A few days ago I was asked a brutally simple question: ‘if you knew that something you wrote would result in a riot, would you still write it?’
My answer was yes. It had to be yes. If it weren’t yes then I would be failing in my role as an observer and commentator. I’m unashamedly pro-Union. I bring that bias with me and it colours much of what I write. I’m not blind to what I perceive as the faults of unionism and unionists and I will be as critical of that side of the fence as I am of nationalism and republicanism.
I’m an atheist. I’m not a monarchist. I’m a big C conservative, but can’t stand David Cameron. I have a quirky sense of humour. I love awful puns and very old jokes. I was adopted. I’m broadly right-of-centre on socio/economic issues. Generally speaking I’m not supportive of censorship. I have no hang-ups about a lot of moral issues. I would like to see and hear ‘new’ voices in politics, but that doesn’t mean I will give them an uncritical reception when they do raise their heads above the parapets.
What I’m trying to say is that I am what I am, warts and all. I bring a bundle of biases with me—and to everything I write—all of which are reflected in my pieces and comments. Editors don’t tell me what to write when it comes to my columns and often they won’t have any idea until the piece is e-mailed over to the news desk. Quite often it will be a piece that doesn’t reflect the editorial line of the paper: and, more often than not, it will be a piece that challenges and provokes their readers. That’s the nature of what I do.
It’s no secret that I’m critical of our political/peace process, particularly of the parties and individuals concerned. I hear people—especially those presently pushing the line that there is an absence of ‘peace journalism’ here—say that what I write ‘is damaging and that its relentless negativity is pushing voters away from the ballot box.’
That’s nonsense. I don’t have that sort of power. All I do, all I have ever done, is given an opinion and it’s up to readers and listeners to make of it what they will. There are lots of other columnists/commentators out there giving their views, too.
Everybody—and I do mean everybody—complains about the media. We don’t report the truth. We all have an agenda. Key journalists are in MI5 or in the pocket of some vested interest. We report only what interests us. We hide the truth. We steer a story to what we think rather than what actually happened. The political establishment complains we are too negative. The political minnows complain we don’t give them enough space. Ironically, more and more people are creating their own blogs and websites to counter what they see as the bias and ‘lies’ of the media: yet they devote almost all of it to attacks on that media rather than promoting their own causes and beliefs. Can’t live with us, but find it hard to live without us!
Newspapers and radio/television programmes reflect their audience. On Radio Ulster, for example, Stephen Nolan, Hugo Duncan, TalkBack, Good Morning Ulster and John Bennett will all bring in different types of people. The News Letter, Irish News and Belfast Telegraph have different types of readers. Radio Ulster, Downtown, Citybeat, U105 and CoolFM steer their overall output to the needs and concerns of what they designate as their audience type. In other words, there is no such thing as ‘the media.’ Each bit of it plays to their audience, often angling coverage of the same story to what they think their audience will want to see and hear. Different news programmes on the BBC will tailor coverage to who they think is watching at that particular moment.
So the idea that there is something called conflict journalism or peace journalism is, I think, a nonsense. Almost as nonsensical as the notion that journalists and editors and commentators occupy some sort of moral highground on which they make great, profound decisions on how they can make the world or the country a better place. It comes down to a few basics: what do our audience want; how do we deal with the opposition; how do we use our resources to best effect; how do we maintain audience share; how do we get the right angle for our primary audience?
In most cases people believe what they want to believe, what they need to believe. They will veer towards that news outlet which most reflects those views; or, they will abandon the mainstream and veer towards a blog or website which gives uncritical support to their worldview.
It is not possible, it never has been possible and it never will be possible to create a single media vehicle which can cover every single issue or angle in a thoroughly impartial, independent manner.
And even if every news outlet reported every event in precisely the same manner (with the same words and photographs etc) how would you deal with the issues of editorial stance, in-depth analysis, ‘expert’ opinion and the views of assorted columnists?
Because in precisely the same way that a variety of political parties and lobby groups steer every event to suit their own agenda, then so too will newspapers, programmes, blogs et al steer it to the needs of their core audience.
Those people who want to peddle something called ‘peace journalism’ should set up a newspaper or website called The Peace Daily and see how far it gets if it relies on subscriptions and advertisers.
Better still, they could devote the first issue to the most pressing question of all: where is the mountain of evidence which proves that Northern Ireland really is a post-conflict society?