Does no one in the Northern Irish media check the provenance of political stories?

IN the first of a series of posts examining Northern Irish blindspots, Ian Parsley takes last week’s announcement of the effective abandonment (read the detail in Pete’s post if you don’t believe me) of the A5 project (predictable since the downturn of 08, inevitable since the change of government) as a classic dog bites man story with which Northern Ireland media is bursting at the seams.

But, he argues, there is a huge cost to paid for such poor attention to past detail:

As noted earlier, the unwillingness of our media to provide effective challenge and scrutiny to the authorities is extremely alarming in a democracy, particularly one like ours which is struggling to find its feet and lacks a formal, political Opposition. It is the reason that obvious points, such as the lack of investment in water infrastructure or the rapid rise in unemployment, go unreported until people go without water or jobs are actually lost. Such things would be preventable if they were reported honestly sooner, and those raising them were taken seriously.

Our democratic deficit is not caused by Martin McGuinness trying to put a brave face on what, for his party in particular, is a bit of a disaster for all kinds of reasons. It is not even caused by the lack of formal Opposition in the Assembly. It is caused by the unwillingness of large parts of the media to report the facts, as opposed to reporting the slant placed on them by politicians. People genuinely suffer as a result of this failing. We have to find a way to put it right.

A free press is only free to the extent it chooses to exercises its freedom. All too often that freedom shows only in the editorial and comment page, often in its most cynical guise.

It’s much less common in the news, where the journalist is largely expected to notate the words of the politician, rather that give an authoritative view on the significance of what is often merely a single point in a sequence of events.

As well as making the news more readable, it might actually help make government more accountable, and relevant, to the people who elect them.

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  • Cynic2

    There are two problems in what Parsley suggests.

    The first is access to information. We are drip fed what those on the Hill (or their Civil Service masters) want. In a ‘proper’ assembly the Committees would ferret out the truth. The UUP and SDLP could do this but in both cases most of their MLA are – and it pains we to say this – too indolent or thick to do so. Also, the political culture demands nose in the trough obedience.

    The second issue is money. Aside from the Irish News the print media are all dead on their feet commercially. That leave UTV which wont spend profit on it and the BBC which can be very good but is hamstrung by lawyers and the need for balance within every programme

    So i fear its the bloggers for us. Why are NI’s bloggers not exposing the mess? Why is slugger more the vehicle for a sectarian bun fight (and I have have my box of stale buns under the desk ready for the next suitable post)

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s a third. The poor state of civil society. NI politics is still an insiderly business. Cross to many on the inside and the public pay off will never compensate the courageous for the pain endured.

    And I am talking some serious stress, not just the odd campaign of not returning calls and getting struck off the presser list.

  • Mick,

    The ”poor state of civil society” might be better described as the unwillingness of Northern Irish middle classes to become interested in politics

  • galloglaigh


  • Mick Fealty

    Resile, for a moment, to the facts of the A5 case. That fifty million Euro is not going to get ‘here’ until 2016/17.

    By my calculations that’s firmly in the someone else’s problem field… Hell, SF may even be in the government by then…

  • Cynic2

    And today Marty is still talking it us while Sammy is trying to gently prick the balloon.

    Clearly SF see this as a ‘biggie’ for them so will planning to demand that NI stump up the missing Irish millions as a ‘concession’ within the executive.

    Meanwhile the Duppers will resist – or demand a quid pro quo and they will both fund it by raiding the budgets of Ministries held by the SDLP and UUP and Alliance. The only hope can be that the DUP negotiate hard enough to get the cash by SF abandoning some other vanity project

  • thethoughtfulone

    Since the vote for “The Good Friday Agreement” there’s been a line pedalled that if you don’t like what’s on offer as a result then you are plainly a sectarian bigot who would much rather we were back in the good old days of murder, mayhem, and blood running down the streets.

    Sadly we have precious few politicians, and no one in the popular media who is prepared to say, “I like our admittedly flawed peace, I like having our own assembly, I like the idea of our own elected politicians in charge, but for god’s sake do we have to put up with such a mess of governance as a result”.

  • IJP

    Thanks for these comments.

    Clearly the second issue Cynic suggests at the outset exists, but many of the organisations failing to deliver scrutiny do not depend on government advertising. Indeed, in the case of the A5, the regional newspapers have provided most of what scrutiny there was.

    The first is interesting. I do use the word ‘scrutiny’ rather than ‘opposition’ deliberately – my fear is that any ‘opposition’ would merely be opposition for opposition’s sake rather than a serious scrutiniser. But clearly one of the reasons for the UUP’s and SDLP’s (even Alliance’s) unwillingness to leave the Executive is that they feel they would lack “cover”.

    Mick‘s point about civil society is very interesting. Few organisations in civil society are really big or wide-ranging enough to carry out that function (whereas, arguably, in England they would be).


    As it happens, on the A5 itself, I don’t read it that way. It was, as many things are, hugely symbolic that Dublin would fund half. If it doesn’t, it’s equally symbolic, but for the wrong reasons from SF’s point of view.

  • Cynic2

    ” they feel they would lack “cover”.”

    ….or not get coverage

  • Master McGrath

    The real elephant in the room here is that there is NO proper Opposition in Stormont to articulate the views abd concerns of the views that do not sit easily with the entirely artificial consensus there.
    Yes it was necessary to have the un-democratic structures agreed and implemented to get devolution up and staggering about but the system can either work on its own now or needs to be allowed kind political euthanasia to sweep in.
    It is a strange sort of democracy that says that everything stays the same and nothing is ever allowed to change .
    Seymour Major is not wrong in identifying the absence of the ‘middle class’ from politics as something that is part of the problem – how many businesses would allow themselves to be yoked under the assumptions of the Belfast Agreement if this was entirely a commercial decision to be made?
    Stormont MUST move out from under the cloud of the Belfast Agreement and look for the new horizons and start properly scrutinising the the TINA policies of the Executive.
    Then we might make progress.

  • Mary Anna

    No bread today – cake tomorrow! They don’t know if are having a shit or a hair cut up in Stormont -Dup – Ps/f. They can’t think outside the box -but the sinners could tell you tell you everything about themselves! They could not run a raffle! Stormont is toxic -dysfunctional and if they tell you that they created 14, 000 for NI, well we are waiting to see them. Don’t believe all you hear, seeing is believing! No jobs- no roads -no heath -no education- NI is in a mess. And the only ones who prosper is the po£iticians – BOYS GIRLS FAMILY AND FRIENDS. It is a sick joke filling their empires ( pots and pockets of gold)

  • Los Lobos

    Don’t shoot the messenger, its not the media’s fault if they repeat what they hear. They had to play their part in the GFA, they had to be as ambigious and vague as the Agreement, they had to make SF/DUP look like they really knew what they were doing in order to bed down the peace. They have done their job and done it well, however eaten bread is soon forgotten! Just as the A5 has piled up like some obscene motorway pile up in the faces of SF and the DUP, so to has the curfew on investigative journalism for Northern Ireland. “Back on crack” would have made more sense as McGuinness tried to spin his way out of a corner the other day when refering to the A5. Let the dog see the rabbit, happy hunting jurnos!

  • There actually is an opposition. But the 3 members of the opposition are rushed off their feet.

  • A few points:

    The local media has run stories and comment questioning if the economic case for the A5 stacked up, as a simple search reveals. Most seem to pre-date Mr Parsley’s own analysis, which only came about once Enda Kenny said he was committed to it – and if that didn’t set alarm bells off, I don’t know what would. So the story wasn’t a huge ‘surprise’, although perhaps it was to Mr Parsley.

    Unemployment figures are reported faithfully each and every time they are published, usually fairly prominently by everyone. And there have been plenty of stories about water infrastructure, or lack thereof.

    The McGuinness “back on track” statement in Dublin appears to have come from PA, possibly via UTV. OFMDFM can spin all they like, but it was in the context of the reports that the project had already been shelved. That’s called reaction. They’re entitled to it, but it doesn’t mean they will be believed. The public isn’t as stupid as some would lead you to believe.

    If people don’t read the ruddy papers, they’re hardly in a great position to judge…

  • Mick Fealty

    Really good point Gonzo. But it’s the lack of impact of such stories have in the media’s political analysis that’s most striking. Perhaps some burden sharing between specialists would help?