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The last post

November 24, 2013

I learned recently that my friend Nigel Rogers had died. Readers of this blog (and others) will know him better as ‘Charlie McMenamin’. He contributed to the comments here regularly. In fact nobody has commented more.

I first met Nigel on the old Red Pepper forum where I made my first tentative steps into the world of internet forums and blogs. I liked Nigel immediately. His contributions were sharp, intelligent and good humoured,

He visited Belfast a few years ago and we arranged to meet in Crown Bar for the first time. I remember wondering if the transition from internet acquaintance to face-to-face meeting would make for an awkward encounter. But not at all. We simply picked up where we’d left off on the internet. We talked about politics, a lot; education policy, in particular; but family and football also. Nigel talked with enthusiasm, insight and wit about all these things.

We met up on an number of other occasions in London when we drank liberally and put the world to rights. Nigel was wise and skeptical. I have a tendency to be naive and rash, so I always benefited from Nigel’s good counsel on a range of issues. There are few people whose political judgement I trust like I trusted Nigel’s.

I miss him.

Nigel is given a much more fulsome obituary in the Guardian which gives a sense of his considerable talents and political commitment.

Nigel actually encouraged me to start this blog. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to begin blogging if he hadn’t mentioned it. So in a way it is perhaps fitting that this should be the last post on Media Studies is Shit. I’ve been an infrequent blogger for a while now and its time to move on. I’ll keep an eye on the comments from time to time.

Thanks to everyone who contributed over the years. Take care and best wishes.

Rab/Steve

Reporting the G8: time to change the story

June 16, 2013
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Like a glutton for punishment I’ve been going through the local Northern Irish newspapers looking at their reporting of the G8 and associated events. The coverage is overwhelmingly dedicated to the extraordinary security arrangements. Photographs of paramilitarised police and razor wire are anchored by headlines that speak of tensions, lockdowns and a ‘ring of steel’. Such stories are incongruously juxtaposed with others that talk of the G8 signalling to the world that Northern Ireland is ‘open for business’ and that the summit will identify the region as a desirable resort.

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Belfast Telegraph, 14 June 2013

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Irish News, 14 June 2013

The emphasis on security stories has two potential effects: the first is that it presents the democratic right to protest as a problem, and the redoubt of troublemakers. Secondly, it puts people off exercising that democratic right, intimidating them with stories of tough security measures and the anticipation of violence. For instance, below is a two page spread in the Belfast Telegraph on the morning of the planned trade union march that portrays Northern Ireland as living in a potentially violent state of emergency.

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Belfast Telegraph, 15 June 2013

Now we could gurn and complain about lazy, ignorant and biased journalism (and God knows I have) but it’s worth considering the current state of our newsrooms and journalism more generally. Because I think the problem with the quality of coverage goes deeper than poor professional practice. I wonder how many newspapers are understaffed, cutting back on journalists to make savings in a competitive market?

I spoke to a talented and conscientious young journalist a few months ago and she told me that the newsroom she worked in was so understaffed that journalists simply don’t have the time to reflect upon what they are reporting. It’s apparently easier and quicker (and presumably more cost effective) to respond to events in generic, tried and tested terms. Certainly that seems to be borne out by the Sunday World‘s coverage of the anti-G8 demo in Belfast yesterday (15 June 2013). Starved of anticipated clashes between protesters and police, the paper blew up out of all proportion a brief verbal confrontation between anti-G8 demonstrators and loyalist flag protesters.

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Sunday World, 16 June 2013

Maybe politics that is about something other than the interminable doings of unionism, loyalism, nationalism and republicanism confounds some local journalists, whereas sectarianism is a familiar tune that everybody knows. Just play it again and again whatever the circumstances, no matter how ill-suited, until it becomes a one note samba, a predictable beat that everyone is expected to march to.

News is the life blood of any democracy. Unfortunately the condition of journalism in Northern Ireland is bad news for the region and its new politics. What could improve the situation? Adequately staffed newsrooms would be a start. But here’s another radical idea.

Recent coverage of the G8 shows that Northern Ireland’s press excels in its coverage of security. We can boast considerable journalistic expertise in that area given the region’s history. There’s also no shortage of seasoned political correspondents now embedded at Stormont with ‘proper’ politics to cover. And since the peace process came with the promise of a peace dividend, you might detect the rise of the business correspondent, business pages and supplements. But maybe it’s time to reflect a new politics and a new agenda and make room for the Human Rights and Social Justice Correspondent. Damn it, bring back the Labour Correspondent while you’re at it.

So, parades are good for the Northern Ireland economy?

May 26, 2013

The Loyal Orders have faced various criticisms down the years, the most obvious being the accusation that they are a bulwark for bigotry in Ireland. But there have been other more local campaigns that have challenged the Orders’ perceived right to parade through areas where local residents say they cause offence. Of course the Orangemen and loyalists have countered these campaigns with their own arguments and sometimes with force. But more recent Orangemen and their supporters have stood accused of being an economic liability.

The cost of policing contentious parades alone was £7.4m last year and critics are quick to add the negative impact on tourism and potential investment in Northern Ireland to the charge sheet.

There have been attempts at rebranding the loyalist marching season and to configure the Twelfth of July as a more “inclusive day of celebration” but these have done little to take the political heat out of the occasion or persuade critics that the Twelfth might actually be able to provide a potential economic dividend. But now, according to a report compiled for the Department for Social Development by RSM McClure Watters, the economic and social benefits generated by the Loyal Orders and marching bands amounts to almost £54 million per year.

The figure breaks down like this: the Loyal Orders and bands contribute an estimated £38.64 million annually through the provision of facilities, community and volunteer work and fundraising for numerous charities, while the direct economic impact of the sector is approximately £15 million, incorporating expenditure on regalia, uniforms, instruments, bus hire and other services. Tourism revenue – taking into account those who travel to the Province specifically to observe or participate in parades and associated events – is not included in the final figures.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, himself a member of the Orange Order, welcomed the report’s findings saying: “For the first time we now have extensive, robust and independently collected data on the social and economic impact the sector delivers to our society.”

The “sector”? When did parading become a sector? That’s a term that implies economic and/or social value, like business sector, cultural/creative sector, community or voluntary sector. Now there’s a parading sectoring?

It seems that the marching season now comes with economic benefits, which will no doubt alarm the Order’s opponents, once confident in their assertion that the marching season was a waste of money and deterrent to investment. But wait. The report has brought a curious response from nationalism. The SDLP economy spokesman, and chairman of the Enterprise Trade and Investment Committee at Stormont, Patsy McGlone has said there should also be a report into the economic and social benefits of the Gaelic Athletic Association also. Well, that’s a curious turn for the ‘whataboutery’ narrative to take! If they’re getting a report, we want one too.

But why should the Loyal Orders or the GAA care about whether they bring economic benefits to brand NI? More to point what would happen if either organisation were found to be an economic liability? Would they be subject to rigours of the free market and closed down, their membership made redundant? Not likely. So why did the Department for Social Development help the Orange Order pay for a £40,000 report that is little more than an exercise in point-scoring?

I have to confess that I find something disconcerting about watching the Loyal Orders making the economic case for their existence. Imagine if other political, cultural or religious expressions of allegiance needed to account for themselves in terms of their economic impact on their regions? Actually there are probably some that do, but I never thought I’d live to see the relentless logic of capitalism underscore the the Orange Order’s determination to march.

The full report is hosted here on the Orange Order’s website

In the lead up to the G8 conference human rights issues and questions of social justice should be at the centre of local media coverage

May 20, 2013
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I’ve been following with interest the local media’s reporting in the run up to June’s G8 conference at the Lough Erne Resort, Fermanagh in the hope that such a prestigious international event will allow Northern Ireland to reflect upon broader political, social and economic concerns. No chance! A look at the web pages of the two broadcasters, BBC Northern Ireland and Ulster Television, reveals two main pre-occupations emerging – the impact on local business and the security surrounding the event.

The expectation that the G8 summit will boost Northern Ireland economy to the sum of £40 million is carried without question by both UTV and BBC NI. Although there are signs that the event is not uniformly welcomed by the whole business community. It seems some local traders in the vicinity of the G8 conference are concerned about a loss of business, while there are others who are worried about the disruption to health services and education. But wouldn’t you know it, its the impact upon business that takes precedence over everything else in the UTV report.

When not fretting or fantasising about the economic impact of the G8 our two local broadcasters are transfixed by the extraordinary security arrangements. Back in April (16th) the BBC NI reported that Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford, had told the NI assembly that the police had ‘well-advanced plans in place at the summit’s venue, Belfast International Airport and other undisclosed locations’; that “lawful, peaceful protests” would be facilitated; and that he did not expect the security bill, estimated at £30m, to come out of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s budget. Nowhere in the report were the comments of protestors and G8 opponents sought.

This month has brought further stories about security at the G8. On 9th May BBC NI reported PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott’s remarks that an extra 3600 police officers would be flown into Northern Ireland for the summit. This, the Chief Constable said, was to ensure “it was the most successful G8 summit in history”.

Also in attendance, according to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, will be 600 private security staff from G4S and others. G4S you may recall had a bad Olympics, failing to hire enough guards for the event and having to call in the army. The BBC NI report doesn’t mention this debacle but UTV does and also highlights that along with extra police and private security personnel, the government will be drafting in an unspecified number of troops.

Just in case the presence of the calamitous G4S encourages some opportunist militant to ‘have a go’ during the G8 conference, we learnt on 10th May through BBC NI that ‘an entire prison block at Maghaberry jail in Northern Ireland has been set aside to house protesters convicted of disorder at the G8 summit.’

In addition: ‘There will be specific G8 courts in Antrim, Belfast and Craigavon. This avoids a situation where the county court in Fermanagh becomes “choked” with potential G8 trouble-related cases.”

And least the tax payer be alarmed by an increase in the security bill, the justice minister, David Ford confirmed “that he had been given an assurance that no additional costs arising from the summit would fall to Northern Ireland government funds.”

On this occasion BBC NI did provide a comment from Dan Scofield, an organiser of the anti-hunger campaign, Enough Food For Everyone, which has been organised by groups like Oxfam and Trocaire. Scofield assured the BBC that:

“We 100% want to distance ourselves from any violent protests. We are looking at a family friendly event for people to have their voices heard.”

“We are a positive campaign and see this as a platform to get our voices heard, but we will be distancing ourselves from any violent protest.”

And this seems to be what protestors are confined to in the coverage thus far: distancing themselves from any potential trouble rather than articulating their opposition or concerns about the G8 and its agenda.

Elsewhere UTV reported that no boats will be permitted from Lock Gates at Portora to an area north of the venue adjacent to Ross Point between 16 and 18 June while the G8 event takes place in Co Fermanagh. However it’s not just boat owners’ freedoms that will be curtailed, mobile phone users may have their networks shut down according to BBC NI because of “fears that mobile phone technology could be used to detonate explosives”.

The only attention paid to the concerns of the G8s opponents appear on the UTV report about the planned demonstrations, where a brief space is offered to protestors to articulate their concerns before the report returns to the theme of security and the anticipated economic dividend for Northern Ireland from hosting the event.

It would be foolhardy to assume that the G8 conference could meet in Northern Ireland, with its history of political violence, and security not be an issue. But the coverage of how the event is to be policed seems excessive and implies that democratic protest is simply threatening, deviant behaviour. And so it simultaneously diminishes the human rights issues and questions of social justice that should be at the centre of public debate leading up to the conference.

Granted, I’ve confined myself to looking at the websites of UTV and BBC NI. In this respect it’s worth mentioning that Brian Campfield, the vice-chairman of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Northern Ireland, appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics last Friday (17th May) talking about the unions’ concerns about G8. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the on-line coverage gaves a flavour of the broadcasters’ priorities. Perhaps when the G8 arrives and the protests begin the agenda will broaden but at the moment local coverage has been embarrassingly parochial.

Where does the money go?

May 14, 2013

It would flatter me to say that I had a layman’s grasp of economics, so what follows is a genuine inquiry. Where does the money go?

Let me elaborate.

The MTV Europe Music Awards, hosted by Belfast in 2011, are reported to have generated approximately £22m for the region – £25 for every £1 of public money spent on the event. Meanwhile, the filming of Home Box Office’s (HBO) Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland is estimated to have pumped £65m into the local economy, a substantial return on the £6.05m Northern Ireland Screen Fund (supported by Invest NI) paid in grants to HBO to help with the costs of the first two series.

Yesterday we learnt that the G8 summit is estimated to bring £40m into the region’s economy.

Add all that up and you have a total of £130m. Where does it go? Does a large chunk of it end up in the pockets of corporations like the Hastings Hotel Group, which according to its 2012 accounts has more than tripled its profits?

Hastings controls six hotels in Northern Ireland, including the Europa and Culloden. How much of its profits went on local wages? How much of that does Hastings spend on local produce? Is there anyway of knowing?

According to the BBC, Hasting’s shareholders received a dividend in 2012 of £368,000 up from £276,000 in 2011. Are we giving grants to big corporations so that the shareholders of large companies can enjoy a pay day?

I wonder how much of the money actually finds its way to working class areas were work is scarce, wages are low and welfare is being cut?

Given that we know that wealth does not trickle down – a notion categorically discredited by the fact that inequality has grown in recent decades – what is the mechanism by which the dividend being enjoyed by some in Northern Ireland can be distributed to the many, and in particular those in most need? That is a pressing question in Northern Ireland given its recent history of bloody sectarian violence and the potential for conflict to be exacerbated by depravation. As Matt Baggott, Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable, argues in an interview published in today’s Independent: “We need a lot more focused work in those difficult disadvantaged neighbourhoods where paramilitarism has its roots, to try and improve the life particularly of young people, and deal with the angst felt by working class Protestants and republicans. That has yet to happen.”

So where does the money go and how do we find out?

Making a living in the Urban Cultural Industries

May 8, 2013

If you tend to think of the creative industries as having a homogenising effect on a city, you might want to think again. Angela McRobbie has outlined a set of characteristics that distinguish the urban cultural industries of London, Berlin and Glasgow, and in so doing encourages us to appreciate the specificity of these industries. London, she describes as aggressive, competitive and hierarchical. Berlin as open, vibrant and critically engaged. Glasgow as having a strong working class ethos, political consciousness and, on occasions, anti-commercial in its approach. These of course are generalisations but they got me thinking: what is the potential character of Belfast as a centre for urban cultural industry?

In the lecture (below) McRobbie references Richard Florida’s outline of the the desirable criteria for the development of a successful creative sector – talent, technology and tolerance. Surely Belfast isn’t short of talent, and technology isn’t beyond the city’s reach but can it boast an atmosphere of tolerance? By tolerance, McRobbie points out, Florida is referring to a strong liberal civic culture that provides a context for diverse lifestyles. By any measure Belfast fails the tolerance test. It has shown that it can attract media corporations that want to use Northern Ireland as a location but whether it can appeal to Florida’s ‘creative class’ in the long term and encourage them to settle in such an illiberal part of the world, is a moot point.

Anyway, you can listen to Angela McRobbie’s lecture in full below. Her main theme is to think through the role young creative graduates play in producing employment in this post-industrial era when work is scarce. Highlighting the importance of subcultural entrepreneurs who grew out of the post-punk, DIY culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, McRobbie argues that this generation developed a homegrown labour market through creative enterprises such as music and fashion as a response to the high unemployment at that time. Despite its vibrancy and talent, the producers of this subcultural economy couldn’t access sufficient capital and their incomes were paltry. As a consequence they were ripe for exploitation by the corporate world. Eventually the specialist talent of these ‘urban cottage industries’ gave way (or transmorgrified into) a second wave of cultural ‘multi-taskers’. McRobbie sees the ‘creatives’ that graduated into this new environment as being required to be mobile and networked, seeking employment in an informalised labour market. This has lead, she argues, to the crystalisation of new forms of exclusion as there is no protection against nepotism and corruption, and this in turn has given rise to a new urban hierarchy, while depoliticising work.

So our homework for this week is to discuss how we might re-politicise work for those chasing positions in the creative industries.

Pride and Prejudice in Ulster

January 29, 2013

There is nothing that confirms middle class people in all their self-regarding sanctimony than the doings of working class people. As Stephanie Lawler* argues pretty persuasively, middle class identities are forged to a large extent through their disgust at working-class existence and by comparing their own good taste, high morals, work ethic and spending power with the assumed absence of such qualities among the lower orders.

You can see this very clearly in the response of ‘middle Ulster’ to the loyalist flag protests.

They ridicule working class Protestant accents (#flegs). They point to the apparent fecklessness of protesters, complaining about how ‘these people’ are stopping ‘us’ hard-working folk from getting home at night. And then, for me, the pièce de résistance: in an attempt to bolster a flagging economy, a campaign of conspicuous consumption in support of retailers, restauranteurs and pub owners in Belfast city centre affected by the protests.

‘Middle Ulster’ conceives of loyalists as lacking economic literacy (can’t they see what they are doing to the Northern Ireland brand?), political immaturity (can’t they see the harm they’re doing to themselves and their own communities?) and atavism (they’re stuck in the past and backward looking). Conversely, ‘middle Ulster’ self-associates with a hard-headed understanding of the economic realities that face Northern Ireland in tough times, looking boldly to the future with a strategy of… what exactly? Business as usual? Keep calm and carry on?

Loyalism, for its part, seems to have taken on the character of a downtrodden ethnic minority. It demands recognition of its identity. It complains about its lack of cultural and political representation and alleges abuse at the hands of the police. These grievances are not unique to loyalism. They are shared by just about every other marginalised and minority group in society.

But loyalism’s lament is peculiar and perhaps harder for many to sympathise with because it once enjoyed relative power and privilege, and assumed superiority over others. But that has all ebbed away. The British empire is gone. The industries that once integrated Belfast into that empire are idle. The United Kingdom is being reformed and may disappear altogether soon. Everything that gave political and economic substance to loyalism is disintegrated and working class Protestants are left with nothing to do but demonstrate their Britishness in purely symbolic terms.

If you need an illustration of just how much the ground around loyalism has changed then look at the Titanic visitors’ centre in Belfast. Shipbuilding was once the material expression of Ulster Protestant power, confidence and prestige. Today its legacy is claimed by the same post-industrial business class (and their customers) who are currently berating loyalists for injuring the Northern Irish brand.

For me this poses some serious questions for those who have been condemning loyalist protesters and pouring scorn upon them. They might want to consider whether their behaviour and rhetoric simply confirms working class loyalism’s sense of injustice and its alienation from a peace process that seems to have left it behind? They might want to ask themselves why they said so little when the bankers trashed the economy but are now very agitated at loyalism’s disruption of Northern Ireland’s economic life? They might also want to reflect upon the emptiness of their slogan #TakeBackTheCity given the advanced privatisation of public spaces and services in Belfast. In this context, criticising loyalists for public protests, while urging the police to aggressively clear them away sets a dangerous precedent.

Loyalists need to look at themselves also. They should ask whether they would be better served by a politics that demands redistribution rather than simple recognition? What’s the point in making a stand on the issue of identity when austerity, imposed by the rich, is laying waste to your community? After all working class Protestants have grievances that are surely more substantial than the absence of the beloved flags and emblems, but trying to remedy them will require that they reach beyond their own areas to form alliances with working class Catholic communities faced with the same economically grim circumstances.

*Lawler, S. (2005), ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities’, Sociological Review, 53: 3, pp. 429–46.

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