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Irish Media’s Business Model Brings Climate Inaction

Following a global trend since the arrival of the Internet, mainstream Irish media, including the so-called ‘paper of record’ the Irish Times, is increasingly required to sell itself. The days of someone reading a daily newspapers cover-to-cover are fading into nostalgic memories. Now editors feel obliged to dangle click-bait, and even fake news, often through social media feeds, with content increasingly accessed on smartphones.

The result is diminished intellectual content, with greater emphasis on sports, titillating lifestyle stories, and consumer surveys. Moreover, advertising paymasters, generally multinational companies, often appear insulated from probing investigations; in Ireland’s case leading to a reliance on foreign-owned publications to break stories.

Journalism should not be placed on a pedestal, or equated with a secular priesthood: any writer has conflicts of interest, biases and personal foibles. Nor are business people bereft of ethical considerations. The point is about how the interests of the public informant and salesperson are balanced across a media spectrum, and the danger inherent to any democracy when media is run on a purely commercial basis, identifying its interests with other businesses. This now appears to be the case with the three main Irish players: the national broadcaster RTÉ, Independent News and Media and the Irish Times newspaper (which last year purchased the only other indigenous national daily, the Irish Examiner).

It is also apparent that the current Irish government’s ‘pro-business’ policies align with the interests of leading providers. This brings broadly sympathetic coverage, evident especially in the uncritical ‘reporting’ of strategic leaks, and publication of generally flattering images of leading politicians, especially media-conscious Taoiseach Varadkar.

The close relationship between mainstream Irish media and the government came into sharp focus last year when unmarked government advertorials appeared across indigenous print media.[i] This now has serious implications for reporting on the environment, including man-made climate change and the Extinction Crisis.

Climate Inaction

On June 16th the Irish government launched a Climate Action Plan that gained essentially positive press coverage, emphasising how seriously the government was taking the issue. For example, the headline in the Irish Times the following day read: ‘Climate action plan promises ‘radical’ change.’

Environmental NGOs, however, reacted very differently to the Plan. An Taisce said it fell ‘well short of the kind of radical, transformational document our recently declared national ‘climate and biodiversity emergency’ warrants.’[ii]

Friends of the Earth offered a more favourable assessment describing the machinery for delivery as ‘the biggest innovation in Irish climate policy in 20 years.’ They cautioned, however, that the ‘plan gets us to the starting line on climate action. It will take consistent political leadership to ensure it is implemented on time…’[iii]

Elsewhere, The Environmental Pillar, a coalition of over thirty national environment groups, lambasted a ‘general lack of clarity, ambition and urgency in the new Climate Action Plan to Tackle Climate Breakdown’, or reverse biodiversity decline.[iv]

Finally, the Irish Wildlife Trust in its press release bluntly stated: ‘There is no indication that the government is willing to rethink agricultural expansion plans which are as odds with environment goals.’[v]

Importantly, agriculture (essentially livestock agriculture) and transport (mostly of the private motor car variety) are projected to remain the main sources of Irish greenhouse gas emissions (currently combining to comprise over 50% of the total – rising both in absolute terms and proportionately. See table below).

Climate Deception

The Plan does little to address the Irish population’s disproportionate contribution to a climate change (the third highest per capita in the EU[vi]) that is already giving rise to extreme weather events close to our shores, and increasing frequency of storms here too. It also all but ignores a potentially irreversible Extinction Crisis facing the natural world, including in Ireland.

Since then the government has blocked the passage of a cross-party Climate Emergency Bill, using a previously arcane and potentially unconstitutional ‘money messages’ parliamentary procedure. The Bill would have denied any further licences being granted for the purpose of oil or gas exploration in the country. This is certainly not evidence of the kind of “consistent political leadership” sought by Friends of the Earth, who, on reflection, more recently acknowledged that the ‘actual measures in the Plan don’t add up to bringing Irish emissions down far enough fast enough.’[vii]

In essence, the Irish Times, among others,[viii] helped generate positivity in the Plan’s wake. This is apparent in the opening paragraph to an editorial the following day:

The appropriately broad scope of the Government’s Climate Action Plan must be acknowledged. A scan of the plan’s headings shows that this administration, however belatedly, has fully grasped that global heating is negatively impacting every aspect of our life and that a plethora of policies and behaviours require urgent changes.[ix]

Over the following days, opinion writers debated aspects of the plan, but none, it seems, was permitted to excoriate it.

The greenwashing is best illustrated by a photograph featuring the following day in the Irish Times of the full Cabinet of Ministers arriving in the Phoenix Park to launch the Plan on an electric bus.[x] Yet this is one of just 13 State-owned electric vehicles among 6,573 listed, and came after the National Transport Authority recently announced the purchase of a further 200 diesel buses,[xi] for use nationwide. In Dublin nitrogen dioxide levels from diesel engines are already in breach of EU standards in a range of locations,[xii] seriously imperilling human health.

The EPA’s recent emissions’ projections[xiii] make for stark reading:

Mt CO2 eq 2017 2020 2025 2030 Growth 2018-2030
Agriculture 20.21  20.32  20.66  20.85  3.2%
Transport 12.00  12.68  12.48  11.86  -1.2%
Energy Industries 11.74  11.95  13.66  8.62  -26.5%
Residential 5.74  6.42  5.66  4.55  -20.7%
Manufacturing Combustion 4.66  3.86  3.70  3.44  -26.2%
Industrial Processes 2.23  2.39  2.67  3.01  34.6%
Commercial and Public Services 1.97  1.31  1.15  0.97  -50.9%
F-Gases 1.23  0.98  0.90  0.78  -35.9%
Waste 0.93  0.58  0.49  0.44  -52.2%
TOTAL 60.74  60.53  61.43  54.55  -10.2%

The highest-emitting sector, agriculture, is predicted to increase its share to almost forty-per-cent of the total by 2030, while emissions from transport flatline. There is no evidence that the government’s Plan will alter these trajectories.

Climate Opportunism

In fact, climate change is being sold as an opportunity to roll out a fleet of electric cars, especially once the implementation of Bus Connects – really a road-widening exercise – ensures Dublin becomes even more of a U.S.-style motor-city.

Foreign manufacture of electric vehicles externalises environmental and human impacts, including the mining of cobalt in Congo for lithium batteries.[xiv]

Considering the success of the Luas, light rail seems a superior option to develop in our urban areas than noisy, uncomfortable and polluting buses. With a comparable population to Dublin, Prague has an extensive tram network offering a rapid, regular and comfortable service.

A sensible climate action plan for urban areas could offer scope for a new generation of electric vehicles, including electric bikes, scooters and vehicles for the elderly – perhaps even involving state assistance to manufacturing enterprises. The motor car, as currently conceived, is not simply a major polluter, it is also unnecessarily large and poses serious dangers to other road users, as well as leading to social atomisation.

Moreover, as long as fossil fuels generate electric power (under the Plan coal-burning Moneypoint power station is to be phased out in 2025,[xv] conveniently beyond the lifespan of this or the next government), electric vehicles could actually generate higher emissions than diesel equivalents, as one German study shows.[xvi]

Another lacuna to the Plan is a failure to discuss reducing air travel between Dublin-London, accounting for 15,000 flights per annum, making it the busiest air corridor in Europe.[xvii] This might involve improving ferry services out of Dublin and, at the very least, providing a rail service from the Dublin city centre to the Port. It could even involve cooperating with the U.K. government to achieve improvements in the rail service out of Holyhead, potentially making sail-rail journey times competitive with air travel alternative.[xviii]

Furthermore, the tired argument about maintaining the status quo in agriculture, the worst-offending sector, to the benefit of a narrowing elite, and underpinned by billions in subsidies, is based on a common misconception that Irish livestock ‘production’ diminishes impacts from livestock agriculture occurring elsewhere.

This is the ‘our coal smokes less than their coal’ argument. In fact, recent analysis by An Taisce of U.N. figures[xix] shows Irish agricultural products to be responsible for among the highest emissions in Europe. Any plan purporting to diminish Ireland’s contribution to climate change is a waste of paper without proposals for radical reform of Irish agriculture. Emphasis, and subsidies, should shift to the cultivation of fruit and vegetables for the home market thereby reducing fossil fuel dependency, increasing employment and potentially raising the nation’s health.

The so-called ‘Paper of Record’

The Irish Times should not be considered a ‘paper of record’, or an unbiased conduit of ‘facts’, as it advertises itself. Although managed as a trust, a significant salary overhang and investments extraneous to news-gathering and commentary, including www.myhome.ie, have seen it develop into what is an overwhelmingly commercial concern. This approach may be a necessity for the survival of a medium-sized newspaper in the digital era, but it has important, generally unacknowledged, consequences for Irish democracy.

It should be emphasised that many Irish Times journalists display diligence and integrity, and stories are still broken, but since Paul O’Neill became editor in 2017, the paper has become noticeably more business-friendly, and deferential to the current government.

One leading columnist, Stephen Collins, is particularly partisan in his support for the dominant economic consensus of steady growth and rising rents administered by a political duopoly.[xx] Left-wing analysis of Irish politics and society is only given an intermittent platform, especially since Vincent Brown’s retirement, and with Fintan O’Toole mainly devoted to international commentary.

Notably, Dan Flinter, chairman of the Irish Times Trust since 2013, holds a range of external directorships, where potential conflicts of interest could arise. For example, he is a non-executive director of Dairygold Co-Op, and chairman of its Remuneration Committee and a member of the Acquisitions and Investments Committee.[xxi] Ongoing expansion of the dairy sector since the lifting of EU milk quotas in 2015 has been the leading cause of the agricultural sector’s (and the country’s) rising emissions.

A worldwide environmental crisis is upon us, and many, particularly young, Irish people are focused on the country’s global responsibilities. Meaningfully addressing the gathering storm – in Ireland’s case by shifting agricultural priorities (and subsidies) away from livestock production and phasing out the motor car in urban areas – would work, however, to the detriment of vested interests that advertise heavily in Irish media.[xxii] Such an approach would also be anathema to the dominant paradigm of economic growth-without-end, oblivious to environmental impact.

The government’s Climate Action Plan seems to have been designed to assuage the justifiable fears, and desire for real action, among wide sections of the population, but it is really a greenwashing exercise, as the responses of leading environmental NGOs show.

Unforgivably, the Irish Times misrepresented the Plan as a ‘radical’ document, despite its obvious deficiencies. This is a betrayal of a loyal readership, and honourable journalists working there. Irish democracy is being undermined by an institution which many of us grew up believing was one of its cornerstones, on an issue of crucial global importance.

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[i] Kevin Doyle, ‘Varadkar orders review of Project Ireland €1.5m publicity campaign amid controversy’, Irish Independent, March 1st, 2018. https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/varadkar-orders-review-of-project-ireland-1-5m-publicity-campaign-amid-controversy-36660463.html

[ii] Press Release. ‘New Gov’t Climate Plan offers much improved rhetoric: but An Taisce cautions that “winning slowly will be the same as losing”’ June 18th, 2019, An Taisce – The National Trust for Ireland. http://www.antaisce.org/articles/new-gov%E2%80%99t-climate-plan-offers-much-improved-rhetoric-but-an-taisce-cautions-that-%E2%80%9Cwinning

[iii] Press Release, ‘Promised mechanisms to ensure delivery and oversight are biggest innovation in Government climate plan’, Friends of the Earth Ireland, 17th of June, 2019,  https://www.foe.ie/news/2019/06/17/promised-mechanisms-to-ensure-delivery-and-oversight-are-biggest-innovation-in-government-climate-plan/

[iv] Press Release, ‘All-of-Gov Climate Plan falls far short on biodiversity measures’, Environmental Pillar, 17th of June, 2019, https://environmentalpillar.ie/all-of-gov-climate-plan-falls-far-short-on-biodiversity-measures/

[v] ‘PRESS RELEASE: Nature largely missing from the government Climate Action Plan’, Irish Wildlife Trust, 18th of June, 2019, https://iwt.ie/press-release-nature-largely-missing-from-the-government-climate-action-plan/

[vi] Conall Ó Fátharta ‘Ireland’s Emissions the Third Highest in the EU’, November 23rd, 2016 Irish Examiner, https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/irelands-co2-emissions-third-highest-in-eu-431895.html

[vii] Untitled, ‘End of Term Climate Report: ‘Little Leo is falling in with the wrong crowd’, Friends of the Earth, 9th of July, 2019, https://www.foe.ie/news/2019/07/09/end-of-term-climate-report-little-leo-is-falling-in-with-the-wrong-crowd/

[viii] Broadsheet.ie offers a summary of the newspapers headlines the following day: https://www.broadsheet.ie/2019/06/17/de-tuesday-papers-321/

[ix] Untitled, ‘Irish Times view on the Climate Action Plan: activity must match ambition’, June 18th, 2019, Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/irish-times-view-on-the-climate-action-plan-activity-must-match-ambition-1.3928552

[x] Miriam Lord, ‘Miriam Lord: From emission agnostics to climate apostles’, June 17th, 2019, Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/miriam-lord-from-emission-agnostics-to-climate-apostles-1.3930031?mode=sample&auth-failed=1&pw-origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.irishtimes.com%2Fnews%2Fpolitics%2Fmiriam-lord-from-emission-agnostics-to-climate-apostles-1.3930031.

[xi] Juno McEnroe, ‘Only 13 of 6,700 State vehicles are electric’, July 1st, Irish Examiner, https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/only-13of-6700-state-vehicles-are-electric-933924.html

[xii] Cormac Fitzgerald, ‘Levels of dangerous air pollutant NO2 possibly exceeding limits on M50 and on Dublin street’, thejournal.ie, July 9th, 2019, https://www.thejournal.ie/pollution-traffic-4715146-Jul2019/

[xiii] ‘EPA’S GREENHOUSE GAS PROJECTIONS SHOW THAT IRELAND HAS MORE TO DO TO MEET ITS 2030 TARGETS’, Environmental Protection Agency, June 6th, 2019. https://www.epa.ie/mobile/news/name,66072,en.html?fbclid=IwAR3cGLpPKV9k4fTIVE8EMCJ_DPqG4bK_Ked5xWObMD5pzt_j63_wGQK7R24 accessed 9/6/19.

[xiv] Untitled, ‘CBS News finds children mining cobalt for batteries in the Congo’, March 5th, 2018, CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cobalt-children-mining-democratic-republic-congo-cbs-news-investigation/?fbclid=IwAR1uNxopb2YEdfPIUyQvoTtfBVWn-o7OKTvAHuPH_IgV4HfVnmAeSzFE9_Q

[xv] Government of Ireland, ‘Climate Action Plan – To Tackle Climate Breakdown’, June 16th, 2019, p.23. https://dccae.gov.ie/documents/Climate%20Action%20Plan%202019.pdf

[xvi] Commentary, ‘Electric Vehicles in Germany Emit More Carbon Dioxide Than Diesel Vehicles’, June 10th, 2019, Institute for Energy Research, https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/international-issues/electric-vehicles-in-germany-emit-more-carbon-dioxide-than-diesel-vehicles/?fbclid=IwAR3PGVCkKRWjp12WtvqFMCgqKpOYhh4f001QxrRt6OEeUJ7S0eLQI5DkLys.

[xvii] Untitled, ‘Dublin-Heathrow Busiest International Route In Europe’, 21st of January, 2019, Roots Online, https://www.routesonline.com/airports/2412/dublin-airport/news/276780/dublin-heathrow-busiest-international-route-in-europe/

[xviii] Ruadhan Mac Eoin, ‘A User’s Guide to ‘Sail-Rail’ with Bicycle and Opportunities on the Dublin-London Route’, April 30th 2019, Cassandra Voices, http://cassandravoices.com/environment/off-the-rails-sail-rail-with-bicycle-from-dublin-to-london-with-some-observations-on-opportunities-for-improvement/

[xix] Press Release, ‘Bombshell for Irish Beef’, An Taisce – The National Trust for Ireland, February 10th, 2019, http://www.antaisce.org/articles/bombshell-for-irish-beef.

[xx] For example: Stephen Collins, ‘Politics of centre ground has served Ireland well’, May 2nd, 2019, Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/stephen-collins-politics-of-centre-ground-has-served-ireland-well-1.3877455

[xxi] Dairygold Annual Report, 2018. https://www.dairygold.ie/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Dairygold-Annual-Report-2018.pdf

[xxii] As regards the motor car industry, see Stephen Court, ‘Drivetime’, Cassandra Voices, 31st of May, 2018. ‘http://cassandravoices.com/environment/drive-time-the-irish-medias-message/

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