itself alongside discussion of potential state policies were themselves the crucial factors. This framing held the direct implication that the markets, left to themselves, would be fine, while ‘interference’ from government and even discussion itself was the problem. This was seen clearly in the frame of ‘talking down the economy’, where any critique of the property market was said to be a cause of the crisis. This over-emphasising of public discourse at best ignored the material basis of property market crisis and at worst acted to both silence critics and discursively build up the property market and elongate the crisis, ironically affecting the market in a very different manner to what presumably was the authors’ intention.
There is ample evidence from the research to state that the role of newspapers when covering the property industry was not one of objective reporters or ‘watchdogs’ reporting on the issue of housing from the point of public interest. Rather, the newspapers’ key role was as advertisers for the industry, facilitating exchanges of uncritical information between industry players, and as an ideological apparatus. This apparatus acted to normalise the hyperinflation of housing, celebrate high property prices, downplay alternatives and, crucially, acted to play down the contradictions in the Irish system that were heading towards a crash. The newspapers did not act in accordance with the overall public interest in mind but rather narrow sectional and economistic interests. There were some exceptions to this, in particular in some opinion pieces. However, the main trends and frames point to a ‘captured press’; that is a press in the service of a narrow class-based interest. This does not represent an accusation of a ‘conspiracy’, as stated by Geraldine Kennedy (2015) in her evidence to the banking inquiry. Rather, this is evidence of key structural, institutional and ideological biases that were apparent in the analysis of the content. A key element to this process was the framing of housing not as a social need but as a commodity whose chief role was to create wealth rather than supply housing. This allowed for the celebration of the hyperinflation of housing and rental costs. The market-orientated framing also included the neo-classical and idealistic belief in market self-regulation, either denying or playing down the possibility of a crash. The lack of critique may well have helped to both build and prolong the bubble itself. That is not to say the media caused the crisis. There were long term material and political structural issues at its core. However, the newspapers did play the role of facilitator, supplying ideological and political cover to an economic elite who profiteered greatly from the hyperinflation of housing and the sale of financial products. This assisted in laying the grounds for the housing crash, the economic crisis and the subsequent financial bailout, alongside the severe austerity policies that then followed.
Henry Silke is a media scholar and activist who has recently completed a PhD on the role of media and communications systems in capitalist crises. His other research interests include the political role of media and the potentialities of alternative media groups and movements. He writes and curates for Critical Media Review: https://criticalmediareview.wordpress.com/