Media failings make resuscitating Stormont harder

29 Nov 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 29 Nov 2019

Image by veve from Pixabay
Image by veve from Pixabay

Local journalism didn’t bring down the Executive but its shortcomings perhaps greased the wheels of collapse and are helping to manage its ongoing non-existence.


The last Stormont Executive crumpled almost three years ago, ostensibly because of yet another scandal of governance – this time the Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco.

The collapse has done nothing to improve the public’s opinion of local politicians but it is important to note that their unpopularity helped seal the abandonment of the Assembly in the first place.

Had our parliament been better thought of it would have been unthinkable to bring it down for this long because of the major political damage the key players would have brought upon themselves.

But Stormont was not beloved. Many people felt it offered them no real representation, either in terms of how it treated issues important to them (which can be wildly different from person to person) or by way of effective governance.

This feeling, of being unrepresented, is part of a wider malaise in Northern Ireland. Large sections of society think no-one listens to them. They may, to a large degree, be correct. Journalism has a hand in this.

There are plenty of times when Belfast is in the world’s media but, earlier this month, journalists from around the world were in Belfast to discuss the role of the media in divided societies.

The Social Change Initiative (SCI) is a Belfast-based international charity that helps promote effective activism. It hosted The Media in Deeply Divided Societies – its Role and Responsibilities over November 8 and 9.

The organisation brought speakers from South Africa, Colombia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Turkey, the Middle East, the Balkans, Kashmir, Somalia, Nepal and the USA – with other panellists including local figures like victims campaigner Alan McBride, Ivy Goddard from the Inter Ethnic Forum for Mid & East Antrim, and more.

Steven McCaffery is Communications Strategy Executive at SCI. Before he took up his post there he was a renowned NI journalist, working for the Press Association, the Irish News and The Detail and last weekend he wrote about how the decline of local news media has helped stall NI’s progress.

“After many rocky years of on/off government since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement of 1998, the Assembly collapsed again in January 2017 and remains mothballed.

“It seems to be forgotten that it collapsed because it had become a byword for scandal and incompetence and a barrier to rights and fair play for large sections of the population.

“Some feared the emergence of a weak ‘deal’ with limited concessions on rights and a return of Stormont on a ‘business as usual’ basis.

“Such an illusion of change would do nothing for communities living in the grip of poverty and paramilitaries – but we all know this, so why is it not penetrating public debate?”

More than a lens

Scope wrote recently about the core role of journalism in a democracy and how the media’s ability to perform this role is being eroded, due to a collapsing financial model based on mammoth sales and advertising revenue that is unrealistic in the online era.

However, this is not the only role of the media. Yes, the press is a lens and its job is to examine power and those who wield it, but it does not stand to the side of public discourse – it is right in the middle.

Mr McCaffery notes some facts that are far from secret – several communities in NI feel left behind by the “peace dividend” (that catch-all term for relative prosperity and development since the Good Friday Agreement), while the most impoverished communities in 1998 remain the most impoverished today, they suffer the worst mental health outcomes, and bear the greatest burdens from collective failures to reconcile ourselves and our society with our shared past.

“How can we know all these things and yet still have a public discourse that seems ready to settle for a poor deal, or no deal at all? [Stormont, not Brexit] Part of the answer may lie in how Northern Ireland society is informed by the media.

“In the 1990s the search for peace was bolstered by public debates informed by a media landscape with strong, locally produced daily newspapers, independent radio news coverage and two major TV broadcasters.

“Today we see a weakened media, where most newspapers are under pressure, where the commercial broadcaster UTV has reduced its investigative output and where debate is now dominated by the mammoth news operation of BBC Northern Ireland.

“Despite the sterling work of other outlets, their budgets and outputs are a fraction of that of BBC NI, which therefore has a disproportionate influence over public discourse.

“This structural imbalance and lack of plurality should be a major concern in a deeply divided society.”

Reflect and interrogate

Lack of representation includes certain communities on either side of NI’s sectarian divide but also goes beyond that.

Ivy Goddard told the SCI conference: “You never see anybody from an ethnic minority background presenting the news any programme at all. The only time ... is when there has been a race hate crime.”

This is true and it is shocking, but it is not clear that the current media landscape is in a health state to take this on.

Mr McCaffery wrote: “Factors for a healthy public debate include that it must reflect the growing ethnic and racial diversity in the North, it must cover current affairs in the Republic of Ireland as well as Britain since both are interwoven with Northern Ireland life, and it must give sustained coverage to the factors that trap communities in the grip of poverty and paramilitaries.

“But for all BBC NI’s undoubted talent, its public face is white and does not reflect the scale of diversity in Northern Ireland, its news coverage effectively stops at the border with minimal reporting from the rest of the island, and for a variety of reasons it rarely produces the kind of content required to champion change for the disadvantaged ‘left behind’…

“If we are to overhaul our broken politics, we should start by debating how to rebalance our media landscape to put diversity and plurality at the heart of public debate…

“Finding ways to support journalism and promote more productive debate are now key to delivering real change.”

What next

This problem has no easy solution, because this is not a criticism of journalists it is a critique of journalism.

Lack of finances is the major difference between the well-equipped media of old – which was imperfect but better – and the stretched newsrooms of today.

This makes it much harder to pursue and examine facts, and to speak truth to power. It also makes it more difficult to really get involved with all the many communities that inevitably exist in any society and to provide them a platform to become involved in wider political debates, and also to rehearse their own internal differences of opinion and approach. Other things fill the void – these days, social media – and the outcomes are bad.

Michael Posner is professor of ethics and finance at NYU Stern School of Business, having previously served in the Obama Administration, from September 2009 until March 2013, as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. He is also on the board of SCI.

After the conference in Belfast, he wrote: “All of our societies seem deeply divided these days, and the declining role of newspapers as messengers of truth is an important factor…

“As advertising moves online, traditional journalism loses its crucial funding source, and those seeking news turn increasingly to social media platforms.

“Facebook chose not to attend the meeting in Belfast, though they were invited. Facebook, and others such as Google, often decline to come to meetings like this, side-stepping responsibility for the content on their sites by emphasizing their role as a platform rather than a publisher

“As has been widely reported, the situation in Myanmar provides a vivid example of the costs that follow these developments. Earlier this year, two local Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were released after spending more than 500 days in prison for the crime of reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in a village in Rakhine state. They were freed only after a sustained international campaign led by Reuters and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and interventions by a number of foreign governments…

“As governments attack journalists, leaving them unable to do their job, online news takes their place, bringing all the attendant risks with it. In Myanmar, 93% of the population uses Facebook, while 2% or less use other social media platforms. Seeing this penetration, the military used the platform to disseminate an online propaganda campaign against the Rohingyas beginning in 2014. Using Facebook as a weapon, filling the online platform with provably untrue allegations of Rohingya abuses, the government provoked a wave of violence against the Rohingyas that left thousands dead and sent more than 700,000 into exile in Bangladesh.”

This is a bleak and extreme example and some might dismiss it as such when, instead, the fact that it is an example at all should be cause for great alarm. A failing media is a disaster and the scale of the disaster is determined by the scale of failure.

A collapse in journalism reinforces existing power structures. Those without power – which tends to include those who are disaffected or feel not listened to – are greatly weakened. The effects can be catastrophic, and make the collapse of a parliament seem middling.

Anyone with a vision for a brighter society needs to think about how they can help fix our own media, as it continues to fall to pieces.

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