“The ideological compass in Northern Ireland is pointing towards Narnia and the media are writing the script”

My personal highlight from a morning spent at the Workers Party NI conference was Brian McDermott’s barnstorming speech asking What exactly does our media do? [MP3, PDF copy] While I disagree with some of his logic and thinking, he did express a view that is shared by many in Northern Ireland. I wonder whether any of the local media will dare to respond next week by inviting Brian on to discuss his views on air?

Before tackling local media, Brian looked at world events asking whether mainstream media properly informs the public about Syria. Is the “simple equation Free Syrian Army = Good / President Assad = Bad” the whole story? Will we question the role of Turkey, or see it as an innocent bystander?

How many candidates are therein the Presidential election in November in the United States? It’s a no brainer. There’s two. Obama and Mitt Romney. In fact there’s fourteen candidates on the ballot paper. And in addition to those fourteen candidates on the paper there are another 113 write-in candidates .. So you’re talking about 127 people running for President of the United States, but hey, we don’t need to know that. That’s far too complicated for the likes of us.

In an aside, Brian remarked about one of the other candidates, a “brilliant guy” called Virgil Goode.

He struck me as somebody from Thunderbirds, but only in America. But then of course we probably shouldn’t criticise as there’s people here who think the world was made in six days and the Giants’ Causeway was created the Tuesday before last! We’re probably not in a position to mock.

And keeping with the theme of world affairs:

Again if we rely exclusively on the mainstream media, you would think that the United States has no option but to fulfil the role as world policeman. It has to be everywhere and do anything as the world is basically full of bad guys and somebody has to sort them out. And how do I know that? Well, Frank Mitchell told me, so it’s straight from the horse’s mouth …

Brian asked why so many media organisations adopt the same position on so many different matters. One explanation he proffered was that “media organisations and individual journalists rely on an ideological compass … to inform them on how to form an opinion on a particular issue”. The compass points determined by “the consensus formed by the dominant opinion formers in society: government, business, church and academia”.

With journalists “unquestioningly” using their “ideological compass to plot their path” Brian suggested it was “little wonder that much more critical and analytical matters [Ed – important to Brian] get simply dismissed”. This is apparently why the results of X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing become major issues on Good Morning Ulster on Mondays.

Locally, the “elite consensus or the preferred view of the world” is that the compass is pointing in the direction of “we’ve never had it so good”.

That’s what we need to know, That’s what we need to understand. That’s what we need to accept. We know that because we are told it. Repeatedly and repeatedly and repeatedly. We read it in newspapers, we hear it on the radio, we see it on the television and shame on you if you think otherwise because you will be ostracised! You certainly won’t get on television, on the radio or in the newspapers to tell people there’s an alternative view.

Just get a grip of reality here. This is the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. So what’s there not to be happy about? Rory McIlroy has just won another Open Golf Championship; the Irish Open has been played at Portrush. Northern Ireland won three bronze medals – or maybe more – at the Olympics and somebody from here that nobody has ever heard of is doing well in some competition that has no relevance to anything. Therefore, Northern Ireland is a great place to live. Shut up and get on with it.

There is a feel good factor according to the ideological compass and according to the media. The MTV Awards have been staged in Belfast, therefore Corporation Tax should be reduced because of all this so that big companies can pay less tax and absolutely no jobs what so ever will be guaranteed as a result.

The ideological compass in Northern Ireland is pointing towards Narnia and the media are writing the script.

While not wanting to be a party pooper, Brian listed some non-feel good changes in Northern Ireland: more peace walls than when Good Friday Agreement was signed; more than 300,000 homes (44%) in Northern Ireland live in fuel poverty; youth unemployment risen from 9.6% in April 1998 (when GFA was signed) to just over 22%.

How come Northern Ireland is in a league of its own when it comes to educational attainment? We have the highest percentage of young people leaving school with less than five GCSE passes at Grade C or below. More than half of non-grammar pupils did not get a grade C or above in English. And how did BBC Northern Ireland report that? “Northern Ireland comes top of the class” they said.

Brian complained that the local media – who he stereotyped as a “powerful” “sub set or class fraction of Northern Ireland’s middle class” – have a “private enterprise view of the world” and “an undisguised distaste for the public sector and everything that it does”.

Every hole in the road dug by public sector workers is headline news. How dare they disrupt Northern Ireland? Every flake of snow that falls each winter is put there by the lazy, protected, overpaid, highly pensionised chancers of the public service. Don’t even get them started on bus lanes.

He also suggested that “awards” (a picture of the CIPR awards popped up on screen at this point) and “audience figures” are what obsesses “media people” here in Northern Ireland, not “informing people, developing arguments or analysing the society we live in”.

Rolling towards his conclusion, Brian predicted that the media would defend themselves with an argument that they “just hold up a mirror to society” and would content that they “do report these issues and we have discussions and we involve everyone and you can text in and phone in and Twitter in and chatter in.in Northern Ireland in the debate”.

So what about Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme. How did Wendy Austin open up the “‘discussion’” (Brian’s quotation marks) on the news that Marie Stopes was to open a clinic in Belfast?

‘Are you in favour’ asked Wendy, ‘or are you outraged?’ Whoa. What happened to the bit in the middle? Did I miss something. But of course we don’t frame the debate, we don’t skew the debate. And we don’t point the ideological compass in any particular direction. It’s either are you mental or outraged is really what the question is.

And finally, Nolan.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the radio show or the TV programme. The only thing we need to ask about the Biggest Shown in the Country (he wouldn’t be looking to win an award would he?) is this. [Ed – he won two last weekend at the PPI awards in Kilkenny!]

Are we better informed after the programme than before it?

The Nolan Show is an excellent example of a ‘bias against understanding’. Once we’ve realised that its function is not to serve society but to serve Stephen and the BBC production team, then we are better informed already.

The Workers Party plan to draft a discussion paper on the “role, function and practices of the media in Northern Ireland for circulation and comment by all members prior to publishing it in early 2013”.

Brian’s analysis focussed mostly on radio and specifically on Radio Ulster. Newspapers were surprisingly left largely unscathed – except by association with their broadcast cousins. Speaking to me after his speech, (MP3) Brian said that “there is a requirement on the media that they step back and critically present the information in a much more objective manner than currently is the case.”

Does the content of debate on Talkback happen within the constraints of the framing laid down by the presenter and producers? Wendy and her team might disagree. The Nolan Show might disagree with Brian that working class issues don’t get aired by the media and point (past their awards) to the enhanced C2DE audience that distinguishes it from a lot of other Radio Ulster output. And Frank Mitchell may have a bone to pick about the horse analogy.

What do you think? Are the media a borg collective that squeeze out original thought, working class issues, and simplify news down to too easily digested chunks of mush? Is Northern Ireland well served by its media? Are you in favour with Brian? Or are you outraged?

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  • Erm

    “It’s the job of the media to protect people from reality” – I’m glad to hear someone articulating this unease… I’m occasionally underwhelmed by the level of nonsense we get on GMU, and how little we ever get to learn or to think, for example, about the disjunction between structures ostensibly designed to be democratic and to ensure freedom, and the ways in which they are subverted or distracted so that human beings can continue in slavery, torture, impossible debt… We hardly hear about Syria, about Lebanon, about ongoing events in the rest of the world… Can’t we pinch Radio 4’s From our own Correspondent for Radio Ulster? Ask some searching questions of the way the world works, and how its patterns are refracted across the globe…

    If the media’s ideological compass were pointing us towards Narnia, it would at least be taking us to a world where we would be thinking about treason and integrity, selfishness and commitment to duty and responsibility and allegiances; where we would see competing ideologies and worldviews, warring it out in life and death battles. If the media pointed us to Narnia, we might know we had a different range of choices than “in favour” or “outraged”. Those choices would include violence, cruelty and the use of others for our own ends, as well as noble combat, honourable self-sacrifice and leaving room for hope, faithfulness and generosity.

    Ultimately, I’m amused that the speaker criticised Wendy Austin for shallow, binary distinctions, yet himself dumps the whole of “the media” into one bin. Perhaps the most popular and most watched/listened to programmes are actually an expression of our culture’s need for fora for debate. Personally, I prefer the style of interviewers and programme makers who raise questions and have the confidence to leave us to think. If media consumers choose not to agree with me, is that the fault of the media? (perhaps partly… but perhaps also a failing education system, and a persistence sickness of consumerism that drives even the well-educated to leave important questions unasked)

    If you do find a compass that points to Narnia, let me know!

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    On the media comments:

    Regular readers will know that when irregularly contribute it’s usually a gripe about the media and our local smokescreen generators.

    I think I’ve got a similar post floating around about Nolan, at his format being tabloidy from the start.

    I would love a debate show, but what he does is knee-jerk partisan, reactionary hackery rather than informed debate .
    And he doesit on 5 live too.

    Whether its Katy Hopkins or Edwina Currie vs a trade union rep.

    Sinn Fein vs DUP bunfight

    That Charlie Wolfe demagogue vs anyone

    All before he’s got round to his emotional story about some tragedy were he wants to whip up a mob to have a new law for burglaries on pensioners. Why its more traumatic than a young person or even a disabled person is beyond me,

    And like was mentioned in the article he normally still manages after all that, to moan about these bonkers beaurocrats who want to make us hard-working motorists who pay motor taxes get off the roads and uses buses! Who do they think they are!!

    All that said, I like Nolan, but his format has to change. Its dawned on me that if I want reactionary slanging matches, mob culture and trumpeting about being the biggest show in the country I can get all that from Bill O’Reilly on Fix News.

    He also does the whole “My listeners are hardworking salt of the earth people….” when some remarks on how innane and ill-informed most (but not all) his callers are?

    I can’t be the only one to notice how he talks down to his listeners here compared to 5 live. That’s not him being two-faced, just recognising that the people who keep him in a job are…. dim.

  • The media establishment in NI is geared towards a unionist view. Look at the hype over NI match in Portugal. Stephen Beacon in the BT has already written off the World Cup in Brazil 2014 yet the BBC and UTV still cover it like its a done deal. This is worse than the English media over 1966. Catch yourselves on. Azerbaijan will beat your pub team next month and the off-day Portugal had will be never mentioned again.

  • weidm7

    The fact is, thinking is hard, ask any research psychologist and check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristics for a very brief introduction. You get home from a long day’s work, you cook your dinner and finally you get to sit down for a while, do you think at this stage most people really want to get into an abstract, diversified argument about something without easy answers? Or do they just want an easy them v us narrative? They obviously don’t because there aren’t any shows like this on the airwaves.

    I don’t disagree with what the WP guy is saying and obviously everything within reason, but a little perspective is always a good thing.

  • Fortlands

    Excellent presentation of a vital issue, Alan – Maith thu! The media don’t just frame the debate- they construct our political world. I’m with Brian on principle but his example of ‘the middle bit’ and its omission is actually the problem: the media’s unspoken assumption ithat a liberal, secular view of the world is the only sane one to bring to any issue is as wrong as it’s arrogant.

  • HeinzGuderian

    I choose not to listen to Nolan,or radio Ulster………I know it may be difficult for some,but there are other media outlets,at the mere turn of a dial. 😉

    Delighted that ‘our wee team’,got Mr Moron’s panties in a twist …….GAWA 🙂

  • babyface finlayson

    “This is apparently why the results of X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing become major issues on Good Morning Ulster on Mondays.”
    True enough but this seems to happen on all UK media, Radio5, morning tv etc.
    So I’m not sure it proves anything in particular about our local outlets.

  • tacapall

    Workers party ? Isn’t that the political wing of the Official IRA, by the way have the Official IRA decommissioned their weapons yet ? Isn’t their former president wanted by the American government in relation to the distribution and sale of counterfeit American dollars, but hey what political party in the sick counties aren’t hypocrites and haven’t been connected with some sort of criminality in the past, but in the last year or so there has been a few shooting incidents in West Belfast connected to the Official IRA they haven’t gone away either but the Workers Party dont seem to be tangled to the Workers Party/OIRA tag by Unionism – I wonder why.

  • babyface finlayson

    You already shoehorned that comment into the discussion about Newton Emerson.
    At least this time it is vaguely on topic!

  • DC

    The MTV Awards have been staged in Belfast, therefore Corporation Tax should be reduced because of all this so that big companies can pay less tax

    Good point but the idea is to firstly get the powers, secondly to – if possible – offer sophisticated reductions say in labour intensive sectors such as manufacturing. SO that jobs could be created rather than a crude blanket reduction which encourages brass plating of profits (profits which shift to NI but not the actual economic activity) as a result of companies setting up in name only, a disastrous non-jobs set up.

    As someone who was in favour of the reduction the recent media revelations – those media not following the ideological compass – about the Starbucks and the facebooks not paying corporation tax is turning me off the idea of even bothering having a fight around having those powers.

    Seems to be that existing loopholes need closed and enforcement of existing rates needs more government focus.

    What is the priority of the state, is it not to balance the books, the public finances? Why isn’t there a strategic shift in public sector activity away from social regulation and over on to economic regulation? That means having proper enforcement agencies to regulate banks, markets and companies paying tax. Perhaps even immigration, especially illegal immigration, which is harmful to social wellbeing as these guys work for cheap off the books and don’t pay anything back in the black market.

  • jthree

    ‘Can’t we pinch Radio 4′s From our own Correspondent for Radio Ulster? Ask some searching questions of the way the world works, and how its patterns are refracted across the globe…’

    Eh? Why not just listen to FOOC on R4 or its podcast or on the iplayer? Also the World Service is easily available on diigital. It’s not like 94.5 is the only frequency on the dial.

  • qwerty12345

    Good to see the UK and EU are standing up for free speech:



    Oh well I guess theres always “Our wee team” at Radio Ulster and the Newsletter, both valiantly striving to rise to the dizzying journalistic heights of…..

    Sorry, I’m laughing too much.

  • Jack2

    Brian made a lot of sense in that audio snippet.
    Keep on calling them out!

  • GavBelfast

    I enjoyed that!

  • jthree

    I suspect the WP have a very precise idea of what real working class concerns are. And who are we to doubt them given that their reading of the working classes over the past four decades has delivered unparalleled electoral riches.

  • Fozzy


    George W Bush Got elected, does that mean he is in line with the very precise thinking of the electorate who voted for him? Just a question on how he did it then in your view?

  • jagmaster

    It seems I’m not the only one who feels the same way. BBC N Ireland news coverage is the worst with the simpering patronising coverage it presents. Donna Traynor’s slow pronunciation of words as if we are all stupid is especially jarring. Although in saying that UTV is almost as bad.

  • Nice article, Alan in Belfast, but I doubt many will realise the truth of it, and the sublime ease of how they are used and abused by media and/or those and/or that which would try to control media and IT and communications, for the exercise of corrupting power, which is most enriching. However, that was before, whereas now are things …….. well, let us just say more than just a tad more interesting and complex and in flux, for times have a’changed and are a’changing, as this weekend’s news and views shared afore in earlier days will attest and confirm with our AIMission …… to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain with Edutaining IntelAIgents………. Novel HyperRadioProActive IT, which incidentally has made itself known to Stormont head offices, but obviously are Marty and Peter keeping that quiet lest they be discovered to be considerably out of their depth in fields which will swamp them when they are shortly known, which does have one questioning the wisdom of that ignorant folly, for one cannot deny the truth which only grows stronger the harder one professes to not know of it.

  • jthree

    The implication of your question Fozzy is that the Sticks have greater democratic legitimacy than a two-term president. And before you start setting up a strawman with a long screed on the stealing of the first election, don’t bother. I’m as familiar with it as I am with WP personation.

  • wild turkey

    “Although in saying that UTV is almost as bad.”

    jagmaster, how do some UTV (and BBC) presenters get 4 syllables out of the 3 letter word NOW?

    i don’t tend to watch the local TV news that much as it often appears to be produced by RadioFreeCultra.

    whilst the Nolan Show(s) have about as much impact and insight as a neurotic beta-male zoo chimp getting familiar with itself. but it does attract a crowd.

  • forthman

    Why was my pevious post not shown? Should I have changed the ‘workers party’ to the ‘official IRA’ or the ‘stickies’, utter rubbish!!

  • BluesJazz

    wild turkey

    Re: local tv news, there isn’t much to present. But ‘let’s go to our local journalist in the area’ around 6 or 7(BBC).

    Regional school does well at GCSE, vague environmental issue-seals on Strangford Lough-, library closure, big cat in Tyrone, playground vandalism in Derry etc
    You get the feeling that they miss ‘the troubles’? No-one is getting promoted on the algae on lough Neagh.

  • Barnshee

    Donna Traynor’s slow pronunciation of words as if we are all stupid is especially jarring. Although in saying that UTV is almost as bad.”

    Lovely to look at —personally Donna can take as long as she like

  • wolfetone98

    Well done the Workers Party. What a breath of fresh air it was reading about the conference on Slugger rather than the fetid stench of sectarianism that passes for politics in N.Ireland.
    People obsessed with marches, symbols and flags while the two sectarian monoliths pass and implement the most vicious onslaught that the community, protestant, catholic and dissenter has had to face.

  • IrelandNorth

    Worker’s Party (WP) – Socialist Party (SP) – Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). When will all this single cell division/mitosis end. One is reminded of the Monty Python film “Life of Brian”, where the the parodied Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea (PFLJ) only surpassed the Judean People’s Liberation Front (JPLF) on a scale of unpopularity. And hated each other more that the despised imperial enemy. I’m all for political diversity, but don’t ya just think this is taking this a little bit too far? Hmmm!