At times like this, when society is struggling to break the grip of the worst recession for two generations, there is far more to be gained by contributing intelligent opinion to informed thinking than by occupying major buildings in our towns and cities in artless protest. For it is only when we all pull together as a team that we will turn recovery into a reality.
But I fear it is not the handful of those who protest, but the relentlessly negative portrayal of our economy by some economists and media commentators which does the greatest damage to our economic recovery. It is not every columnist or economist that is responsible, but there are enough voices of despair to undermine confidence and damage recovery.
I find it perverse that job losses are reported with greater drama and enthusiasm than the new jobs created.
While bad news is trumpeted on front pages or at the top of broadcast bulletins, good news struggles to be seen or heard and, when it is, it is often presented with cynicism and caution clouds every silver lining.
By way of example there are two measures of unemployment, the Labour Force Survey and the Claimant Count. Until recently it seemed to be the BBC’s practice in Northern Ireland to lead with which ever was the more negative.
On one occasion while the BBC led nationally with a story that unemployment, as measured by the Labour Force Survey across the UK had risen, the BBC in Northern Ireland did not lead with the equivalent local statistic – because in Northern Ireland it had fallen! – but with the story that unemployment, as measured by the Claimant Count, had risen. Is it any wonder that consumer confidence is slow to increase? [The online version of the story mentions the fall in Labour Force Survey before mentioning the Claimant Count.]
This is enormously frustrating to all of us in business and politics who want to see jobs created and our economy growing.
I absolutely accept the media’s right to report bad economic news – and there has been plenty of it – but I also believe that they have a responsibility to give the full picture.
It is an indisputable fact that the media are not simply onlookers or bystanders in relation to our economy; they substantially shape perceptions and people’s financial decisions. Negative coverage of the economy by the media leads to negative impacts on the economy.
The media have a duty to provide the full facts.
So let me appeal tonight: please stop talking the Northern Ireland economy down.
Politicians may be the desired target of editorial criticism, but it is often business that ends up the real victim.
It is right and proper that the politicians should be held to account, but the daily diet of negativity is deeply damaging to our economic recovery.
Consumer and business confidence is vital to economic recovery – there will be no recovery without it – but the reality is that too often the media are the purveyors of gloom and doom. In turn despondency becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. Because people who are unsure of the future, or have been spooked about it, become unwilling to spend and businesses lose interest in the potential to invest.
However, rather than simply bemoaning the coverage of the economy let me set out a challenge and offer the media some good news to report for a change.
Here are a few facts that you would go a long way to see reported with any regularity or prominence.
We all agree that unemployment is still too high in Northern Ireland – but who reading the papers would know that our unemployment rate is the lowest of any country in the United Kingdom and much lower than both that of the Republic of Ireland and the European Union average.
Northern Ireland consistently out performs other UK regions in national exams at age 16 & 18.
In 2011 at £12.4bn, even with exports to the Republic of Ireland falling, the value of manufactured goods we sold outside Northern Ireland recovered to virtually their pre-recession level and sales to Great Britain hit a new record.
Belfast has the third highest level of GVA in the United Kingdom, behind only London and Edinburgh.
Research and Development, which is crucial to the development of our economy, increased by 6% last year to £344m.
After London, Belfast is the most attractive city in the UK for Foreign Direct Investment, particularly in technology and financial services.
With only 2.8% of the population, in the last 3 years Northern Ireland has won 7% of FDI attracted to the UK.
Belfast is now among the top 10 cities globally for financial technology investments ahead of Dublin, Glasgow, Toronto and even Bangalore!
70% of companies that invest in Northern Ireland have reinvested in Northern Ireland, including Allstate, Cybersource, Citi, Fujitsu and HBO.
And many of our top companies lead the world in what they do:
· 35% of all computer read/write heads are made at Seagate in Londonderry in the UK’s largest nanotechnology site.
· Randox sells to 130 countries across the world.
· Heartsine in Belfast makes portable defibrillators which you can see on the set of ER and are part of the emergency medical kit in the White House.
· BE Aerospace in Kilkeel makes 30% of the world’s business class seats.
· 40% of the world’s mobile crushing and screening equipment is made in Northern Ireland.
· And Wrightbus sell its Streetcar to Las Vegas and Hong Kong and has also designed the new London Routemaster.
So to the press I say, “come on guys, let’s see the good stories from Northern Ireland being given prominence”.
The BBC report the response of Seamus Dooley from the National Union of Journalists to the First Minister’s media criticism:
There is no doubt that there is a significant volume of bad news emanating from Northern Ireland.
But the first minister is naive if he imagines that the media can ignore bad news or simply wish it away by adopting a Pollyanna like approach to inconvenient truths.
Mr Robinson cannot expect the media to ignore bad news or to deliberately distort the impact of bad news by seeking to offset the impact of job losses with a positive spin.
Neither can the media ignore the impact of the undermining of public services in Northern Ireland or pretend that services are not being cut.
The Northern Ireland economy is good … la la la la la … pay no attention to the 170 job losses at HCL’s call centre in Armagh (not matched by 170 new ones), the highest fuel prices in the UK, the £1 billion loss at the Ulster Bank, or the slump in house prices which leaves NI with Northern Ireland now has the lowest average prices of any region in the country”. On balance, things are rosy according to the First Minister.