“the failure of the British press to cover Northern Ireland properly”

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Roy Greenslade blog bannerThe Guardian’s Roy Greenslade blogged again this morning about “the failure of the British press to cover Northern Ireland properly” and the consequential “absence of knowledge among [Great] British people about the realities of life there”.

I doubt that many of you have ever heard of the Reverend David Latimer, a Presbyterian minister and former British army chaplain. And it would appear that Britain’s national newspapers are determined to ensure that he remains unknown to you.

Yet Latimer made history last Friday evening by becoming the first ordained Protestant minister to give an address to the annual Sinn Féin ard fheis (conference). In so doing, he called Martin McGuinness one of the “true great leaders of modern times”. It brought the republican audience to its feet.

Indeed, the party was also making history of its own by staging the event in Belfast, the first time its ard fheis has taken place in Northern Ireland. And another first – the Prince’s Trust charity, founded by Prince Charles, had a stand in the lobby at the Waterfront Hall.

I would call that trio of firsts a news story of no little significance. Even if we accept the cynical tabloid view that “Ulster doesn’t sell”, we should surely expect the serious end of our press to report such a turn of events.

So why did “The Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and the Financial Times” fail to cover the story (that was well covered by the Irish press)?

Greenslade argues that when it comes to Northern Irish news, “good news is ignored in favour of bad news” and the readers of the London-based papers are under-served and under-educated.

If a bomb had gone off in Belfast on Friday you can bet that would have been covered.

Are we to imagine that editors believe positive political news from Northern Ireland is of no consequence? Or is it due to an absence of correspondents in Ulster’s six disputed counties? Even if that was the case, the Press Association reported the speech, so it certainly passed across the screens of the nationals.

Whatever opinion people hold of Latimer’s 20-minute speech at a Sinn Féin conference, it has to be seen as a landmark moment in the bridge-building exercise between Catholics and Protestants.

The comment thread under the post has a range of reactions.

Ruth Gledhill asks “do you think the story should have been covered by religious affairs or political staff?” before going on to suggest that Sinn Fein’s press office should have more proactive: “it is rather up to [Sinn Fein’s press office] to make themselves known to newspapers if they care about their activities being covered or not”.

Joe835 suggests:

The bottom line here is that the British national press don’t view a story in Northern Ireland as a domestic story because of the wider view in Britain that Northern Ireland is an overseas territory, a colony or something covered in mist and distant, akin to the Isle of Man. There’s also a huge lack of interest in clarifying this.

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  • http://myplasticarmy.blogspot.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    Roy Greenslade (resident in Ireland I believe) is of course right. The British press dont cover Norn Iron because increasingly it is a local issue and perceived that way. Political anoraks excluded, I cant see how anyone in England, Scotland or Wales would be that interested and of course there are fewer journalists in the real media to cover this. Increasingly Norn Iron politics is a niche market and thanks to the Internet, we can all indulge in the most trivial of Norn Iron stories.
    I really DO think that the Latimer story is actually less a story than the Sinn Féin Conference taking place across the road from the Courts of Justice or on the same side of the street as the Oxford Street Bus Station where one of the victims blown to pieces wasa British soldier.

    That might have been a more important angle from a “British” point of view.
    Which would actually have been more foreseeable four decades ago?
    A Sinn Fein Mayor welcoming the SF delegates to the most prestigious venue in his City and among the Speakers would be the Joint First Minister of Norn Iron.

    The reporting on Rev Latimer (essentially a single event) shows our ability to remember. The lack of reporting on the venue itself (essentially the ability of SF to become more and more “accepted”) demonstrates our inability to really remember the important stuff.

  • http://nicentreright.wordpress.com/ Seymour Major

    I have great sympathy with the complaint that the British press neglected Northern Ireland before the troubles. Not this story in 2011, though. Its importance has been grossly exaggerated.

    I had a look at all the stories in two of the Newspapers just now. I would regard all of them as more important or interesting than the appearance of Rev Latimer at the Sinn Fein conference.

  • http://www.unionistlite.blogspot.com oneill

    Several of the Shinners on Twitter were bemoaning the lack of interest shown by the ROI’s media in the Ard Fheis full-stop.

    They reckoned it’s a conspiracy to thwart a SF Presidential bid- maybe… or maybe, like the UK mainland media, Belfast is now out of mind, out of their readers’ interest range?

  • Greenflag

    Seymour ,

    ”Its importance has been grossly exaggerated.’

    Indeed not without the assistance of Turgon and several other bloggers who jumped on this ‘newsy’ item and made a proverbial mountain out of what anywhere else would have hardly merited an inside page paragraph.

    SF somehow always manage to get the ‘unionists ‘ to get them the most publicity with unfailing regularity . I sometimes think SF must have some of them on their publicity payroll ;)?

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Greenflag – if you realised the palaver to get hold of the clár never mind getting into the Waterfront when I was missing from the accreditation list for the second year in the row*, you realise no one’s on the SF publicity payroll! (* solved quickly by Belfast’s Lord Mayor!)

  • Reader

    Greenflag: SF somehow always manage to get the ‘unionists ‘ to get them the most publicity with unfailing regularity .
    Wasn’t it the point of Greenslade’s blog that there was no worthwhile publicity to be had anyway? After all, it’s not as though a Guardian blog column is going to explode the news to a riveted nation.

  • drc0610

    To be fair though, it’s all a matter of degrees. Have you read any of the London media’s coverage of Scotland? Between the Guardian and the Telegraph you have a weekly column from such journalistic heavyweights as Kevin McKenna, Alan Cochrane and er, er, that’s all folks.

    Surely being ignored is just another sign of normalisation?

    Also, a guardian editor blogging about the poor quality of coverage that his paper provides. The mind boggles.

  • drc0610

    Sorry meant to add, by London media, even the guardian puts up only a token effort for events outside the M25. The North is a strange and wondrous place to them

  • Mark

    drc0610 ,

    Is that the North of Ireland or England your talkin about ?

  • Mark

    typo – you’re talkin about ………where’s the thing at the bottom gone ? the preview …

  • Pete Baker

    Alan

    Ruth Gledhill asks “do you think the story should have been covered by religious affairs or political staff?” before going on to suggest that Sinn Fein’s press office should have “it is rather up to [Sinn Fein’s press office] to make themselves known to newspapers if they care about their activities being covered or not”.

    Actually, I took Ruth Gledhill’s comment to mean David Latimer rather than the Sinn Féin press office…

    But, look. The timing issue is the first thing here. And the reactions suggest that Sinn Féin didn’t get a preview of his speech to be able to forewarn newsrooms. They, clearly, would have preferred something more… critical.

    But it really isn’t that big of a deal. It’s certainly not “a landmark moment in the bridge-building exercise between Catholics and Protestants” – despite of what Roy Greenslade thinks is “the kind of bombshell political intervention that was momentous”.

    An individual supernaturalist lauds praise on another individual, also a supernaturalist, whom he believes has reformed.

    Well, that’s nice. “Political intervention”? How many divisions has he got?

    McGuinness convinced Paisley [Snr] of the same. And Blair convinced Paisley [Snr] of his bone fides by shared prayer too.

    That’s not exactly new news.

    What is arguably news is, as I noted here

    The conference programme may have referred to the six counties, but the reality was that this was the first time that an ard fheis had been held in the UK: in a conference centre a stone’s throw away from the very courts that had dispatched many IRA members to prison and a mere black taxi ride from the offices Martin McGuinness shares with Peter Robinson in the once hated Stormont. A very unlikely setting to prepare for unity!

  • Kevsterino

    Pete, I think the reasons Kane gives for the unlikeliness of the setting, to the contrary, make it entirely and appropriate as a setting to prepare for unity. The times they are a (still) changin’.

  • Pete Baker

    Of course you do, Kevsterino, of course you do…

  • Kevsterino

    alright, that made me laugh. But really, where could they go to discuss such a thing that you would think appropriate?

  • MonkDeWallyDeHonk

    I think it’s all a bit more basic than that. Although some people like to delude themeselves that the North is an “integral” part of the UK, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of British people don’t understand it and don’t give a shit about it.

    They are much more interested in reading about things that concern them or even things that don’t i.e. “celebrity” gossip.

    There are a lot of people in the North who need a reality check about their own “importance” in the UK or the wider world.

  • SethS

    MonkDeWallyDeHonk has pretty much got it spot on. Most people in England (and the mainstream media is primarily English) don’t give a toss about Northern Ireland, and so why would the MSM bother covering it.

    When I first moved to Dublin (from Stoke – admittedly not a haven of enlightenment) in 1986 most people I knew didn’t even realise that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were different countries. The only people they’d ever met who’d been to Northern Ireland were soldiers. Whenever I go back, it hasn’t really changed.

  • Harry Flashman

    “If a bomb had gone off in Belfast on Friday you can bet that would have been covered.”

    Yes, I can see how

    “Bomb explodes in provincial capital”

    is just as newsworthy as

    “Minor cleric addresses local party conference”.

    That Greenslade bloke really knows what makes newsrooms tick, doesn’t he?

  • Barnshee

    Like everyone else he has an agenda- might it be that if there is little to report (or perhaps little that is able to put his slant on) he coulsd be out of a job?