“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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