Ireland's media...

as impartial as an anti-corruption tribunal chaired by Charlie Haughey

TONY O'REILLY is Ireland's media giant, owner of Independent Newspapers (and more firms than you could name in week of Sundays). This year O'Reilly's earnings add up to £160,000 A DAY! The rich look after their own interests. We should not be surprised when the struggles of working class people don't get fair coverage in the Indo, Herald, Star, Sunday World or any of his provincial papers. Why would he want to cover stories that give confidence to people trying to end the rule of the millionaires and bring about a more equal society?

THE ABOLITION of water charges in December 1996 came after a three year campaign of people power - a campaign which saw PAYE workers unite in a way that had not been seen in Ireland for decades to take on and defeat the government (and, indeed, politicians of all political parties). It was a campaign which was largely ignored by the media - both broadcast and print.

Following the announcement of the governmentís capitulation by Environment Minister Brendan Howlin, members of group water schemes in rural areas launched a campaign calling for what they termed ìequal treatmentî. They objected to the fact that while people who were connected to local authority water schemes were to be given 'free water', those on group schemes had to pay for their maintenance and upkeep. The media coverage they were given was in stark contrast to the coverage afforded the campaign of the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charge Campaigns (FDAWCC).

When RTE and the daily news-papers (Irish Independent and Irish Times) reported the end of the water charges, the reason for their abolition was almost completely ignored. The FDAWCC may have got a passing mention (as did the near-victory of Joe Higgins in the Dublin West by-election) but no attempt was made to analyse what the FDAWCC was or how it had organised a campaign to defeat the government. Indeed, the very fact that it was this campaign which had led to the governmentís climbdown was hardly mentioned.

Nor was reference made to the fact that over 12,000 people had paid a £2 membership fee to join the campaign - meaning that the campaign had a membership bigger than that of all the political parties combined in the Dublin area. Also ignored were the tactics of the campaign - refusal to pay and court defence of non-payers combined with political protest (i.e. direct action in a real and meaningful sense) - and the fact that these tactics had made the charges uncollectable.

Within days, however, of the launching of their campaign by the National Federation of Group Water Schemes (NFGWS) they were being given almost uncontested access to the media.

Their press statements were given prominent coverage, being the leading item on RTE's teatime news bulletin on at least two occasions, their 'leading campaigners' were profiled in at least two national news-papers and editorial support for their cause was obvious.

Dublin Corporation's ILAC Centre Library maintains files of press clippings on various topics. A study of the three files relating to this issue (Local authorities; Rates and local charges; Water) is very revealing indeed. These files contain press cuttings from the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Examiner, Sunday Tribune and Sunday Business Post. For the period from January 1st 1994 to April 8th 1997, there are a total of 191 cuttings relating to water charges, breaking down as follows:- 1994 - 26; 1995 - 51; 1996 - 68; 1997 - 46.

Leaving aside for the moment the 1997 articles, in the period 1994 - 1996 the FDAWCC or its activities/statements was mentioned on a total of 68 occasions (47% of the total). In 1997, however, when the focus was on the group water schemes, reference was made to the NFGWS on 31 o ccasions (67% of the total).

Aside from the volume of the coverage, there was also a marked contrast in its quality. The FDAWCC never received the type of uncritical coverage - and indeed editorial support - received by the NFGWS. At least two key claims/contentions by the NFGWS went unchallenged - claims which do not stand up to even the most cursory of analysis.

CLAIM NO. 1 - The abolition of water charges was unfair because it meant that urban and rural dwellers were being treated differently.

In fact, of the 305,000 households who live outside 'urban areas' (there are approximately 1,000,000 households altogether in the state), 160,000 are supplied with water directly by the local authorities and would therefore benefit from the abolition of water charges. Of the remaining 145,000 households, 90,000 are on group water schemes which are supplied by the Councils and 55,000 are on private group water schemes.

While the issue of charges for these 145,000 houses did need to be addressed, it was by no means the black and white urban-rural divide which was painted. Furthermore, no attempt was made by the media to clarify how it would be established whether water from these schemes was being used for domestic purposes or for agricultural purposes (which would have been liable for the commercial rate).

CLAIM NO. 2 - The abolition of water charges was unfair because urban dwellers were being given free water while rural dwellers had to pay.

This claim was the most obviously nonsensical but again went unchallenged. Indeed, worse was to follow in April when Mary Harney went on her crusade for the re-introduction of water charges on the basis that the economy could not afford to give everyone 'free water'. As all who were involved in the campaign know, the objection to water charges had nothing to do with not wishing to pay for water.

Our objection was to being asked to pay twice. PAYE workers pay 87% of the taxes in this state and are subjected to penal rates of direct and indirect taxes. We have never asked for 'free water', we have however objected to being asked to foot the bill yet again while millionaire tax cheats sit around waiting for the next amnesty.

It is nothing new for the media - which is after all owned by individuals and companies who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and making sure that the working- class are 'kept in their place' - to be biased against us. We are not surprised by this.

What the tremendous campaign fought by the FDAWCC proved is that working class people can rely on only ourselves in fighting for our rights and that self-organisation and mutual solidarity are weapons which will bring us success.

Gregor Kerr (Secretary, Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charge Campaigns)