Get Rich Quick

I love the Sunday Times Rich List.


Well, okay, I am a bit of a killjoy: I don't exactly curl up on the couch with the glossy supplement – its title cleverly spelled out in a photo of ostensibly expensive jewelled ornaments – sharing titbits of detail and gossip with family and friends. (I'm not sure how many ordinary Irish people really do love it like that: a huge stack of copies of last Sunday's paper remained unbought at 4pm in a newsagent I visited.)

But I do love what it says about our journalism and our societies, about the mix of fawning and begrudgery that popular newspapers are expected to apply when they do stories about the very wealthy among us. How do you write about people who inspire bitter envy above and beyond all other emotions? (As Bruce Springsteen – nowhere to be seen on these lists – sings in his take on an old working song, 'Pay Me My Money Down', on his new album: "I wish I was Mister Gates... Bring all my money in in crates." But poor old Mr Gates is now a distant second on the global list.)

The Sunday Times, as befits a newspaper owned by an Aussie-Yank gazillionaire who implausibly fails to appear on any of these lists and sublists, including the world's 50 richest, goes bigger on the fawning than the begrudgery, with lots of stuff about rich folks' devotion to charity. "Asterisk denotes family wealth", and its list of the year's big "fallers", is about as bitchy as the paper gets.

Unless that's a little proletarian joke on the website, where it invites you to "read the full list or search for someone you know". (As it happens, and subject to correction, I don't believe I have ever shaken the hand of anyone who appears in the Irish top 247. And no, number 248 is not my best pal, the list just stops at 247.)


Very Important Persons

We have to look outside the glossy supplement to find the sort of schadenfraude so memorably parodied by Moe Syzlak in The Simpsons: "Rich people aren't happy. From the day they're born to the day they die, they think they're happy, but trust me... they ain't." We don't have to look far. One of the abiding qualities of our age is the remarkable correlation between wealth and "newsworthiness", so the misfortunes of the rich, like everything else about them, are well ventilated in popular publications and broadcasts.

In other words, what I like about the Rich List is that it's the one time of the year when a newspaper frankly admits that it's devoting 100-something pages to rich people just because they're rich, rather than seeking to persuade us about other, often-spurious sources of their "importance". (The Rich List is also, of course, an opportunity for lots of "never heard of hims", as we learn just a little about the more discreet among the over-monied classes.)

Since the rich are treated as important in the media, the important believe they should be rich, and we get, for example, ridiculous TDs' salaries that are a multiple of voters' average earnings. It also leads to the genuinely sad cases who believe they should get rich because they are the objects of media attention, or indeed are involved directly in the media machine. People would be shocked at the financial strains faced by, say, an ex-Big Brother contestant or a well-known freelance journalist, despite regular media appearances. (The regular frenzy, for example, over top broadcasters' salaries conceals the fact that RTÉ and BBC employees aren't terribly highly paid.)


Licence to kill

Meanwhile, in spite of similar outrage over footballers' salaries, the Football Rich List is remarkably short of footballers: there's David Beckham down at number 33. The Rich List is largely an Exploiters' List, full of venture capitalists (often really asset-strippers) alongside "productive" entrepreneurs. And the latter only get rich by squeezing workers out of a fair share of the fruits of their labour, as a beardy German guy explained once.

The "industries" that put people on the Irish list makes depressing reading. Property. Finance. Insurance. Gambling. Drinks and distribution. Construction. And equally depressing are the ideological blinkers that allow the media to continue fawning over the rich, treating their "achievement" as though it had some morally valuable content, when usually just the opposite is the case.