Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Even world news is local: bombing of Enniskillen is the proof of that

As Belfast hosts a conference on the role of localism in media, Mike Nesbitt recalls the bombing that reminds him all news is local

Twenty-four years ago, I found myself driving into BBC Broadcasting House in Belfast to cover my first 'atrocity'. It was Sunday, November 8, 1987 and a bomb had exploded in Enniskillen.

As details emerged, it became clear that this was an attack of massive symbolism - murdering civilians who had gathered at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

The debate around the Good Morning Ulster table spiralled as reporters and producers outbid each other with the names of those we needed to hear from: the Sinn Fein president, the Secretary of State, the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister, the President of the United States.

Standing in the doorway was the late Paul Robinson, the senior news editor. He let the conversation run out of steam before asking if he could make a suggestion.

It was this: "Let's not forget there are dead people lying on the streets of Enniskillen and we do not know who they are yet."

That simple statement re-focused our efforts, re-directed an Enniskillen-born producer to his home town and, because he knew which doors to knock, the world heard the thoughts of Gordon Wilson about the death of his daughter, Marie.

And there you have it - all news is local. Yes, some events have global significance, but the importance of the news is no less local for that.

The words of Paul Robinson stuck with me throughout my years in journalism, up to the last atrocity, the Omagh bombing.

Some of those who died came from townlands that never aspired to make headlines; places like Eskra, Beragh and Seskinore.

And yet to ignore their dead and focus purely on the political impact of the bomb would be to deny the certainty that all news is local, even if it does attract the attention of presidents and popes.

Those two events will be at the centre of my presentation to the seminar that Voice of the Listener and Viewer is running today at the University of Ulster in Belfast.

A former Speaker of the US Congress, Tip O'Neill, once said: "All politics is local." So I found, campaigning for the Westminster Election last year.

I stood for UCUNF, the project that offered local voters the opportunity to elect candidates who could actually become part of the Government of the United Kingdom. I cannot remember canvassing a single voter who did not think that was a good idea, but I did meet many who were far more concerned with the tree blocking their light, the entitlement that was slow to be processed, or the failure of the authorities to stop the noisy neighbour next door.

And few voters care that these matters are devolved to the Assembly. They make no distinction between MEPs, MPs, MLAs or councillors. All they see is an elected representative. All they want is action.

So I am in no doubt of the value of localism in media.

In fact, I was at a charity event in Portaferry the other weekend when a resident took me to one side, complimented me on what I had written in the Newtownards Chronicle about the value of local libraries. She told me that, while I had received her third preference last May, I could expect her second at the next Assembly election. Now what I need is a television station so localised that it, too, will take a detailed interest in libraries in my area - and the technology is there to make it possible.

Years ago, if a bomb exploded in Bangor, or Lisburn, at 5pm, UTV and the BBC would struggle to get pictures on the evening news.

You had to get there, film it, get back to base, process the film and load it onto a transmission device. Only then could you broadcast it. Today, you don't even need to get there. Any passing citizen with a smartphone can upload pictures directly to the broadcaster. That makes localism both desirable and affordable.

I am also asked my opinion on whether social media are a help or a hindrance. The answer is both.

It is helpful to know I have total editorial control over what gets published on my website, on my Facebook page, on Twitter and Flickr and the rest. But it takes time - and the reach is limited.

On UTV, I remember the occasional day when we hit more than 300,000 viewers. My record of hits in a day on my website is a mere 3,342.

So it's great to have the outlets, but outlets do not equate with audiences. Traditional media still offer a much broader reach to someone like me.

I'll mention two other impacts of social media. The first is that in the old days, it was hard to miss something; all you needed to do was listen to the radio in the morning and check a small number of newspapers.

Today, it is hard not to miss something; such is the number of platforms and outlets.

The other downside is the immediacy of the likes of Twitter.

Sometimes it is interesting and useful to throw out a thought at a meeting, just to see how it plays, particularly when you are in the process of policy development.

When you know it could be on Twitter instantaneously, though, you tend to think more cautiously, conservatively and safely.

But, as all news is local, social media are a fine foundation for the new era.

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