It’s been a while since my last Twitter storm, but the piece I wrote yesterday, commissioned by new The Critic magazine, regarding the media’s general incuriosity about Sinn Féin set the cat amongst the pigeons this morning on Belfast Twitter.
Let me say straight out, the essay is NOT an excoriation of the courageous work that good journalists do and continue to do in holding politicians to account. I’m also NOT arguing for journalists to lay off other politicians.
Good local journalists (and there are a dozen or more of them) like Allison Morris have pursued issues like SIF, Red Sky, RHI and NAMA with determination, skill and dogged insistence to recover the truth about what our elected representatives are up to.
NOR am I arguing that pursuing journalism with an overall aim to aid society rather than to harm it is out of bounds. We should try to do that, as I’ve argued several times here on Slugger in the recent past. Outcomes matter, and should be factored in.
Amanda Ferguson raised a good point on Nolan this morning when she talked about how money has gone out of the profession. She’s dead right on that score. Papers, radio and TV have to feed voracious appetites of multiplying platforms with fewer and fewer.
Sam McBride made the reasonable point (read the whole thread) that you can try to get politicians to talk, but if they won’t (and they frequently won’t) there’s always the voters…
Mick says in part because of "culpable media negligence, there, in effect, was no public debate". It's the media's role to report & to ask hard questions. It's not our job to physically prise open O'Neill or O'Dowd's jaws to force an answer. Voters ultimately will pass judgement.
— Sam McBride (@SJAMcBride) November 20, 2019
There’s also an important point here that needs a little upscaling. By questioning a politician and the embedded privileges that come with public office, you’re neither stupid nor in fact a political opponent in your own right (as is regularly implied by SF pols and hacks).
Journalism is not perfect, but I’m NOT here criticising it for imperfections. The core of what I had to say in the piece is contained in a tweet that I quickly cobbled together yesterday…
Now there are various examples in the piece itself (which I think is free to read) of this Sinn Féin free media lens, some which I expanded upon on Nolan this morning.
But for a practical example, most outlets covered the announcement by the PSNI to the effect that the IRA Army Council retains oversight of Sinn Féin. Big story? [Dont bears sh*t in the woods? – Ed.] Not really. The general feeling is that we already know this.
What, then, of the omission of this fact from the Independent Reporting Commission (set up to monitor all paramilitary activity after the Provisional IRA were said by the PSNI to have murdered former IRA man Kevin McGuigan) because it was, and I quote, political?
It’s not just that there is no equivalent to this in any other established party on the island, it’s that the plain illogic of a panel set up to do a political safeguarding job to ensure that all political players play by the rules seems reluctant to do the job it was set up to do.
And there is barely a cheep out of the media. It’s as though with the collapse of the Stormont institutions we’ve forgotten what the IRC was set up to do, which we probably have. Worse, we’ve forgotten that it is our job to ask the right questions.
But also to make sense of the world for our viewers and readers. If you extract the presence of the Provisionals (the INLA went unnamed too) and only focus on loyalists and dissidents then we’re missing a large tract of the whole story.
This issue is less about bias, and more the passive acceptance of undemocratic norms. I don’t want people to back off the other parties. That’s not, to borrow from Amanda this morning, on my agenda.
It is good to question, cajole and badger much as happens with the DUP when it pulls up its drawbridge to the media. If the buggers won’t talk, go round the back, ask a friend, ask a friend of a friend, your cousin, your uncle, your granny.
How do they feel about issue x, what would they ask about y, and who knows about issue z? And more broadly what implications are there in normalising such extraordinary undemocratic arrangements at the convenience of one political party?
As for the ongoing absence of our democracy it is little other than an outrage, for instance: not least because of the painstaking way they were put together by folks of a much less fanatical mind than those in leadership positions today.
It is an entirely reasonable question to ask who actually leads Sinn Féin. If it is in fact the Army Council, then internal democracy is just a public circus and their leaders aren’t leaders at all. If that is the case, we’ll all know where we stand. And so will the electorate.
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