The internet is a miraculous invention, but for newspapers it poses many problems, the primary one being how they are going to survive. Sales figures for newspapers everywhere are falling as people use the internet to follow events. Personally, after a life-time of buying at least one daily newspaper, I now do all my newspaper reading online.
Which brings us to another aspect of the internet: its democratization of comment. In the old days, if you disagreed with something you read in a newspaper, you could write into the editor and s/he might or might not decide to publish your letter. That’s still the case. But if you go to the online version of the newspaper, you’ll see something much more powerful at work.
There’s an interesting example of same in today’s Irish Times. It’s an article by Conor Brady, former editor of that newspaper, and in it he describes what he calls “an embarrassing incident” during Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin in 1990. Mandela was asked if the IRA should be admitted to talks without first ending its violent campaign. Brady says Mandela “fumbled for an answer”. “ ‘The issue here’ he said eventually ‘is that people are slaughtering one another, when they could sit down and address the problems in a peaceful manner’.” Mandela added that the British negotiated over Rhodesia without insisting that the Patriotic Front forces first lay down their arms.
Brady rejects this comparison, going on to point up the differences between Rhodesia and the situation in the north. He quotes among others the British Labour Party leader of the time, Neil Kinnock, who declared the IRA were “gangsters” and would have no concessions. Brady concludes that ‘He [Mandela] almost succeeded in walking the tight-rope; it was the unfortunate comparison with Rhodesia that tripped him up”.
So far, so usual: a columnist in a southern newspaper writes an article that’s critical of northern republicans. Where it gets interesting is that there are fifteen Comments following the article, the great majority sharply differing from Brady’s take on the Mandela incident: “The murderous enterprise that is an empire is a very poor starting position from which to impose preconditions for negotiations”; “Seems like a perfectly logical position to take. Don’t set preconditions and start talking. You don’t need any precedents to come to this conclusion”; “The IRA were anti-apartheid and anti-sectarian. This galls people like Brady and the neocons of FF/FG/Lab who would prefer to view the north in sectarian terms”; “Frankly it’s an indication of the way we still have to go in this country when we read the editor of the IT parroting the Thatcherite line and accepting it as some kind of Gospel. Pathetic”.
There’s more of a similar nature – and some different – but I’ll put the link at the end of this and you can judge for yourself. The important point is that when a columnist like Conor Brady joins his voice to the many who are critical of northern republicanism, the people of the south might be forgiven for seeing this critical take as the intelligent norm and feel the need to adopt a similar attitude themselves. With the wonders of the internet, those who think otherwise have an opportunity to present their take on the issue alongside that of the journalist. Anyone who had read Conor Brady’s article and stopped there might well have come away with one view of the Mandela incident. Having read the comments which follow the article, that view is likely to be considerably modified.
What is true for newspaper columnists is true also, of course, for bloggers. As one commenter said concerning my own blogs, the comments following a blog are usually more interesting than the blog itself.
As I say, this opportunity for a range of views on an issue modifies the power of the journalist as the sole interpreter of events. This is particularly important, given the uniform line taken on things northern by the mainstream southern media. I find myself baffled by just one thing: given that Comments can so effectively and immediately challenge an article that might otherwise be received as accepted wisdom, why do newspapers allow readers this marvellous opportunity?
Here’s the link: