Property and the press

Property prices are not neutral. There are vested interests who strive at every turn to twist, manipulate, distort, and downright lie about them. Too many mortgage brokers depend on the commissions they receive. Too many banks have profits to turn over. Too many developers have properties on their hands that they need to sell. So they generate a veneer of calm when prices are falling, a sense of panic when they’re rising, and put up a united front throughout.

This whole conspiratorial stitch-up over property is understandable, if immoral and corrupt. But what is more disturbing to me is the involvement of the press in perpetuating the lies. The Irish Times is the worst in this regard. Their ownership of MyHome.ie makes them part and parcel of the entire industry: they cannot be neutral as regards house prices. And they consistently defer to a coterie of vested interests as “experts” in the housing markets: the bank economists, the estate agent chairmen and the like. What objective answer as regards house prices are they expecting to receive from these so-called “experts”?

But recently, the word-acrobatics that the press have been indulging in have made Bertie Ahern look positively slothful. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious for so many people. Today’s article in the Irish Independent is a classic illustration of the art-form. The headline strikes the right tone: “House price fall continues but rate of decline slows”. Ah, the sobering reality of falling prices is tempered by the ever-positive “but rate of decline slows”! 

Then the article revs up into second gear: “House prices fell at the slowest rate in four months in January.” Our reporter is reassuring us by trumpeting the “positive” news that the rate of decline of prices is the lowest in four months. This would be like saying that “Rate of increase of deaths in Iraq is lowest for four months”. You sense the desperation, the clinging to dubious reasoning.

Another illustration of this art form is to state a fact – hardly avoidable sometimes – but then end the sentence with opinion or conjecture. Thus, our report continues: “Some builders have cut the price of new houses by up to 20pc, but most seem to be holding prices.” What does the phrase “most seem” mean? This sentence is risible. All well-trained reporters (and editors) should have spotted this for what it is: subjective opinion masquerading as fact.

The article then accelerates into third gear with another whopper: “The figures revealed an improvement in the market for second-hand houses.” Obviously the prices increased then, did they, one would ask? Ah, but then wait for the clincher: “Prices for new houses were reduced by 0.4pc in January, while second-hand prices fell by 0.1pc.” So, the prices still fell, but this, announces our intrepid reported, amounts to an “improvement” vis-à-vis new homes. This is patently absurd.

Now, ever more confidently into his stride, our reporter zooms into fourth gear by wheeling in an “expert”:

“There is mounting evidence that sellers are adjusting to more realistic asking prices and buyers are getting better value,” said Niall O’Grady, Head of Marketing, permanent tsb bank.

Head of Marketing. The naked self-interest summed up in that title is so gob-smackingly appalling. Truly awesome. And he’s the only quoted person in the entire article. Of course, it is hardly his fault that the reporter asked him for a quote. He would, after all, say that. But why was he asked in the first place?

The press should be ashamed of themselves.

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