In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has come under an attack from the establishment media the likes of which we have never seen an opposition leader be subjected to before. Just about everything has been thrown at him, from IRA sympathising, colluding with Czech spies, anti-Semitism, to taking three hours to congratulate William and Kate on the birth of their third child. Importantly however, nothing has stuck. Corbyn continues to shrug it off, rise in the polls and remains on track to be the next Prime Minister.
The British media’s inability to tear the Labour leader down should come as no surprise to people in Ireland. Our media has been trying and failing to tear Sinn Féin down for decades. In this way, perhaps Ireland was first to realise the establishment media wasn’t as all-powerful as it was believed. Much of media studies over the last 50 years has focused on the hegemonic power of the media. Recent world events, perhaps partly the result of academia attributing to the public’s awakening in regards to this lack of agency, have drastically altered this perception. In the current media environment people do not accept the news as fact in the way they once did and seem much more aware of the existence of bias. It’s not only the rise of Corbynism that has provided a check on the power of the establishment media, as this is also apparent in the results of the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election. This is a phenomenon manifest in the US President’s petulant cries of “Fake news” and the meteoric rise of alternative online media.
In Northern Ireland, infamously the media landscape has traditionally been dominated by pro-unionist organisations. Over the last few decades media outlets have toned down their unionist bias – if not their anti-Sinn Féin inclination. This opposition to the party often comes at the expense of awareness to what might be perceived as ‘conflict journalism’. This is best exemplified by two of the three biggest selling newspapers in Belfast. On any given day, a quick scan of the News Letter and the Belfast Telegraph will easily uncover such intolerance. Stephen Nolan’s radio and TV shows – heralded as the biggest in the country – are often criticised for their anti-Sinn Féin bias and for consistently giving airtime to detractors such as Jim Allister and Jamie Bryson. It is certainly true to say that the polemical TUV leader has almost become a permanent fixture on the shows.
In the rest of Ireland, the contempt for the party is much the same. This was best exemplified recently in Daniel McConnell’s article in the Irish Examiner where he attributes Sinn Féin’s rising popularity to leader Mary Lou McDonald’s “sex appeal”. This issue was then explored on Marian Finucane’s RTÉ radio show on Sunday and drew the ire from many on Twitter as the state-funded show degenerated into simply an exercise in Sinn Féin bashing without any supporter of the party on the show to offer balance. However, keen viewers of the Irish state’s current affairs television and radio shows throughout history will not be surprised by this lack of balance and the absence of Sinn Féin supporters on panel discussions.
Despite all of this, the party continues to rise steadily in the polls and achieve electoral success in both the North and the South. In Northern Ireland, the last election saw Sinn Féin garner their greatest ever electoral result and a recent poll carried out in the Republic found that Sinn Féin have moved up two points and McDonald’s personal rating has risen by five. Indeed, Sinn Féin can now confidently claim to be the defacto biggest political party on the island of Ireland and have a real chance of being in government in the Republic for the first time. Academics didn’t need to wait for the rise of Corbyn, the alt-right or Brexit but only to look to Ireland and the rise of Sinn Féin for a sign that the power of the media establishment was not as big an influencer of public opinion as once thought.
Richard Gallagher is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. He also holds an MA from The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. He has previously contributed to The Conversation, Taste of Cinema and Wise Up: Irish and Politically Incorrect. Born in Donegal, he has been living in Belfast for the last seven years. You can follow him on Twitter @RichGallagher1.