Reporting the G8: time to change the story
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.
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.
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.
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.