Belfast Telegraph

Why the Press is the cornerstone of society

Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson has been in his post for almost two years. Here he offers some thoughts on the role newspapers play in Northern Ireland

It's a funny thing, this concept called 'freedom of the Press'. Our great leaders and thinkers all claim that, of course, an unfettered Press is a cornerstone of democracy. Until a hack kebabs them in a column and it becomes a debate about 'power without responsibility'.

In truth, should the concept of a free Press be under threat, I doubt that, in these days of kiss 'n' tell and phone hacking C-list actors, many people would be getting the placards out to march up to Stormont on our behalf.

But a free Press is under some considerable strain. A perfect storm of societal and technical change, driven along by brutal recession, is placing a severe challenge on the funding of rigorous, professional journalism. The free-for-all digital blizzard of blogs, tweets and postings is challenging old thinking about the way we communicate. For the most part, this 'democratisation' is a good thing. But, in other ways, it should give us pause for thought.

Many people who talk of the end of the 'old' media are back bedroom bloggers with an audience of seven. Even those bloggers and tweeters who have bigger followings have something of a trust issue. Last week's revelations that a much-followed blog called Gay Girl in Damascus was actually written by a middle-aged American bloke living in Edinburgh is a case in point.

Frankly, you don't see many bloggers up at Stormont, down at the City Hall, or in the courts putting in the hard yards, mining facts to create the first draft of history. They will be happy enough to opine on that stuff, often passing off the source material as their own and, for the most part, I don't stay up at night fretting about it.

But, at the risk of sounding over-precious, we do need some kind of debate about what kind of journalism we want in our society. I sometimes wonder what kind of place we would live in if there were no newspapers at all, say if we withdrew from the streets for a week.

Now you would still have a service from the omnipresent, still relatively well-endowed BBC to rely on. But would that be healthy? Who would be there to lift up the rocks and discover what's underneath? Who would really fuel the fire of public interest debate so absolutely vital in a developing democracy like Northern Ireland?

I'm not saying things are that bleak. Print journalism, in some form, will be around for decades to come, so I don't really expect you to be dabbing a tear away right now. And there is a lot of good news about. Let me give you an example.

The stories written by journalists here at the Belfast Telegraph have never been so influential. How do I know this? Independently audited figures show that our print and digital products reach a daily audience in Northern Ireland of 297,000 people. That is a staggering figure and means a story we might write about you will be seen by more people than at any time in our 141-year history. That doesn't speak of decline, does it?

It's just that there is no such thing as a free lunch. News has to be funded somehow, otherwise there'll be very little of it. It's time we all had some discussions about that. Maybe it's one for our politicians to wrestle with.

While we would run a mile from them having a say in what we write, is there not a role for, perhaps, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) here? An examination of the plurality, funding and the future of media, calling on a wide range of experts and users, might be the place to start the debate. The department funds Northern Ireland Screen, which this year made the frankly boneheaded decision to use taxpayers's cash to part-fund a digital news service, The Detail, in what was already a crowded, commercially-served market. It is not a disinterested party.

We at the Belfast Telegraph are proud that we have to live on our commercial wits; we would run a mile from state handouts. But some debate about the future playing field and, indeed, how level it might be would be welcome. We, of course, recognise many of these issues surrounding the communications industry are global in nature, but should not our own Government take an interest in one of its most high-profile industries?

Talking of DCAL brings me to another observation about journalism in Northern Ireland. Last week we interviewed Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin. We rightly focused on her reply to those who say the appointment of IRA killer Mary McArdle as her special adviser was insensitive to the victims of that heinous crime.

For what it is worth, I thought the minister equipped herself well, even though this newspaper remains opposed to the McArdle appointment. The minister's answer were clear and forthright. It was a robust and fitting encounter between government and the Fourth Estate, the like of which should be commonplace in a healthy democracy.

So why is it that so much of that sort of journalism in Northern Ireland appears to be frowned upon? Why is it that passionate campaigning and asking pertinent questions seems to get more tut-tutting here than elsewhere in the UK? I have some expertise in this, having edited newspapers in all four countries.

I think there might be two reasons. The first is what I would call the 'don't rock the boat, look how far we've come' syndrome. This is a widely-held belief among many of our leaders in all walks of life. It says that you may think things are bad now, but at least we're not killing each other.

At its heart lies a necessity to accept shoddiness, poor governance and second best that every well-trained journalist has to reject in the course of his, or her, work. If I were a politician, I wouldn't want a sycophantic Press because readers simply wouldn't trust it. If the media doesn't have the resources and courage to make polticians splutter over their cornflakes on a regular basis, then any support we might offer is worth nothing to them.

The second reason is that so much of what we report is distorted through the prism of orange and green tribalism. 'You would say that: you're a Protestant/Catholic paper' is the articulation of this strand. Put simply, the story - the collection of facts and argument - often gets lost in the prejudice.

In truth, a bright, rigorous, irreverent, unbiased, campaigning journalism is one of the hallmarks of a grown-up society. Certainly, at the Belfast Telegraph, we serve all sections of the community. We follow the story, not the ideology. We've upset all the parties at some point which, on balance, is a good thing.

If you've read this far, I'm guessing you're either broadly sympathetic, or can't believe the cheek of a hack asking for understanding. I don't mind. Perhaps you might come back again. You can find us, priced 70 pence, at all good newsagents.

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