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’.

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  • I’d be 100% with Moloney if I thought that journalists were capable of reporting in a way that wasn’t inductive.

    You can still find good reporters who will report what they see fearlessly, but most of them go looking to confirm a prejudice. And those that don’t – the ones that replicate the meme – WILL always impose themselves and their editorial line onto a story.

    In short, if journalism were a *profession* with a widely-adhered-too set of ethics, then he’d be right. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t have a code of ethics that many of them can afford to maintain.

  • Good point. The seminal moment for me was in the media centre in Abuja a few years back. One Sunday tabloid journalist came in excitedly asking if anyone had seen/meet with a member of the Namibian delegation. He explained that he’s heard one of them had said something nasty about Tony Blair, and that that would be his story for the following day.

    That, like the steady drip of near character assassination of Ken Livingstone by the Standard, is not kind of ‘pure’ journalism that Moloney (and other like John Lloyd) imagine. Nevertheless, the pitch is sound.

  • Driftwood

    Seen this in nuzhound..

    http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/time-and-again-this-state-let-the-provos-away-with-murder-1356795.html

    Does anyone know where I could access any of Robert Fisk’s reporting on Northern Ireland in the seventies?

  • “…Robert Fisk’s reporting on Northern Ireland in the seventies”

    *shudder*

  • RepublicanStones

    Driftwood that article is by Kevin Myers, the man who can twist any subject (immigration/Lisbon etc) of his articles, to end with a condemnation of 1916, the tricolour, republicanism….yadda yadda yadda. the Indo have him, because he is a contrarian and controversial rib tickler. The Belfast Tele have him for rather more obvious reasons.

  • Rory

    “Otherwise my rule was straightforward: publish and be damned.”

    Since the journalist does not control what is published should that not be “file and be damned”? The damnation would then be self imposed requiring the integrity to resign. A rare, but not unknown, occurence.

  • “Otherwise my rule was straightforward: publish and be damned.”

    Is that a quote from dear old Squinter?

  • Neru

    Dear old Squinter. Published, damned, chastised and humbled all in one week. There but for fortune….

  • Neru

    I apologise to Squinter for any hurt caused. I didn’t mean it. Honest.

  • Driftwood

    RS
    Yeah, I’m aware of Kevin Myers’ credentials.

    Paulie
    You not a Fisk fan then?

    Surely the best Foreign Correspondent around, and one not bound by ideology of any kind?

  • RepublicanStones

    Kevin Myers and credentials…now theres a thought. He still no doubt has a longing for the country of his birth. I had intended to attend a talk on war reporting in Temple Bar with Rageh Omaar, a good while ago, until I realised Myers was due to speak as well. For a man who appears on the ‘Podge and Rodge Show’ and brags about how he bedded the wife of an IRA man (we’ll never know) during his stint up north, for him to be sharing a stage with Rageh Omaar, was a step too far me.

  • Neru

    Ed Maloney appears, at face value at least, to be a man of integrity. I have read his book, ‘The secret history of the IRA…’, and if I remember right, the Provos went for Maloney’s throat because he criticised ‘The Leader’.

    I’ve also read some of Gerry Adams’ books.

    Maloney says, ‘Publish and be damned’. ‘The Leader’ has yet to even admit being in the IRA. Wherefore stands truth?

  • Harry Flashman

    *You not a Fisk fan then?

    Surely the best Foreign Correspondent around, and one not bound by ideology of any kind?*

    Delay in replying due to the need to clear coffee sprayed over the keyboard and screen upon reading that comment.

    Fisk? Not bound by ideology? Come off it!

    However to answer your earlier question Fisk wrote a comprehensive account of the 1974 UWC strike called “The Point of No Return”, it’s out of print now but can probably be found in libraries and second hand book shops.

  • Driftwood

    Harry
    What is his ideology?
    Seriously, I find him to be of high integrity, and his journalism of a high standard, he has won many awards. I was impressed by reading “Pity the Nation- Lebanon at war” many years ago. His column in ‘The Independent’ is worthy reading at all times, even if you disagree with his cynicism.
    His last weighty tome- The Great War for Civilisation-(on the Middle east) I gave up on 1/3 way through, purely because i found the journals of atrocity upon atrocity, though always supported by evidence and historical accuracy, simply overbearing, depressing and ultimately deadening.
    Great prose though. The guy can write. And I couldn’t find any ideological positioning.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Ironically, Moloney has published and been damed on at least one occasion I can remember when the Trib caved in on a libel case against one of his stories after the opening statements.

    And on another left-meets-right tangent, both Fisk’s and Myer’s columns run in the Tele. Ah, the joys of being part of INM…

  • Harry Flashman

    Fisk has an inveterate anti-western bias, to him the Arabs can do no wrong, the fault for everything that goes wrong in the Middle East can be laid at the feet of Israel, the United States or failing them British and French imperialists in the last century.

    Arabs and Muslims in general are regarded by him as being wee innocent children who have no responsibility for their own actions but rather are permanent victims of some nasty westerners who some time (usually around the early 20th century for the Brits and Frogs, usually after 1945 if the Yids are at fault and any time since 1950 if it’s ‘blame the Yanks’ time) did something to their ancestors thus for ever rendering Arabs incapable of running civilised societies.

    It’s patronising, childish stuff that is demeaning to those Arabs and Muslims who would like to see real genuine reform in their own societies rather than the whingeing shroud waving and calls for Holy War which seem to be all that passes for rational debate in those societies.

    If the Irish were to follow Fisk’s theory (and he used to include Ireland in his synopsis) instead of a healthy, wealthy, functioning peaceful democracy the Irish Republic would be today a squalid, festering shithole continually blaming England while simultaneously holding out the begging bowl.

    Thankfully the Irish have a rather more mature attitude to where they should be than that which Fisk believes the Arabs are correct in maintaining. Hopefully some day Arabs and Muslims will reject their Fiskish whinefest and get on with creating proper systems of government for themselves.

    Insh’allah.

  • latcheeco

    O.K. Why were Garrett and the boys not complaining about the press when the press office in Theipval was writing the evening news? Shouldn’t the all-knowing Ed have dropped a line on that back in its hayday? Doesn’t media integrity go both ways?

  • This thread was poorly conceived to start with, and has descended into the usual kind of slanging match by Harry Flashman et al. over some convenient, self-serving diversion.

    Politicians are not expected to start calling competitors various kinds of names – e. g. Adams belongs to the IRA, Martin is its chief headhunter, etc. – because it will simply be dismissed as using what everyone knows for one’s own political purposes.

    And it was not the presses’ business to make up for the lack of name-calling and libelous charges by the politicians, but to report what was really going on during The Troubles – what it most clearly never did.

    Just think what Judge Cory managed to do about some of the most controversial murders, and how the press had, and still does cover them.

    It’s not laws and injunctions which cause such voids but a lack of political will for fear of hurting their declining readership.

  • I think that a good rule of thumb is that, if a journalist…

    1. Writes exactly the column you would expect them to do under a particular set of circumstances
    2. Thereby confirms the prejudices of a significant and identifiable body of public opinion…

    …they are…

    1. Not worth paying to write
    2. Adding nothing new
    3. A slightly demagogic charlatan, more interested in mobilising their readers than in doing their job (which – as I think I implied earlier – is definitely NOT the job of a journalist)

    Fisk’s columns write themselves to the delight of the pseudo-left.

  • Driftwood

    http://www.ukwatch.net/article/interview_with_robert_fisk
    I like the idea of BT9 being a medium sherry red..

  • Driftwood

    The British did the same in Belfast – green for Catholics, orange for Protestants, medium sherry colour for mixed areas, for people who are inconsiderate enough to marry across the religious divide. But we don’t, obviously, do these ethnic maps about Birmingham or Bradford or Washington.

    For those that don’t want the rest…
    Actually, I disagree with Fisk on several areas, but he’s always woth reading, if only for todays view on BA, which I thorougly agree with.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-its-easy-to-be-snotty-with-an-airline-so-haughty-that-it-regards-its-own-customers-as-an-inconvenience-815844.html