This long essay by Colin Murphy is essential reading for anyone who is even vaguely disturbed by the group mind approach to the reporting of politics and other matters of public import.
He begins by focusing on Ireland’s dangerous predilection for consensuses and segues gently into how the liberal consensus is misdirecting journalist into rash and early judgements on supporters of Brexit and Trump..
Speaking truth to power is something we’re not very good at in this country and culture. The media may do a lot of speaking truth to political and business power, and even celebrity power. But the most pervasive and damaging power is often the social one – the power of consensus. This is the country, after all, that invented the boycott.
Eoghan Harris speaks of “the clarity crime” – how anybody speaking clearly gets accused of arrogance. Instead of speaking clearly, we use euphemism.
But there’s a paradox here. This lack of clarity of discourse, this fear of speaking our mind, is also the source of some of the unique strength of our literary culture.
Euphemism. Ambiguity. Ambivalence. The unsaid. Silence. Our theatre is threaded through with these. The language of a civic culture that seeks to avoid direct argument, confrontation and clarity becomes a theatrical language incredibly rich in nuance, in evasion, in elision.
I suspect it’s a cultural thing, rooted in our history as a rural society, intertwined with Irish Catholicism, postcolonial. The sociologist Niamh Hourigan suggests, for example (in her book Rule Breakers), that Irish history has dictated we as a people would place an inordinately high value on relationships as opposed to rules.
And it has come with a cost…
When writing Guaranteed!, I set out to find out who were the people who had seen the Irish bank collapse coming. This took me to London, where I met with a hedge fund manager who had made a lot of money shorting (betting against) the Irish banks.
What had he done and seen that the rest of the financial community, in Ireland but also in the UK, had not? He had looked at the growth rate of Anglo Irish Bank’s loan book and realised immediately that that kind of growth was off the charts. No bank could grow that quickly while following prudent procedures, he thought.
Anglo had boasted about those growth rates in its presentations. But the rest of the industry saw them, or chose to see them, in the context of the apparent economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger. Ireland was rewriting the rules, so why couldn’t one of its banks do so also? They saw what they wanted to see. They saw what everyone else saw.
For some reason, this particular hedge fund manager wasn’t taken in by this. So what did he do next? He came to Ireland. He talked to people on the ground: builders; bankers. He learned properties weren’t selling, builders were unable to finish developments and meet their loan repayments, and the banks were giving them extensions on their loans to avoid defaults.
All this information was available to anybody who chose to go out and seek it. Indeed, many people had parts of the picture. A rare few managed to add it together. The implication of the whole picture was that the entire economy was a house of cards. And this was an appalling vista.
And then a very telling case, which shows it is not a uniquely Irish trait..
In his judgment on the Birmingham Six’s case against the police, in 1980, Lord Denning said the consequence of accepting as fact that the police had lied would be “such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say, ‘It cannot be right these [legal] actions should go any further.’”
In other words, even though the evidence may suggest it, the conclusion that evidence leads to is inconceivable: it can’t be conceived of; it can’t be imagined.
The quality that these dissenters have is a kind of imagination. They can envisage a different world to the one that everybody else sees around them. Dissent is an imaginative act as well as a moral one.
For me this is the killer point, the group breaking towards a new consensus before we have even understood why the old one failed us…
We can think of the breaching of consensus as a process of accountability. The first stage in this process is that the dissenting voice be heard, that what they are saying be investigated and the truth of it established, and that, where necessary, redress be sought. The media is crucial in this, and very good at it: giving the whistleblowers their voice; harassing the powerful for an answer; animating the public to demand one.
Accountability is most often thought of as holding those responsible to account – that’s the first stage. But it should also be thought of as society making an account of itself, to itself – this is the second stage. This is the stage where we hold a mirror up to nature, where we seek to understand how this all happened in the first place.
This is more difficult for the media. Media people tend to think of themselves as going against the grain – fighting spin. But what tends to happen is that, once some whistleblower or dissenter breaks through, the media piles in … and a new consensus quickly forms. The gramophone mind.
This new consensus may be a necessary part of the first stage of accountability. It helps drive the public outrage that demands that Sgt McCabe be vindicated, or that bankers be held accountable, or that the church pay its fair share of redress.
But this new consensus can get in the way of the second stage in the process of accountability: the need to understand how this scandal happened.
You really have to read the whole thing…