Another Wednesday passes by in Northern Ireland in a predictable manner; frothing indignation in response to the Nolan Show on BBC. The programme offers a perfect encapsulation of the toxicity of Northern Ireland’s political and media culture. The show trades in shock-jock style sensationalising of major issues, perhaps reaching a nadir a few weeks ago when Christian extremist Susan Anne White branded a woman a ‘murderer’ for terminating a pregnancy. The platforming of White, a perennial election candidate who has never mustered 200 votes, is an example of the pantomiming of sensitive and important issues in Northern Ireland media. Another example of this is the constant platforming of fringe right-wing loyalist Jamie Bryson on BBC Radio Ulster discussion shows. Neither of these characters can be described as particularly representative, nor do they offer a new perspective on the issues discussed. Instead, they are offered up to us as figures of revulsion and outrage, designed to provoke angry tweets and call-ins.
This speaks to a wider pattern of inviting oddballs from the extreme right, particularly of evangelical Christian positions, to pontificate on all issues. But one must question what purpose this serves. What utility is there in featuring Peter Lynas from the Evangelical Alliance on any discussion of LGBT rights? What is his expertise beyond hatred of queer identities? The process of offering up at times vulnerable people to defend their own existence against extremists in the name of ratings is corrosive to political discourse. There is a tendency in NI media to flatten all issues into a culture wars narrative; between the socially liberal and conservative, between nationalists and unionists. This tends to favour extreme voices, particularly of the right, and leads to the repetition of issues discussed. A few times a year there will be a big ballyhoo about same-sex marriage or abortion, every November will have a row about poppies, and no one will learn anything. The remit of the BBC is to ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’ but political discussion in NI barely fulfils any of these. A public service broadcaster has the luxury of being able to present nuanced discussions with a wide range of voices, rather than simply those who say the most outlandish the name of ratings.
Nolan’s defence of the abortion programme was almost as dreadful as the show itself. He engaged in the common right-wing trope of positioning himself as a tribune for a working class that is coded as reactionary, dismissing opponents as middle-class liberal elites. But the BBC is not the only issue. The rightwards turn of the Belfast Telegraph in recent years has also had a corrosive impact; regularly employing sexist tropes, sensationalising stories, offering soft coverage to fringe Christian right voices and employing irrelevant ex-MLAs Nelson McCausland and Alban Maginness to spout off in reactionary opinion columns on a regular basis.
It seems clear that we are crying out for new voices in our media. Voices that will offer progressive, nuanced and cogent analyses of our society rather than simple sloganeering. A heartening development of the last two or three years has been the establishment of new media projects that aim to do just that. Some of the work that has been produced in this field has been incredibly important. The Last Round, a leftist publication of which I’m on the editorial team, has done some incredibly useful work in broadening the parameters of discussion on hot button issues in Northern Ireland. In the last month, our work has been genuinely agenda setting; a piece on Sinn Fein’s abortion policy (oft overlooked and assumed to be more progressive than it is) pre-empted mainstream coverage in the Irish press on the issue, while a report covering the Rally for Choice featured interviews with those involved in the event, whose voices were widely ignored by larger publications. This came in the wake of Nelson McCausland’s frothing-at-the-mouth column on the rally, really crystallising the difference between the major organs and what we have to offer. This week, our podcast launched with an excellent discussion on abortion featuring four experienced activists in the area. This provides a more informative and nuanced discussion of abortion laws in Northern Ireland than will ever appear on Nolan or Talkback.
Of course, it would be remiss to neglect the excellent work being done by Challenges NI in bringing new voices to the fore. Of particular value is Alex Moore’s excellent piece ‘Being Queer in Northern Ireland’, which provided a vital and righteously angry holistic account of queer life that breaks out of the paradigm of endlessly discussing marriage as we see in the mainstream. Similarly, Ryan Hendry’s ‘Autistic in Northern Ireland’ gives an account of someone from a community that is regularly talked about rather than being given the platform to articulate issues for themselves.
However, there does need to be a note of caution here. While necessary to promote new voices in our political discourse, it is important to be aware of the limitations of a generational approach to politics. In the Northern Ireland context, this can fall into the trap of assuming that national identities are no longer relevant to young people and that having a position on the border makes one ‘extreme’. Furthermore, positing young people as innately socially progressive and thus arbiters of change is somewhat problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, the combination of these tropes can end up reinforcing the media narrative that the working class is innately reactionary and that it is their blind loyalties that holds Northern Ireland back from a rosy, liberal, bourgeois progressiveness. Secondly, it offers no analysis of class position and the economic foundations on which Northern Irish society is built. Social liberalisation is important but it can only go so far in providing a solution to the major crises that are at play in NI, whether that be the impact of austerity on services, the housing crisis and impact of gentrification in Belfast, the lack of dignified and sustainable employment and the legacy of social degradation wrought by the combination of conflict and neoliberalism. Indeed, a liberal generational analysis of politics can serve to erase those who are at the sharp end of these crises, writing them off as belonging to a more backwards era. After all, there is one overwhelming area of consensus in Northern Irish media narratives. The NI media are uncritical capitalists and promote the ‘good news’ of rising house prices, ever more call-centre jobs, expensive property development projects and low unemployment figures. What goes unreported is that NI has more multimillionaires than all other parts of the UK, except London and Aberdeen and that wealth inequality is drastically rising. It is incumbent therefore to centralise this in our approaches, to provide a dissenting voice to capitalist cheerleading as ‘progress’ in our media.
This is all to say that we need not just new voices, but ones that are politically astute who can offer a structural analysis of Northern Irish society in a way that resonates. It is important for new media to tell stories that are neglected or poorly served by the mainstream, to connect people to grassroots campaigns like Rally for Choice or Save CQ by platforming activists and by forming the basis of a political education for those who want to see a better society. It is heartening to see this work being done, but successes so far only serve to tell us that we should step up our game. This is why more conversations are needed; about class and economic issues, about the workplace and organising, about the future of our city in the midst of huge capital development and about our agenda for the future. To do this, we need to be ready to bypass traditional media and break out of their narratives rather than recapitulating them.
Conor McFall is a PhD researcher in History at QUB. He is also on the editorial team of The Last Round.