Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Stormont seeks to muzzle its only watchdog: us

Health Minister Edwin Poots

The media is a constant disappointment to Peter Robinson. I mean, who do these people think they are, whinging and whining, always poking round asking awkward questions, looking for trouble and generally making a nuisance of themselves?

A few days ago, the First Minister voiced his disapproval in a speech to the DUP conference. "In the media, every problem, or difficulty, that the Assembly and Executive faces is examined in great detail and magnified beyond recognition," he said. "Yet scant attention – if any – is given to our many successes and the progress that we have made."

The querulous complaint, versions of which we have heard many times before from the Esteemed Leader, rests on a radical misapprehension of the roles and functions of the media, one of which – and it's a vital one – is to hold politicians to account.

To challenge them, interrogate them and call them out on their misdeeds and mistakes; to refuse to take no for an answer, or be fobbed off with officious waffle and flannel, or be cowed by an onslaught of legal writs.

It is certainly not the role of the media to act as compliant propagandists for the Assembly, assiduously rushing to shower politicians with praise – well done, boys, lovely work, beautiful, keep it up – every time they manage to get something right.

Now, that's not to say that the role of the Press should be essentially hostile, either. There's room for positivity, where it's deserved, but the default mode should be interrogative, not cringing and boosterist in nature.

This should be obvious and, as a very experienced politician, Mr Robinson's naivety in the matter is surprising. He appears to assume that the media is a universally antagonistic force, motivated by a malevolent glee at Stormont screw-ups. This fearful paranoia is pretty much the standard view of the Press at the Assembly and has been since its inception.

Out of all proportion to reality, the media are hated and feared like a pack of feral dogs, who might spring and surprise you with a frightening question or a vicious Freedom of Information request at any time.

Stormont keeps its own pack of tame guard dogs (aka its embarrassing excess of Press officers) to keep the wild ones at bay. This impulse towards secrecy and obfuscation, together with the crude desire to control, is a telling measure of the immaturity and uncertainty which underlies our political institutions.

Yet the truth is that Stormont politicians have it easy here. If this feeble, inarticulate bunch of bumblers (sadly, a description that fits a great many of them) was exposed to the depredations of the British tabloid press, they wouldn't survive a second.

Or imagine one of our ministers – Edwin Poots, for example – being grilled on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman. I don't think I could bear to watch. Forget wild dogs, it would be like a wolf eviscerating a cornered sheep: rolling eyes, helpless baa-ing, bits of spat-out wool all over the floor.

There's an emerging notion, in certain well-meaning circles, that journalists in Northern Ireland have a responsibility (moral or otherwise) to support and build the peace, by taking a lead on forward-looking topics like healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. The question of such 'peace journalism' and how it should be negotiated is being discussed today at a one-day conference at Queen's. Peter Robinson might like the idea, but I find the notion of 'peace journalism' to be chilling. It is not the job of the media to be cheerleaders for peace.

Working to an undeclared agenda not only compromises essential values of independence and integrity, it is deeply patronising to the public, treating them like heedless infants who need to be nursed along the right road towards harmony and integration.

Meanwhile, back at the Kremlin (and I'm not talking about the gay nightclub), Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has stated that the Assembly should have a say on the future of broadcasting in Northern Ireland and has called – "at the very least" – for "a mechanism that makes the broadcasting companies accountable and answerable to this Assembly".

Given Stormont's suspicious, controlling and hostile attitude to the media, this is a frightening prospect. Would you want this lot pulling the strings at the BBC? We need to be asking more questions of our politicians, not fewer. Harder questions, not softer ones.

And we need to be asking them loudly, and repeatedly, not quietly and politely. At least while we can.

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