I’m going to say it – I found the Northern Ireland media’s obsession with NI21 around the time of the local elections acutely embarrassing.
Firstly, at a political level, they were focusing on a total irrelevance. Aside from the wonderful and thoroughly deserved election of Jonny McCarthy, the party barely registered – its European candidate failed to muster even 3% of the vote in her own District Electoral Area, never mind in Northern Ireland as a whole! One single People Before Profit candidate scored more than any selection of NI21 candidates combined. That is the political context!
Secondly, at a journalism level, it was lazy. The entire eve of poll was taken up with a bizarre story around re-designation (again irrelevant, as re-designation cannot take place until the next Assembly Election). The morning news and commentary programmes had interviews with the “NI21 Leader” about nothingness; the afternoon news and commentary programmes had interviews with the “NI21 Leader” about nothingness; the evening news and commentary programmes had… you guessed it. Frankly, showing screenshots of a couple of tweets from two local council candidates neither of whom even made it into three figures in terms of first preference votes to constitute “news” on the BBC is unacceptable, and something which should be of immediate concern to the BBC Trust and others.
Thirdly, as a social level, it was outrageously populist. Political campaigns should surely be about debating the issues upon which the electorate is about to cast judgement (in this case, those of new local councils and the European Parliament). One such issue would have been the divide at in the leadership of UKIP, with comments made by its Leader Nigel Farage about Northern Ireland being somewhat distinct from positions adopted by Northern Ireland legislator David McNarry. This was barely reported. Instead we got some daft soap opera of absolutely no relevance to anyone (albeit hinting at serious issues raised after close-of-poll which are of relevance to people, but should surely be taken care of by due legal process).
There are a number of serious problems in our broad political framework here.
First of all, we see the demise of serious journalism. The challenges to the Transforming Your Care Health Reforms are news; the penalties for adopting or not adopting Welfare Reform are news; the rise in investment into Northern Ireland creating jobs is news; some daft spat involving the Leader of a small group who obviously has neither the ability nor the coherence to deliver anything at all to the people of Northern Ireland is not news.
Second of all, we see the complete failure of the media to operate outside a bubble. While NI21 was barely registering, UKIP was winning Council seats, the PUP was topping polls, TUV was entering City Council, the Greens were winning three Council seats in a single new Council, anti-SF Republican “independents” were reaching quota. These are the parties which – for good or ill – will have influence in the new political landscape beyond the big five. Most of them are hard-line – like it or not, that is what people vote for in Northern Ireland, in reality – a few tweets and a bit of wishful thinking won’t change that. Journalists need to cover those parties, speak to their candidates, analyse what motivates their voters, and challenge them on their agenda and how they intend to deliver it. If they don’t, we’ll stop watching their news and stop buying their papers in ever increasing numbers and there will be no journalism.
Third and perhaps most importantly of all, it illustrates a fundamental (if perhaps controversial) concern of mine that the penalty for living in the (generally beneficial) era of mass information and social media is that we are beginning to lose the recognition of who actually provides expert analysis and who doesn’t. If journalism and conceivably even democracy is to survive, it has to distinguish frankly and brutally between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t. This requires a much more rigorous distinction between those qualified to comment through experience and qualifications, and those who are just winging it for the sake of a bit of publicity.
There are serious issues facing our society. Some daft spat within a “party” which doesn’t really exist is not one of them. In our news coverage as in our politics, we must aspire to better.