The role of media in conflict: A Féile discussion
by Allan LEONARD
8 August 2019
Hosted by Féile an Phobail, the campaign group Time for Truth organised an event to examine the role of the media in conflict and to listen to the account of those journalists in the front line who helped shape and influence the narrative. The panellists were Amanda Ferguson (journalist), Sean Murray (film director), Trevor Birney (film producer), and Barry McCaffery (journalist).
After welcoming those attending the event at St Mary’s College, Amanda Ferguson introduced the first speaker, Sean Murray, who explained how his first gig was with fellow panellist Trevor Birney.
Birney explained how he and Ruth O’Reilly left UTV when it dropped its investigative reporting unit. They set up Below the Radar, and were promptly frustrated by the lack of interest from RTE and BBC commissioners in London, in the affairs of Northern Ireland. He got involved with The Detail investigative journalism website, established with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies. This is where Birney met fellow panellist, Barry McCaffery, who worked on the Loughinisland documentary, No Stone Unturned.
McCaffery has mixed views on whether the media has had a positive or negative role in conflict. On the one hand, this very Féile emerged from negative media stereotyping of those living in West Belfast as “animals”. Yet, it was investigative journalists who produced the revealing documentary, Death On The Rocks, about the execution of IRA suspects at Gibraltar.
He acknowledged the impact of social media, but cautioned that “you can’t get your news via social media”. McCaffery said that the news may be immediate on social media, but you need responsible journalists to put it in context. Yet some mainstream media, he added, want to present two sides of the same story, in the name of balance, as if everything was black-and-white: “real life is shades of grey”.
Amanda Ferguson said that media needs to be critical of itself. She stated that not all media is ethical or has honourable intentions.
In regards to telling the story of what happened in Northern Ireland during the conflict, Birney said that there remains an intransigence and bias against broadcasting such stories, by both RTE and BBC Northern Ireland. He levied this as a particular charge against them, as public service broadcasters. For example, “We spent 45 minutes today on the Stephen Nolan show debating cattle culling — something not based on facts. What chance do we have dealing with facts of collusion during the conflict?”
Murray spoke about the power of the documentary format, especially in giving voice to those marginalised in society. While he is unashamed about presenting stories from his Irish nationalist community, he hopes to see more young unionists become storytellers: “Stories have to come from the heart. They have to tell them themselves.” McCaffery noted the play, What If, an adaptation of the story of the Shankill bomb. He said that it was important that that play came to Féile as a festival event.
Amanda Ferguson opened up the discussion to the audience.
Someone asked for more views on mainstream media in Northern Ireland. Birney replied that it reflected a risk averse culture, driven by the shadow of Netflix and declining audience figures: “The public service broadcasters don’t want to take risks because they see no reward for doing so.” Ferguson added the dimension of public service broadcasters working to a remit of balance, which lends them to present conflict narratives for entertainment.
An audience member asked whether the topic of institutional abuses during the conflict would appeal to the media. Murray replied that it does, but only for the beginning and end of the news cycle. He also said that the media usually frames the issues in terms of perpetrators and victims, which isn’t always helpful. Furthermore, Murray declared that this topic should not be covered by journalists, who are often unqualified in handling the sensitive material. This reminded me about the work by Queen’s University and the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, in producing media guidelines on such matters.
I asked the panellists for their views on what Ferguson had described as less-than-ethical journalism in places of conflict. What do they think of “peace journalism” or “constructive journalism”? Ferguson replied that she did not believe in such a thing: “There’s just good journalism.” Indeed, she is concerned about a “peace process industry … of peacebuilders and self-appointed, global change agents” that in her view warrants more scrutiny. Birney cited positive examples the Canadian public service broadcaster, CBC, as well as from a former colleague [David Walmsley] who now edits the Toronto Globe and Mail. Birney argued that public service broadcasters have to stand up and stay true to good journalism.
Someone asked how the media should deal with legacy and the truth. Murray replied that broadcast media works to a principle of objectivity, which he deemed as a fallacy, as “we are shaped by a mainstream media that is not objective”. He added: “The only truth is from where you come from. There are many truths. I shape my narrative from the information that I get.”
In regards to framing topics, an audience member described what he called the “status quo conflict narrative”, whereby the media present the state as the good guys, loyalists as misunderstood, and republicans as the bad guys. He said that such British Government policy framing was presented via the BBC World Service, “which was funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office until six years ago”. Birney responded with argument for an all-island broadcast fund, akin to the Irish Language Broadcast Fund, which takes the powers of programming selection away from the broadcasters to the publishers: “I believe this would be far more democratic” and would address current broadcaster biases.
Another attendee spoke about “the dominant narrative of disinformation as subterfuge”. He evoked the power of the media to tell the truth, which for him is about showing how the British government is responsible for directing terrorism during the conflict.
On a final question on censorship, McCaffery said that a subtle form exists, as demonstrated by the so far unwillingness of BBC, UTV, Channel 4, or RTE to air the documentary, No Stone Unturned, which has been broadcast around the world and has been nominated for an Emmy award for Outstanding Investigative Documentary. Murray spoke to a broader perspective: “Digital and social media has shifted the ground. The younger generation watch snippets [of documentary work] on their devices. They don’t go to mainstream TV. There is a democratisation of stories now. Our storytelling is attractive, it’s universally appealing. I think we’re winning the battle, hands down.”