Messenger Shoot

I spent part of yesterday afternoon watching The Generation Game, David McWilliams’s new series on the Irish economy.

I was prompted to watch it after reading a remarkably worded editorial in the Sunday Independent:

Naysayers like David McWilliams and that other prophet of doom, RTE’s George Lee, have been busy spreading the woe and creating fear, all the while hoping we watch their television shows and buy their books. They are no more than opportunistic cranks profiting handsomely from peddling their misery.

Then you had Marc Coleman at the same paper, adopting a slightly more moderate tone:

The question is why does RTE want to run down our economy? It is precisely in order to protect it from the pressures of commercialism and sensationalism that RTE receives a licence fee. It also has the privilege — unique amongst national broadcasters — of being allowed to generate advertising revenues. With these privileges comes a responsibility to produce factual, level-headed and accurate analysis. Its latest spate of economic horror movies are exactly the opposite, and their timing couldn’t be worse for the economy and the jobs that depend on them.

Then you had Brendan O’Connor, also in the same paper, who, wisely eschewing economic analysis altogether, saw fit to criticise McWilliams’s choice of car, and clothes:

But then, McWilliams, you suspect, wouldn’t be seen dead in a Merc, which is after all a potent symbol of the new money vulgarity that upsets David so much.

and

Macker never changed his clothes as he criss-crossed the continents, explaining how Uruguay was the old Ireland and China was the new America and stuff like that, all with punchy names and catchphrases.

I think it’s fair to say that the Sunday Independent didn’t like the programme. Whether this had anything to do with the fact that McWilliams was particularly scathing about the primacy of the property market, and newspapers get a fair wodge of advertising revenue from property market-related products, I have no idea.

I also spied an report (I think it was in the Sunday Times, where, incidentally, Liam Fay called McWilliams’s method ‘quasi-Marxist’ (!)) saying that estate agents had said that people had pulled out of deals after watching the Generation Game. From first hand experience, this rings true. A friend of mine, a property developer who has a bit of cash to spare, had his eye on a noice heyuse in a leafy Dublin suburb, and told me at the start of last week about his plans to put in a bid for it. Then, the day after the Generation Game, he’d told me that having watched the programme, he wasn’t so sure, and had decided to hang on for a bit longer.

So, what of the programme itself? There were a few things struck me while watching it:

  • The extended metaphor of the Irish economy as ageing dancefloor diva was a good starting point. In my short experience of observing such matters, it appears to me that, broadly speaking, there are three models used when thinking about an economy, whether global or national: as an inanimate object (like a pie, or a car), an animate object (a person, or an animal, though ‘Celtic Tiger’ is a form of wishful synecdoche), and as a deity. The last form is the hardest to grasp, but it is the most powerful one for convincing people that they need to make all sorts of sacrifices. McWilliams’s Irish economy takes the form of an ageing woman out on the pull at a nightclub, but it may have been more appropriate to use the form of an ageing prostitute in a red light district. Most women will not starve if they forego the disco: they can always go somewhere else instead. And they can generally afford to refuse any male suitor they don’t find sufficiently attractive.
  • He was absolutely right about the multinationals, and how quickly they could do a runner, given the availablity of cheaper labour elsewhere. For senior managers in these corporations, it is scarcely more complicated than comparing hourly rates in Dublin and Bangalore, and then, if you like what you see, saying ‘make it so’ to your team. It would also have been useful to mention the fact that in Ireland, many of these companies employ far higher proportions of contract labour than they did back in 2000. That is, they are better placed to do a runner now than they were then.
  • The graphics and the atmospherics were plain silly.

All in all, though, after complaining about RTE last week, I thought it was a good programme. You don’t have to share McWilliams’s values, or his taste for coining cutesy categories, to realise that a lot of his diagnosis is spot on. I look forward to hearing his prescriptions.

Update: Just noticed that Michael Taft makes some better, more thorough points here.

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2 Responses to “Messenger Shoot”


  1. 1 Neville Gawley September 24, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    …and nobody thinks it’s odd that Bertie had to get in a preemptive shot against McWilliams.

  2. 2 JG September 24, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    You’ve made a big mistake here… reading the Sindo.


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