Published on June 2nd, 2014 | by EJC0
Media Ethics In The Northern Irish Peace Process
This interview between CIME associate Heather DeVaney and Dr. Geraldine Smyth, of the Irish School of Ecumenics, was originally published on the CIME blog on 4 April 2014. Republished with permission.
Ireland and Northern Ireland experienced a partisan conflict from the late 1960s-1998, and many consider the peace process to be ongoing. These difficult times are colloquially called simply, “The Troubles.” Dr. Geraldine Smyth, of the Irish School of Ecumenics, spoke with CIME Associate Heather DeVaney about media ethics, peace processes, and shaping society in Northern Ireland.
HD: What are some ways that the media and media ethics might have influenced the Northern Irish peace process or the Troubles as a whole?
GS: Well, I couldn’t give you a trajectory of it, but I do know that with the BBC and UTV, which were the main British channels at the time, reporting was pretty heavily biased towards British government policy and towards censorship of paramilitary groups. Also, they accepted allegations made by the security forces about people being killed because they were carrying guns, even though it was discovered that they weren’t carrying guns.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when that bias began to change but it certainly did. The media on the whole has been very constructive since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and the Downing Street Declaration in 1993. The partisan newspapers began to broaden their agenda and have columns for the other side. You know, they weren’t just following public opinion; they were also trying to shape it and open up another, more inclusive horizon.
HD: What do you consider to be the media’s role in a peace process?
GS: I know they have to go for the news story, and the sound bite, and I know there are editorial time constraints, but I think they need to give prominence and oxygen and traction to the good news stories. And I think they need to avoid sensationalism.
HD: Can you think of any occasions in which the media negatively influenced the Northern Irish peace process?
GS: One of the moments that I felt badly let down was the Eames-Bradley group on dealing with the past. They presented a big conference at the Europa hotel, and came with the fruits of their year’s work; advice from victims groups, NGOs on how to constructively deal with the past. They had about 30 recommendations and the only one that emerged from that press conference, or seminar, was the recommendation to pay 12,000 pounds to every family who had lost someone in the Troubles. The Unionist, Loyalist victims groups, partisan victims groups, called out for only what they call ‘innocent victims;’ people who were blown up by a bomb that he was planting or she was planting, their families shouldn’t get the 12,000. Of all 30 or so, recommendations, the media just zoned in on that 12,000 pounds payment. A group of protestors came up to the stage and just stood there, and the media, there were about 30-40 members of the media present, they all came out of the woodwork and they did nothing but focus on the protestors. I honestly think that the media atomizing that part of the presentation was one of the main causes for the rest of the presentation and its recommendations being put in the shelf.
HD: So on the whole, the media helped rather than hindered the peace process in Northern Ireland?
GS: Yes. I think they were worse in the first 20 years and better in the last 20 years. I think there was less bias and more attempt to actually get behind the peace process, to take the referenda seriously that were conducted post-Good Friday Agreement. We had over 90% in the south and over 70% in the north accepting its terms. So I think they accepted that mandate. And there’s been some really good creative journalism. The media are actually trying to put a camera lens on the new plurality of cultures in Ireland, north and south.
HD: Do you have any advice for media professionals moving forward when trying to cover peace processes in their own countries?
GS. Inclusivity would be the primary one, and to widen their nets. Because sometimes people are ahead of the politicians, and sometimes they just watch the Track One level, which are politicians. Listen to people who are actually working at critical level: academics. At a grassroots level: activists and community workers. And speak to people who are not partisan, but do also to talk to the partisan people, because you need to try to get what they are really looking for. Sometimes it can get underneath the surface demands. It can be something much more fundamental, like recognition. Sometimes it’s about being able to participate. And give more air time to young people. Because otherwise, what’s our education system about, if we don’t believe young people have useful things to say?
Another thing I’d say, when they’re formulating a radio program, for example: I think the formula of bringing in people from diametrically different extremes, it just becomes a slinging match. They can do programs like that, but if they’re actually wanting to contribute to a peace process, they also need to counterbalance with people who can speak reasonably to one another. There are people from different perspectives who know how to listen, who know how to take points, who know how to argue respectfully. In other words, help to show the middle ground that’s there. The middle ground is not always a bland ground. You’re going to have people who have quite different perspectives.
Dr. Geraldine Smyth, OP, is Associate Professor in Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies and Head of Discipline for the Irish School of Ecumenics, at Trinity College Dublin.
For more information about Dr. Smyth and the Irish School of Ecumenics, visit: https://www.tcd.ie/ise/staff/geraldine-smyth.php
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