Archive | February, 2012

Demonising the Public Sector

22 Feb

For over twenty years it has become an almost everyday occurrence to read an article or watch a TV news or discussion programme which is either demonising (too well paid, too much job security, too much holiday entitlement, etc), reporting on, or calling for, cuts to the ‘public sector’ without any contextualisation of what elements of the ‘public sector’ they are talking about, what the cuts would mean or even why the ‘public sector’ enjoys such benefits in the first place. (The public sector was given these civilised working conditions because a) (usually) it was less well paid and had no likelihood of overtime or extra shifts and b)  because  we, the people were the employer, and at the time we didn’t want to replicate the abuses and excesses of the unregulated and largely un-unionised private sector employers. We wanted to provide a model of civilised and equitable workplace conditions – thus mothers got time off to be with their children after they birth, people who were sick were not further penalised for their misfortune, etc. Did the system get abused and are there examples of selfish money-grabbing? Yes there are but that is  a reason to discuss and reform not demonise and eviscerate.

As I see it the public sector encompasses three main areas:

1) Providers of routine and essential services (which vary from country to country and depending on levels of ‘privatisation’) e.g. school teachers, cleaners, firefighters, traffic wardens, street sweepers, garbage collectors, nurses, midwives, other healthcare staff, social workers, welfare office staff etc. Cuts to this ‘public service’ implies job losses, lower wages, fewer benefits and worse services provided to you and I, the taxpayer.

2) The ‘executive’ e.g. judges, Attorneys General (public prosecutors), police officers, departmental civil servants in general including those in the regulatory and advisory branches e.g. the EPA, tax assessors and collectors, Customs and Excise, Ombudsmen and their staff and policy analysis offices. Cuts in this ‘public service’ not only means job losses and lesser services but also crucially less oversight of the operation of the various parts of the society but also less long-term analysis and policy design which is (relatively) impartial and apolitical.

3) Politicians and their advisors. Cuts to this ‘public service’ …can’t think of any we hear talk of wage caps and hiring embargoes but less politicians? Not in this neck of the woods.

Of the three No 1 has ‘on the ground’ and ‘in your face’ ‘right here, right now’ effects which are getting people’s attention. The cuts on ‘public service’ No 2 are not. Yet it is this very ideologically driven exercise which is, I believe, behind the demonisation agenda.It is the reduction in the regulatory and enforcement arms which pose the biggest threat to our democratic system. After all if the oversight is lax for corporations and arms of the state  do they scrupulously comply with regulations (think self-policing voluntary codes of conduct for ANY industry you care to name, or Anglo Irish Bank)? I believe that the current ‘austerity’ climate is being used to further an aggressive Neo-Liberal Free Market agenda which began with Reagan and Thatcher destroying their respective manufacturing bases in order to dis-empower the Trades Unions. Then there has been a systematic dismantling of regulatory frameworks which gave shape and confidence to the ‘market’ now we are seeing the dismantling of the State itself and its replacement with what?

A globalised or regionalised power structure which is so large and so far removed from the lives of those who live in it (we are NOT citizens in the democratic sense any longer) and run by technocrats for the benefit of the clients whose lobbyists are the most persuasive.

Media (ir)resposibility pt2

22 Feb

Since the beginning of the ‘banking crisis’ here in the Republic I have become increasingly concerned with the positions taken and skewed reportage of the mainstream Irish media. (There are some regular ‘offenders’ and other more ‘occasional’ culprits).

In effect what occurs ifs a form of populism where in response to an initiative or proposed policy shift (be it cuts to welfare, pensions, teaching staff numbers, increases in taxation  or imposition of new charges) the media either finds or encourages dissent.

Some of the dissent is from concerned citizens whose life, or that of a relative or acquaintance, will be negatively impacted, but often the dissent is opportunism and a form of bandwagon jumping.

At no time are the issues contextualized other than by a cursory allusion to ‘the state of the country and it’s finances’. instead what follows is an overt attempt to pressurize the ‘powers that be’ into a u-turn over the policy in question. The latest example being the decision to lessen the cuts in support teachers to the most disadvantaged schools.

(I actually DO NOT believe these services should ever be cut. However as there was no detailed context provided for either the original decision vis-a-vis the alternatives it is impossible to come to an informed decision either way.)

Instead what happened was a group of concerned parents and their supporters were given (very limited) media coverage and the spectre of  electoral unrest was raised. Then after some weeks we have the Minister concerned facing the cameras to explain(?) the reasons for the change of heart, yet there were no follow up items  or questions to the Minister about where the savings (i.e. cuts) would now be made.

This is only the latest example of this practice. It possibly has it’s roots both in the transferable vote multi-seat electoral system which leaves both parties and politicians vulnerable to ‘special interest’ issues in a general election and a media which pursues covert political agendas and circulation wars without reference to the ‘wider picture’ and the long-term ‘good’ of the country/state/society.

Thus historically the Irish electorate has learned to agitate hard for their local issues and to ignore the larger context, whilst their representatives have learned to at least give the impression of being responsive to local concerns, (not to mention the ‘Galway Tent’ and local fundraiser culture of political access for the ‘chosen’ circles) and the media has come to see its role as both a conductor of protest and tool of political protest management.

None of which would be particularly damaging if the media themselves sought to be balanced and to contextualise and periodically account for their coverage of certain issues (and indeed the rationale behind the editorial decisions as to which protests to cover and the ‘slant’ of the coverage) e.g. student, environmental or anti-war protests ALWAYS focus on disorder and are heavily policed whilst protests by farmers or pensioners are handled differently with no shots of Gardai presence.

However, given the media coverage and its biases, what seems to be occurring is the growth of an ‘orchestrate unrest’ attitude to every proposed change, irrespective of its relative merits e.g the ‘septic tank’ issue (Was there much mention of environmental concerns, flouting of planning regulations, improper installation i.e. contractual issues with the installers? Of course not just a campaign to whip up resistance and fears around POSSIBLE added costs on householders) which will have rural TDs facing a backlash over an issue which ought to have been tackled years ago (thanks Fianna Fail) and which actually has the potential to cause serious costs to the public purse over health, tourism and environmental fines from the EU. However none of these issues are mentioned, even in passing in most of the everyday media.

Likely consequences as I see them? We end up with a form of political and social paralysis where every decision to raise taxes (ALWAYS termed ‘HIKES’), cut costs or impose new charges e.g. property charge, water rates, airport taxes, etc are the subject of a negative and destabilising media campaign i.e.are framed in terms of their consequences on those least able to pay or as a form of victimisation which has the effect of making the political class more and more risk averse. Which in turn leads to poorer leadership and the increasing likelihood of stagnation and disillusionment with the whole democratic process (witness the US style of democracy).

The only alternative is to have media which actually covers the issues in some depth (you can hear them scream ‘people don’t care’ or ‘won’t buy’ already) and gives us enough basic information to at least grasp the likely consequences and alternative possibilities. As the ‘fourth pillar’ of our democracy they have this responsibility -surely it’s the flipside of the privilege, freedom and power which they have been granted in our society?(and after all they make vast sums as a result).

Media & its (ir)responsibilities

19 Feb

Yesterday during my usual Saturday R&R (live F.A. Cup football (soccer if you aren’t from around these parts)) I was channel hopping during the half-time punditry (YAWN) …so being a responsible citizen I thought I’d see what was happening in the world that the NEWS channels thought I needed to be aware of … and all that was of real front rank importance was the funeral of a moderately successful African American singer …covered LIVE on both of the 24hr news channels here.

My beef is not with Ms Houston, her tragic death or with the televised funeral. My concern is that at a time which sees the increasing tension in the part of the world which supplies the majority of our basic energy commodity, Syrians are dying for a chance of democracy, the European ‘cradle of democracy’ is being driven back to a barter system by unelected technocrats, global economic stagnation and continuing poverty and starvation our media decides that in order to fulfill my role as an active and informed citizen I don’t require full and unbiased information on these issues …No what I require is to be given live coverage of an American Christian funeral service.

My point is this if, as we are told, that a fully functioning and free media is a fundamental prerequisite for an effective democracy, and since most people still get their first contact with world events which affect their lives through the media (events which they can and will research more fully through other sources if they are interested), are our mainstream media NEWS channels not being willfully irresponsible in choosing Ms Houston’s funeral over their duty as one of our democratic safeguards to keep us informed in order that we can more easily grasp the issues affecting our lives?

Note I have no issue with entertainment, cultural or mainstream channels covering the funeral live, my complaint is directed at the NEWS channels.