Shifting Political Landscape on Island of Ireland Requires More Cross-Border Journalism
We need a diverse media landscape that recognises the added responsibility of operating in a post-conflict society, writes Emma DeSouza
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A free and objective press is an essential component in a functioning democracy and, in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland, where the media plays a central role in influencing discourse and setting the agenda, the risk posed by subversive media influence is considerably higher.
Twenty-five years after the peace deal, the wave of media coverage throughout the run-up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement has long since receded, with outlets in the Republic of Ireland losing interest and local media being subsumed by a monolithic BBC Northern Ireland.
Media outlets are an essential vehicle for building cross-community understanding when considering a region’s past, present and future. In the months preceding the Good Friday Agreement referendum, a diverse media landscape enabled citizens to access an array of information, promoting informed decision-making. Following the referendum however, numerous international news outlets shuttered their Northern Ireland branches and, as BBC Northern Ireland grew, many of the region’s smaller media outlets shut their doors.
Unlike their international counterparts, locally-based daily newspapers operate with comparatively small newsrooms, typically netting sales in the range of 9,000 to 30,000 copies per day. In contrast, BBCNI operations involve more than 600 staff members. The BBC’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2020/21 show BBCNI expenditure was £59 million, while the BBC network expenditure in Northern Ireland was an additional £34 million.
The most controversial of BBC programmes has proven to be the Stephen Nolan Show, a daily breakfast radio programme broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster. The programme has come under considerable criticism for platforming fringe political views, with questions over the airtime given to anti-Good Friday Agreement advocates, including the sole MLA of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), Jim Allister, who openly and viscerally opposes the 1998 peace deal, among a litany of other things.
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The over-representation of extreme political viewpoints on this show is made more damning in the absence of representation from nationalist politicians. Sinn Féin has long boycotted what is radio Ulster’s most popular programme, with the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) joining the boycott earlier this year after their MLA Matthew O’Toole was kicked off the air when he criticised the prevalence of unelected extremist voices being platformed on the programme.
The show has courted controversy and, while controversy has long played a significant role in news reporting and journalism – livening debate and broadening reach – the proliferation of deliberately controversial media content presents a higher risk in deeply divided communities such as those in Northern Ireland, where it threatens to undermine the region’s tenuous peace and political stability.
In spite of these dangers, controversy is ubiquitous across the media landscape of Northern Ireland.
Editorial decisions with the potential to detrimentally impact public discourse are rife; the consistent platforming of the Loyalist Communities Council – an umbrella organisation that represents several loyalist paramilitary organisations – and the wall-to-wall coverage of ‘outrage’ after the Irish President Michael D Higgins spoke in favour of integrated education – an aspiration which forms part of the Good Friday Agreement – are only two examples.
A further question is the extent to which Northern media reports on life across the rest of the island of Ireland.
BBCNI does not currently provide routine daily news and politics coverage from the Republic of Ireland, despite both UK and Irish affairs being directly relevant to the people of Northern Ireland. On the other side of the border, RTÉ, the state broadcaster in the Republic of Ireland, does have a Northern Ireland editor and reporter, but Northern Ireland is not a daily feature in the news broadcast.
Ireland’s Press Ombudsman Susan McKay highlighted a tendency for media organisations to limit coverage to the jurisdiction in which they are based. Speaking at a conference on cross-border media representation this week, she observed that “we have excellent media north and south of the border, but partition is very much reflected in the media in this country for a range of reasons, some of them very understandable, some of them less so, some of them more complicated and less well examined”.
There has been a general downtick in cross-border reporting in recent years, with Irish broadcaster TV3 opting to close its Belfast branch in 2018, while the independent axed its Northern Ireland edition in 2021.
There’s a prevailing view in editorial offices that there is little appetite for coverage of Northern Ireland with the readership. But even if there was a semblance of truth to this presumption, what transpires on either side of the border has the potential to impact the lives of people across the island, and the media has a responsibility to report it.
While a lack of resources has contributed to the dearth of localised media outlets, editorial decisions are also at play, with BBCNI recently opting to axe Derry’s Radio Foyle Breakfast Show. As a result, National Union of Journalists members at the local station have withdrawn confidence in BBCNI management.
There is a clear need to re-engage North-South; conversations on the prospect of a United Ireland have grown exponentially following the Brexit vote, and Sinn Féin – currently the largest political party in Northern Ireland – is widely predicted to be the next Irish Government in waiting. The political landscape on the island of Ireland is shifting in a direction which will necessitate greater cross-border reporting.
We need a diverse and vibrant media landscape; one which recognises the added responsibility of operating in a post-conflict society. The media should not be a vehicle for division, but a source of balanced, unbiased, factual news and reporting expressly intended to help strengthen democracy and lend itself to peace.