Public service austerity broadcasts

Public service broadcasters are implicated in legitimising neoliberal policies in response to political and economic crisis. The coverage of RTÉ, for example, invited Irish viewers to cheer on the forces of technocratic fiscal responsibility.

Mark Cullinane
1 August 2016

Flickr/chiefmoamba. Some rights reserved.

Media scholar Paddy Scannell once queried in relation to the BBC, during moments of crisis in ‘whose interests, in the last resort, broadcasting is there to serve - those of the state or the people?’

The reverberations and aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis – and the often drastically unjust policy responses they have prompted domestically and internationally – have brought with them ample opportunities to cast a critical eye on the political roles and functions played by national public service broadcasters. The opportunities are particularly rich not just because of the scale and intensity of the crash but, crucially, because of the co-existence of economic crisis with a deepening democratic crisis of political representation.

This phenomenon, described in the work of political scientist Peter Mair and sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, is characterised by the (accurate) perception by publics that the space for effective representative democracy has shrunk drastically, squeezed as it is domestically by the retreat of political parties as credible associational organs of the public and internationally by the ‘new constitutionalist’ lock-in of increasingly disciplinary neoliberal economic restructuring.

In the light of surging public antipathy to increasingly unrepresentative and unresponsive political systems as well as austerity programmes and other neoliberal reforms, Scannell’s view that governments reserve the right to act as primary definer of the ‘national interest’ and expect public broadcasters to uphold their definition of it. This is particularly so during occasions of crisis and demonstrates how the present set of economic and democratic crises inexorably forces public service broadcasters like the BBC and RTÉ in Ireland to expose their underlying conceptions of the rightful place of political authority, whether found in the state and its institutions or in the demos itself.

Academic research on the editorial coverage of and responses to crisis by national public service broadcasters on both sides of the Irish Sea is starting to come in and the emerging picture points to both the BBC and RTÉ as having fallen more or less in lockstep with the right-wing economics of their respective conservative governments.

As part of my own research I analysed a sample of the television and radio broadcast coverage by the Irish public service broadcaster, RTÉ, on some key aspects of what has become known as the Euro debt crisis between 2011 and 2013 – a moment where the future of the single currency seemed to hang in the balance. The periods analysed encompassed a sequence of momentous and dramatic events in recent European history, including the aborted referendum in Greece on the country’s second bailout package, the subsequent ejection (through EU machinations) of prime ministers in both Greece and Italy and their swift replacement by technocratic administrations, as well as a series of tight elections in both countries in which radical anti-austerity political groupings surged and threatened to seriously disrupt Europe’s austerian masterplan.

My analysis aimed to explore how, when confronted with the travails of other peripheral crisis-hit ‘PIIGS’ nations, RTÉ’s framings of events implicitly and explicitly apportioned blame for economic crisis, legitimised or delegitimised the actions and proposals of different actors, and weighed up journalistically the electoral choices open to Greeks and Italians.

Analysis of the more than 150 separate broadcast items across the sample revealed some consistent features of crisis framings that confirm the general impression of public service broadcasting’s susceptibility to reproducing the preferred narratives of their political masters.

This is illustrated by, for example, the sustained blaming of Prime Ministers George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi in Greece and Italy respectively as key causes of crisis; the horror expressed by journalists at the very prospect of opening up the decision on the second Greek bailout to its population in a referendum; the lending of tacit and explicit support for the anti-democratic statecraft that led to the ousting of both premiers on the basis that they represented threats to the integrity of the Eurozone; and the hailing of their EU-approved temporary technocratic replacements in the form of central banker Lucas Papademos and EU insider Mario Monti as preconditions of national salvation in both countries.

So elevated was the official sense of emergency at the height of the Euro debt crisis that the studied journalistic performance of disinterestedness often accentuated in coverage of foreign elections instead went up a few octaves. After entirely missing the electoral ascent of Syriza in the first, inconclusive Greek general election of 2012, during the subsequent second campaign its leader Alexis Tsipras was presented as a dangerous populist who had seduced a nihilistic electorate and was leading them to certain ejection from the Eurozone and perhaps even the EU. Inconclusive election results in both Greece and Italy were assessed mainly in terms of their alignment with the best-laid plans of EU leaders and validated through the ever-present divination of market desires. The views of those suffering the consequences of their austerian policies, however, remained a distant interest. Irish viewers were even quietly invited to pull on the green jersey and cheer on the forces of technocratic fiscal responsibility in the face of those who would threaten ‘our’ recovery by causing market instability. So much for the prospects of an inter-PIIGS alliance!

As with the 2012 European fiscal compact treaty, the naturalisation of disciplinary neoliberalism as the new common sense segued seamlessly into a posture of seeing its challengers as quixotic dreamers at best or subversives at worst. It was little surprise then, that when it emerged in late 2014, the largest Irish anti-austerity movement since the economy crashed – Right2Water – was given short shrift not just by Ireland’s right-leaning commercial print and broadcast media but by the public broadcaster too. 

The movement, co-ordinated by unions and comprising affiliated political parties and autonomously-organised communities up and down the country, had formed in order to oppose the imposition of another Troika-mandated regressive charge – this time on water usage – as well as the new Irish Water utility which appeared to be established with a clear eye to medium term privatisation.

Both its sheer size – packing the main thoroughfares of towns and cities across the country on a consistent basis – and its broad constituencies of support made it a movement that no government could afford to ignore. The coalition’s calculation that some concessions on the charging regime would dissipate opposition was proven misplaced as a large and sustained boycott of water bills throughout 2015, combined with a poor showing by the ruling parties in the general election of February 2016 produced a parliamentary arithmetic that swiftly forced the temporary suspension of water charges and imperilling the entire Irish Water project, for now.

For a broadcaster ensconced in its traditional political role as mediator of genteel parliamentarism, the street politics of an increasingly powerful anti-austerity movement were never likely to be warmly received in the circles of metropolitan Irish middle-class liberalism within which RTÉ is culturally immersed. There are many contributing factors that might be cited to explain the journalistic failures of how the water wars were covered over the last few years. Middle-class scorn at Right2Water’s subaltern base, for example, continues to play a role that should not be underestimated. But most instructive of all, I suggest, is the sheer incompatibility of the movement’s very structure, modes of mobilisation and political demands with a broadcasting model whose conception of legitimate politics begins and ends at the gates of parliament, within whose perimeter political journalists resemble mere courtiers in thrall to its local dramas.

As renegotiations of the funding settlements of both British and Irish public service broadcasters loom in the form of, respectively, charter renewal and the overhaul of the license fee, their performances in critically examining the post-2008 political and economic order should give publics pause for thought.

In a context where both broadcasters are keen to sell publics on the virtues of the existing public service model, their legitimation of increasingly authoritarian and disciplinary neoliberal policy responses to the crisis of capitalism and obstruction of the development of political activity from below which would seek to defend democracy from its regressions is more than enough to make one wonder what precisely public service broadcasting is supposed to be a bulwark against. In a final twist of irony, the public mistrust engendered by their constitutional inability to respond critically and imaginatively to the crises of economy and political inclusion means that when public service broadcasters find themselves in the crosshairs of governments determined to further impose political control and market rationality on their organisations, they will be unable to marshal public support for their salvation.


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series with Goldsmiths.

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