The media’s role in peacebuilding: none of its business?
by Allan LEONARD
9 June 2021
So is peacebuilding none of the media’s business? That was a conclusion that broadcaster and journalist, Declan Harvey, posed to a panel of fellow journalists and writers at an online webinar delivered through Belfast City Council’s PEACE IV Programme, which is funded through the EU and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.
Panellists Alex Kane, Amanda Ferguson, and Leona O’Neill shared their perspectives and experiences of reporting in Northern Ireland, answering questions from Declan Harvey and those submitted by the virtual audience.
Declan Harvey began by asking the panellists whether they felt that they had any role to play in contributing to peacebuilding.
Leona O’Neill replied “no”, that she doesn’t set out to help peacebuilding; her job was to just report the news. However, she went on to describe her work on the topic of the legacy of the Troubles, specifically the people impacted by the violence. She spoke of what she saw as a tendency in Northern Ireland to dehumanise people — whether it’s the police officer or someone caught up in paramilitarism. O’Neill gave examples of “raw, painful stories of those impacted by the Troubles” that she was able to get published when she worked at the Belfast Telegraph, “to humanise them as fellow human beings”. So, in this way, she suggested:
“We’re not drivers for peace, but telling people’s stories gives people a voice [and] maybe will make young people who have this romanticised version of the Troubles think.”
Amanda Ferguson replied that “peace journalism” is just journalism during a time of conflict or post-conflict. She explained her motivation as straightforward, to report on what’s happening, which she distinguished from providing commentary or analysis. Ferguson highlighted the element of trust of people she interviews, which she said comes with a duty of care. However, “do no harm” does not mean not to disrupt, she added.
Alex Kane made a point that he is not bound by the rules that govern journalists, as he differentiated himself as a columnist: “I don’t do sugar coating. I call it as I see it.” He brought up an accusation of being labelled as “anti-peace”, saying that he isn’t going to say to people that there’s peace when that’s not what he sees. However, Kane also responded that at the time he worked as a communications director for a political party (UUP), “I was one of the people selling the Good Friday Agreement.”
Harvey asked about the journalist’s role in story selection and how it often is drawn towards violence, because that draws in drama (or as in the cliché, “if it bleeds it leads”).
O’Neill replied that given the choice between a story dominating the news agenda and a less dramatic story, you have to go for the former. She gave an example of riots in the Creggan area of Derry/Londonderry: “Would you ignore a riot going on and write a story about a garden project? Your editor would say, ‘What the hell … there’s news happening right in front of you.’”
Likewise, other panellists made reference to newspapers selecting stories to serve Northern Ireland’s mainly ethno-nationalist audiences. Ferguson did express her enjoyment of writing feature articles, giving an example of how a local community is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic: “I enjoy talking to people who enjoy the work that they’re doing. Sometimes we focus too much on the [political] soap operas.”
Harvey later asked whether Northern Ireland gets the media that it deserves. O’Neill replied “yes”, but that it’s to a professional standard. Ferguson said that people may be yearning for a more sophisticated presentation, to get a more complete context of a story, including unique voices. She did add that in her freelance work, there have been times when she rejected jobs because she didn’t like the style of the media outlet.
Would the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement have been reached in today’s social media environment? asked Harvey. Kane answered “yes”, because he saw issues that were not covered during the multi-party talks that would have been raised by social media, which might have forced the parties to address. However, he concluded that the element of social media “would have either killed it or made it stronger”.
Harvey read a definition of “peace journalism” — “to create opportunities for societies at large to consider and value non-violent responses to violence” — and suggested there were overlaps with “good journalism”.
Ferguson replied that there’s just good journalism or bad journalism: “There are undoubtedly journalists who have agendas … but most do not.” She gave an example of her coverage of the annual 12th July parades, with stories of ordinary people and families enjoying the traditional event, that it wasn’t a stereotype of trimpal sectarianism. Ferguson suggested that such additional stories could be useful in educational terms: “If that’s peace journalism, so be it. I’m just trying to tell a different story.”
O’Neill repeated that the media has no role in peacebuilding and that you have to take yourself completely out of the stories that you cover: “You almost stop being a civilian; you are an eye witness.” She contrasted this to those who publish content on social media, “telling things from bias, while those from the other side have a completely different narrative”. O’Neill made the point that mainstream media checks everything while social media doesn’t.
Declan Harvey concluded the discussion by challenging each of the panellists that peacebuilding is none of their business.
Alex Kane said that he longs for Northern Ireland society to evolve from “conflict stalemate” to conflict resolution: “I like to think that I write from my experiences, what lessons can be learned, so as to have a more realistic chance of what peace is.”
Amanda Ferguson repeated the creed “do no harm”, and doesn’t like to see those journalists who do harm. She said that it was important for the journalist profession to do more self-reflection and that language used matters.
Leona O’Neill finished that “peacebuilding is not my job”, but that maybe by allowing others to have a voice and to show sympathy with them, then perhaps younger people will rethink a romanticism of violence.