Talking to a friend in southern politics yesterday, he slipped a startling psychological term into the conversation to describe the current state of Northern Irish politics. He suggested we were in a fugue state, something which Wikipedia describes as:
…a dissociative disorder and a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity, including the memories, personality, and other identifying characteristics of individuality.
His trigger was hearing a strident northern politician – habitue of Radio Ulster – inveighing crudely against abortion on a flagship current affairs programme on RTE Radio. Hearing such unrepresentative views in the southern space gave him an unflattering perspective of what passes for normal in NI.
As it happens, Dennis Bradley wrote in the Irish News yesterday, pointing out (correctly in my view) that radio in the south does a lot of heavy lifting within the democratic loop. And it isn’t confined to RTE: the wider commercial network does its fair share too.
Stations like Tipp FM, KCLR, Shannon Sound, LMFM and Highland Radio still take local politics incredibly seriously. Local editors (including Northern Irish ones) feature in a prime review slot on RTE Radio One’s evening Drivetime programme. Today FM and Newstalk provide RTE with national competition.
Each one runs social media accounts that are de rigour for following detailed political events like elections and referendums to gain genuinely insightful local and hyperlocal knowledge (like which bits of Donegal voted yes, and which no and why).
So what’s the difference?
Well, the Republic is a democracy, and people get a say. It’s not one of the maturer ones but it is not a huge way off half the age of the US. It is, however, way ahead of the navel-gazing, does-my-bum-look-big-in-this place Northern Ireland is presently stuck.
Did Gregory Campbell (whom I’ve met and like) really say “the DUP would treat Sinn Fein’s “entire wish list” as no more than toilet paper?” In the Republic, that would invoke a dismissal. In Northern Ireland, it just gets you more airtime and column inches.
Oh, and did we all know that their political counterparts In Sinn Fein still pursue the agenda of a small cabal of paramilitary men, who sit on assets of an indeterminate size, mostly without the least reference or remark from the Northern Irish media?
And we wonder about the current reversible amnesia of a fugue state? Our mollycoddled politicians back away from risk and retreat into abstractions and an odd certainty about a future that in every other functional democracy has never been more uncertain.
Aye, but what’s the real difference?
Well, I’ll quickly digress before I attempt to answer. John Lloyd observed in his most recent book that the transition from communism to democracy –
…had been seen by many Czech journalists as a relatively simple process of substituting truth for lies, freedom to inquire against prohibition on inquiry, openness to the world as against confinement to the communist bloc. They stepped confidently into the new era – and found themselves unarmed.“Shallowness of understanding is journalism’s greatest bane. Journalists in authoritarian societies do not need to understand too much: it is enough that they obey.For those journalists who work in news media which exist in relative freedom, scepticism must be their default position, but it is one requiring a working knowledge of the subjects covered or it becomes mere cynicism…” [Emphasis added]
The comparison of northern and southern radio might be frivolous if it were not that we are about to enter an enormously important period of our history.
Brexit, demographics, political, social, religious and cultural change are melding together to create a very choppy but fascinating seascape. Radio will not be the only but it will be the most important forum for the discussions and debates that will arise.
The BBC is the only public service broadcaster we have to provide ongoing and quality current affairs radio. What is being provided at the moment is not fit for purpose.
There is a responsibility on those who are paid to lead and manage the BBC in Northern Ireland to provide a range of programming, a quality of production and a coterie of presenters who are capable of understanding and facilitating a complex, sensitive and passionate debate.
The nub: whilst southern journalism still assesses the outcomes readers/listeners might expect from a story: in Northern Ireland, the evaluation of potential outcomes appears to have all but vanished.
As a result there’s a growing awareness in the Republic that not taking a risk can be far more dangerous than not taking the right one and that not taking the people into your confidence as you make it is a far greater risk still.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty