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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.

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