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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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Strategist permalink
    October 29, 2013 12:22 am

    Hi Rab,
    It’s Strategist here, with the sad news (if you have not heard it) that Charlie McMenamin died, back in January. Got this news from Barry Freed via Blood & Treasure http://bloodandtreasure.typepad.com/blood_treasure/2013/10/goodbye-charlie.html Here’s his Guardian obituary from April: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/apr/16/nigel-rogers-obituary
    Sorry if I’m bringing old news, and sorry if I’m bringing new news.
    A life full of contribution, as B&T has it, sadly cut short too soon.
    All best wishes.

  2. Mikey permalink
    November 15, 2013 12:32 pm

    This is not a reply to “Strategist” and takes what I think is an emerging theme from the newspaper pages reproduced at the top of the original article. My eye was caught in particular by the razor wire.

    You are only b****r devoting a blog to media so I thought this was the right place for my comments. It’s about media portrayal – even the way media anticipates events and prejudices attitudes.

    Razor wire is almost a cliche – banned on the battlefield (UN, human rights, and all that) but allowed surrounding Mod and London Underground premises and government approved building sites – i.e. the ones the climate campers dislike. As weapons, it cowers in the same corner as anti personnel mines – a cheap way of maiming people – and it looks impressive. Those big grey coils say: “keep out or………….”. I see its deployment, as much as anything, as a media stunt.

    Here on the “mainland”, we have not yet seen razor wire in the cities. Discouragement of all “antis” is achieved by the odd beating of fleshy young women by burly officers and the pushing over of sickly men trying to remember their way home. Oh – and Blair Peach, killed by act of god, or a cricket ball, or something. But give it time.

    Powerful vested interests want HS2, and they will get it. Pittance “compensation” will be thrown at householders in suburbs and across Midsummer County before they are evicted and deported. Ten ton lorries filled with spoil will be waved through narrow residential streets at high speed. By the way, we are not all toffs there – think how all those services would be run if the shires were occupied only by the nouveau riche from Manchester and Stirling and Sydney who price us locals out (Yup, I’ve heard all the accents).

    There will be a travelling 3 ring circus of a building site, mowing across the nation – and every opposition will be mercilessly tagged, targetted and misrepresented by the tame mainstream media. People have just got it wrong; HS2 isn’t about economic or any other arguments; it’s about belief, and the best way to get belief on your side is propaganda. That’s where the media will come in.

    It will be cheaper and easier for the establishment if they can simply intimidate the population, and police behaviour over the last 30 years shows just what they will get up to – without prospect of fair application of the law I am supposed to obey. Their latest little trick is to fornicate their way into opposition groups (and then evade the Child Support Agency), but death has been their calling card, too. No doubt they have tried out a lot of things on you in Northern Ireland which I am not aware of.

    What happened at Wapping and Southall, at the G8 summit and on the miners’ picket lines etc etc shows how the media are crucial, even in persuading the state to admit wrong has been done. It took a mobile phone camera held by a foreign businessman to raise questions about Ian Tomlinson, for example, That’s my connection with the article. If you think I am too off – topic, then kick this off, but I think the prospect for any protest, no matter how peaceful and fair, is as poor as it’s ever been, and I wanted to flag that up.

    This subject may even deserve a thread of its own.

    Cheers, Mikey

    • Rab permalink*
      November 16, 2013 4:24 pm

      Not off topic at all, Mikey.

      Your comments about the razor wire are interesting. I hadn’t thought of the discouraging visual message it sends.

      What I find most dispiriting is the media’s slavish adherence to the ‘official’ line on any story. You mention the miners’ strike. I think it’s remarkable how these days when the media looks retrospectively at the strike it is much more sympathetic to the miners now that it ever was then. In effect mining communities have gone from the ‘enemy within’ to nostalgic exemplars of community solidarity. Too bloody late…

  3. Mikey permalink
    November 16, 2013 6:31 pm

    Rab,

    You made the BIG point; the media react thoughtfully only when it is comfortably too late – and that’s suspicious to me. The official line was dutifully followed until it no longer made any difference. Then, we had the discovery of conscience – in your use of English, which Shakespeare would have applauded as much Johnny Rotten, “Too bloody late”.

    It is clear now that, whatever the economic arguments, Thatcher showed impatience and spite towards people whom she seemed to regard as a subhuman enemy. “Too bloody late” there was a march against closures, as I remember.

    The courage the media ought to show in return for their power to cause mischief comes when issues are raised in a challenging way while they are still “live”.

    I commuted into London (1 1/2 hr each way) for enough years to pick up any little trackside changes. One morning, while passing the big train yard a few stops in, I noticed that the replacement wire fence they had been putting up for some weeks was now topped with razor wire. There were dog patrols and men in black with walkie talkies (yes, it was before trim little mobiles).

    Wot the heck?

    That evening I discovered that the then Tory Transport Minister had come out for a quick visit on my rail line, presumably to show he knew that things were not ideal – that he “really cared” (Country and Western accent here). The trains had sat undefended for 20 years (in my time alone). But, suddenly, they needed razor wire atop extra tall fencing – and, for the visit only, dog patrols.

    Razor wire is only ever used by power against the plebs and its appearance (verb and noun) is a statement to that effect. I guess you guys in NI had been desensitised, what with all the other crap going down. It was a shock for me to see it as I whizzed through the Home Counties, but we may well get used to it as HS2 advances. I wonder if the papers would be prepared to show a protester pinned and shredded on the wire (and what the Daily Mail’s headline would be).

    There are more obvious images of intimidation, I realise: armed riot police with their faces (and identities) hidden by menacing black Cyberman gear, water cannon breaking the bones of black women in Alabama, UK police horses used to run down miners (shame on putting an innocent beast in the front line), a white BMW police motorcycle running down a man holding out a Tibetan flag, and on and drearily on.

    I am sure you in NI could add to the list, and I would genuinely be interested in being filled in on the use of intimidating images by anyone with direct experience.

    One can only hope the media have the courage to show such images while the tragedies are still fresh or even unfolding. If not, they don’t deserve to exist.

    I have been away from this site for some months; nice to get a welcome, as before.

  4. Rab permalink*
    November 24, 2013 3:25 pm

    Hi Mikey,

    I’ve been away from this site for a while myself.

    I think what you’re identifying is the securitisation of public life, I don’t know whether there is such a word as ‘securitisation’ but if there isn’t there should be!

    I haven’t seen anything like the security presence in Belfast and beyond for the G8 since the Troubles and even then nothing compares. And yet, protests were very low key. I expect that staging the event somewhere as relatively remote as Fermanagh discouraged many. Nevertheless in a sort of perverse way the heavy and potentially aggressive security apparatus that attends these events stands in for the opposition to them. It is extraordinary that the elected leaders of the world have to meet behind barbed wire and a paramilitarized police force. It’s a huge and obvious symbol of the dystopia they are implicated in.

  5. February 3, 2014 12:19 pm

    I totally agree, people have just got it wide of the mark; HS2 is not about economic or any other disputes; it’s about credence and about conviction, and party line is most the excellent approach to get conviction on your side.

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