“the relentlessly negative portrayal of our economy by some economists & media commentators”

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Still image grab from Peter Robinson talking before DUP's 2011 Assembly Election launchAt last night’s NI Assembly Business Trust event, Peter Robinson took aim at Occupy Belfast protesters before moving on to the media:

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.

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  • cynic2

    Every day in every way I am feeling better and better

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    cynic2 – keep taking the tablets!

  • sherdy

    Has the first minister no control of the media? Rose coloured glasses should be a must for all journos.

  • Drumlins Rock

    I think he was prob right about the unemployment figures, it bugged me at the time that the radio reports picked the negative one. Although even the UK figure were a bit misleading as employment had increased, at the same time so had unemployment, only the latter was usually mentioned. I think journos have grey tinted specs, but thats human nature, you won’t change it.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “On balance, things are rosy according to the First Minister.”

    Alan, I prefer Peter’s own ‘balance': “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.” Getting the ‘full picture’ from Ministers and Permanent Secretaries is no mean task either.

    Spare a thought for Peter’s associate David Hassard, sometime chairman of Hanwood Trust, and his company Ravenblack Developments as well as those who lost money and jobs.

  • colinire

    I never thought I’d see the day I would agree with anything Peter Robinson would have to say but that day has arrived. BBC Northern Ireland news is the most downbeat and depressing programme in the history of television. My pet-hatred name for it is ‘ A man appeared in court today TV’ – not very catchy I know but you can bet that there’s always at least one news item that will begin that way! Either that or some ‘Troubles’ related event from 20 or 30 years ago is being dragged up again and scrutinised to death. Now I know these things do happen here and it’s no disrespect to anyone who has lost loved ones to this home grown tragedy, myself included, but come on give us a break. Where for instance is all the Arts and Sciences news or even the social events coverage? Over on UTV I think!

  • iluvni

    Whats a fair rate for a ransom strip these days….£2?

  • ayeYerMa

    Peter Robinson is totally correct here. Got to agree with colinire too – I simply cannot watch BBC Newsline. The whole programme is like the PSNI press release department. And seriously, with the glutton of qualified local people on the market, in terms of presenters and reporters I sometimes wonder how some of them get the jobs.

    As for a comment more specific to the DUP, I can empathise with Peter Robinson. You’d think that our largest local newspaper, for example, would have at least someone of opinion in agreement with the largest section of voters in Northern Ireland. Apparently not though – if you read the Belfast Telegraph recently the level of cynicism against anything positive the DUP do is so much that you’d think that no one agreed with the DUP. And they wonder why Belfast Telegraph sales are in such a decline?

  • ayeYerMa

    … in addition it seems that there is a certain section in NI (and also a certain section of interfering outsiders) who are absolutely obsessed with talking Northern Ireland down.

    The private remarks where Alex Salmond apparantly stated ‘droning on about sectarianism was “running Scotland down.”’ are also relevant to Northern Ireland. ( http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/12/20/57934/ )
    Some people are so obsessed with “fighting sectarianism” that they are actually counter-productive.

  • DC

    What goes around comes around Peter Robinson, sure didn’t the DUP turn up the heat at the time of the GFA and criticise everything only to accept it all anyway.

    Tough luck pal, perhaps if he wants the record changed he should change the personnel and step down and move on.

  • DC
  • Zig70

    The Troika could use NI as an example of where fiscal stimulus won’t work if you don’t have the leadership taking responsibility for running the country. Where is the lauded corporation tax cut? What is he doing to improve the private sector? I don’t let my kids make excuses, they’re told to man up.

  • Mick Fealty

    The bad news is probably taking up too much of the news, but just wait till the next spending round hits.

  • jthree

    Peter must hear a lot more bad news from his mates.

    As Nevin points out the Robinson front man/ property developer on the Hanwood Trust is bust.

    The Robinson front man/ property developer on Titanic Quarter, Ken Campbell is also effectively bust http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-13995605

    Meanwhile the DUP-friendly property developer Adam Armstrong has seen his main firm plunge into balance-sheet insolvency to the tune of £17m and been Namafied.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/dup-backs-iris-robinson-over-support-for-developersrsquo-building-proposals-14639140.html

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-15280052

    And another property developing outfit who even got Robinson to launch their scheme have seen that same scheme repossesed by Nama.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/pound180-million-housing-development-for-belfast-hills-14526857.html

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-15855605

  • jthree

    Now I remember who this speech reminded me off

    http://www.rte.ie/news/2008/0703/economy.html

  • FuturePhysicist

    The Troika could use NI as an example of where fiscal stimulus won’t work if you don’t

    Perhaps, but others may throw back Greece as an example where doing all you can to survive doesn’t work either.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I disagree with Robinson, if anything the media is portraying the local economy in a brighter light than it is. Say what you want about Alisdair McDonnell but at least he realises that many of the local work force will be suffering to carry out the dual roles of carer and career forced on them by so called welfare reform, a lot within the media will burn their retinas looking at tourist achievements while ignoring the real issues of the many other business sectors here.

  • Old Mortality

    Alan
    “….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”.

    The highest fuel prices by little more than a penny a litre, less than 1%, and impact easily eliminated by driving less and more carefully, and buying from the cheapest suppliers, instead of dropping into the nearest petrol station for ‘a tenner’s worth’.
    Weak house prices only affect consumption which means that we import less stuff and have fewer shops. Shopping doesn’t generate wealth. What can possibly be wrong with having low housing costs?

  • jthree

    The point is not low housing costs, which are a good thing, but that a generation of the middle class have suffered lasting economic damage through the inflation and bursting of a grotesque house price bubble. A bubble which was in no small measure cheered on by the Northern Ireland media – the Belfast Telegraph in particular behaved in a way which verges on the immoral.

    Still some people who flogged their back gardens for mad money did alright.

    On a wider point Robinson’s speech would be risible were it not so worrying.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “While bad news is trumpeted on front pages”

    Trumpeting of any sort is problematical. My short blog on Wednesday about Minister Attwood and the bee caught the attention of the Belfast Telegraph’s Linda Stewart. Linda reported on the bee on Friday and followed up with a two-page ‘exclusive’ on Saturday in which the minister is accused of ignoring the recommendation of one of his own agencies. Riding two horses simultaneously – planning service and environment – is becoming more precarious in the new media age.

  • Greenflag

    Mr Robinson makes some fair points and he gets it right about ‘confidence’. Anybody with half a memory will recall the ‘confidence ‘ expressed by Mr Cowan as linked above by jthree at 12.05 pm.

    http://www.rte.ie/news/2008/0703/economy.html

    The confidence expressed by the USA’s Alan Greenspan as the USA binged on credit , sub prime mortgages and low interest rates should be a reminder that sometimes ‘confidence’ is misplaced when it substitutes for the truth of a situation .

    Being still one of the few passengers left on the Titanic when the last of the lifeboats has left may seem to be a ‘confident ‘ position and it is if one believes that somehow the gaps in the hull will be fixed and the liner will right itself .Many in the ‘media ‘ and ‘journalists’ in particular may lack the confidence of those in the public sector as they see their ‘jobs’ being lost to the ‘new ‘ media and the age of instant reporting .

    Longer term Mr Robinson may be right but then politics or at least the game of party politics can be a notoriously short term business for those holding power in difficult times.

    While there are some notable achievements in Mr Robinson’s list the one factor he doesn’t mention is the still very high public sector dependence of the local economy .

    How to turn around that dependence or reduce it to a more sustainable level is a job which will extend beyond Mr Robinson’s tenure and that of his successors for another generation if not more .

    To be fair to the man he’s doing the best he can with what he’s got and his ‘economic ‘powers are limited as indeed are those of virtually every elected politician in the western world. . Politically he’s been able able to keep what must still be an uneasy coalition floating and that in these times has to be seen as of critical importance for difficult times ahead .

    BTW there’s nothing wrong with lower house prices . Tough for those who bought at the peak but a godsend to younger people and the construction sector which will eventually benefit from increased activity .

  • jthree

    Peter Robinson is not a stupid man, nor does he strike me as someone who is bad at detail which means he must know parts of that speech were deeply misleading.

    Chiefly his boast about the unemployment rate – he will know full well that Northern Ireland has the most pronounced ‘hidden unemployment’ in the UK which is manifested in the economic inactivity rate – whopping 27.2% compared to the UK figure of 23.1%

  • jthree

    Also on Robinson’s point about the coverage of job creation/ job losses there are reasons for the media to be cautious.

    When a company says its getting rid of people they are gone eg. the 263 Peacocks staff who saw their workplaces shut down with immediate effect this week. But when a company promises to create jobs the outcome can be a bit different.

    You might recall this Chuckle brother feel good announcement
    http://www.investni.com/about-news.htm?newsid=9063

    This is what became of it
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11024085

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Jim Allister didn’t miss a beat in bringing his own hobby horse into it:

    Poor Executive, spend 5m pa on spin doctors and still not happy they can’t get unchallenged control of the media!

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    SS, there’s much more detail in the Executive’s answers that were published on the TUV website.

  • BluesJazz

    real fgures below:

    http://www.paulgosling.net/2011/12/inactive-unemployment-business-month/

    Telling us what we all know. That you get girlfriend pregnant, she goes for single mother housing benefit, you move in later, although not officially!, Sweet.

    The unemployment figures will rise slowly. The ‘economically inactive’ will rise fast, though the media are afraid of upsetting the agenda on this. Because no-one wants to confront the single mother issue. Like DLA it’s taboo, even though that’s where the money drain is.
    But the benefits gravy train could yet be derailed by the coaliton govt, hence much fluttering at Stormont council that the golden goose is laying less.

  • Greenflag

    Christina Beatty, a principal research fellow at CRESR and a lead author of the report above linked by Bluesjazz , shares Richard Ramsey’s view that many more people will migrate from economic inactivity to official unemployment in the coming period.She believes that when all the welfare reforms are in place this will have the effect of increasing the total official unemployment figure in the UK by about a million.

    If so then the current UK unemployed would rise from 2,670,000 to 3,670,000 which would be 250,000 more than the Thatcherite achievement of 3, 250,000 in 1981 . Unemployment remained around 3,000,000 in the UK until about 1986 .

    Mr Cameron as uber Thatcher anyone ? The only thing ‘big ‘ about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ will be bigger unemployment numbers and bigger bonuses for the banksters and bigger bailouts for the financial services sector and their Tory buddies.

  • Greenflag

    error above

    ‘that should be 420,000 more unemployed under Cameron than under Thatcher ‘

    There is a lot to be said for ‘cleaning up ‘the economically inactive figures which distort the true unemployment figures . This is not just an NI issue but which is one which ‘western governments ‘ have been massaging for decades . Does the 27% economically inactive figure in NI include the 7% officially unemployed ?

    GIven the level of public sector spending in NI as a percentage of GDP (70% ) then it’s clear that the local economy has a long way to go if it’s ever to pare back that dependency on the public sector to a more sustainable 35 or 40% .

    The real unemployment figure in NI is probably closer to 14% given the inactive figures .

    The problem for the UK , NI and the Republic and other countries is that not enough jobs are being created . And this is happening at the same time as public sector pay rolls are being cut .

    That and the reduction of activity in the construction sector and the impact of modern technology which tends to reduce employment numbers generally even if it creates higher paying jobs for a tiny minority -all of the above together with a downturn in consumer spending -all point to an economically stagnant period ahead for these economies .

    When an economy such as the USA’s is dependent (70%) on consumer spending and when those consumers haven’t had real wage increases in over a decade and now some 25 million are also out of work – how does any economist worth his /her salt envisage a recovery ? With interest rates at next to 0 and the corporations flush with profits one would think that recovery should be underway . but then there is the ‘debt ‘ payback and the need for the big banks to fix their ‘balance sheets ‘ before they can start lending again .

    Or so we are told by the cognoscenti . And how long will this take ? For the Greeks about 25 years if they obey the ECB rules . For the USA and the UK in the absence of major overdue financial services sector reforms – it will never end but will be like the answer to that 10 divided by 3 = 3.333333 forever recurring .

    At what point will the politicians and international banksters run out of credibility not merely for their failures of the past 5 years but for their obvious inability to impose any kind of controls on the worldwide financial services sector -thats the question on which the future of what we have like to call western democracy will hang .
    Some would say they already have .

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    Greenflag, here’s a link to the NI statistics.

  • Greenflag

    @ Nevin ,

    Thanks for the link . From my read of the numbers the percentage of economicaly inactive (27% ) does not include the 7% unemployed so that means that some 34% of the working age population 16-64 are for a multiplicity of reasons -students , disabled and home carers being the most numerous .

    The report states 50,000 or 9 % of the economically inactive want employment but do not satisfy the full ILO job search criteria (by actively seeking work and being available to start a job).

    There is no mention of the number of foreign immigrants at work in Northern Ireland nor any indication as to how they impact the economically inactive numbers ?

    One is led to believe that there is much fudging about with the numbers for obviously political and other reasons ?

    Lies damned lies and statistics probably not but surely statistics are meant to clarify and bring rigor and definition to the problem and not add mystery and incredulity ?

    My gut instinct tells me that if there are no jobs or no jobs that pay a wage that people are prepared to work then you will have a situation like that of the 50,000 mentioned . But if there are say 30,000 foreign immigrants working in NI then that would tel me that the ‘foreigners ‘ are either less work shy than the locals or are prepared to work for wages which the locals are’nt or there’s a lot of welfare fraud going on which local politicians are reluctant to speak out against as the poor sods who pay for it’s upkeep are resident in London and the English south east ?

  • BluesJazz

    Some DUP Mp’s seem to think getting on DLA is a good thing and should be encouraged:

    http://www.derryjournal.com/community/columnists/jobs_for_all_in_the_big_call_centre_on_the_hill_1_2144650

    Maybe Peter Robinson could tell us how many people his party has helped in this manner and encourage his MP’s to shout -positively- in Westminster about the fact that NI has the highest number of claimants in the UK and his party is partly responsible.

  • BluesJazz

    The DUP/SF coalition seem to have signed up to milking the Treasury for all (and more) than it’s worth. A majority in NI now do not work. Which will only increase. Watching the BBC ‘Spide/Chav Zoo’ programme ‘The Estate’ will not help the image of ‘Our Time, Our Place’.

    Harold Wilson had a word for us in 1974. We’ve got worse since then we only ‘sponged’ £300 million. Now it’s £7 billion and rising. For 1.5 million people that’s impressive, eh Peter?

  • jthree

    The curse of the Robinsons strikes again – another friend, Ken Cleland, is facing disqualification as a company director for his role in the collapse of Graham & Heslip.

    On the Companies list of the High Court for 26 April