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In defence of Nyberg

April 27th, 2011

ALL AND sundry have been taking pot-shots at Mr Nyberg and his report on our national disaster.
And in that shot-taking there’s been a curious tendency to display one of the fatal features of Irish society that the cautious Finn fingered: groupthink.
For the consensus has been outrage, that Peter Nyberg did not ‘name the guilty men’. (And women, if there were any – but Ireland’s downfall was a particularly testosterone-driven exercise). From Vincent Browne to Shane Ross, to the man-in-the-street, there have been cries of disgust at Nyberg’s failure to name names in his report, published on April 19.
Yet, at this stage, what is the point of naming names? Don’t we know already who are the ‘guilty men’? Otherwise, why have Sean FitzPatrick, David Drumm, Michael Fingleton, Colm O’Doherty, Richie Boucher, Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan et al, featured so large in reports about the reckless lending that caused Ireland to go bankrupt?
Is there a serious suggestion that there are other individuals, more invidious than these, who really wrecked the country? These folk are sinister because of their secret identities; Nyberg should have ferreted them out. And don’t you just bet they’ve all got fat pensions.
There are two main problems with the pillorying of the Nyberg report – which was clear, measured, and above all, highly readable (an excellent thing, and relatively rare, in an official report).
Firstly, Nyberg blamed us all.
Secondly, naming and shaming of individuals could prejudice any future legal action.
Already, the Chartered Accountants Regulatory Board has suspended its inquiry into the behaviour of FitzPatrick at Anglo-Irish Bank because of fears those proceedings could prejudice any future prosecution in the courts. Nobody complained much about that because, to put it bluntly, people want to see FitzPatrick hang, and the higher the better. Anglo is the bank responsible for the €35 billion or so lion-share of bank-incurred debt, and in the public mind its former chairman deserves the most severe punishment.
Returning to the first point, the universality of blame, it was intriguing to observe the Letters page of The Irish Times on the days following Nyberg’s publication. Letter after letter declared ‘Thanks very much, Mr Outsider, but it wasn’t MY fault!” Here again was apparent the knee-jerk reaction, and the groupthink, a circling of the wagons. People: you let it happen; we all let it happen. We had euro signs in our eyes, and that obscured the clear light of common sense, that nothing goes upward nor remains the same forever.
And that includes the media. The media script during the boom was, loosely, it’s all good! As greater and greater risks were taken by the banks (and light touch regulators, at the behest of the Fianna Fail government), more complex structures came into play. The dreaded financial products, derivatives and credit swap packages, were apparently understood by nobody, even the geniuses who manipulated the software that spewed them forth. So if these guys with PhDs in obscure maths and advanced computing wizardry couldn’t really understand what was happening, how could a lowly hack?
Those in the media who bear a greater responsibility are the specialists on the business pages; yet few of them have the solid grounding in maths, economics – or even business – that would qualify them to assess lending and tax policies in a meaningful way.
A bright young Irish academic and former journalist, Declan Fahy, has studied the coverage of the Irish financial implosion between 2008-2010. He says the financial reporting of Ireland’s ‘economic miracle’, especially in property, was “largely uncritical of (always rising) house prices and the country’s supposedly never-ending wealth generation”. Fahy’s research includes a quote from one Irish financial journalist, who said ‘The problems that we have seen in Irish financial journalism in recent years have been due largely to its unquestioning support for the elite consensus.
More muted, an opinion piece by former Irish Times editor Conor Brady in 2009 offered the view that the message (of impending doom) wasn’t always conveyed clearly. Brady was editor from 1986-2002, so he had baled out by the time the worst excesses in national imprudence were happening. Shane Ross, who portrays himself as the fearless voice, the gadfly who picks to pieces the pomposity of fools, was perhaps not quick off the mark to spot the hubris. Detractors refer to columns Ross wrote when he held Anglo-Irish bank up as a model back in the boom – or what Nyberg refers to quaintly as ‘the Period’, approximately 2003-10.
So, back to Nyberg. His report is fair, clear, readable, and perhaps doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already. But if we knew – why haven’t we acted?

This column also appears on www.politico.ie

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