I was watching the Frontline presented by millionaire host Pat Kenny the other night but turned off after ten minutes or so. The words that came to mind were ‘controlled explosion’: the way the British Army in Northern Ireland seal off an area and detonate a device in order to ensure that damage is kept to a minimum, but also, outwardly via news reporting, to convey a sense of mastery, of being in control of the situation. On the Frontline, the “lot of anger out there” habitually spoken about on news media in what the presenter called “the age of austerity” (it’s an age: there is no political solution to an age) is given a hearing, but always shown, in the final instance, as neatly under control, and subject to the interpretation of designated experts. “Out there”: anonymous scenes of disaffection, chaos and torture, to quote Mark Eitzel, and “in here”: the unfolding of rational deliberation in an orderly fashion.
The other night its panel comprised the legal correspondent from Denis O’Brien’s Independent News and Media, the economics correspondent from the Irish Times, an established maverick journalist whose opinions are more confused than unorthodox, and an academic who was a prominent public advocate in favour of successive European treaties.
There was a man on at the beginning who expressed concern that those negotiating arrangements with other parties in Europe for the repayment of the debts acquired by the Irish State did not have the necessary ‘balls’ to do so.
He said that Ireland’s politicians were public sector workers in the main, with no business experience. Instead of the current crop, ‘we’ should be sending the likes of Dermot Desmond, JP McManus and Michael O’Leary to negotiate on ‘our’ behalf. Rather than questioning the assertion that such figures –of impeccable plutocratic and privatising pedigree- would be best placed to perform such a task, the millionaire host suggested that politicians in other member states were drawn from a similar “gene pool”. Perhaps they have now located the gene that causes the public sector.
The rest of what I saw didn’t continue in that particularly bulging vein. Indeed, the aforementioned maverick journalist –Eamon Dunphy, whom I have heard express similar approval of the suitability of Michael O’Leary as a national negotiator- claimed that Ireland was not a democracy. He supported this contention by reference to a leader article published yesterday in the Irish Times that thanked a bond trader for buying up Ireland’s sovereign debt, and claimed that the control exercised by such actors illustrated the absence of democracy in Ireland (say! perhaps he had read the comment I left).I don’t recall Dunphy’s claim being disputed, at least not in the bit I saw, but the standard modus operandi when such claims are made is to pretend they didn’t happen. There were other dissenting opinions from the audience, the same way there have been for the last few years, but the overall effect of the spectacle is a sensation of the fruitlessness of politics –the politics of elected representatives, the politics of “in here”- and a simultaneous, continuous reminder that this kind of thing -in “the age of austerity”- is the only game in town. More specifically, the way we are enjoined to think about politics, watching these shows, is in terms of what is possible –for others- within the boundaries already imposed by the facts of massive indebtedness, expropriations in the form of regressive taxation and user fees, and the deadening routine of electoral campaigns. It should also be pointed out that such boundaries are accepted as politically legitimate limits by the main political parties and the trade unions.
But even the realm of what is possible is defined within a strictly national frame: “we” must send “our people” “across to Europe” in order to hammer out “a deal”. The possibilities of agitation and mobilisation at a local level are deemed pointless and even counter-productive, lest the likes of Michael Hasenstab take a dim view of them. What is more, at the same time, it’s expected that Ireland should pull some kind of stunt at the negotiating table without there being any change –wrought from below- in the balance of forces in Irish society.
The prospects of any kind of favourable resolution on these terms for the majority of people in Ireland, as Andy Storey details here, can be summed up as: not bloody likely:
‘the current government is perfectly happy to go along with protecting and promoting those who helped wreck our economy. And one reason for that is that the intimate links that bind together bankers, politicians and senior civil servants were not, and are not, confined to one political party’
Though presented as a starting point for a way out, the Frontline, with its discourse of resignation and despair, is a lubricant for expropriation. It is not so much public broadcasting as anti-public broadcasting. And I wouldn’t mind only the State will put you in jail if you want to watch TV but don’t want to pay to support it, even as it allows a billionaire tax fugitive like Denis O’Brien to operate his own media empire to cheer on the expropriation.