MICHAEL WOLSEY: We must stand by the people who are standing by us
Who does our society value most? If we are to judge by acclaim, it is health workers and gardaí, farmers who keep our food coming and retail workers who keep the stores stocked. But these people are not the country’s highest earners. Even well-paid doctors are far from top of the salary scale; farmers and retail workers are near the bottom.
If we judge by rewards, the people society values most are financiers, executives of large companies, IT moguls and those who know how to play the stock exchange.
Of course the rich, like the poor, have been with us always. But the gap has increased hugely in recent times, creating a strata of super-rich who live not in Monte Carlo or Hollywood, but right here in our own country, physically close but separated from most of us by a chasm of wealth and privilege.
It was not always so.
It is some 50 years since I started my first job as a trainee reporter on a weekly newspaper in County Down. One of the perks was that I got to drive the small company van to cover stories. If the timing was right, I could sometimes hold onto it for my personal use. My editor, the redoubtable Annie Roycroft, had her own car, a modest little second-hand model, known as a Baby Austin. She also owned a small semi-detached house.
The owner of the newspaper drove a Jag and lived in a detached home with sea views. His adult son, who worked on the newspaper, also lived in that house with his young wife. They were hoping to start a family and were saving for a home of their own.
So the proprietor was better off than the editor and the editor was better off than the junior reporter. The proprietor’s family were wealthy but it was wealth on a recognisable scale. In football terms, they were in the top division, along with local bank managers, school principals and the like. But we were all in the same league and promotion was always a possibility.
By the time I joined The Irish Press in the late 1970s, I had a car and a house of my own. The proprietor was Vivion de Valera, son of Dev and a retired Army major. He had a better car and a bigger house than mine but there was nothing about his lifestyle that was wildly different from that of, say, a shop owner or a senior civil servant
A decade later, I moved across the Liffey to Independent Newspapers (INM) and discovered a different world. Senior management there weren’t just playing in a higher division, they were in some other league with rules and rewards of its own.
Tony O’Reilly, who ran the show, had a large estate and several houses in Ireland, and a private jet to take him to his other homes in America and France and to companies he controlled in Australia, India and South Africa. The de Valeras had a lifestyle that differed only in scale from my own. Tony O’Reilly and his sons moved in another stratosphere.
And it wasn’t just the controlling family who flourished. Editors began to number their salaries in six digits, key figures in the company earned even more; bonuses and share options could add millions to the personal wealth of individual managers.
Journalism was a well paid job in those days and my colleagues and I were all living comfortably, but there was no longer any real correlation between those who worked for the company and those who ran it.
INM was not unique in this regard – not even unusual. Banks were telling us they couldn’t retain managerial talent unless they paid seven-figure bonuses. Web site whizz kids became millionaires by selling off do-nothing companies with silly names. Consultants were paid fortunes for telling fat cat moguls what decisions to make.
This happened everywhere and those who should matter most to our society – the health workers, the farm workers, the shop workers – got left behind. First they couldn’t afford to buy houses, then they couldn’t afford to pay rents. Society was being driven by the wealthy and we no longer seemed to know who really mattered.
Well, we know now. Financiers won’t save us from the coronavirus. Knowledge of the stock exchange isn’t any help on the the intensive care wards and consultants aren’t much use on the supermarket checkouts.
When this crisis is over we will, of course, still need people to run companies and keep the economy moving. We will need them more than ever.
But I hope we have learned to value the people who stood by us when we the crisis came. We must never again let them be left behind.