Northern Ireland: Journalism Matters
17 May 07

For much of its violent conflict Northern Ireland was afflicted by political censorship. The body that howled most about this particular form of suppression was Sinn Féin. North and south the party voice was emasculated to varying degrees. In the Republic, party members were denied access to the airwaves even when they sought nothing more than to discuss gardening. In the north, actors’ voices were used to dub over the verbal pronouncements of party spokespeople. Hand signals and facial expressions were for some reason not given the taboo status. Sinn Féin, like the proverbial naughty child, was to be seen but not heard.

Despite this (or maybe because of it, given that experience is a good teacher), in a strange twist which calls into question the nature of revolutionaries – ‘social climbers with bombs’ according to Orwell – Sinn Féin is now the only Irish party that demands political censorship. Such has been the verve with which Sinn Féin rushed to become everything it formerly opposed, author and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty suggested that under all their bombast the party’s demagogues and ideologues were ‘just ordinary old fashioned political dealers’.

In a recent article in the north’s nationalist daily, the Irish News, Sinn Féin weekly columnist Jim Gibney lambasted the BBC for asking questions of party leader Gerry Adams that Sinn Féin did not want broached. Gibney’s position is simple:

“The licence-paying public overwhelmingly voted for an administration led by the DUP and Sinn Féin. Yet over the past month BBC journalists have harried Sinn Féin and DUP politicians with questions which are negative, which instil pessimism and could undermine the public’s hopeful mood.”

In other words, as in totalitarian regimes, journalists are required to be mood manipulators rather than conduits of accurate information. Gibney then went on to complain that it was wrong for any journalist to ask his own party leader about the future of the IRA’s army council. ‘On whose behalf are these questions being asked – the journalist or the public?’

In essence Gibney is calling on journalists to be self-censorious in order to accommodate the dominant societal view. There should be little surprise here. Gibney had previously attacked anybody who wanted clarity in the peace process:

“If there is one big lesson coming out of the peace process over the last ten years, it is that words like ‘certainty’ and ‘clarity’ are not part of the creative lexicon that conflict resolution requires if it is to be successful … Words like ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’ are part of the fundamentalist’s political dictionary … Demanding such words causes crisis and paralysis. They clog the peace process engine up with gung. … Give me the language of ambiguity. It has served the people of this country well over the last ten years.”

It would be of no great significance were Gibney a lone voice venting spleen at anyone asking questions of his beloved leader. The problem, however, is that Gibney is only the cutting edge of a more widespread assault on the freedom of the media to monitor the centres of power and ask questions that society otherwise would rather not hear.

Recently two journalists, Suzanne Breen and Liam Clarke, were forced to publicly raise their concerns that Sinn Féin was seeking to dictate news content by refusing to allow either journalist to interview its spokespeople. The northern editors of the Sunday Tribune and Sunday Times respectively, both Breen and Clarke have reputations for digging deeper than politicians feel comfortable with.

In the run up to agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP on the formation of a new power splitting administration Gerry Adams told one of the BBC’s most prominent journalists not to ask ‘stupid questions’ concerning the future of the IRA’s army council. But given that the activities of the army council, in the eyes of most observers, brought down the last agreed administration in 2002, it would be negligent of any journalist to avoid the issue.

John O’Dowd, another of the party’s hierarchy, criticised his media interlocutor for highlighting something untoward. O’Dowd’s advice was that the media need to flag up the good news. In other words the media should tell the public how many people do not get killed in road traffic accidents and forget about those that do; tell the public how many children emerge from Belfast’s maternity hospitals safe and well, and not bother informing it about the amount that die as result of mishaps during the delivery procedure. There is a total lack of understanding here of the media’s role in keeping the public informed when things in society don’t work as they should.

Journalists are feeling the pinch. They remember the attempts by one of their own number to have his colleagues designated as JAPPs – Journalists Against the Peace Process. There is a fear that stories will be fed only to those journalists embedded within the peace process.

The task of the media is not to parrot the consensus in society but to ask questions of it. How otherwise are minority concerns and rights to be protected? The democratic function that media performs in society is only safeguarded when the media has autonomy from the society it serves. Its task is to produce clarity over ambiguity. While that may not be to the liking of Sinn Féin, it is essential for democracy to be extended and deepened throughout Northern Irish society.

Anthony McIntyre contributes to online journal The Blanket