Composite; Credit: Santeri Viinamäki via Wiki Licence CC BY-SA 4.0, Gript

Poll: The media is losing the room on immigration

Since its foundation, I would argue, the most powerful institution in the state has been RTE. For most of the broadcaster’s existence, it was the only broadcaster in the Republic. Even those who grew up in the 1980s, in much of Ireland outside Dublin and the Border Region, will remember a time when there were but two channels on the television – both of them operated by RTE.

The long term psychological impact of relying on one outlet for news has never really been examined, but it is not hard to extrapolate it: When RTE is the only news channel available, then there is simply nothing else to compare it to. It becomes impossible to tell whether what you are seeing is 100% true, or only 85% true. It becomes de facto the truth, because there is no other argument, and no other perspective. Being the one organisation in the land trusted to tell the truth brings with it cultural and political power beyond imagining.

Even as competitor stations have emerged, RTE’s power has abated only slightly. It retains a dominant market position, and several generations of Irish people for whom its words are the way, the truth, and the light.

But is that, perhaps, changing? Look at these figures, from the weekend’s eye-opening poll in the Sunday Independent:

Not quite a majority, but certainly a clear plurality, no longer feel as if they are getting, from RTE or other established media organs, the truth and nothing but the truth. More than four in ten Irish people, in fact, believe that media organisations are trying to direct their views and their opinions in a particular direction on the immigration issue in particular.

This has wider implications that simply on the immigration issue alone: Once a person accepts that they are no longer getting the full truth from the media on one issue, their mind tends to start questioning whether they are getting the full truth from the media on other issues, as well. I would be fascinated to see a poll, for example, on whether the public think that the media’s coverage of climate change is fair and balanced, or whether it is leaning in one direction. Similarly, I wonder what people might say in retrospect about the media’s coverage of the Covid pandemic, and whether the felt that news organisations were wholly committed to objective truth in that instance.

On the immigration issue, however, a few things are apparent: That despite an overwhelming media effort, a huge section of the population just is not buying it. They do not buy that the protests we have seen in recent weeks are the work of some extreme far right fringe. They do not buy that objections to immigration are de facto far right and extremist simply by virtue of being held. Increasingly, they do not see the extremism as coming from those objecting, but from those promoting and defending and – in the media’s case – covering for the consequences of the Government’s policy.

In almost all western democracies, this loss of trust in the media to report on issues fairly has been correlated with an increase in populism. Find a Trump supporter in the United States who trusts what he reads in the New York Times, or sees on ABC news, and you will have found a species rarer than the Northern White Rhino. In Britain, ask Brexit supporters whether they think the BBC is fair, and you will not find many answers in the positive. The media’s power to shape events persists only in so far as that power is used responsibly, rarely, and in a way that maintains trust. In Ireland, in recent weeks and years, that has not been happening.

Journalism as a whole is in crisis in Ireland – almost all of the main media organs are now largely dependent on Government funding or subsidy for survival, whether that funding comes directly in the form of a TV licence or Government grant, or indirectly in the form of the VAT cut which has gone directly into the media’s pocket, or Government largesse on advertising. If it were up to the public, and the public only, to fund the Irish media through their consumption of it, many media outlets would be in deep, deep trouble.

As such, the media has grown closer to the state, out of an eagerness to prove its value to the state. Increasingly, when Irish journalists say things like “a fearless independent media is important”, they never say to whom it is important. That is because the answer is increasingly not “important to the public” but “important to the state”.

It is the media, after all, which now acts as the vanguard for the state, challenging all sorts of “misinformation” and “fake news” which may lead people to lose confidence in those that govern them. Increasingly the point of news organisations is to defend and justify the status quo, rather than to challenge it.

When this is the pattern, the public will eventually notice. And when they do, the media’s power to do even that will begin to ebb. Eventually in Ireland we will be left with what exists elsewhere: A media that openly and only talks to and for those in power, and where the concept of objective truth itself is no longer agreed across society. That would probably be a bad thing, but the only people to blame for it are journalists themselves, who, some time in the last few decades, decided to stop reporting, and start preaching.


The latest episode of “The Week that Really Was”, featuring John McGuirk and David Quinn discussing the topics of the week, can be found here, as well as on all the normal podcast platforms.


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