Social conservatism and the media

Gail Walker argues that social conservatism is the uniting factor across the communities in Northern Ireland and takes the media to task for continuing in its conflict-era habits:

Over the years, the media got into the habit during the ‘Troubles’ of seeking out the minority view — that meant finding someone who didn’t represent any of the main political viewpoints. Somehow that became the sensible view…These causes — which have their own merits — unfortunately became, for the media, something of a ‘middle ground’. They were causes the media deemed to be ‘good’ and ‘progressive’ and ‘nice’ and it never really mattered that practically the only people who espoused them were the spokespeople themselves.

  • Rory

    I think, FD, that we need a little more detail here before venturing to comment. While the piece you do quote above might well have heads nodding in an agreeable manner, I should like to know exactly where she is taking this before putting pen to paper (and possibly, foot-in-mouth).

  • Fair Deal

    rory apologies forgot the link fixed

  • Harry Flashman

    An interesting article but it’s hardly a phenomenon limited to NI, it’s almost universal. The media hothouse is convinced that their opinions, invariably liberal, somewhat left of centre, are the default position, the centre ground as it were, and anyone who doesn’t share their opinions – the vast majority of the population in most cases – are somehow crazy extremists.

    You’ll find exactly the same thing in Britain, the Republic, the US, Canada, Australia and for all I know in every other society on earth. I find it all the time in SO’T where the simple expression of conservative thoughts that are regarded as perfectly normal by most ordinary functioning adults are somehow seen as ludicrously outrageous by the sort of people who for instance believe the BBC gives reasonable and balanced coverage of political opinions but sometimes shows its inherent Tory bias from time to time.

  • Pete

    I’m constantly unimpressed with Gail Walker’s articles. This generic reference to the media just won’t do. I should imagine that many more people are liberal than she imagines. I guess we shall have to wait until the normalisation of political voting habits before we can judge that one.

    “Media pundits” have no reason to pursue populist lines. If this were to happen Gail, I think I may just move to the mainland and be done with this country. They should continue to challenge people’s received/perceived ‘wisdom’ in line with whichever viewpoint they deem ethically and morally correct.

    Gail Walker the defender of the moral majority and wannabe opinion censor!

  • Harry Flashman

    And Pete proves Gail’s point exactly.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    Not sure I want to fully agree with Gail on this one but she has a pretty strong point. Northern Ireland is a socially more conservative place there is no doubt about that just look at the difference in regular church going between the mainland 18% in Scotland 14% in England and 45% in Northern Ireland, 81% describe themselves as Christian with only 16% being of no religion in NI compared to more like 39% on the mainland. That level of religious following is bound to create a more socially conservative atmosphere. The extent to which the overall social attitudes of the place are reflected by the public representatives is another question. The concentration on the big question of the union has led to other issues being sidelined to the extent that they don’t play a role in the selection choices people make at election time. I think this has led to a more conservative bias amongst those who are active in elected politics and the assumption that is the norm. Those with more liberal views have gravitated towards the so called ‘center’ parties and thus seemed less representative.

    One would hope that as issues outside the union become more prevalent in political discussion then maybe more people willing to mark out socially more liberal territory in the major parties. Though what is clear is that the party members themselves most likely remain socially conservative. I never made any secret of my liberal views and I was open about being pro abortion, pro gay marriage and an atheist. However whilst I never encountered any one on the doorstep who withdrew support because of this I was clearly out of step with my grass roots party members on those issues. To what extent it would have impacted upon electoral success I didn’t find out but it did not endear me to my constituency party members (behaving like a twat over Burnside didn’t help much either!).

    Personally I think that whilst NI is more socially conservative than the rest of the UK there is a still a reasonable strain of liberal tolerance amongst the NI people as well, it simply has not had the opportunity to express itself more widely in the mainstream. It may be the case that the majority in NI doesn’t want abortion, I am not sure, but many tens of thousands of NI people know someone who has had an abortion by hopping the boat to the mainland and I think there is more understanding of the issue than is reflected by the opinions of the elected representatives. I would hope that over time those who have more liberal opinions will feel willing to state them more openly and perhaps NI society will develop more in line with the wider British social body politic. I live in hope anyway.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    On the issue of it being imposed by a small group of mainland politicians I admit to being torn. The pro abortion side of me would like to see NI move into line with the rest of the UK legal framework on abortion but the democratic side of me recognizes that devolution should mean local politicians making such choices. I would have fallen more readily on the side of simple democracy previously but time in America has made it clear that certain social advances do perhaps require action by elite institutions. The example of abortion or gay marriage or civil rights in the US being driven by court decisions illustrates that sometimes the majority is just tyrannical and if one were always to wait for majority opinion to catch up then miscegenation laws would most likely still be in place in the American south. It also seems to be the case that such action by a political vanguard can move wider opinion. A majority of Massachusetts was against the States Supreme court ruling in favour of gay marriage but public opinion has now moved to accept it and a small majority in Massachusetts is supportive. The same is probably true of abortion which also enjoys majority support in the USA but if one were to allow local authorities to chose then large areas of the American South would be abortion free and New England and the West coast would most likely legalize it. Is it satisfactory for women to be denied abortions by dint of their geographical location? In the UK as a whole a majority support the current abortion laws perhaps one cost or benefit (take your pick) of membership of the union is that wider social opinion is able to overrule local sensibilities when it comes to certain fundamental issues. A tough choice it seems.

  • Pete

    Hardly Harry. In what way as a non-media person do I prove Gail’s point? Surely as a liberal, I and the many of my friends like me are making up the disproof of Gail’s argument.

    Note the line that those in the media should continue to challenge people’s views in whichever way they deem ethically or politically correct… That includes conservative messages if they so wish obviously.

    However, that the ‘media’ are somewhat liberal in view across the board is somewhat telling in my mind.

  • Pete


    Paddy Ashdown made a similar point on the 42 days issue a few months ago on Question Time. He commented, and I paraphrase, that sometimes people (the majority) are simply wrong.

    Its a view I would agree with.

  • Garibaldy

    I think Walker is both right and wrong. Yes, NI – like the rest of the island – is deeeply conservative,but anyone who has ever been to a TV discussion show knowsw orange and green is exactly what they want.

  • Conquistador

    And here was me under some sort of misaprehension that the media was meant to report the facts.

  • Harry Flashman

    Pete, can you give me one single instance when the media (and here we are talking about the main broadsheet newspapers and terrestrial tv and radio channels) ever challenged the viewpoint of the majority of the public from a conservative angle

    I’ve been around a bit and observed the political discourse for the best part of thirty years and can never once recall a single incidence of this happening.

    The challenge to accepted wisdom in the media always comes from the left. It’s not hard to think of examples where the challenge could come from the right, for instance Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys at the BBC demanding to know why the government wasn’t cutting taxes or why we shouldn’t look again at school vouchers or private health insurance, but it never happens.

    The public funded media in Ireland and the UK (RTE, BBC, Channel 4, and I include the Irish Times and the Guardian which are symbiotic with the public sector) always adopts the default liberal left position, they actually do not understand that any other position could actually exist outside the realms of the extremist fringes rather than as the humdrum opinions of vast swathes of the general population.

    Gail is spot on.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton


    On this I have to agree with the view of J.S.Mill:

    [i]Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.[/i] — On Liberty.

  • Pete


    I don’t think it is useful to get into a right/left discourse as i’m quite sure that liberalism is a much more subtle distintion than that.

    Perhaps we can see some of the pro-Irag war punditry in the media as going against the grain of the majority viewpoint in a conservative angle? However, you miss my point which is that media pundits should be under no pressure to represent purely populist viewpoints be they liberal or conservative.

    If you want conservative punditry, why not read the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Daily Express or indeed the News Letter? Why not watch Fox News all day and every day. We have a great choice in what we read or listen to. By the way, I would say Ann Widdecombe’s column in the mail goes close to the boundary of being more conservative than the majority of UK opinion.

    When i say that media pundits should challenge people… surely the point of writing an opinion piece is in order to articulate viewpoints that engage the readerships minds, regardless of it being liberal or conservative.

    Personlly I think that the cry of the public service braodcasters being dastardly biased is ridiculous. Ofcourse bias will seep out in all sorts of manners. Objectivity is an all too human concept.

  • Pete

    Just to amend, maybe i’m being a bit simplistic in suggesting the pro-Iraq war punditry is conservative. I just have to think of Christopher Hitchens to blow that one into the wind. Although i’d say that generally there is probably a correlation between conservativism and support for the war.


    I like that piece from On Liberty very much. It’s rather persuasive.

  • rabelais

    The overwhelming majority of research into the mass media has demonstrated that notions of liberal or conservative conservative bias miss the substantial point: that is that the media makes meaning in the service of power.

    Also I think you are confusing liberalism (which as Pete points out is a more diverse that you perhaps allow) with centrism. Liberalism and centrism may be related but they are not the same. The default of position of institutions like the BBC and many commercial broadcasters is centrism, which is an attempt to maximise their audience and minimalise alienating too many viewers and listeners.

  • Rory

    If we were to have depended on the “will of the majority” or “conservative thinking” for social progress we would still be living in caves and venturing out only for food, fuel and water and to slaughter our neighbours out of xenophobia. Instead of which we now all live in comfortable little boxes owned by financial institutions, shop in Tesco using the credit lines of financial institutions and we delegate the delegate the task of killing everyone else to the US military and its little helper, the RAF.

    What these backward “majoritarians” cannot seem to grasp, despite all the lessons of history, is that once a repressed minority with a just grievance gets the bit between its teeth the majority can go chase itself because the repressed party will not desist until the majority bloody well changes its mind. Which is how progress has ever developed from Tom Paine to the Bill of Rights; from Feargal O’Connor and the Chartists to adult universal suffrage; from anti-Apartheid to a democratic South Africa and from the screening of the Brit film Victim to the Wolfenden Report to same sex civil partnership ceremonies (and marriage in some jurisdictions) with the full backing of law.

    Was it Voltaire (probably not!) who said that nothing could stop an idea whose time had come? The trick is to recognise when that time has arrived – something of which the “majoritarian” right might seem distinctly incapable but of which in reality they are only too well aware, hence the need to scream and shout and bluster and harumph.

    Well, “harumph, harumph!” to you too, guys and I at least can smile because you are playing on the losing team in this game.

  • runciter

    notions of liberal or conservative bias miss the substantial point: that is that the media makes meaning in the service of power.

    Thanks Rabelais. I was go to say something along those lines, but you have put it more succinctly than I could have.

    I would also suggest that terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ not only are so imprecise as to be almost meaningless, but that they serve the interests of propagandists by distracting from real issues.

    Hence their popularity among the press.

  • Harry Flashman


    If you want criticism of the Iraq war from the right someone like Andrew Alexander comes to mind, as to your assertion that it is the media’s duty to challenge public perceptions, maybe so, maybe not, but if the media is publicly funded then its duty is to challenge from the left as well as the right, when I see a week of “The NHS is crap, let’s reform it” programmes on the BBC or RTE doing a season of “Immigration, why we can do without it” radio shows I’ll concede that there isn’t a bias to the left in public broadcasting.


    The media is not “centrist”, it thinks it is and pats itself on the back about it but it is much more left of centrist than it cares to admit.


    All those marvellous advances that lead us to live in banal comfort, freedom and safety were in fact achieved by big ugly conservatives standing up to and defending us from the tyranny and terror of the Left, if you disagree just ask the nice Polish girl who is now enjoying the freedom to vote, travel, express her mind and earn a decent wage in that nice wee restaurant you went to last week.

    As to your other point about the righteousness of marginalised majorities rising up to reclaim the rights that are theirs I think there is some BNP literature you might find interesting.

    What’s that? Oh I see, not [b]those[/b] sort of revolting masses, I see, we don’t want that lot getting ideas above their station now do we?

  • Dave

    Rory, most business people are conservatives. And in case you failed to notice, it is business that drives progress.

    The problem with labels is that they have become almost meaningless through different groups using them to mean different things. How many variants has liberalism spawned? It must be nearly 20, and that not counting the subgroups that its subgroup Libertarianism has spawned.

    I’m beginning to grade people according to whether or not I agree with them on a particular issue, classifying them as sensible on that issue, but holding them as suspect if I don’t agree with them on other issues. My myopia works. 😉

  • rabelais

    THE MEDIA ARE CENTRIST (and I’ve written it in capitals to prove it).

    But if you need more: well, I am left of centre and the amount of time I spend screaming at the idoits on the TV and radio is probably equal to the amount of time you do.

    My apoplexy is often the result of systematic failures in the reporting of news rather than bias. So I don’t blame the piss poor performance of the media in the run up to the Iraq war on either individual or institutional neo-con bias (although Fox News is perhaps an exception) but rather why was there so little serious investigative journalism into the crap that was being disemminated by London and Washington at that time. Well, investigative journalism is expensive – cheaper just to have journalists hang around the drinking holes talking to politicos and one another.

    Again on the issue of the ‘credit crunch’ and the lumming recession. I’ve yet to hear somebody offer an anti-capitalist opinion on our present economic travials. There are lots of economists, none of which seem to have a fucking notion what to do (despite being professional economist) but no genuinely dissenting or radical opinions. This is because with its centrist preferences the media tend to confine public discourse with a a fairly tight aperture of consensus. Suggesting that are present woes might be as a consequence of capitalism just isn’t captured by that aperture. Real breadth of opinion isn’t represented instead we are offered a gallery of commentators, the difference between which is very slight.

    But I’m a luny-lefty and your a rabid right-winger Harry, so there’s o pleasing us. Fuck ’em all.

  • Harry Flashman

    “But I’m a luny-lefty and your a rabid right-winger Harry, so there’s o pleasing us. Fuck ‘em all.”

    And that’s one of the most sensible statements I’ve read on SO’T in the three years or so I’ve been posting here.

  • Rory


    You say: “All those marvellous advances that lead us to live in banal comfort, freedom and safety were in fact achieved by big ugly conservatives standing up to and defending us from the tyranny and terror of the Left” and this is in response to my pointing out the social progress made as a results of effort by the likes of Tom Paine, the Chartists, the ANC, and gay activists.

    Would you care to name any “big ugly conservatives” among that lot ?

    The forces of capitalism are you will agree of a conservative nature and have opposed social reform at almost every turn except on those occasions when such reform suited their drive for an increased rate of profit and capital revolted againstthe dominance or restrictions of feudal or semi-feudal landed powers. Thus the rise of Parliament against the monarchy, of US northern industrialists against the backwardness and restriction of the slave-holding South, the forces allied to Kerensky and other examples.

    Thereafter, having consolidated power it is always back to stasis until the pressure of opposition becomes too great and threatens their stability – as with Civil Rights in the USA and trade union rights and women’s rights practically anywhere you name.

  • willis


    “Pete, can you give me one single instance when the media (and here we are talking about the main broadsheet newspapers and terrestrial tv and radio channels) ever challenged the viewpoint of the majority of the public from a conservative angle”

    So how do you get that definition? Surely the tabloids are as much a part of the media as the broadsheets? Or are you wanting to marginalize them in that sinister liberal way of yours?

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    A poorly considered idea atrociously written. Gail’s schtick is playing the no-nonsense Tory but despite it being an easy point of view to articulate, she does it so badly.

    Can we ban the following phrase if it is going to be followed by a long tedious quote: “On this I have to agree with the view of J.S.Mill:”? I cannot believe that post isn’t being deleted right now.

  • Harry Flashman

    Given that the “gay activists” are in the forefront of the movement to criminalise political or religious dissension in much of the western world today and that the ANC’s record on social and political liberalism is well, er, questionable at best you’re down two out of your three already Ro.

    The scenario you painted of comfortable, well to do, peaceful, banal freedom that now reigns throughout Europe is secured and has been secured by such big ugly conservatives as Dwight D Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, the 101st Airborne, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, the Royal Navy, Margaret Thatcher etc etc.

    While in the forefront of the howling mobs who have always sought to destroy this peaceful equilibrium and prevent its extension to the rest of the world are the ‘agricultural reformers’ (Communists), ‘social activists’ (Communists), ‘peace workers’ (Communists), ‘radical action groups’ (Communists) etc.

    Ask our friends in Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and a big chunk of the rest of central Europe who secured their freedom, the Left or the Right? Try not to look too shocked by their answer. Oh and one other wee thing go to the Middle East and ask around which country is the only one which secures gay rights and allows freedom of the press in the region, it’s a wee country so it is, much in the news and the nation most loathed by the Left above even the United States.

  • Walker really is the Glenda Slagg of the local scene. I submitted the following comment to the Belfast Telegraph site (hard to keep a rant down to 500 characters). She simply has her facts wrong.

    “I know that building bricks without straw is an occupational hazard of writing a regular column, but even by Gail Walker’s standards, this piece is ill thought out.

    “Ireland is united on abortion,” she says, without checking recent polls (see “Abortion in Ireland” on Wikipedia) which show 35-45% support for abortion on demand.

    To suggest that equality for gay people is espoused “only by the spokespeople themselves” who are “freaks” representing “nobody but themselves” is offensive not only to every gay person in NI but also to people like me and everyone I know, who opposes discrimination against homosexuals.

    In fact it’s those who oppose homosexuality who are at the bottom of the poll: an Ipsos/MORI survey in Feb 06 showed 88% of NI people oppose discrimination against homosexuals. (Google for “observer mori gay northern ireland”)

    Below the window where I am typing, it says that offensive comments will be removed. Does this also apply to offensive columnists?”

  • Dave

    “Does this also apply to offensive columnists?”

    No it doesn’t because, unlike fanatical PC-mongers, the vast bulk of society believes in freedom of speech and in tolerance of both mainstream and dissenting perspectives. Try looking up the proper meaning of the word ‘tolerance’ since you have the audacity to claim to be promoting it.

  • It’s an interesting point. I suppose it depends on whether you think tolerance should extend to permitting people to misrepresent the truth. I have no idea what Walker’s views are on abortion, homosexuality etc: the only clue she gives in the article is “these causes … have their own merits,” which suggests no particular swivel-eyed bigotry.

    What I object to in her column is that she states explicitly and literally that Ireland (and NI) is “united” on these issues, and united against the ‘liberal’ viewpoint on them. That simply is not true, as I discovered with the first professionally conducted polls I turned up on the subjects. If Walker has any evidence to support her statements – which she presents as facts – she doesn’t cite it. This leads to the suspicion that she doesn’t have any evidence to support her.

    If Gail Walker had said, “I think abortion is tantamount to murder” or “Homosexuals in my view are all horrible,” that would be a matter of opinion and no cause for complaint. But she is in fact misleading about what other people – including me – think. Would we ‘tolerate’ it if she falsely stated that some terrorist atrocity had not happened?