JOurnalism and the peace process…

Cian’s picked up on an interesting thought arising from Garrett FitzGerald’s recent assertion that there had been editorial timidity when dealing with ‘terrorists’ both during the Troubles and after. FitzGerald is rather gently taken to task by former Irish Times editor Conor Brady for suggesting the paper had acquiesed to Gerry Adams denial of IRA membership. There are shades here of the argument outlines in Ed Moloney’s provocative essay from Lives Entwined II, Peace process and Journalism. Although Moloney does not blame the editors, but on self censoring tendency of the journalists themselves:

To paraphrase Mrs.Thatcher on an entirely different subject, a story was a story was a story, and there was no way I could or would allow consequences for the peace process or anything else to get in the way. I believed then, and still do, that a journalist’s obligation to report or broadcast a story overrides every other consideration, with only one exception: if putting a story into the public domain could directly lead to loss of life or injury, then it should be set aside for another day. Otherwise my rule was straightforward: publish and be damned. Besides, if the peace process was strongly rooted, it would survive even the most damaging story; if it wasn’t then it would probably fail – and deserve to fail – from some other cause anyway.

He traces clear historical roots for this:

If the reportage of the peace process can be characterised by any particular quality, it was the willingness of too many journalists not to ask the hard questions that ought to have been asked. The peace process heralded an extraordinary, but deeply puzzling and confusing transition in Northern Ireland’s troubled history and it was vital that journalists should have attempted to explain all this as best as they could. Never was there a time in Northern Ireland’s painful and bloody history when information was more necessary or potentially socially useful. But in practice many reporters shrank from doing their jobs, and were – and still are – content to be mere stenographers of the peace process for fear that they could be accused, at the very least, of being ‘unhelpful’ to the process, and at worst, of being actively opposed to it.

In an important sense, this was the logical outworking of 30 years of ‘Troubles’ journalism, during which reporters and editors were intimidated by censorship laws or succumbed to the most insidious and enfeebling media ailment of all, self-censorship. In the Republic of Ireland, official media censorship was enshrined in Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which was introduced at the very outset of the Troubles in 1971 and refined in 1976. It gave the Government sweeping powers to ban anything from the airwaves that it considered sympathetic to political violence, and excluded specific organisations from radio and television, including the IRA and its political wing Sinn Féin.

Section 31 applied legally only to the electronic media, not to the print media, but in practice its influence was all-embracing. Government support for Section 31 arose out of an atmosphere that was almost hysterical in its fear of the IRA and dread that the Northern Troubles would spill violently onto the streets of Dublin and other towns in the South, threatening not just the citizens of the Republic, but the stability and institutions of the state. In practice the impulse to censor was felt in all sections of the Irish media.

Why does it matter? Moloney concludes:

It is impossible to say whether more honest journalism would have made a difference, but it might have. Is it possible that a better informed Unionist electorate, one made aware by the media of the huge compromises that Adams was making, might have been more ready to temper demands for IRA decommissioning, and more willing to believe that the war had ended on terms they previously could only have dreamed about? Would it have made any difference if the Provos had been put under greater scrutiny and their more flagrant lying exposed? And if all that had happened, would the power-sharing executive at Stormont have survived, and with it the centre ground of Northern Ireland politics?

There is no definitive answer to those questions.

Nevertheless, even if they are in the territory of history, they are worth mulling over for any journalist considering asking one of our politicians any number of those famously ‘stupid questions’.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty