The need for “critics from the inside”: Reviewing the media in Northern Ireland
by Julia PAUL
22 March 2021
Julia Paul reviews the Imagine Festival discussion on “The media in Northern Ireland: How is it addressing division and reflecting diversity?”
This discussion set out to ask how the mainstream media in Northern Ireland can better reflect the diversity of society in the region, and partly answered its own question through the line-up of speakers. Chaired by human rights worker Maggie Beirne, who currently chairs the board of the Social Change Initiative, the panellists reflected the voices of women, ethnic minorities and those still trying to address the issues of the past.
When I arrived in Belfast at the start of the new century, a white woman who’d grown up English, I was regarded as part of the diversification of society in Northern Ireland. In the year 2000, an “English one” moving to live in Northern Ireland was still rare. In the 17 years that followed, as I reported on Northern Ireland for a Northern Ireland audience, society changed almost out of recognition. I still remember the first day I heard Russian spoken on the street in Belfast. But when I left to move back to Great Britain in 2017, certain programmes, and certain newspapers, were still featuring the same people saying the same things about the same issues.
This was an issue picked up by Denzil McDaniel, former editor of The Impartial Reporter and author of a book on the Enniskillen bombing. He has called for a more considered approach to discussing the past and praised outlets like Eamonn Maille’s website, and writers like Brian Rowan for doing that. But he berated journalists in the traditional media for often choosing to interview the same people again and again. Even when reporting on the past, while he accepted that journalists shouldn’t be cheerleaders for peace, he said they did have a responsibility to include “all voices”.
Ivy Goddard works in the field of race relations in Northern Ireland, and pointed out that many BAME people have been part of Northern Ireland society for generations — and yet rarely are featured seen on television or heard on the radio. She said mainstream media often seemed to think diversity of colour meant orange and green. She explained that while the 2011 census identified 32,000 ethnic minority people in Northern Ireland, it was expected that the 2021 would show that that figure has quadrupled. “For all of us it is our home,” she said, and added that it was important that mainstream media showed that, by interviewing BAME people on a variety of issues, not just stories about hate crime.
Amanda Ferguson is a journalist who has also examined the role of women in the Northern Ireland media. She highlighted how the patriarchal nature of Northern Ireland society can feel “like a boys’ club”. She and journalist Allison Morrison and commentator and former victims’ commissioner Patricia McBride have set up Women In Media Belfast as part of moves to get more women’s voices in the media. “We’re half the people and we should be half the voice”, she said.
Beirne raised the issue of the abuse on social media that anyone appearing in the media, but particularly women and ethnic minority people, often get, and asked if that put people off. Ferguson said social media was like a coin, there were two very distinct sides to it; while it was a social leveller and gave you the ability to engage with people, it also meant those who wanted to abuse you had immediate access. She said that she found the mute and block functions useful. McDaniel highlighted how social media could help mainstream media diversify. “Seek out the new voices on social media and use them”, he said.
Beirne asked the panellists what mainstream media needed to do to better reflect Northern Ireland society. Ferguson said the media needed more critics from the inside. She explained that as a freelancer, although vulnerable, she had more freedom to be critical. Goddard highlighted the training of journalists, in order to make sure that more non-white people were seen and heard, which would in turn encourage more young people from BAME backgrounds to go into the media. For McDaniel, mainstream media just needed to look to the new society around it. He said he’d been involved in lots of discussions recently about the future of the island of Ireland. But, he said, we already have a new Ireland — a new, young, bright, community.
You can hear the full discussion on the Imagine Festival’s YouTube channel.