20 years on: Will the media outside NI ever catch up?

During the last election (for readers in the future – this means the March 2017 version) a throwaway tweet seemed to catch the eye of local news-nerds.

And another variation on the same theme more recently had the same effect.

The reason? A look at the headlines on the superb Newshound service for a few days in late March reveals plenty.

Firstly, we have a Canadian academic and “supporter of the Irish peace process” who takes a look at the Troubles following the death of Martin McGuinness solely (it appears) through the lens of her past interviews with Republicans. Spoiler: she says it was all the fault of the British.

Secondly, and oddly enough, another Canadian example. This time with a bizarre closing paragraph: “McGuinness was probably not hoping for a return to violence, but he was undoubtedly open to it if necessary. Solving the border issue will require creative thinking all round, and could lead to outcomes the IRA and Sinn Fein would welcome — like joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. A little violence could help to stimulate that kind of thinking”.

Oh, and elsewhere on Politics.co.uk there’s Kevin Meagher deciding that “population change will deliver a majority for Irish unity in a few years’ time anyway”. As if Northern Ireland was anywhere remotely close to being that simple.

Three random examples, yes, but we could add others until we run out of word count and patience.

The general theme – and beyond the samples above – is that the media and writers outside Northern Ireland have a habit, with inevitable exceptions, of epousing views which are shallow, lazy and out-dated at best or, at worst, quick on all sides to write off human tragedy from a comfortable distance yet fail to offer the same generosity and fluidity of personal views which others closer to the grief have managed to find.

There’s a lack of any attempt at progressive or even current thinking, lack of any signs that the outlet/ writer can move on beyond their long-adopted position and even an apparent refusal to change how their news has been collected here despite years and years of progress. No less than Channel 4 News found a way last year to somehow turn the Northern Ireland team’s extraordinary Euro 16 success into a story about two groups of them’uns and the Troubles.

While the worst examples have an almost voyeuristic obsession with actual violence or have the Channel 4 News fixation on conflict (despite the actual experience of most local people), the most common impression is that the writer was handed a brief at 3am on a night-shift or begrudgingly flown to Belfast/ Antrim airport at short notice. There, they hit up a couple of favourite political press offices before a stroll along a peace wall, a quick copy-paste from an article they wrote 20 years ago and back in time for dinner in the Europa.

In short: from Michael Moore upwards, our home is reduced to a confirmation bias theme park and skimmed for swaggering, do-rightly insight in a way that would embarrass a GCSE politics student.

Of course, we’ve seen some great writing of late, some even rolling its sleeves up and joining the actual discussion in Northern Ireland by daring to ask the difficult and open questions we’re faced with ahead of years of huge change.

Saying that, it seems we can no longer beg visiting writers to stop attempting to explain our society by fitting people and their views into two neat religious boxes, since this has become more prominent locally.

The News Letter even managed to bring religion AND height into the debate.

Joking aside: we’ve come a long, long way.

Of course, the copy-paste visitors and over-excited ‘friends of…’ on all sides will catch up eventually.

Won’t they?!

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net