The media and cooking the news

One hundred years ago, when I used to do the ‘What it says in the papers’ slot on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster, the unspoken rule was that you didn’t comment on the main stories, you just listed which paper said what. At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable; it’s only now that I see how the one thing the B(ritish)BC and every other media outlet didn’t want the public to think was that they might be shaping the news. They decided (and decide) what we, the public, are told about the world and, implicitly, how we should think about the world. Very few of us have met Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar, but many of us have strong feelings about them, solely based on what the media let us know.

Which brings us to today’s Irish Times. That newspaper is probably the most respected and certainly the most literate in Ireland. Which makes its potential influence on us massive.

In today’s edition, their tame unionist Newton Emerson, in an article headed ‘North sustained innate decency throughout the Troubles’ the unionist commentator explains why Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat in 1981 – “Sands won because over 3,000 people, equivalent to all the SDLP voters in the constituency, spoiled their ballots.” The clear implication is that the SDLP were the reason Sands was elected MP. Not many people know that.

His final paragraph tells us virtually every northern nationalist in modern history has been opposed to violence, and hints that the likes of Joe Brolly and Bernadette McAliskey have in recent days taken a wrong turn:

“The defining feature of northern nationalists in modern history is that they rejected ‘violent struggle’, in overwhelming numbers, throughout the entire duration of the Troubles. But that is not a convenient fact if your first priority is justifying IRA violence. No good future can be built on such a grotesque distortion of the past.”

In its editorial today, The Irish Times  emphasises the growing numbers in the north who are “neither orange nor green”, and clearly welcomes this as escaping from ‘sectarian politics’.

OK – let’s take that last bit first. Because you see the union with Britain as a central concern of politics in the north does NOT mean you are sectarian. It’s safe to say virtually nobody in the north votes for a unionist or republican candidate because of their religious belief. It’s the politics, stupid.

As to the Tame One’s hailing of northern nationalists who rejected violence, he should remember that political conviction emerges from lived experience. If your friend has been shot dead, if you repeatedly find job opportunities blocked to you, if an invading army continually provokes you, chances are that’ll affect your view on violence. After all, to take the gun out of Irish politics, you’d first have to remove the British army and the armed state forces.  If, however, your friend like yourself lives a comfortable life, is irritated rather than harassed by state forces, if your friend like you has a third-level education and a well-paid job, and your house isn’t periodically trashed by British soldiers, you’ll probably see things differently.

One last point, and one which virtually all commentators dodge: what percentage of nationalists, would you say, remained law-abiding during the Troubles because they were afraid to do otherwise?  Not everyone, however brightly their nationalist hearts may burn, is prepared to reject a settled life for one where the chances are high that you’ll be either killed or incarcerated for a long period of time.

Beware the mainstream media. They keep us informed of events but  they carefully cook them first.

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