Friday morning at Xchange summer school began with a two hour session looking at how to change the conversation about the media. Denzil McDaniel was joined on the second hand sofas by former journalist and spin-doctor Lance Price, digital investigative journalist Steven McCaffery and ex-newspaper editor, columnist and commentator Nick Garbutt.
It was Lance Price’s first trip back to Enniskillen since covering the 1987 bombing for the BBC. Later he worked in 10 Downing Street as deputy communications director (under Alastair Campbell) and ran the Labour Party’s communications for a year or so.
For the first career I had all views had to be treated with equal respect and balance, and my own views weren’t allowed to count for anything. In the second career I had, only one person’s views counted for anything at all and they were of the Prime Minister Tony Blair, never mind the cabinet or anybody else in the Labour Party or anybody else anywhere else. So it was only after that in 2001 when I stopped working for Tony Blair that finally I had my independence and I had my freedom and I was able to speak my own mind about things.
Lance described Tony Blair as having “an obsession with the media”. Since leaving the employment of Number 10 and the Labour Party, he has written two relevant books: The Spin Doctor’s Diary and Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers V the Media
He quoted Enoch Powell saying that “for journalists to complain about the media was like the captain of a ship complaining about the waves”. It’s just something politicians have to deal with, though using “feral beasts” to describe the media’s dominance and power may have been a mistake of Blair.
What is that power? How great is that [media] power? Those who feel powerless in that media environment, can they do anything about it? … Can they find a way of using the media as an agent for progressive change in society? … I would argue that not only can you not ignore the media [but] you can use it to good effect.
Lance went on to list examples of the media being a “positive force for change”. But he cautioned that good causes needed to “understand what makes journalists tick” in order to frame arguments to make accessible stories with a dash of human interest that will be picked up and run by the media.
The organisers apologised for the all male panel – the only one of the four at the summer school to have all its female invitees decline.
The teens and twenties who met on Thursday morning had aired a pretty sophisticated analysis of the local and national media. [Ed – GSCE English has a lot to answer for!] Living in an area that still has strong weekly newspapers, the majority still regularly got newsprint on their fingers. However, they questioned the “truth” of larger newspapers, suspicious of how journalists came into possession of so many facts about celebrities, and doubting the veracity of stories. If anything, there was an over-reliance on their ability to search the internet to discover whether newspaper stories could be trusted. They felt that they had to peel back the “exaggeration and glamorisation” and get past “stereotyping” in order to find out the facts behind any story.
Steven McCaffery began by explaining where The Detail sits in the Northern Ireland media landscape. Whereas most reporters work in “breaking news”, staff at The Detail (particularly in their political coverage) “look at the big macro events that move more slowly but are leaning in on top of politics and society and are having a slower but fundamental impact”.
This approach has been compared to a clock: “you have to follow the minute hand as [events] move very quickly, but you also have to look at the slow-moving hour hand to tell what time it is and to get a complete picture”.
Steven picked three topics that The Detail has covered in depth but he felt were less than prominent in society’s conversations.
He argued that there is no crisis in parading, but instead was “a golden age for loyal order parading” with more parades than ever, and the vast majority taking place without hindrance. Steven didn’t doubt people’s concerns around parading. But he by not discussing the data, he described the nature of the debate as:
We trade insults; we don’t deal with the facts.
[Ed – though there are multiple interpretations of the facts, albeit some are minority views!]
The second low key topic Steven highlighted was “the political dynamics that are building outside Northern Ireland and which have the potential to have huge impacts on politics inside Northern Ireland”. Whether the vote for Scottish independence is successful or not, “it has massive implications for Northern Ireland as even devo max will have huge implications for Stormont”. UKIP’s rise in England raises questions about the UK’s place in the EU but we seldom discuss Northern Ireland’s “entirely different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK” and the potential impact of a changing UK relationship on the local economy (eg, farming).
“The growth of Sinn Féin in the Republic” through its strategy since 2007 of building roots in communities to build its powerbase had also been overlooked (until SF’s recent success in the local government and European elections).
… when you think there are two main players in the peace process inside Northern Ireland: that’s unionism and predominantly republicanism. Now one of those players is on the cusp of becoming part of – and possibly in time, central to – one of the two sovereign governments that actually control the process, so it’s a huge development with lots of implications.
While December 2012 is remembered for the vote on the Belfast City Hall flag, Steven argued:
The biggest story in December 2012 was the Northern Ireland census results.
Northern Ireland was created and the line in the map was drawn in such a way that the anticipation was that there would be a permanent Protestant majority … In the census results in December 2012, for the first time the Protestant population fell below 50% to 48% and the Catholic population rose to 45%. The wider significance is that older population is predominantly Protestant and the younger population is predominantly Catholic.
So there is a projector there that we’ve already seen played out in Belfast … The Northern Ireland political instinct would be to fear that … To me what the census told us was a number of things. There are a larger proportion of people than ever that didn’t class themselves as British or Irish. There was more information on the greater diversity of Northern Ireland society in terms of people who are from an ethnic minority, who have come here for employment, who are changing for a very positive way our society …
The census tells us that we’re now a community of minorities. Despite these trends, it doesn’t mean one community is going to come to dominate the other. It means that no community is over 50% … We are a society of minorities. We are a more diverse society than ever. In recent years people have articulated a great frustration at the failure of Stormont to deliver the kind of progressive politics that people want.
My message was that the kind of power that we’re getting from issues like demographics are going to force positive change in this society because when you come away with the knowledge that we’re now a society of minorities the inevitable outworking of that is that the future has to be a shared future.
Nick Garbutt started by reflecting that while the chair Denzil McDaniel became a journalist to make a different, his own motivation “was to make mischief”. His talk gave a reduced history of the UK newspaper industry, highlighting the government intervention to make it impossible for titles to survive without official bribes. [Ed – I recommend George Brock’s book Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age in dead tree and Kindle form.]
Nick described the newspaper industry as being in “deep, deep crisis” with circulation peaking in 1962 “and they’ve been on the slide ever since”.
I left the Belfast Telegraph in 1999 and its circulation was 124,000. I don’t know how many copies are actually sold today, about 42 or 43 thousand? That’s not a slide. That’s a paper being annihilated.
Figures for sales are even worse that Nick remembered with the latest ABC figures showing an average of 39,000 daily issues sold Mon-Sat along with 8,500 free pickup copies (half of those up in the north west).
And the reason is of course that [printed newspapers] have been completely taken over by technology. And what we’re seeing now is a shift between print and online which is irrevocable and irreversible . The problem of course is that they can’t make money online and they can’t get the advertising. You can’t charge a cover price. You’ve got people like Steven [McCaffery] who are pioneers at doing really, genuinely exciting investigations and publishing them online. The trouble with that is it has to be a funded model, you have to have a philanthropist to pay for it. I’m not casting any aspirations here, but it has potentially interesting implications about independence, hasn’t it?
Nick suggested that the media needed to change the conversation.
… With the internet and with social media, increasingly it is not about telling people things any longer. There you are, there’s the news, you read it in a paper. It is actually about a conversation, because you have forums, you have the opportunity to tweet. There is now the chance to speak back and make your voices heard. And if you don’t like what a newspapers doing, the cost of entry is so low now, you can start your own online publication yourself …
So there’s a sense that things are about to chance. And for me that can only be a good thing in the long term because it means we are actually having a conversation now instead of being lectured at by vested interests that don’t have the past that we think they have that have always been propagandists and have never been about truth-telling or giving a detailed report of what happened that day in a particular place.
He finished by making a “distinguished exception” for weekly newspapers which “are and always have fulfilled a mission which is around community and community engagement”.
The question time afterwards weaved through issues of media outlets seeking balance at the expense of truth; data journalism – with Niall McCracken’s recent story about the disparity of dementia diagnosis being highlighted; media stereotyping; Alastair Campbell’s ability to nearly dictate headlines and article introductions down the phone to journalists and be able to see them in print the next day.
Another journalist in the audience observed that online can create an echo chamber, while the “bad guys are taking advantage of online as much as the good guys”. He went on to note that while the economic barriers for entry into self-publishing have fallen to zero, very few actually do it. (Vixens With Convictions and Slugger O’Toole got honourable mentions!)
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.