The role and responsibilities of media in divided societies. Discuss.
by Allan LEONARD
8 November 2019
A two-day international conference examined the role that media plays in divided societies and in creating more peaceful and stable communities. Organised by the Social Change Initiative in partnership with Conciliation Resources and the University of Edinburgh’s Political Settlements Research Programme, the event was attended by journalists from South Africa, Colombia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Turkey, the Middle East, the Balkans, Kashmir, Somalia, Syria, Nepal, and Northern Ireland.
The state we are in
Irish broadcaster Charlie Bird led a conversation with Mohamed Nanabhay of the international Media Development Investment Fund. Bird began by stating that we live in a society where free and independent journalism is under threat, citing this year’s murder of Lyra McKee: “We have to be careful. The fourth estate is so important for us, with everything at stake.”
Nanabhay explained the Media Development Investment Fund. The fund makes an equity investment in independent media companies, in order to earn interest income that is reinvested into the fund. It has clients globally, including South Africa, the Balkans, Hungary, and Poland.
In a discussion with the conference attendees, someone asked whether it takes a revolution in order for news media to notice the work of civil society. Nanabhay answered that at Al Jazeera they tried to show the view from the street, not centres of power: “News organisations shouldn’t be there to report on the institutions of power. We need to cover civil society and social media is leading on this.” He added that speaking truth to power is not inconsistent with understanding wider societal attitudes: “Do this by reporting on the ground work; don’t report outrage all the time.”
The role of media in analysing peace agreements
The Political Settlements Research Programme at the University of Edinburgh presented new research on the role of the media in international peace accords. Professor Christine Bell led a conversation with programme research associate, Tim Epple, along with Jeremy Adams (BBC Northern Ireland’s Head of Television Current Affairs) and Anup Kaphle (Editor-in-Chief of Kathmandu Post).
Tim Epple described five roles that media has played in peace agreements: (1) media as a promoter of the values of human rights (citing the Nepal agreement (2015)); media as a protomer of the value of inclusion (citing the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998) and its call for Irish language rights, including media provision); (3) media as a watchdog, reporting on what protagonists do post-agreement; (4) media as disseminator of information about the agreement to the public; and (5) media as bulwark against propaganda (citing the Kenya agreement and monitoring of hate speech).
Anup Kaphle described how recent laws passed in Nepal run counter to the declarations made in its 2015 peace agreement. He explained this as a consequence of the Maoists and Communists coming into power, with their desire to police morality. Kaphle said that media is fractured and highly partisan in Nepal, and the challenge is to write for the truth instead of political or opinion journalism.
Jeremy Adams remarked that at the times of the paramilitary ceasefires in Northern Ireland, he thought that perhaps the role of media in reporting the conflict there might diminish. On the contrary, he sees at least as much a role as before: “We have found a role. It’s now about corruption, financial incompetence, and accountability to power.”
Adams was asked whether the media should take a step back, at times of its reporting, for the sake of a peace process. He answered, “If you suspend a commitment to truth, you can exacerbate the festering of conflict.” This was also his rationale for the production of the latest Spotlight programme, The Troubles: A Secret History. That is, he observed that Northern Ireland’s contested history has become a contested present: “Without some sort of truth telling, this effort of rewriting history will continue.”
I asked Adams about the ethical dimension of invoking and reinvoking trauma in such broadcasting of truth telling. He explained how they contacted, in advance, those featured in this and other BBC programmes. Yet he described how the TV crew cried during the production of a BBC programme, Facing the Truth, featuring Reverend Desmond Tutu with victims and survivors.
The role of the media in promoting peace
Jonathan Cohen, Executive Director of the international peacebuilding organisation, Conciliation Resources, led a discussion on whether media has a role in promoting peace and stability in divided societies. The panellists were Vikki Cook (Director of Content Media Policy at UK broadcast regulator, Ofcom), Noel Doren (Editor of the Irish News), and Milica Pesic (Executive Director of Media Diversity Institute).
Vikki Cook spoke to recent Ofcom commissioned reports, particularly in regards to how the UK public service broadcaster, the BBC, represents and portrays society. The findings were that accuracy of reportage has been maintained, as well as impartiality (she added that neutrality is not always required, for sound reasons). Diversity is found in regional reportage, less so from London headquarters (which is seen as white and male).
Milica Pesic quickly remarked, “There are so many voices beyond black and white!” She is frustrated by the one-on-one style of interview; she recalled an episode where she found herself agreeing with most of a presumed opposing ethno-nationalist interviewee’s views. Pesic said a challenge is what to do about those journalists who are not doing their job properly, in exploring diverse perspectives. For her part, she described how the Media Diversity Institute is not about promoting peace, but about inclusive quality journalism.
Noel Doran said that media can help create a climate to progress peace: “We at the Irish News took a stand against paramilitary violence.” He gave the example of the three Northern Ireland newspapers (Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, News Letter) coming together during the multi-party talks (that concluded with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement): “We had a phone-in for peace, with 160,000 received calls.” [These newspapers also published editorials endorsing the Agreement.] Yet Doran sees the maintenance of a scrutinising role for media: “There’s always something somewhere that someone doesn’t want you to know.”
Jonathan Cohen asked the panellists their views on peace journalism, which he [mis]described as “taking a line” on peacebuilding efforts. Pesic was most skeptical, claiming that one of its academic proponents, Professor Jake Lynch, has now given up on the term [Lynch indicates otherwise in his recent article published in The Peace Journalist — Ed.]. She added that it is difficult to pursue constructive or solutions journalism where there is no media freedom in the first place. Cook replied that a partisan media landscape, with the likes of Fox News in the US, is not the desired alternative to a conflict-driven narrative (so long as it is accurate and fair). Doran remarked that media being labelled as prophets of doom could be seen as a badge of recognition; he saw it as a way of the public to compel politicians to work for progress.
Challenges as journalists in deeply divided societies
Journalists from around the world who are working in deeply divided societies discussed the challenges they face and the responsibilities they carry. US activist, Nadine Hack, led a discussion with Pawan Bali (former Bureau Chief for CNN IBN, Kashmir), Fred Muvunyi (Rwandan journalist at Deutsche Welle), and Nurcan Baysal (Kurdish journalist in Turkey).
Pawan Bali said that in Kashmir, media was not playing a role of scrutinising public policy, such as the state of health care provision, but instead framed news in a conflict narrative. While at CNN IBN, they used right to information (RTI) requests to investigate issues. Bali professed to using media for peacebuilding purposes, giving an example of the Dialogue for Films project as a means of bringing communities together. She said that there is a need to present a shared narrative, in order to overcome a historical, but not political, gap. Finally, Bali remarked that there are few local journalists reporting on the international issue of Kashmir.
Fred Muvunyi told the audience about the crucial and devastating role that radio played in the accelerating the genocide in Rwanda. He explained why he wanted to become a journalist: in order to tell stories without fear. When Muvunyi was employed at the Rwanda Media Commission, he refused to comply with a Government request that would have compromised his journalistic integrity; he had to leave the country. Muvunyi concluded by saying that there is a strong responsibility of journalists to defend free speech, because otherwise there will be another genocide someplace else.
Nurcan Baysal reviewed her harrowing experiences of persecution as a journalist in Turkey, including aggressive arrest and separation from her family. But she said that she is lucky, because she is not in jail and was able to speak at this very conference in person. Overall, Baysal said that media in Turkey “close their eyes” to human rights atrocities committed by the government.
In regards to a question about what are the possibilities or opportunities for journalism in divided societies, Bali answered that media can facilitate peacebuilding. She said that it was important whether media reinforces divisions: “We do so in Kashmir. Can mainstream media fix it? Or is there a role for independent media?”
Similarly, Baysal commented on the use of language used by Turkish media, e.g. whether a person became a “martyr” or was “killed”. She said that she and others resort to using social media to publishing their stories, “but even here there are counter measures by government, including arrests”.
Such is the ethno-national polarisation in Kashmir and India, said Bali, that those telling alternative (i.e. non-binary conflict) narratives are branded as less than patriotic. She called for more platforms for alternative voices.
Hack summed up this session by saying that what keeps persecuted journalists alive is fellow journalists and others writing and talking about them. She also rhetorically asked whether we can have a shared narrative in a divided society if we can’t get the stories out.
Community perspective of the media in Northern Ireland
Human rights practitioner, Maggie Beirne, led a discussion on the experience of the media in Northern Ireland, by representatives of several communities: Alan McBride (Wave Trauma Centre), Denis Bradley (columnist and former Vice-Chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board), Ivy Goddard (Inter Ethnic Forum (Mid & East Antrim)), and Dessie Donnelly (Director at Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR)).
Alan McBride began by citing positive dimensions of media in Northern Ireland, for example in pursuing the cases of those abducted by paramilitaries and whereabouts unknown (“the disappeared”). Another positive example was the Pop Goes Northern Ireland programme, which approached the families involved “well in advance, not the day before” the interviews. He praised the Legacy series on BBC Radio Ulster, which aired a victim/survivor story daily in the year 2000. And he kindly noted Susan McKay’s series, Stories from Silence, an online storytelling project that documented the stories of those who were bereaved or injured during the “Troubles”.
But McBride has some learning lessons for the media. Firstly, victims are more than their trauma; he himself is more than “the Shankill widower”. McBride suggested journalists should ask interviewees, “How do you want to be introduced?” And is the story in the public interest? His example was the reportage of his second marriage, which he and his wife did not want publicised: “Shankill bomb victim finds new love!” Overall, McBride sees a mixed bag in regards to journalists in Northern Ireland: “It can be a positive platform, but the media can be a barrier for someone wanting to move on, because the story is the past.”
Dessie Donnelly said that day-to-day policy is where the most damage of the Good Friday Agreement is done. By this he meant that the dominant ethno-national conflict narrative obscures ordinary socio-economic public policy. Donnelly gave the example of religious discrimination in public housing provision. In Northern Ireland, TV coverage reports on the official responses from statutory agencies, which is framed in terms of the potential of physical violence against agency staff or others if controversial policy decisions are made. In other words, Donnelly said, public policy is predicated on implicit threats: “Any dilution of a single community identity in any neighbourhood is deemed a threat.” He asked why journalists don’t ask what is being done by all authorities to prevent recurrences of individuals being intimidated from their homes. Donnelly also said that journalists have not asked questions about an obvious tacit pact between the two largest political parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, in sharing out their power in government portfolios.
Ivy Goddard remarked on the lack of minority faces on Northern Ireland broadcast media, whether as presenters or interviewees, except in the stereotypical cases of a story on hate crime or Islamophobia. She sees no interest in minority opinion on anything else. “We are more than two communities here!”
Goddard pointed out particular challenges of social media. Firstly, a trending racist story in France or Germany gets picked up by all and the effects are felt in Ballymena. Secondly, she noted a disconnect between a public civility versus online vitriol. She asked how should we deal with this, and promptly suggested that if mainstream media can normalise voices of minorities, then that will have positive effects in wider society.
Denis Bradley said that Northern Ireland media and the Troubles “has a past, present, and future”. Recalling the past, he cited a 1985 BBC documentary, Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union, which included Martin McGuinness in scenes of him nursing children and making dinner for his wife, i.e. controversial for the “domestication of the IRA”. For the present, for local content broadcast production, “it’s now just the BBC with 600 staff”. For the future, Bradley said that the questions to be asked in regards to a climate of inculcating societal divisions are: (1) does its confrontational style best serve the public; and (2) why has it avoided an in-depth investigation on how media should behave in a society coming out of conflict?
Bradley felt that the broadcast media agenda is being driven by a metrics of quantity, not quality: “And if you keep feeding division, you’ll get the attention.” Or as he described the Stephen Nolan programme: “It’s very hard to walk past a fight.” But the diversity of voices has decreased, Bradley argued: “There are no churches, health sector, education sector, community sector.” This would demonstrate a decreased level of trust among these communities and the media. He also said that there are fewer commentators: “The same 100 people phone in every morning!”
“We have fallen down on peace journalism, due to bad analysis, editorial decisions, and laziness,” Bradley added, wondering why the issue of all-island political and economic developments are not being discussed.
There were several questions from the audience in regards to increasing the breath of the stories told. For McBride, the story is more than the trauma; it includes the recovery. He suggested that the media could look at progress being made, as a new focus, and that there is an editorial responsibility to include more voices to a story. Goddard gave the example of the contribution of the Indian community to the UK during the Second World War. And in order to overcome an inability for mainstream media to adjust the narrative, Donnelly said that they use social media to get their story out. Yet he made a clarion call for all media in Northern Ireland: “Post-conflict is not just about stability, but examining what contributed to division in the past so that it does not lead to conflict again.”
Media perspective of the media in Northern Ireland
Journalists in Northern Ireland spoke about how it dealt with reporting the peace and political processes, including the latest collapse of the regional government. Journalist and author, Susan McKay, led a discussion with Adam Smyth (Head of News, BBC Northern Ireland), Trevor Birney (Fine Point Films), Stephen Grimason (former BBC Northern Ireland Political Editor), and journalist Amanda Ferguson.
Adam Smyth reflected on his experience to date working for the BBC and described the guidelines that the corporation works to as guidelines, “not holy writ”. He quoted Jeremy Vine, who described BBC Northern Ireland as “the last hard newsroom”.
Stephen Grimason spoke of his previous work at BBC Northern Ireland, which he described as “not a monolith”. Grimason gave the example of BBC Northern Ireland broadcasting coverage of the annual 12th July parade in 1997, without controversial reference to the Drumcree standoff taking place at the same time. He also said that there is a battle between traditional and social media, and while newspapers are against the wall, journalism itself is not.
Amanda Ferguson defined her role in journalism as to inform, to increase understanding, to challenge, to tell the truth, and to include many voices. As a freelance journalist, she was taken aback by the persistence of sectarian attitudes towards some media outlets. For example, clients can be very cooperative until they learn that you are doing a job for a newspaper that they deemed beyond the pale. Ferguson finished with a remark that, for her, “There’s not just one side of baddies and goodies; a story is multilayered with shades of grey.”
Trevor Birney spoke positively about his previous employer, the Impartial Reporter, and its editorial leadership to cross the ethno-national divide, motivated by the desire to inform the whole community, i.e. unionists and nationalists. He said that it was a conscious editorial decision at the time of the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen to “steer reaction against retaliation”. Birney spoke well of the practicality of the local, rural community: “We have a lot to learn from [County] Fermanagh. Fermanagh is normal; the rest of the world is crazy.” He sees a current failure of media not facilitating a discussion on the constitutional issue of Northern Ireland, “which is being discussed in every home and pub”.
On a question about how contemporary journalism should handle the topic of legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict, Ferguson remarked that every day there’s a news broadcast of an anniversary or inquest related to the Troubles. She added that the default editorial position is “the two tribes” and that alternative perspectives don’t get heard: “I’ll get 200 words to write about the situation of social housing, but I can’t say that housing should be based on need, because that would be deemed a political statement.”
In regards to adapting to a post-conflict conflict environment, Grimason said that one of the unintended consequences of the Good Friday Agreement was the “dark, sectarian soul” of Unionist/Nationalist/Other communal designations. He credited the participation of “Other” politicians as preventing Unionist and Nationalist politicians “from fighting in public”. Grimason thought that people were not falling out with the peace process, but are so with the institutions created by the Agreement (namely, the Northern Ireland Assembly).
Smyth spoke defensively of BBC Northern Ireland: “We have six hours of radio and an hour of TV, daily, plus our website … This society wants to move on, but can’t; the BBC is the target. We report the facts without any consideration of balance.”
This appeared to provoke several more queries from the floor, about the role that BBC Northern Ireland serves. Padraig Corrigan, from Amnesty International, argued that post-conflict stories, such as abortion and equal marriage, are not being properly covered because of a Punch-and-Judy or conflict narrative. Smyth replied: “I disagree. The job of our health correspondent was to make the [new] legislation understandable. The way we frame debates is ‘Is this the very best for those who have strong views?’” Maggie Beirne replied that while she was at the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), they often had to turn down invitations for media coverage by the BBC, because of its editorial framing, e.g. putting up a Unionist politician against the CAJ, one-to-one, which cast the organisation as being Nationalist: “So your [BBC’s] framing, a lot of the time, actually closed down the debate. The framing of human rights should be separate from being a party political debate … There’s a lot of confusion about impartiality and balance.” Meanwhile, Trevor Birney wanted to see media resisting the urge of “swimming in the shallow end of journalism” and “to go into the deep end to understand Brexit” and other complex matters. Ferguson highlighted the media’s thirst for “grief porn”, but remarked: “We’ve come out of the phase of our history when voices couldn’t be heard. Now they want to be heard.”
The conference delegates resumed the next day for a few more panel discussions. The first was on further perspectives beyond Northern Ireland. Sandy Barron led a conversation with Juanita Leon (Colombia), Yin Yadanar Thein (Myanmar), Anup Kaphle (Nepal), and photojournalist Cathal McNaughton.
Juanita Leon said that she sees her journalism role as that of translator from one camp to another, to present the others’ perspectives. Later, she explained how publications like El Tiempo newspaper critique the power of the establishment, yet she wanted to create media to cover power in a different way — to report decisions but also why decisions were made. Leon wanted to know what were the power interests below the conflict. With a grant from the Open Society Foundation, in 2009 she founded the news website, La Silla Vacía. She said that its community of users come to the defence of attacks that they receive, and that their aim is to influence opinion makers with new information. They also provide a fact-checking service.
Yin Yadanar Thein saw her journalism role as reporting on the ethnic diversity of Myanmar, which was challenging due to restricted or outright denial of access by security forces to sources of information and physical places.
Anup Kaphle outlined the political divisions in Nepal, primarily between Monarchists and Maoists. He said that his publication, The Kathmandu Post, is the largest in Nepal, and he is motivated by wanting to talk about what’s happening in society and to see less publications as platforms for Government to promote its public relations. He remarked that a consequence of a free press and an open internet is the ability for the widest range of political expression on websites, by all sorts of partisans. Kaphle said that it is necessary to educate people that some content on YouTube, for example, is misinformation.
Cathal McNaughton explained how his name alone in Northern Ireland could restrict access, from those who distrusted Irish nationalists. The name Cathal is a traditional, Irish Gaelic name; sometimes he would use a pseudonym, “Charles Morgan”, which appears more like a typical, English name. The more he worked, the more he realised that what he thought of as normal, dealing with the everyday segregation of Northern Ireland society, was not normal. Yet it is an experience with which he is familiar and knows how to deal with. For his next work assignment, “Hopefully I’ll end up in a divided society again!”
In response to my question about the ethics of photojournalists sweeping into a conflict area for an assignment, then leaving without regard to any aftermath, McNaughton said that every time a journalist comes in, they take, and that the gap between what they take and leave behind needs to be filled. He added that it is important to have a moral compass and empathy when working in divided societies. Finally, McNaughton called for more stories: “The general public need to hear these stories. We here need to get this to another forum for discussion.”
The impact of social media
Mike Posner (Professor of Ethics and Finance, Stern School of Business, New York University) led a discussion on the impact of social media in deeply divided societies, with Pawan Bali (CNN IBN, Kashmir), Gian Volpicelli (Wired magazine), Anna Nolan (Director, The Syria Campaign), and Zaina Erhaim (Syrian journalist).
Zaina Erhaim said that in the situation of Syria, “You’re either a propagandist for one faction or you’re excluded … Those surviving against the current [of partisan extremism] are struggling even more”. She spoke of misogynist framing and language used in public discourse. Indeed, she added, the regular act of women using men’s names as pseudonyms will corrupt the analysis of online commentary published at Facebook and Twitter. Erhaim also challenged the ethics of encouraging local journalists, with fewer resources and capacity, to pick up on reportage; local journalists are more likely to be intimidated and kidnapped.
Anna Nolan spoke of a Russian-backed disinformation campaign against The White Helmets. She added that social media algorithms deliver disinformation content to readers. Nolan wants Facebook regulated, by its own terms of service. She cited the positive result of a German law against fake news.
Gian Volpicelli said that Twitter’s recent announcement to ban political advertising on its platform is relatively meaningless, “as it gets £0 from political ads”. In contrast, the income that Facebook receives from political advertising is significant. Volpicelli was hopeful about EU approaches towards dealing with Facebook: “Maybe we need some new plumbing in the social media landscape.” I informed the audience about the European Commission funded research project, Co-Inform, of which FactCheckNI is a partner; the aim of Co-Inform is to address misinformation through the channels of technology tools, information literacy, and better public policy.
Pawan Bali said that social media makes more vulnerable those journalists who speak out. Also, social media contributes to public hysteria. Bali wants to see agreement on a lexicon of hate speech terms, across all languages. She also reminded the audience that some governments have the power to turn off the access to the entire internet in their jurisdictions, as has happened in Kashmir.
What does best practice look like?
The final panel highlighted examples of good practice and explored how to encourage and support this. The discussion was led by Monica McWilliams (Emeritus Professor, Ulster University; former leader of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition) and included Mohamed Nanabhay (Media Development Investment Fund), Nic Dawes (Deputy Executive Director, Human Rights Watch; former editor of the Mail & Guardian (South Africa)), and Freya McClements (Northern Correspondent, Irish Times; co-author of Children of the Troubles).
Mohamed Nanabhay outlined two challenges for journalism: (1) the advertising funded business model is falling apart; and (2) external political pressures on newsrooms. He said that good practice included having multiple revenue streams. For example, you could sell subscriptions/membership to users; sell your audience to others (advertising); sell services, such as events; or sell particular ideologies/propaganda (“Don’t do it!” he added.). Some criticism from this audience was that a focus on a for-profit business model could hinder efforts to find common ground with multiple voices in the public conversation. A corollary could be whether such criteria can be achieved with a self-sustaining (non-profit) business model.
Nic Dawes gave a summary of the evolution of editorial policy at the Mail & Guardian, from it speaking out against the Apartheid regime to a post-Apartheid role of being a “crusading anti-corruption” paper, holding government to account. He said that this surprised some politicians who felt that the paper once spoke about being on their side of the injustice argument. Dawes explained how the newspaper management dealt with issues of staff diversity and recognising the legacy of South Africa’s segregationist history. The paper’s updated code of ethics recognises the harm caused by societal divisions, past and present, by speaking to race and religion. Dawes encouraged media editors elsewhere to recognise their power to change the orientation of storytelling, by engaging with an internal discussion to improve their codes of conduct.
Freya McClements made reference to the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct document. She explained the ethical approach that she used in writing her book on the sensitive topic of children killed during the Troubles. Indeed, many of the principles that she read out evokes the guidelines published by Queen’s University Belfast earlier this year, for both journalists as well as victims and survivors, in how to engage with each other well. These may well have been observed in local reporting of the death of journalist Lyra McKee, but McClements said that British tabloid newspapers resorted to sensationalist headlines.
Padraic Quirk (Deputy Director at SCI) concluded the event by thanking especially the international delegates who “taught us so much” and that there’s so much in their stories shared during the conference, to inform what Northern Ireland needs to do as a society: “We need to think long and hard about how we can report the peace well and concentrate on the issues that are important to peacemaking in divided societies.”
Quirk finished by declaring that SDI is very keen to engage and further this conversation around the role of the media in deeply divided societies: “We will be reaching out to people to follow that up, both [in Northern Ireland] and internationally … It now has to be about some of the doing, the practical things that can be done as a result of having this expertise in the room.”
NB. This is an updated version of the article: an editorial statement was added in regards to Professor Jake Lynch, and a statement misappropriated to Trevor Birnie was corrected; Maggie Beirne is the author of a reply to Adam Smyth.