Don’t blame the messenger, Professor Brewer, when nobody is listening to your message

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

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Professor John Brewer, who specialises in post-conflict studies at Queen’s University, has a bit of a thing about something he describes as ‘peace journalism’.

Writing in the News Letter last week he summed it up as: “an obligation to deal with the past, with helping us to learn to live together in the future. It is about balancing the politics of fear, with the politics of hope. It emphasises what has changed for the better as much as what remains the same. Peace journalism is about assisting in the growth of trust, empathy and understanding so as to ensure the violence never happens again and that our grandchildren do not go through what we went through.”

Hmm. What he’s actually describing is a blend of propaganda, psychoanalysis, Pollyanna delusion and Basil Fawlty’s “don’t mention the war” outburst when the Germans arrived at his hotel.

Ironically, in criticising ‘conflict journalism’ (something he has accused me of peddling in the past) John is merely taking one side while accusing the other side of being at fault and of being an obstacle to progress.

He argues that ‘conflict journalism is simply the reverse’ of peace journalism. He routinely criticises what he doesn’t like. He regularly complains about the ‘old media’. He carps about the malign influence of newspapers at key moments. Yet in so doing he’s in precisely the same us-and-them territory as everyone else: although he seems to think that his position is somehow more virtuous.

John’s ‘peace journalism’ is just another way of looking at Northern Ireland. It’s neither a right way nor a wrong way to look at it – it’s simply one way.

And it’s nothing new, of course. There have always been people complaining about the polarising nature of the media and the relentless negativity. It goes with the territory of journalism and it goes with the territory of being a columnist and commentator.

John would describe Northern Ireland as a society emerging from conflict. I wouldn’t. I would describe it as a place that has opted for conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution.

He would, I think, argue that the media has a duty to encourage our politicians. I have no problem with that: but I don’t believe we should indulge them or be grateful to them time after time for pulling the institutions back from the brink of the latest crisis.

He would want the media to counterbalance negativity with positivity, whereas I would draw the line at finding something just for the optics.

Here’s something that John needs to understand. Ninety per cent of those who could be bothered to vote here are voting for us-and-them parties who cannot agree on a common future or agenda. They will stymie each other at every opportunity, continue the silo mentality within their respective departments and veto each other when possible. It is conflict politics and it will remain conflict politics. Sit in the Assembly chamber and you will see it in action. Read the press releases and you will see it in action. Watch the news, listen to the news, read the news and you will see it in action.

Northern Ireland, on the political surface at least, isn’t changing. Social, educational, recreational, housing and political integration is as far away as ever. All of the big-ticket ‘new era’ Northern Ireland decisions have been shelved. The parties talk of progress and change but won’t do things differently. Alliance is stuck below 10 per cent support, NI21 has imploded, there are no post-conflict electoral vehicles ready for the fifth Assembly election and I can’t think of one person who is offering anything new or challenging.

Where’s the evidence of non-voters taking the Field of Dreams option and building something for themselves? Where’s the next generation with their enthusiasm and agenda for the future? Where are the signs of progress and positivity?

I’m aware that something is going on in the undergrowth and that people in their 20s and 30s are mingling in a way that wasn’t possible when I first came to Belfast in 1974. I’m glad to see the new bars and small businesses. I’m glad to see concerts, exhibitions, cruise ships and world-class events. But none of that will matter in the long run if politics and our institutions (particularly the Assembly and new super councils) continue to be dominated by parties carrying the same baggage they have always carried. Nothing will change if that generation of young business people and ordinary minglers don’t get involved and offer something different for non-voters.

What I think John needs to do is complain less about the ‘old media’ (actually, he should look at social media, Twitter and Facebook if he wants to see industrial scale pessimism and anger!) and work out how to engage the people who don’t read Northern Ireland newspapers or listen to Nolan and Talkback and wouldn’t know the likes of grumpy old sods like me from a hole in the hedge.

John’s problem isn’t actually with old media and so-called ‘conflict journalism’. His problem is that the very people he thinks want to build and support his post-conflict society aren’t listening to him, either. They aren’t listening to worthy panels and would-be do-gooders. They have opted out. They’re as deaf to him as they are to me.

So yes, he can continue to complain about individual newspapers and journalists here, but it’s mostly a waste of time: because, as with most people who attack the media, he has actually picked the wrong battle with the wrong people.