Reality Over Public Relations in the Irish General Election

Richard Feynman, the brilliant American physicist and Nobel Prize winner, once said that, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Feynman’s famous quote related to the space shuttle challenger disaster of 1986 and was written in the appendix of what came to be known as the Rogers Report. Feynman wrote part of the report into the disaster. What he found out about NASA’s institutional structure and culture was revealing. Not only about individuals working within that structure — at the time, a multibillion-dollar bureaucracy justifying its post-1960s space flight budget — but also highly revealing of the often startling disconnect in rudimentary knowledge about NASAs’ technology between the managerial class and the engineers who actually worked at NASA’s coalface.

Risk was understood, or deliberately misunderstood, very differently between the two layers of the organization. This disjuncture resulted ultimately in the 1986 disaster. Feynman drew his conclusions. Uppermost he argued was that NASA’s managerial class must “… deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them.”

The world of reality and non-reality had become dangerously blurred — broken, even.

NASA’s top brass, Feynman argued, were practicing internal self-deception. Additionally, they were also deceivingthe public. Rationalizing away both sets of deception in order to preserve the established order and its multibillion-dollar budget.

And so we come to much of the mainstream media in Ireland. Politics and the media, and by extension, big business, is inextricably linked in Ireland, as elsewhere. Ireland is not unique in this sense. This link is demonstrably evident, despite the conceit that there is a theoretical democratic barrier between the institutions of government and a free and independent press, the much fabled “fourth estate,” according to Edmund Burke. Where, according to the standard democratic theory, the press functions as a watchdog, providing a check and a balance against the institutions of governmental power in a democratic state: the parliament, the government of the day, and the judicial system. If this was ever true, at least even in part, it is even less so now. Much lip service is paid to this, but it is still largely a fiction.

But if we substitute technology for politics in Feynman’s axiom (and how politics is reported), and substitute nature for the citizens of the state, Feynman’s accurate and brilliant insight sheds light on the behaviour of much of the Irishmedia in the most recent general election: “For a successful politics, reality must take precedence over publicrelations, for the citizens cannot be fooled.” Or, at least not all of the citizens can be fooled, all of the time.

The old order in Irish politics is being challenged as never before. Left-wing parties (Sinn Féin in particular) and independents, ranging from left to right, lead the challenge. The new Dáil (parliament) now even has eight radical left TDs (elected members of the Irish parliament, or Dáil Éireann ), and roughly over quarter of all TDs would now consider themselves of the left. This is unprecedented in the history of the state since 1921; hardly a political revolution, but highly significant nonetheless.

In the recent elections of February 2015, the neoliberal establishment parties’ — Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour — share of the vote was reduced to roughly 55 percent — down from almost 70 percent in 2011, and down from almost 77 percent in 2007. An extraordinary drop in the popular vote of over 20 percent in less than 10 years. Particularly incredible in what is still a conservative country in European terms, and where many still associate any kind of change with deep suspicion. Socio-political change has a negative resonance in Irish history, and is still associated with dispossession, migration, conflict and loss in the collective cultural mind. This in turn leads to a risk-averse voting population, particularly amongst older and rural voters.

This nascent challenge to the political, and therefore economic orthodoxy, is a result of a confluence of factors: anger at years of austerity and anger at the socializing of private banking debts after the banking collapse of 2010, still by some measures one of the costliest banking failures (according to an IMF paper published in 2012) ever foisted onto a country’s taxpayers in global financial history, relative to the size of the economy. Despite claims of an economic recovery for all by both the government and much of the mainstream media, those who’ve been disenfranchised have rejected the monoculture narrative of “recovery.” Reality has taken precedence over public relations in the minds of many, in other words.

This anger has now crystallized, and is aiming at a hackneyed and lumpen political system resistant to any serious democratic change, despite claims to the contrary.

All of the above mentioned parties are center-right or right-wing, some are more neoliberal than others. Two of them (Labour and Fianna Fáil) tend to canvass on the center-left; this magically changes when in power though. The cynicism is brazen. If either gets into government this time, the same will happen again. Whatever happens, Ireland’s free market-oriented model of attracting foreign investment and reducing state spending, slowly but surely hollowingout the social functions of the state, will continue. “Dangerous” notions, such as supporting a global financial transaction tax to help the global poor, which Ireland has refused to do despite its claim to reduce poverty in the Sustainable Development Goals; or raising taxes on corporate profits domestically; or, even, spending more state revenue on job creation to boost the economy are way beyond the ideological pale.

Most of the mainstream media’s response has been a predictable knee-jerk reflex to defend the status quo. “Stability,” “chaos,” “sustainable” and “in the national good” have been trotted out ad nauseam. Indeed, Stephen Collins of theIrish Times has used the words “chaos” and “stability” so many times in recent months that an Irish Member of theEuropean Parliament has even taken to calling him the “stability fairy.”

The corporate media’s coverage of the leading left-wing party, Sinn Féin, in the recent election has been nothing short of outright barrage of negative propaganda. Ireland’s most widely read newspaper, the Irish Independent, controlled by Ireland’s richest man, Denis O’ Brien, in particular led the onslaught.

All of this serves a purpose: to preserve the political and economic status quo, at all costs. Feynman would have understood well, for in order to preserve that status quo, the world of reality and non-reality must become blurred inorder to attack the challenges and threats, perceived or otherwise, from outside the elite golden circle. “Stability ofthe established order,” as opposed to the “chaos of the rabble,” in this sense is little more than ideological doctrine dreamt up in the wine bars of political, economic and media power. A blatant attempt at engineering the consent of elements of the electorate.

Yet this is a sign of weakness and even some desperation. Just as NASA’s managerial class needed to preserve thefiction of competence to justify their budget and political and social status, much of the establishment commentariat practices this fiction for much the same reason. Power and privilege is highly seductive; salaries depend on it. In addition though, and more importantly, much of the Irish political and economic commentariat is also now firmly inthe camp of public relations for the existing established order.

The mainstream media in Ireland are finally discarding much of the pretense of objective impartiality, as they lose both their traditional authority, particularly amongst the young and the working classes, and, more importantly, forthe commercially “serious” newspapers, as they lose market share.

The more passive voice of mainstream journalism of before, often pompous and nominally “objective,” is being replaced by a more strident and unashamedly ideological voice, but still pompous. A voice that is now is clearly out in the open. An often frantic and reactionary voice that has set itself the challenge of defending neoliberalism against what it has mischaracterized as unruly chaos. The odd thing is that “chaos” is actually a call for more democracy — real democracy, that is. Democracy in all its messy, chaotic and even exciting potential.