It’s Not Fake But It’s Not The Full Story

I have a reasonable level of trust in mainstream media. Anytime I’ve read something that has struck me as fake it is usually by some publisher/news outlet that I do not regard as being part of the mainstream. In fact I can’t really think of any article or piece I have read or watched in the mainstream media in the last decade that I believed was blatantly misleading the audience or misrepresenting the facts*. That’s not to say that I accept or agree with every word I hear or read simply that I don’t think everything is a lie.

But it is annoying when you read an article or watch some content that fails to offer a broad enough perspective on the issue to help you see the real heart of the problem – of course with some issues, when the journalists do this the heart of the problem is revealed to be such a labyrinthine and bloody mess that all that one sees is that there are no easy answers to resolve the situation at hand.

That is not the case with the two articles that I’m going to give as examples of this problem here. These articles are not fake – in any way – but they do fail to mention some really obvious points. I’m not criticising the journalists as in these cases they are mostly just reporting on the stances of the ministers in questions to these situations.

The problem is that day-to-day reporting of news is like this. A lot of short reporting of some facts that is repeated in many outlets of the mainstream media throughout the day that, although faithfully reporting some facts of the situation, fails to give a full picture of the real story – and so those who are directly affected by the issues can feel that the mainstream media is deliberately failing to report the real story.

I don’t think that’s the fault of mainstream media. I think it’s more the blind rush of modern life.

O.K. saying Irish politics works at a rush of speed (blind or not) will probably cause anyone familiar with it to burst out laughing – but you get what I mean.

1) Water charges: FG to check if excess use penalty meets EU law

There is nothing wrong or incorrect in this article. It is about Minister Simon Coveney wanting to penalise households that use excessive amounts of water and the differing positions of Fine Gael (the minister’s party) and Fianna Fáil. FG introduced water charges in their last term in office; it was a deeply unpopular move with a number of households refusing to pay the charges. FF promised to scrap the water charges and did much better than was expected in the last election. FF are in opposition but the coalition government that FG formed after the election is such that they can require FF’s support in order to pass legislation. I really like this style of government as it seems to be more responsive to the will of the people than a government who have a clear majority or a stable coalition that will allow them pass whatever measures they feel like – like water charges.

So I’m guilty of not explaining the story fully here… Essentially it’s this – introducing water charges has proved too unpopular to work FG want to charge people water charges – FF want to charge people for excessive use only – and I don’t think this is feasible for the reasons set out below. There is a water committee set up to discuss these matters and they are to issue their findings to the Minister Simon Coveney. He intervened (interrupted them?) to set out his position and that is essentially what that article is about. Ai yai yai – Morning Ireland gave a great run through of this this morning (7/3/17)…

The obvious point that is missing from this article is the difficulty of implementing charges for excessive use of water, not because of any issue with their legislative basis, not even because they will be unpopular with some people, no the problem with implementing these charges is one of feasibility – it may well prove more expensive to implement them than not. Why? Because in cities in Ireland, like in many cities worldwide I guess, it is not unusual for people to live in houses that are split up into flats, also many people (like me) live in apartment blocks. In many of these instances it is not possible to tell what the actual water consumption of each individual household is. There aren’t meters for each individual apartment or flat.

If you were to charge excessive water use fees to each household in a house of flats or a block of apartments presumably some of those households would appeal the charges and should the matter come before the courts the charging authority would be asked to produce evidence that these specific households were indeed guilty of excessive water consumption and there would be no proof that this was in fact the case.

Also, some people may have a need for a higher water use due to some medical need. If these households were charged for excessive use and challenged them then presumably these charges would be reversed also. It is hard to imagine in such cases that the state would avoid paying costs. It is true that an independent appeals body could be set up to deal with these sorts of cases but exactly how much would it cost to staff and run such a body. A simple way to get an indication of how many households might require more water consumption than the average household would be to check how many households that registered with Irish Water opted for special and priority services – although this didn’t give the household any extra allowances I understand that many people who checked this box believed that it would.

Moreover it would need to be verified that the excessive use was as a result of the household’s consumption and not due to leaks either in the accommodation (which the accommodation’s owner would have to pay to fix) or outside the property (which would be either Irish Water or the council’s responsibility to fix – I’m not sure which). And it would benefit everyone if these leaks were repaired. I do think excessive consumption should be investigated but before raising the issue of penalties let’s find the causes. Is the excessive consumption due to a leak or a medical need? Is it possible to determine which household is actually responsible? Without this information being ready to hand it seems like madness to be taking a severe line on this issue. Facts first. Severe tone of voice later – if it’s warranted.

2) Revealed: How much Ireland paid out in child welfare benefits to families in other EU countries

This article reveals the fact that over the last three years Ireland paid almost €40 million to families living in other member states of the European Union. The article is about Minister Leo Varadkar floating the idea of linking an EU worker’s Child Benefit to the rates paid in the country where their children are living. The article lists the different rates paid in a number of countries where the rate is much lower than that paid in Ireland, and it faithfully sets out the argument in support of the Minister’s suggestion.

Again I don’t think there is anything incorrect in this article however I find it hard to understand why at no point does it mention the contribution made by these EU workers in receipt of Child Benefit to the Irish economy – because they do need to be classified as workers in order to get this payment. This means they are probably paying some combination of USC, PRSI and PAYE taxes, if not all three. Why are there no figures to show how much these workers contributed to the economy through these taxes? Does it offset the amount of Child Benefit paid? How about the immeasurable benefit they add to the economy if they are a good and efficient worker?

The article also doesn’t explain how the Minister’s idea is completely at odds with the free movement of workers within the EU – one of the union’s four fundamental freedoms. The free movement of goods, services, workers and capital within the EU is what gives us a single market and I believe its benefits are such that we EU citizens would be extremely unwise to let these freedoms be taken away from us or undermined in any way. The open market encourages productivity, efficiency and lower prices, and there are regulations and directives to ensure that products adhere to strict standards (safeguarding product quality) and to protect consumers and workers rights. It is true that market intervention is required in order to protect essentials like housing and ensure that prices remain within the reach of ordinary individuals/households – but it’s up to each member state to regulate their own housing market (and I agree that that is the way it should be).

The free movement workers within the EU means that a citizen cannot be penalised for choosing to work in another member state, either by their home state or by the host state; so they have to receive any benefits that workers in the host state are entitled to and they may have an entitlement to some benefits from their home state depending on how those benefits are implemented. If this wasn’t the case Irish workers in other member states could be treated less favourably than workers who are citizens of that state. This encourages free movement of workers which ensures that businesses benefit from larger and more competitive labour force – but remember worker rights and benefits are generally very good throughout the EU. Also it can help people who have worked in different countries see how working conditions and benefits need to be improved in their own home state – so it’s a drive to the top rather than the bottom – that last sentence is just my opinion.

Again I don’t think there is anything incorrect or fake in the text of the article and maybe everyone reading it is fully aware of how and why Child Benefit is paid to EU workers with dependent children by the Irish state regardless of whether the children are living with them or not. They could well be aware that the amount paid to the EU worker by the Irish state is less any child benefit those children might receive in their home state. So some EU workers in the Irish state are actually paid less by the Irish state than Irish citizens with the same number of children in Ireland. They will still receive the same amount of Child Benefit as Irish families but their home state may pay part of it. And maybe everyone reading the article gets this.

But this sentence from the beginning of the piece got my back up:

The payment of child benefits to the children of migrant workers […] was at the centre of the Brexit debate in the UK before last year’s referendum.

The “centre of the Brexit debate” – yeah the centre of a debate that included a very skewed and selective reading of the facts and some downright lies (e.g. the amount that the UK paid for EU membership, the kinds of regulations that exist for certain foods, etc) that managed to convince the majority of British people that leaving the EU was such a vital and urgent necessity that the UK should do so even in the absence of any coherent exit strategy. The British people are not stupid. It’s not stupid to believe people who are paid to represent you and the nation’s best interests – or at least it shouldn’t be. I know that’s not fair to the majority of UK politicians regardless of whether they represented the Remain or Leave side – but there were certainly some on the Leave side who seem to have been so confident they would lose that they recklessly made misleading statements that would make them appear to be on the side of ordinary UK citizens and guarantee them a lifelong career as a pundit regardless of how their political career fared – no, I don’t think that’s unfair – I think that’s bang on the money. (Well, maybe I’m being unfair, maybe they were just misguided.)

I’m not saying the EU is perfect. By any means. I believe some fundamental reforms are required in order to make the union more responsive to its citizens and to make its policy making procedures more transparent to the public, but the benefits of membership still heavily outweigh the costs – even when you inflate the figures. I will outline what reforms I’d like to see materialise in another post.

So starting off the article with saying this is the kind of thing that led to Brexit and then failing to give a fuller perspective of how and why EU workers can get Child Benefit here at the same rate as Irish citizens made me think “don’t dare play that nonsense here!”.

I don’t think that Leo Varadkar is anti-EU – maybe he’s under pressure to means test the payment which he is against doing – in fairness I think nearly every Minister for Social Protection at some point or other has to come out and say this. I’m sure there is always pressure to reduce costs within social welfare. I wouldn’t agree with means testing this payment.

My opinion of Leo Varadkar has improved greatly since he became the Minister for Social Protection. I think he’s doing a good job. I also think that Simon Coveney is doing a much better job of housing than his predecessors, while that isn’t saying much I recognise how difficult the job is he’s got – not that Social Welfare is a skip through the park. I’m much softer in my opinion of our politicians in general these days. It’s all relative. 

Is there a link somehow between these two stories? Maybe. Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are said to be vying for position of leader of the party – and so Taoiseach. Our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) is Enda Kenny. Who do I think should be Taoiseach? Honestly I couldn’t care less – they’re all doing a good job at the moment as far as I can see. I just hope this kind of power play doesn’t cause the government to fall – because they’re doing alright so far. And I hope these kinds of power games aren’t causing any politicians to play some “strong man” or “populist” line and blinding them to some obvious flaws in their plans – because just look at what that kind of daftness has caused for our good neighbours.

*****

Also, and hopefully obviously, I’m not calling either the Irish Times or The Independent (both part of the Irish mainstream media (MSM**) fake news.

* I didn’t watch any of the coverage of the campaigns for Brexit. My knowledge of what went on then all comes from what I read and watched after the vote.

** You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to figure out that MSM wasn’t the name of a particular news channel…

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