Media obsession with Bertie's finances and stamp duty

Bertie's finances and stamp duty: does the public care? No, but the media do, writes Chekov Feeney


Newspaper coverage of the election campaign has been dominated by two issues – stamp duty and the personal finances of Bertie Ahern.  What is interesting about these issues is that the evidence suggests that the public is not particularly concerned about either. The agenda has been set by the media almost in spite of the public's concerns.

Way back in July 2006, the Sunday Independent launched its campaign against stamp duty. Since then, the issue has seldom been absent from the paper's front page – when Eoghan Harris recently wrote that “stamp duty has been on the front page of the Sunday Independent for the past six months” he actually underestimated the campaign's duration. Until the election's eve, they were a lonely voice – despite a vague expression of support from Michael McDowell, PD senator John Minihan was the only politician who rallied to their cause.

Nevertheless, the Sunday Independent persevered in the wilderness. The paper repeatedly attacked politicians of all stripes for their lack of action on this, the burning issue of the day. Finally, as the election loomed, the politicians relented one after another and entered into a bidding war, promising to reform or abolish the tax within months. On Tuesday 17 April, the Irish Times announced that ‘Stamp duty reform [had become the] key battleground in [the] election campaign'.

Never one to hide their light under a bushel, the Independent's columnists trumpeted their triumph. On 22 April, Eoghan Harris boasted that he had been “hammering out one hard message” for six months, while the following week Brendan O'Connor described how he had “pointed it out again and again ad nauseam to the point where it became an issue for other people”.

Throughout the sustained campaign against stamp duty, two criticisms were raised. The first was that stamp duty was acting as a brake on the housing market – an argument that was patently absurd as the tax had persisted throughout the greatest house price boom in Irish history. The second was based around the idea that the tax was “the mother of all rip-offs” – this despite the fact that it remains one of our most progressive taxes. It was only after the paper had extracted commitments from all the major parties that Brendan O'Connor elucidated the class nature of the campaign, declaring the Sunday Independent to be “a paper of the middle classes”, and that the noble campaign against stamp duty had been in support of the “affluent, the healthy and the young”.

Yet on the very same day that the Sunday Independent proclaimed its success in setting the electoral agenda, it carried an opinion poll, performed for once by a reputable polling company, which ranked stamp duty in joint last place of all the 14 issues identified as important by the electorate. The paper's triumph was a textbook example of how a wealthy elite can triumph over democracy. Some votes are worth more than others and Tony O'Reilly's is worth an awful lot.

The focus on Bertie's finances was also largely media-generated. Back in September 2006, “Bertiegate” first hit the headlines, when details of the Taoiseach's statements to the Mahon tribunal were leaked to the Irish Times, prompting two weeks of blanket coverage. The issue resurfaced again in the first week of May 2007, when further details were revealed by Vincent Browne in this magazine and in the Irish Times, and by Frank Connolly in the Daily Mail.

Browne in particular clearly identified several credibility gaps in Ahern's explanations of the payments that he had received in the early-1990s. To put it delicately, as more information has emerged, the intersection between the set of plausible explanations and the set of ethical explanations has approached the null set. Nevertheless, Fianna Fáil's opinion-poll ratings exhibited a significant rise in the aftermath of Bertiegate 1, and the first opinion poll published after the issue resurfaced, in the Sunday Business Post on 6 May, also showed a slight increase in Fianna Fáil's support.

The public's surprising failure to react negatively to the stories about Bertie's finances was probably a reflection of the abysmally low expectations that the population have in politicians, but the Sunday Independent saw it differently. On 22 April, the Observer reported that Tony O'Reilly had decided to “swing his Independent Newspaper Group behind Bertie Ahern”. Sure enough, Sunday Independent columnists rode to the Taoiseach's defence. Eoghan Harris, with amazing indifference to the outlandish silliness of his argument, attempted to paint the whole thing as a Sinn Féin plot, while Jim Cusack launched a vicious personal attack on Frank Connolly and the “anti-Irish” agenda of the Daily Mail.

Meanwhile, the politicians forlornly appealed for a return to “the issues”.

Trouble was that by “the issues”, the politicians meant vague aspirations to support nice things and manifestoes which had zero credibility amongst the public, while steadfastly refusing to commit to any policies which might cost them votes. All in all, easily as entertaining as Big Brother and with almost as much democratic content.



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