Ireland’s “union-dominated media”

Spotted by the Eagle-eyed John Fay. Columnist with the Sunday Times in Ireland, Alan Ruddock, stopped by the Guardian’s Media section to give his thoughts on the way the Irish media is covering the Irish Ferries dispute[reg may be required, or try BugMeNot]

The Irish media operate in a bubble that shields them from an evolving Irish society. Journalists are rarely sacked and can expect a job for life once they have union membership and a staff position. Culturally, they tend to come from an older Ireland: consensual, undynamic and left leaning. Just as significant, however, is the lack of diversity in Ireland’s media, with none of the sharp ideological divides that characterise the British media. If there is a media bias against business, it is deep-set and cultural.

While he focuses on the Irish Independent, Alan Ruddock also widens his criticism to the general media, the unions.. and the politicians –

But for many businessmen, the dispute has demonstrated how closely aligned the Irish media are with the trade union movement. The NUJ, though waning, remains a force in the industry: journalists at Irish-owned newspapers and in the broadcast media are required to be union members and the NUJ, which operates from Siptu’s headquarters in Dublin’s Liberty Hall, has a credibility long denied to it in the UK.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, has insisted on the NUJ playing a key role in the negotiations that will lead to the creation of a statutory Press Council, and the unions’ pronouncements are treated seriously by the media. The NUJ supported the Irish Council of Trade Union’s decision to call a national day of protest about Irish Ferries this Friday, and its members will march in support of the workers who have refused to accept the company’s redundancy terms.

Media coverage of the Ferries dispute has been almost universally hostile to the company. Broadcast news has focused on interviews with union representatives bemoaning the “race to the bottom” in Irish industry and referring to the company’s “slave ships”.

And he picks up on Fintan O’Toole’s somewhat ad hominem appeal –

Commentators, like Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times, see it as a seismic battle for Ireland’s soul. “If you care about Ireland’s prospects of avoiding the creation of a ghettoised society, if you care about the future of the European Union, if you care about democracy, you have to care about Irish Ferries,” he wrote last week.

As O’Toole suggested, the battleground is far broader than a fight about seamen’s jobs. For the union movement, Irish Ferries represents a line in the sand: if they lose this fight, they claim, then employers across Ireland will follow suit and replace their expensive local workers with cheap foreign imports.

The media, however, are one of the last bastions of union power – Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, Ireland’s most successful private company, refers to RTE, the state-owned broadcaster, as Radio Siptu and laughs at the suggestion that his company could ever get fair treatment from the station.

He has a point. The Irish media operate in a bubble that shields them from an evolving Irish society. Journalists are rarely sacked and can expect a job for life once they have union membership and a staff position. Culturally, they tend to come from an older Ireland: consensual, undynamic and left leaning. Just as significant, however, is the lack of diversity in Ireland’s media, with none of the sharp ideological divides that characterise the British media. If there is a media bias against business, it is deep-set and cultural.

Irish Ferries has been caught in the crossfire between a trade union movement desperate to protect its franchise in an economy that is attracting tens of thousands of willing, cheap workers from Eastern Europe, and the media are suffering collateral damage. Flynn’s troubles at the Independent may yet become a cause celebre for the NUJ as it, too, fights a battle to retain its grip on a local media industry that is being slowly transformed by the emerging power of British newspaper groups. Just as the ferry company wants to bring its labour costs into line with its international competitors, so Irish newspapers have to respond to British predators taking their readers and their market.

Next up is the Daily Mail, whose Irish edition launches in the New Year and will be pitched aggressively at the Independent’s market. It follows in the footsteps of News International’s the Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World, which have all secured strong franchises in Ireland. The pressure on the local players is increasing relentlessly. O’Toole may be right: the Ferries dispute could prove seismic, both for the unions fighting it and the media covering it.