Evictions, media behaviour, civic trust and social responsibility, and likely consequences

24 Apr

On Friday last (20/04/12) as story broke here in Ireland concerning an elderly couple and their eviction from ‘their’ home which was ‘caught’ on video by ‘neighbours’ and subsequently ‘went viral’ via the internet.

Several Irish media outlets (radio, print and TV) covered the story with one particular national talk radio station covering it and replaying the audio of the eviction on every show and most of their twice hourly news bulletins and inviting comment. (I was one of those who was live on air via my mobile phone.) http://www.independent.ie/national-news/elderly-couple-evicted-from-home-on-millionaires-row-3085588.html & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SdAHr1AWUs (these give a flavour of the initial tenor of the coverage.)

There are several points I’d like to put ‘out there’ for consideration, in two broad categories. Category 1 is about the particular case, and it’s coverage. Category 2 concerns wider issues of media responsibility, home ‘ownership’, social protection and civic trust.

Category 1 this case was portrayed as a poor oul couple being heartlessly turfed out onto the streets by an uncaring bank (with comments about taxpayer bailouts) with the connivance of the organs of the state i.e. the Sheriff and his bailiffs and the Gardai, and the audio played was indeed distressing.

However far from being a ‘poor oul’ couple these are successful business people and owners of over 20 (YES TWENTY) rental properties who knew the system and had been in dispute with their mortgage lenders over a period of 2 (YES TWO) years. Therefore they (the ‘poor oul’ couple) knew this eviction was going to happen, knew the date and time of  final notice to vacate being served. Furthermore as landlords they can legally evict any of their tenants and move into this property themselves.

The fact that they were out on the street and ‘all their possessions were inside’ their ex-house was a conscious decision on their part. The husband either without his wife’s knowledge or, (more likely) with her contrivance, decided to play to the gallery and cynically exploit public sympathy and the Irish angst around evictions dating back to the Famines. That they are now homeless is their decision.

The radio coverage, by and large, also cynically played on the angst and ‘poor oul couple’ angles. At no point was the perspective of the lending institution presented and I’m unsure if it was even sought. In addition after it became clear that a high percentage of respondents were ‘less than sympathetic’ to the couple’s plight and situation a commentary around Irish ‘begrudgery’ was advanced on the air, i.e. the only reason people were not outraged at the treatment of this couple was out of jealousy for their ‘millionaire’s lifestyle’.

Which brings me to my concerns under Category 2.

a) myths about mortgage based home ‘ownership’:- for decades there has been a widespread common myth and understanding (akin to talking about sunset and sunrise even though the science proves indisputably that the sun stands still it’s the Earth which moves) that the mortgagee owns their property – this is FALSE the mortgage lender OWNS the property UNTIL the mortgagee pays their final installment. All the mortgagee has are certain enforceable rights of domicile and usage i.e. decor, furnishings, cosmetic alterations etc). THEY DO NOT OWN THEIR PROPERTY.

b) media behaviour:- yet again the Irish media has sought to incite, or tap into, public unrest and anger and direct it towards institutions of the state, in this case banks, officers of the courts, the legal process and Gardai, with no consideration for likely consequences. This is, I believe, deeply troubling, especially in the current economic situation, firstly because as this article (http://politico.ie/irish-politics/8470-power-trust-and-the-household-charge.html) shows the ability of the state to raise,collect and enforce compliance with taxation is related to levels of trust in its institutions. In our current situation if the state cannot raise the revenue necessary then levels of austerity and disorder will follow. Is this what the Irish media wish to occur without w widespread debate?
c) social responsibility:- the role(s) of social welfare and social housing, this case highlights why we in the West made the political decision to introduce a social welfare ‘safety net’ to ensure that those who suffer, through no fault of their own, due to the vagaries of the Capitalist Market system do not find themselves penniless, homeless and destitute … we made a decision that in a civilised advanced economy reliance on ‘charitable’ sources was unacceptable and we had a responsibility to look after our fellow citizens and ensure that there was a ‘level below which no-one would fall’. The social housing system was also part of this ideal and operated in two ways 1) as a safety net for those who could not afford private rents (and also provided an agreed and enforceable standard of housing which raised conditions in the private rented sector in order for them to compete for tenants) and 2) gave those whose income was not sufficient to obtain a mortgage the opportunity to buy their own home (which worked in two ways i) to regulate the market by reducing demand and therefore lessening ‘bubble effects’ & ii) removed the need for ‘sub-prime’ mortgages, furthermore social housing restrained the ability of developers and beneficiaries of land-zoning from making huge profits (look at the arguments of developers around the mandatory commitment that a percentage of all developments be given over to social housing and their complaints that the presence of social housing reduced prices and was ‘unfair ‘ on mortgage holders in similar houses who were paying more for their property). In other words had we had higher levels of social housing we may have avoided the worst excesses of the ‘bubble’. However during the ‘Tiger Years’ my fellow citizens believed the b…s..t and (repeatedly) voted for governments who ran down social housing and actively fueled the ongoing ‘bubble’ and so must bear some responsibility for the chickens which are flocking home to roost. Ignorance is no defence – to say I’m not an economist, or I’ve no interest in politics, or ‘sure I’ve always voted FF, or FG etc is a woefully immature and irresponsible attitude which also reveals a lack of care and respect for one’s fellow citizens and society. WE ALL HAVE A DUTY OF CARE  & SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.
d) likely consequences:- if the media are suggesting that no-one should be evicted (or even only the most obviously fraudulent cases) then this will have serious effects on the solvency of our banks and will necessitate further funding from the taxpayer – so are we as taxpayers prepared to subsidise those in trouble with their mortgage? If we wish to provide a social housing safety net and affordable entry level housing then these choices will require higher taxes also. There are no quick fixes but to advocate chaos with no debate is not a path I believe in taking.
e) finally one of the media groups most vocal in purveying the ‘outrage’ scenario are owned, in part, by a business man against whom serious findings of impropriety and improper conduct were brought by one of our tribunals …what agenda are his media outlets advancing?

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