Media bias against industrial action rooted in (shhhh...) Marxist class structure
The nurses' dispute served as a good reminder that there are few things in the world that can be relied upon like the media's attitude to industrial disputes. They are, in general, as hostile as they can be to any group of workers who take industrial action. This isn't because journalists are all right-wing ideological fanatics, although some are. It's simply an expression of the basic class nature of the media. And, no, I'm not suffering under the illusion that the media is stuffed full of aristocratic, top-hat wearing old-Etonians while nurses are flat-cap wearing, salt-of-the-earth types with whippets in tow. I'm referring to the decidedly old-fashioned idea of class put about by bearded old blokes in the 19th Century. Yes, I'm afraid that I'm talking about Marx. So having got that out of the way and having foolishly revealed the poorly-hidden subversive agenda of this column, I'll throw all sense to the wind and press on.
In Ireland, 99.9 per cent of the media is controlled by either the state or by extremely rich people, formerly known as capitalists. Both the state and the media barons pay wages to large numbers of workers and they'd really rather not have to pay more for this hired labour. Now, while newspaper proprieters regularly claim that they do not interfere with the editorial process of their products – and sometimes they're even telling the truth – in reality, they don't have to. They appoint the editor and eventually they usually fire them too and as everybody knows, regularly displeasing your boss is bad for your career prospects – almost as bad as going on about Marx in your column. This is why, without any need for orders that would interfere with journalistic freedom, newspapers tend to reflect the opinions of their proprieters, and when it comes to industrial action, those opinions tend to be uniform and strong.
The press cannot, however, simply denounce the nurses as godless communists intent on cannibalising our children. Any direct and overt attacks would be counter-productive as most sane people trust nurses infinitely more than they trust journalists or politicians. Therefore, the media's hostility to the nurses has been expressed in a relatively subtle and skillful campaign to undermine and demoralise the nurses.
The tabloids and the Irish Independent focused on promoting fears of neglect amongst patients based on a few cherry-picked anecdotes. For example, on 5 April, an article in the Independent with the headline ‘Fear as patient left waiting for key kidney test', was based on the unsubstantiated claims of an anonymous individual. Meanwhile, many other headlines were little more than variations of the classic line from the Simpsons lampooning the media's sensationalism: “Won't somebody please think of the children!”
More than two weeks after the nurses' action had started, no newspapers had commissioned opinion polls, yet the media was awash with claims that the public had turned against the nurses. These were based on absolutely no evidence, yet repeated so consistently that it became a well established media fact. For example, an article in the Independent on 4 April entitled, ‘Public begin to turn on angels “holding country to ransom”' was entirely based upon selective quotes that had been carried in the media.
Newspapers bent over backwards to provide space to people who were willing to have a go at the nurses. Thus, for example, on both 5 April and 7 April, the Independent devoted articles to the extremely hostile opinions of one particular doctor. No attempts were made to include any opinions from doctors who were supportive of the nurses or to ascertain what was their general opinion. Meanwhile, the Sunday Tribune provided space to NewsTalk presenter Claire Byrne to continue her attacks on the the nurses' right to take industrial action. In an awe-inspiring example of the power of self-affirming delusion, both the Tribune and Byrne represented her stance as some kind of brave and principled stand against the tyranny of the INO.
Although going on about Marxist ideas of class is as good a way as any of curtailing a journalistic career, I'll keep on ignoring my better judgement and brazenly re-introduce Marx to the argument. For, from time to time during industrial disputes, the media reveals its naked class interests. On Saturday 14 April, the front-page headline of the Independent warned of a ‘Free-for-all fear as 35,000 more seek cut in work'. The article concentrated on the fears that any success for the nurses would lead to other workers seeking improvements in their pay and conditions. The “fear” was based upon the common idea that “wage-inflation” is a danger to the economy – an idea that is so accepted in the media that it is normally presented as self-evident. However, most people rely upon wages for almost all of their income and, for them, the economy is ‘good' only insofar as wages are increasing more than prices are. Wage-inflation isn't bad for the economy, it's bad for employers, including those who own newspapers.