Where so few SF and DUP friendly columnists in the MSM?

That’s something that gets put to me again and again. With the exception of Jim Gibney (who’s actually just a little too close to the party machine to be an effective opinion former), Brian Feeney and Fionnuala O’Connor in the Irish News and our own Chris Donnelly’s occasional piece for the BelTel who can all give a good account of a Sinn Fein perspective on the world, there are few mainstream commentators who can give a decent sympathetic view point of the two main parties.

What’s even more disturbing is that the DUP, the biggest party in Northern Ireland by some considerable way, has virtually no sympathetic voice in the MSM (nor even on Slugger these since we lost Fair Deal to the party).

You might say why does it matter, when the press in Northern Ireland is outnumbered so completely by Stormont’s press officer core?

I remember Ruth Dudley Edwards saying that you can never write a biography of anyone without a high degree of empathy with their journey through life. We have very few internal reference points for the two largest parties in the NI political sphere. For me this makes us more not less vulnerable to spin, as it becomes increasingly problematic to understand motivations of those in charge of what are fast becoming some of most inscrutable political institutions in the democratic world.

So when I see a SF friendly headline in the BelTel this morning on Niall O’Donghaille’s resignation, I’m disappointed to discover it’s written by his party’s leader on the City Council whose arguments are fine, but who necessarily will carry less weight because he is, so far as the party is concerned, still his line manager.

I’m not suggesting that the papers contact the press offices of each party for a secondee. The best advocates for a line of thinking are best detached from the party itself so they are not bound organisationally in to the party line. It’s critical that on some level we can trust that this is a thinking individual, not a hack.

That said, it’s a few years now since Fair Deal left us, leaving a serious gap in our own political spectrum. If you are broadly in sympathy with what the DUP are trying to achieve but not attached (where FD broadly was when he joined Slugger) and you want to try your hand, drop me a line at editor@sluggerotoole.com… We don’t even mind if you end up getting poached by one of the bigger fish.

  • Lindy McDowell is fairly DUP friendly is she not? Albeit that she doesn’t always write about politics.

  • There is certainly a disconnect between mainstream media and broader media and the two main parties.
    Simply put there is a degree of catching up that needs to be done.
    For those of us with longer memories things are much better than they were.
    Indeed Kate Adie in a recent documentary on the reporting of the Troubles said of her first tour of duty that she could not understand the TRoubles until she got inside Ormeau Avenue and noted how few Catholics were in the Newsroom.
    There wasa 1960s/1970s concensus.
    There is now a new consensus within our local newsrooms (TV and print) which is broadly middle ground and DUP and Sinn Fein are seen as beyond the Pale.
    Our two recent examples of journalists going “political”, Mike Nesbitt and Fearghal McKinney went to UUP and SDLP.
    Its hard to see anyone from a newsroom (TV or print) announcing his/her membership of DUP or Sinn Féin.

    Are newsrooms any less credible as a result? Surely the editorial position of the Irish News has always been nationalist….with a leaning towards constitutional nationalism such as SDLP. Surely News Letter has always taken the Unionist unity stance with a wariness of the DUP damaging the concept.
    They have maybe not caught up with their readers votes.
    The Belfast Telegraph has always tried to be all things to all people but when push comes to shove has been moderate unionist.
    Again out of step with what is actually the real political choices its readers make.
    To a certain extent the media has been more consistent than DUP or SF politicians. There is always a sense (for me) of incredulity at Sammy Wilson or John O’Dowd at making ministerial statements.
    As a rank and file punter, I am probably entitled to that incredulity. Allowing for the fact that the “print” journalists are out of step with their readers but in step with editorial policy…they also seem entitled to incredulity.

    I am not sure that the “broadcast” media are entitled to show (what it seems sometimes) to be personal distaste.
    Attention was drawn yesterday to the newest SF MLA, Mr Hazzard, who has a Politics degree. A “professional”.
    Yet that is not very different from scores of staffers from various parties up the stairs in the warren of rooms at Stormont.
    Nor is it very different from the Press Corps. He is at heart a kindred spirit. As indeed with many of the contributors to Slugger.
    It might also mean that there is a generation of graduates who are different from the 40 year old, 50 year old journos and commentators in newsrooms in newspapers and broadcast media.
    Its catch up. They will filter thru.

    As to the scarcity of commenters (of DUP or SF thinking)on Slugger……well the priority for any contributor who is supportive of a particular party has to be “how does this benefit my Party?” rather than thinking that it would benefit the forum.
    Does the DUP or SF “need” Slugger O’Toole? I doubt it.
    Does Slugger need DUP or SF?

  • ayeYerMa

    Hence illustrating the decline of the Belfast Telegraph. A paper that remains hostile to Northern Ireland’s largest political party (and seems more interested recently appealling to “Nationalists” and southerners who would not buy the paper anyway) cannot expect to remain Northern Irelands’s overwhelmingly largest paper. I suppose you can’t expect a paper with recent Dublin ownership and an English editor to be particularly in touch with local issues.

    Oh, and let’s not even get started on BBC NI – we wouldn’t expect any “opinion”, nor indeed any realistic connection to reality from them anyway…

  • cynic2

    I think two reasons:

    1 I fear that the DUP generally don’t have the intellectual capacity and see media contact as doling out press releases provided by a tight inner core

    2 in SF those who think are very often not the MLAs. Many of the strategists and those who really run the party / develop policy aren’t visible – hence the continual need to refer the simplest and least contentious issues back to Connolly House for approval by the brains of the organisation. God help the columnist working to a deadline and waiting for the Central Committee to approve the third apostrophe on line 7 of his copy

    This is all symptomatic of the generally poor standard of MLAs and the amount of time spent troughing and fighting the sham fight in Stormont

  • Mick Fealty

    Yeah, FJH, you obviously missed a critical point in the post…

    “I’m not suggesting that the papers contact the press offices of each party for a secondee. The best advocates for a line of thinking are best detached from the party itself so they are not bound organisationally in to the party line. It’s critical that on some level we can trust that this is a thinking individual, not a hack.”

  • DT123

    Surely it is just a reflection of society.How many ordinary ,working,educated ,non party affiliated people,does anyone know who openly admits to supporting the DUP or SF?

    I recall a “blow in ” Englishman producing DUP raffle tickets at a golf do I was at,child pornography could have had no more negative reaction.

  • Old Mortality

    Mick
    The answer might simply be that DUP supporters are not the most literate of people and the few that are (Fair Deal?) have been sucked into the party machine. Another thought is that the most zealous among them would tend to hold religious views which render them less accustomed to rational discussion.

  • cynic2

    “The best advocates for a line of thinking are best detached from the party itself so they are not bound organisationally in to the party line.”

    I agree …but do you think that either the DUP or SF would permit this? Control freakery abounds

  • Its not like me to miss anything critical.
    Mr Fealty has made the point that Jim Gibneys membership of a political party contributes to the fact that his column is not particuarly good.
    I go further. Writing a column and membership of a political party is a difficult act. And the same is true of blogging or commentating.

    If a columnist/blogger (not a member of a political party) writes 90% in support of a political party, the Party regards him/her as “one of us”.
    On the other hand if a columnist/blogger (a member of a political party) writes 90% in support of the Party, he/she will not be thought of as “one of us”.

    While it is clearly true that many staffers on all political parties are “politics graduates”…politics itself should not be left to such people. Politics is about real people…real issues. It is not a sixth form inter-school debate.
    I dont buy into the notion that DUP and SF people are intellectually deficient. Not only is it elitist rubbish but it is a view generally held by people with an over-optimistic view of their own intellect.

    An up and coming DUP orientated blogger (or indeed SF, UUP, SDLP) should therefore think thru whether he wants to contribute to a blog. ….if he is thinking of a political career in the backroom. In my view, the party bosses would be much more likely to concentrate on the 10% of not fully supportive comments……rather than the 90% whch are supportive.

  • ayeYerMa

    FJH, I will have to disagree with you on there being a concesus that there is a “middle ground” in the media. Northern Ireland is part of the Union and surveys show repeatedly that 90+% of the population is comfortable with that. A true middle-ground in a local Northern Ireland context would therefore be de facto Unionist. Treating terms such as “Unionist” and “Nationalist” as if they are somehow equal, as much of the media do these days, is effectively a pro-Nationalist bias in a Northern Ireland context. Hence, for example, BBC Northern Ireland has Pro-Nationalist bias.

  • Bigger Picture

    “The answer might simply be that DUP supporters are not the most literate of people”

    Ha this made me laugh! Next you’ll be telling us all that it is the quality of voter that really counts rather than the quantity of votes and (to quote Blackadder) the return to ideas of flogging servants, shooting poor people, and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn’t got a knighthood.

  • Mick Fealty

    Come on, the majority of unionists and nationalists are voting for those parties… someone out there must be able to talk convincingly and engagingly on various social and political topics?

  • andnowwhat

    If we take ourselves to another perspective and look at the situation here, we have 2 very extreme parties in power here with one which has high ranking figures who believe in some outlandish nonsense that would make them a laughing stock (think the Tea Party) in a decent country and another with a past more befitting a South American or Middle East nation.

  • Mick Fealty

    FJH,

    “the party bosses would be much more likely to concentrate on the 10% of not fully supportive comments……rather than the 90% whch are supportive”

    True, but as I’ve had some of these conversations with ‘party bosses’, the point I make to them is that credible champions can demonstrate they are not part of the corporate body hold more influence than hacks.

    I wasn’t criticising Jim for not being good btw. He’s just too close to the machine. I think this is something our lot need to ease up on generally.

    I credit the complaint of there being too few commentators, but if the parties look for too slavish a service for them, ironically these independent commentators can actually be less productive.

  • South Belfast Hack

    “I fear that the DUP generally don’t have the intellectual capacity”

    “Another thought is that the most zealous among them would tend to hold religious views which render them less accustomed to rational discussion.”

    Some very hurtful comments, from Cynic2 & OM, fortunately we hold religious views which tell us to bless those who curse us or we might take offence at your remarks.

  • pauluk

    Cynic2: … I fear that the DUP generally don’t have the intellectual capacity

    Here’s a reason possibly why anyone working within the MSM would not want to be identified as sympathetic to the DUP. As soon as they were, they would be harassed and ridiculed by ‘intellectuals’ like Cynic2.

  • Perhaps Ive also had conversations with party bosses. 🙂

    At my advanced age, I am not exactly careerist but if I had any career interest, I would not blog. It is human nature that the monitoring of sites such as yours and mine is not actually done by MLAs but rather the staffers.They are the ones most likely to “have a little book”

    The bigger the career opportunity, the less likely a person is to blog. Indeed the message I get from more than one Party is that a member who blogs …..especially without using a “real name” is treated with a certain amount of suspicion.
    My position is slightly different because I was blogging long before I became a member of the SDLP in August/September last year.
    And thereby hangs a tale or two.

    But at times I wonder if the role of blogging is actually consistent with being a member of a political party.
    Simply put Mr Fealty, you and I are in broad agreement here. But the case needs to be made that a person with the “ear of a major political party should look to his own interest (not necessarily career as a staffer….or advancement as a candidate, local office holder)
    And while there is some anedotal evidence that some comments on Slugger are written from Press Offices, we should be wary of that input.

  • “It’s critical that on some level we can trust that this is a thinking individual, not a hack”

    This is all very well for those with a keen interest in politics but IMO is quite dangerous for both society and democracy. For the less initiated a thinking propagandist could be more effective than an OFMDFM corporate communications director.

  • Mick Fealty

    FJH,

    Interesting view. That sort of takes the view that there’s only one way to go and that’s inside the machine… That’s not always going to be the case for everyone though…

    I can think of a couple of Slugger alumni that blogging did no harm to… and a number of bloggers else who did pretty well out of their own blogs…

    Whether it is compatiable with becoming a public rep one day, well, I suspect that depends on a range of factors not all of them related to whether you blog or not…

    Though I notice that neither Conall nor Mairtin have their own blogs any more… Tom Watson does…

  • Eglise en bois

    maybe the answer is fairly simple and straight forward, those who vote for the DUP and are capable and able to write the incisive pieces etc do not want to be identified with them. Possibly they remain embarrassed to be associated with the DUP and voting for them is their “dirty little secret”

  • Ah….the thing might be that there is a difference between Blogging and Spinning.
    I make the point that Blogging is (possibly) not consistent with Party membership.
    Spinning (by means of a Blog) is perfectly consistent with Party membership. Does it add to….or detract from…..”understanding”.
    I assume that Máirtín is Councillor Ó Muilleoir. And would he “blog” or “spin”. As a SDLP member I might lean to the “spin” theory.
    This “Conall” of whom you speak? As I have absolutely no idea who this might be….I cant possibly comment or lean to any theory 😉

  • fjh, the Councillor’s public persona appeared to go into a tail-spin during the course of the NIW saga and related stuff.

    Conall’s ‘regionalism’ came a little unstuck when I invited him to elaborate on the regions of which he spoke; he somehow overlooked NI being a region of the UK 😉

  • No harm in that Nevin. Id also overlook it. LOL

  • son of sam

    Do we count Jude Collins as a member of the mainstream media?I suppose it depends whether the A/town News is categorized in that august company of opinion formers!He certainly seems sympathetic enough to the Sinn Fein cause though I guess he would deny any such closeness.Perhaps we forget the role of the provincial press in all this.Certainly papers such as the “Derry Journal” and the “Ulster Herald” are more than sympathetic to the Sinn Fein point of view.The corollary is that the S D L P are rarely given such fawning coverage as Colm Eastwood will testify!

  • Bigger Picture

    Mick

    Without wanting to generalise I would imagine that the vast majority of contributors to Slugger are well set in their political opinions and therefore the appeal of arguing on slugger without too much reward is less appealing, whenever they already have a commanding lead in their respective areas.

    You could also compare the reticence of DUP/ SF types to engage in commentary is akin to Presidential debates from USA to France. Those who are behind want them, those in front don’t need the distraction.

    Not bad analysis from an illiterate religious zealot not capable of rational debate

  • cynic2

    “ridiculed by ‘intellectuals’ like Cynic2”

    I don’t class myself as an intellectual but I can recognise those public representatives who have difficulty walking and talking at the same time

    I fondly remember the late lamented Johnny McQuade’s speech in the Old Stormont when he said “some people here have made allegations behind my back …..and when I find them I will deal with these alligators”

    Watching Stormont Debates or proceedings in our Councils, has it moved on that much?

  • RyanAdams

    “Do we count Jude Collins as a member of the mainstream media?I suppose it depends whether the A/town News is categorized in that august company of opinion formers!He certainly seems sympathetic enough to the Sinn Fein cause though I guess he would deny any such closeness…”

    No I don’t think he is a member of SF however when its says Andytown News on your payslip you are effectively spouting the party line and to do otherwise will soon see you publically apologising as Squinter found out …

    http://sluggerotoole.com/2008/03/31/speaking-truth-unto-power-gets-awkward/

    http://sluggerotoole.com/2008/03/28/blink-and-youll-miss-it/

  • Wabbits

    Son of Sam raises an interesting point regarding provincial newspapers. Their influence should not be underestimated and interestingly the Derry Journal is a case in point.

    While that paper has columnists who are somewhat independent (Eamon McCann and ex cop Norman Hamill) the papers overall coverage of all things Sinn Fein verges on the propogandist. Indeed a perusal of bylines in the “Journal” is usually a dead giveaway before you read a word of the story below the name.

  • The NI broadcast and print medias’ too cosy relationship to the politicos they’re supposed to be holding to account, was seen again last night in Nolan’s TV interview with Alex Atwood, where after grilling him over the eyesore in portsrtewart, Nolan ended by thanking him for coming in and facing his and audience’s scepticism. [effectively apologising to him for having to appear to be on the side of the great unwashed. It was cringeworthy viewing.

  • Actually it was the exact opposite. Nolan played to the gallery as befits a “shock jock”. His show needed a villain including of course the Apprentice posh girl……and any politician. Last night it was Alex Attwood.
    I wont give Nolan the oxygen of publicity but abusing and hectoring any guest on his show…..and then ending an interview with a handshake and “fair play to you for coming on the show Minister” is not my idea of good manners.
    Of course Nolan would love a politician to walk out of an interview on live TV (a good You Tube moment) but failing that the next best thing is refusing to go on his show. THat might actually get some cross-community support…and would hardly work if just one Party did it.

    I was speaking to a senior political figure recently for whom his morning show is unmissible “well……it sets the agenda” and I was totally gobsmacked.
    Thompson out and Nolan in…….is hardly a coincidence. Is it just dumbing down? Or is the Beeb moving to a new level of concensus where politicians will be merely mocked.
    Nolan divides opinion of course. He has many fans. I am not one of them. But the role of his 90 minute programme five times a week is to find “issues” and institute division.

    But I suspect that last night might have been a step too far. First night anxiety perhaps. But Nolan seemed to be trying too hard. What might have transpired in the Green Room afterwards might have been better television than the Show itself. And de-briefing sessions at Party Press Offices (particuarly the SDLP) might be interesting. As indeed might be a de-briefing session within Ormeau Avenue.

  • FJH Agree much of that, but not sure it contradicts my point. I think Nolan is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds on last night’s showing.

  • Well thats his technique. The referee who is “Everyman”.

  • sdelaneys

    I find that the media in general rarely criticise either the DUP or SF and seldom go beyond asking a question and smiling nicely when it is answered. An incisive interview is a rarity.