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Dublin: 4 °C Saturday 22 November, 2014

Column: Yes, the media should report bad news, but cynicism mustn’t blind us

Of course journalists must hold politicians to account, writes Seamus Conboy – but Ireland needs confidence too.

Séamus Conboy

WHEN THINGS TURNED sour for the economy and for our last two Taoisigh, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, they repeatedly criticised their political opponents and the media for their negativity, for ‘talking down the economy’.

At that time, the hole in our public finances was expanding rapidly, and we were months away from the disastrous blanket bank guarantee. Public confidence in our politicians and international confidence in Ireland were in free-fall.

The tide was on its way out. No amount of talk was going to turn it back. But the point they made was a fair one. How could the public, international investors and the markets have confidence in us, in our capacity to get through recession and recover, if we didn’t have that confidence in ourselves?

Five tough years later that tide has turned. There are tentative signs of recovery. Unemployment rates remain unbearably high, but have stabilised. Jobs are being created. Our international reputation has been restored. The deficit is being reduced. We can look forward to wresting control of our national purse-strings back from the Troika in the next year.

And this brings the notion of ‘talking down the economy’ back into focus.

Survival mode

The response to recession for many was to batten down the hatches – individuals cut out unnecessary spending, companies let go of staff, many small businesses were forced to close their doors. As a nation we went into survival mode.

Consumer confidence plummeted when crisis hit in 2008, and while attitudes have improved recently, it remains low. People’s attitudes often trail behind recovery; they remain gloomy long after the first green shoots of recovery appear. And domestic demand suffers.

Similarly, unemployment usually lags behind recovery. After recession, businesses will be slow to hire new staff until they are confident about the prospect of recovery. Budding entrepreneurs might be reluctant to take the risk and set up a business. And unemployment rates remain stubbornly high.

Getting the economy out of this survival mode takes time, and it takes confidence. If we want to rebuild this confidence, we need to think positively.

Gombeenism

The decades of corruption, gombeenism and ‘golden circles’ that led us to the brink of collapse have left us cynical. And rightly so. We now have a heightened critical capacity, something which might help prevent a repeat of recent mistakes. But we need to be open to thinking positively, to recognising and embracing good news when we hear it.

The politics of opposition is cynical in nature. Politics itself is to blame, and all parties are complicit. Praising the Government for its successes won’t win an opposition party many votes. So it is only logical to nit-pick, to find holes, to focus on the negative. These days, the default reaction to good news is ‘the devil will be in the detail’. One opposition staffer described their budget week as ‘throwing as much sh*te as we can, and seeing what sticks’. It’s not pleasant, but it’s politics.

Although the current Government has the largest majority ever seen in Dáil Éireann, opposition parties were supported by 700,000 people at the last General Election. 700,000 people listened to them, trusted them with their vote. Many of these will still listen to them, and still trust them.

And they will continue to hear the failings and the criticism far louder than they will hear the successes and the whispered praise.

The media has a part to play. The media is not and should not be beholden to politicians; it has a duty to hold decision-makers to account. But it also has a duty to tell the good news story, and not over-emphasise the negative. Unfortunately, for many media outlets bad news sells more papers.

Drowned out

People have become so accustomed to bad news in recent years that good news is often lost in the noise. We have become cynical; we expect the worst of our politicians, expect their decisions to be the wrong ones. And some media outlets will play on this.

But if we let the good news be drowned out by the bad, we will stunt our recovery. Recovery won’t happen overnight. and it might be delayed if we allow a negative narrative to smother our confidence.

This difficult period in our history is not behind us yet, but we are getting there. There is hope. We need this hope, we need to be confident, if we want to get back on our feet. We can share this confidence or we can continue to pile on the despair. Whichever we choose, it will have a knock on effect on our economy, and on our entire society.

So before you sit down to write your weekly column, or give a media interview, draft a leaflet to send to thousands of constituents, or even sit down in front of the Tweet-machine, think carefully about the consequences of what you say. Challenge, critically analyse, but don’t be blinded by cynicism. The stakes are too high.

Séamus Conboy is Parliamentary Assistant to Michael Conaghan TD. He tweets @SeamusConboy.

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