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?!

  • Granni Trixie

    Have a feeling that what is described above is the nature of the beast – the post is insightful and obvious at the same time! Ongoing struggles to frame news which impacts on public discourse however also incorporates opportunities for ‘ordinary’ people to input – as Slugger itself and phone in shows illustrate.

  • Karl

    Foreign audiences dont have time or care for nuanced analysis and while both sides in NI might be precious about the minutae, the foreign press paint in broad brush strokes.

    History for Irish and to a lesser extent British students may go into the detail but for the rest of the world the narrative about NI will be about the last vestiges of empire.

    I dont judge it but its not going to change because people in NI demand that their history is given an analysis way beyond its importance to the rest of the world.

  • Jag

    Okay, fine, criticize “foreign media” (like Channel 4 News) for simplistic, broad stroke analysis of this place.

    Did you ever consider the reciprocal though, of not seeing the woods from the trees?

    You may think of a 1,000 reasons why the demographic change to this place artificially carved out of Ireland in 1921 won’t lead to reunification, but to the rest of the world, it’s like gravity, it will happen.

    So, perhaps use these increasingly rare opportunities when NI is in the news, and the subject of “foreign” reporting to get a less processed view, it’s refreshing!

  • Very much accept that, although I have to admit being disappointed by anything I’ve seen on Channel 4 News (bearing in mind their usual standards).

  • It may well lead to reunification in some form – I’m not a unionist (or nationalist) so I’m not in denial on that one.

    But seeing the standalone demographics argument from someone published on the subject is disappointing.

  • Well said, although the joy of Slugger is that we can still take a moment to look back at how we’ve been seen.

  • GS

    Ed Moloney’s succinct criticism in the comments section of the David Meagher article is hilarious…

  • Korhomme

    Kevin Meagher has published form on the ‘inevitability’ of Irish unification, so it’s not surprising to see him jump on the demographic changes.

    It’s what’s called ‘confirmation bias’.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Are Catholics really that much taller than protestants?

  • Jag

    Yes, it’s down to generations breathing in toxic tyre & rubbish smoke from bonfires every July. In another couple of generations, Ulster Protestants won’t be able to go on rides at Disney because they’ll be so stunted.

  • Peggy kelly

    The Hurlers probably are maybe.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I’m not sure about “Channel 4 News’ … usual standards”. After the Westminster Bridge/Palace of Westminster attacks, C4 News ran a story that they had identified the perpetrator. It turned out that the guy they named was currently doing time in one of HMPs.
    I also remember Robert McCartney’s sister (Catherine I think) being interviewed by Krishnan Gurumurthy in 2005 and the interview quickly took the form of his murder becoming a hammer with which to beat Sinn Fein.
    C4 News seems to be about ‘being the news’ eclipsing conveying the news.

  • The Westminister Bridge shambles doesn’t seem to be typical of their standards, however Krishnan Gurumuthy’s interviewing style does make me cringe. From memory, he fronted a particularly poor piece on NI – another cloned Channel 4 ‘hands across the divide’ piece – last year.

    Their overall style is a matter of personal taste perhaps.

  • ted hagan

    Isn’t it the universal story that journalism is great until it focuses on something you genuinely know about?

  • Brian O’Neill


  • KevinM123

    No, its called objective, empirical analysis. Or, for short, the bleeding obvious.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Yes, Protestants have been weighed down by both a chip on the shoulder and the weight of history which requires them to hold Ulster for the Crown, even when the Crown couldn’t care less.

  • Granni Trixie

    I don’t accept the McCartney example you give is valid – at least c4 were interpreting actual signs that this could have been the case. Not th same as faking it.

  • Peggy kelly

    If we want to help people we should just get on and do it. However those who pretend to want to help but actually use a victim for political point scoring, that’s shameful.

  • ted hagan

    Hardly a very appropriate metaphor in the circumstances.

  • GS
  • Korhomme

    The demographic change is obvious, as is its trend. That doesn’t make the conclusion more secure than other possibilities.

    A couple of hundred years an the future of an area in Europe which had been a subjugated colony for 300 years, and then ruled by Napoleon, was discussed at the Congress of Vienna when the map of Europe was being redrawn.

    One possibility was for independence which you might think would be the ‘bleeding obvious’ solution. But the colony chose to remain with the colonisers, albeit as an equal member, thus forming Canton Ticino in Switzerland.

  • Zig70

    ‘quick to write of human tragedy’ knows no greater ally than the English media writing on the middle east. I don’t buy it that we are a complex story. It’s repeated all over the world and if anything it shows our ignorance to spout that line.

  • hollandia

    To quote an acquaintance of mine: “You have to remember that Journalist X’s copy is written under certain premises. Usually licensed ones.”

  • Jollyraj

    Better nutrition, housing etc.

  • Jollyraj

    Heck, even home-grown journalists can get it wrong. See Peter Taylor’s bizarrely muddled idea that the IRA didn’t deliberately target civilians – despite there being literally thousands of cases where they obviously did:


  • A caller on Talkback the other day was trying to make the same point.

  • Granni Trixie

    O not that old chestnut (many times gone over on Slugger and elsewhere re McCartneys an Marihia Cahill): it seems obvious to me at least that these Survivors far from being “used” by journalists had found their own voice and used publicity as a resource in their crusade for justice, speaking truth to power if you will.

  • Dept of Speculation

    Glad to finally see someone writing this. If you think ‘foreign’ writers are off beam, many of those over the border don’t compare too favourably either.

  • Sliothar

    Would they be the ones Mick cuts and pastes from time to time? ?:)

  • Jag

    Frankly, we should warmly welcome international media coverage of N Ireland.

    It’s NOT normal to allow tyres and rubbish to be stockpiled and burned, it’s NOT normal to site bonfires beside homes which are then burned out, it’s NOT normal to obsess over flegs, it’s NOT normal to march through areas you’re not welcome in, it’s NOT normal for people from both communities to book holidays so that they miss the Glorious Twelfth. Yet the local media treats all of this as normal, as a given.

  • Barneyt

    Well that is true. The DUP and SF have direct experiences yet their respective take on it can be poles apart. I too welcome an outside view if they conduct balanced research. They might naturally simplify it given they are sufficiently remote from the partisan detail

  • Dept of Speculation

    Along with the rest of coexistence and segregated living. They even have their own estate agents where I live. Newton Emerson wrote last week about how normal life trundled on against the backdrop of the Troubles. Locals and the foreign press were accused of somehow sensationalising the conflict. Now it’s impossible to convey the drudgery of coexistence in a transitional society. It is a highly depressing place to live, and more particularly – raise a child.

  • Dept of Speculation

    We don’t read about this much. Anywhere.

  • Dept of Speculation

    Did I hear him on RTE radio a while back? Makes a change from not having any locally based commentators into their sacred cabal. Though, admittedly, he wouldn’t have been my first choice.

  • Old Mortality

    Absolutely true. I once held The Economist in some esteem until I read a piece about a particular business with which I happened to be familiar. It was utterly facile and demonstrated only a very superficial knowledge of the subject. I don’t any longer take The Economist as seriously as it takes itself.

  • I don’t think international media picks that stuff up either – they’re too busy playing Bono reading messages on peace walls, or pretending not to be really confused, to dig down to elephant in the room questions of whatever kind. Not from what I’ve seen anyway.

  • runnymede

    Spot on this article. You could add that across the international press and the dreaded twitter world you can find thousands of lazy references to Brexit leading to NI leaving the UK. Pathetic really.

  • Oggins

    Protestants are taller, it the fact their religion allows them to stand tall and stretch their spine, whilst Catholics are weighted down, and hunched due to Catholic guilt, such as breaking lent, buy eating chocolate.

    I read it somewhere on a Croatian website, so must’ve true


  • T.E.Lawrence

    Interesting word that “Canton” with its political connotations. I also remember it from Lebanon ?

  • Korhomme

    Canton is the French word, the word usually used in English in preference to the ‘translation’ as ‘county’; the German is Kanton. It’s quite possible that Canton was used in areas of French influence. For a long time the Cantons were much more like independent statelets in a Confederation — they had their own systems of weights and measures, their own taxes and currency. Before 1905 there wasn’t a ‘Swiss Franc’.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Great point Ted! Growing up in NI is a great grounding in the ignorance and folly of the shallower parts of the news media – that is, rather a lot of it – and how bad most explanations of news events are generally. And how someone gifted when playing on home soil can play like a donkey away from home. People are limited.