Belfast Telegraph

Any principle of transparency has got to include our media 'experts'

By Nelson McCausland

It is right that those with power and influence in our society should be scrutinised and that certainly applies to politicians. However, it is not only politicians who have power and influence.

What about the commentators, the reviewers, the academic experts, the historians and the journalists who write for newspapers or contribute to programmes? Do they not have influence? And should they not be subjected to the same scrutiny?

During his career in journalism, Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at City University in London, has worked for many newspapers. Today he writes a daily blog for the Guardian media site, but back in the late-1980s he was with the Sunday Times and eventually became managing editor (news).

However, at the same time, he was writing secretly for An Phoblacht (Republican News), the newspaper published by Sinn Fein. The paper was a propaganda sheet for the Provisional IRA and proudly reported IRA murders in a section entitled "War News".

Furthermore, this was the period when the Provisional IRA were carrying out atrocities, such as the Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen. Murder followed murder and yet Roy Greenslade was prepared to write for a newspaper which glorified such slaughter.

Of course, Greenslade wrote in An Phoblacht under the pseudonym "George King" and so he was generally described in the media as "from the Sunday Times". There was no mention of his connection with Sinn Fein, because that remained a secret.

It was only years later that his relationship with Sinn Fein was exposed by another journalist, Nick Davies, in the book Flat Earth News, which was published in 2008.

More recently, in the course of their coverage of the welfare reform debate, a local radio station interviewed Goretti Horgan, a university lecturer in social policy, and she was presented as an independent academic expert.

In fact, she was not as expert as they imagined, but much more problematic was the fact that they omitted to say she was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a small Trotskyist organisation perched firmly on the far, far Left. Did listeners not have a right to know about her political affiliations? Should they not have been told?

It was a very relevant fact, because the SWP is to the fore in the opposition to welfare reform. If she had been invited on to discuss some other issue, such as traffic calming, it might not have been so relevant, but the issue was one on which her party had adopted a militant stance.

All of which brings me round to the power and influence of the media in our society. The case of Roy Greenslade is a salutary warning as regards journalists and the case of Goretti Horgan is a salutary warning as regards academic experts.

But with the growth in the number of television channels and changes in content and style, there seems to be a growing role for the commentators and reviewers.

That makes it all the more important to have some broad principles when it comes to the media, to journalism and especially to commentators and reviewers. I would suggest three simple principles and they relate to breadth, balance and background.

There is a breadth of views in society, in relation to politics, religion, history and culture. That breadth should be recognised and represented in a balanced way.

Then, as regards background, if a commentator cut his political teeth in the ranks of Sinn Fein - the Workers Party, the old Official Republican movement, as indeed a number did, should that not be acknowledged? If a producer, a presenter, an interviewer or a commentator is an activist on some cause or other, do we not have the right to know? I believe we do.

In these days when there is such a focus on transparency in government, surely the principle of transparency should apply to all those who have influence - including the media?

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