A major conference on the role of the media in deeply divided societies brought journalists from around the world to Belfast.
Speakers included high-profile media figures from South Africa, Colombia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Turkey, the Middle East, the Balkans, Kashmir, Somalia, Nepal and the US.
They spoke to a packed audience over two days on Friday and Saturday in Riddel Hall in the south of the city and debated how to protect traditional journalism from the pressures of market decline and the growth of social media.
But the international visitors also heard questions raised about the role of the media here in Northern Ireland.
The event included a panel with Alan McBride who campaigns for the victims of the Troubles, Denis Bradley a figure who has weighty experience of the peace process, Dessie Donnelly who campaigns for the rights of deprived communities, plus Ivy Goddard who represents ethnic minority communities.
All recounted positive encounters with the media, but they also raised concerns.
Alan cited media practices which at times hurt victims. He spoke of the need for respect for bereaved families rather than chasing controversy and easy headlines.
Dessie cited the housing crisis in north Belfast, plus wider issues of homelessness and how perceived paramilitary threats shape policy. He challenged the media over “unasked questions”.
Denis Bradley pointed to a reliance on ‘starting a row’ to get audiences, plus a failure to address all-Ireland as well as UK-wide interests. He also claimed BBC had created a ‘bear pit’ in the Nolan Show – allegations he’d previously made on the show and which the BBC denied.
Ivy Goddard of the Inter Ethnic Forum for Mid & East Antrim added: “You will never see anybody from an ethnic minority background presenting the news or on any local media in any programme at all.
“The only time that I or any of my colleagues in the field of race equality have been interviewed in the press or in the broadcast media is when there has been a race hate crime.”
Alan, Denis, Dessie and Ivy raised important failings by the media. These failings affect the lives of individuals, but they also make it harder for all communities in Northern Ireland to truly understand the place they live in.
To have a healthy society, we need to find ways to protect the machinery of public debate: our newspapers and our newsrooms.
The conference heard that even the BBC, which today enjoys vast public funding while commercial media outlets struggle, could also face pressure in the future if a new UK government with a ‘free market’ approach decides to impose cuts.
A seasoned journalist at the conference said that to save news organisations, journalists need to have a bond with their audiences.
Is the media here bonding with all its audiences, or is it ignoring large sections of this society?
Steven McCaffery has been a journalist in Northern Ireland since the 1990s and now works for the Social Change Initiative which held the conference: ‘The Role of The Media in Deeply Divided Societies’.