Beware the Clickbait: Navigating a Media Landscape of Manufactured Hype…

I’ve expressed before on Slugger my concerns about our indigenous media’s insatiable appetite for political instability to fill its programmes or pages. This dates back to 1994 when those in authority failed to make any meaningful effort to adapt to the coming post Troubles lifestyle here. So ever since then we’ve had numerous efforts from withing the media to destabilise the fragile DUP/SF partnership. Sometimes its just snide use of terms like “Chuckle Brothers” or “Marlene” but on other times it has gone as far as to attempt to goad Martin McGuinness into collapsing Stormont over RHI when he clearly didn’t want to. So we need to be very cautious and alert to it in the coming months. Not from the number of quality journalists out there – and there are some – but from those just concerned with driving – or in the case of the press holding – audience. It has started already,

Before the deal was reached there was consistent talk of the DUP unwillingness to accept a non-unionist in the FM position. That was proved wrong in the days immediately before the deal was agreed as Paul Givan – clearly with the approval of his party leadership – appeared on the View to say, “Obviously Sinn Fein will hold the First Minister position and I acknowledge that’s an important position for them to hold.” So no showboating with “Joint FM or suchlike. Then since the appointment of the 2 parties to their new roles we’ve seen a mutual respect for the positions by both Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly. As I predicted here before, Michelle gets to stand on the left and speak first as Arlene Foster did. But it looks to me like both want to work together to jointly make a success of it this time. That’s all we’re entitled to ask for at this stage.

With that hoped for row not materialising it was time for the media to create a new one. So within a week of the Executive being established we had the headline Michelle O’Neill expects poll on Irish unity to take place in next decade.”  This came out of an interview when she was talking about her new role as First Minister and her aspirations for it. But the story in BelfastLive didn’t focus on any of what she said about the job. Instead it majored on what she said about a border poll. Not even something she volunteered about a border poll but a response when “Asked if this meant there would be a unity referendum in the next decade, Ms O’Neill said: “Yes. I believe we are in a decade of opportunity and there are so many things that are changing.”

Fair enough. She’s a republican. She was elected as a republican and has never pretended otherwise. But the most important aspect of the interview was when she was quoted as saying  “we can have power sharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services while we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations.” A clear statement of intent to make this current setup work while not giving up her constitutional aspiration. But presumably too boring for the NI media. Let’s focus on the border.

Then Conor Murphy a couple of days later, at a press conference in Londonderry is discussing development in the North West. This story has a headline of  NI would be ‘much better off’ in a united Ireland, says Stormont’s new Sinn Fein Economy Minister.” Yes he said that. Well he would, wouldn’t he? He’s a republican too and a long-standing Sinn Fein MLA. But again Murphy didn’t raise the issue himself. Again he was talking about his new brief when “Asked if this could be improved in a united Ireland.” What did they think he was going to say? But again this took precedence over the much more immediately continuation of his answer when he emphasised his determination to “work in the framework that I’m in now”.

The thing these 2 stories have in common is that these two senior Sinn Fein ministers were both speaking positively and constructively about their new roles and how they intended to undertake them, but this was fundamentally reduced to support content to the contrived headlines about their republicanism. Juvenile and irresponsible journalism.

This week we’ve had the totally manufactured Casement Park controversy. This simply consists of the mainstream media and some on social media manufacturing a controversy that doesn’t seem to actually exist. Again deeply irresponsible.

As an Irish League fan I know a bit more about the stadia programme than many showing their ignorance on the matter. There is absolutely no question of Casement Park not being built and I haven’t heard anyone in the DUP or other mainstream unionism suggest otherwise. The 3-way initiative that made this money is over a decade old and had something in the region of £200m spread across 3 sports. Rugby spent all its allocation on rebuilding Ravenhill, Football allocated half to rebuilding Windsor Park and half to “sub regional” (i.e. Irish League club) stadia. Windsor was rebuilt leaving £37m (at 2011 prices) for the clubs. The GAA was allocated approx. £70m which it elected to spend in its entirety on rebuilding Casement Park. The sub regional money has been delayed by various previous Communities Ministers (both Sinn Fein and DUP) dragging their heels for various, sometimes political, reasons while Casement was repeatedly delayed, primarily through flawed planning applications and local opposition. So that leaves over half of the originally ring-fenced money still unspent.

All meaningful discussion over Casement has been about the spiralling cost. Much of this additional cost has been driven by inflation, an issue also affecting the criminally delayed sub-regional football stadia. That has to be addressed and compensated for in both cases. So obviously that’s going to be debated. Also the addition of the 2028 Euros and the rigid demands of UEFA (trust me, rigid is a major understatement) will have added significant further additional costs to Casement. Again that will be debated but with the ROI Government contribution, the ringfenced £70m from Stormont (adjusted for inflation) for the initial programme and last year’s commitment from the UK Government to make it happen, there are strong grounds for the interested parties to remain optimistic.

But according to our media you wouldn’t think so. You’d think “unionism” (that lazy phrase used in a stereotyping manner by those who really mean the prods) was hellbent on thwarting the project. Yet all we’ve had is Jeffrey Donaldson saying “It is right that the GAA receives its allocation from the Northern Ireland Executive as previously agreed and in line with the allocations to the three supporting bodies but we cannot see how significant additional UK taxpayer resources will be available at a time when other vital public services are in need of additional resource and capital allocations. It will be for the UK Government to clarify its position in the coming period.” Whereas the new DUP minister responsible has expressed a determination to deal with both outstanding components simultaneously and to reflect current costs. Which is both sensible and fair and which should be widely welcomed.

But the Nolan Show, Talkback, The View, View from Stormont and all 3 papers have given the impression that there’s a fallout over Casement. On Wednesday both Stephen Nolan’s radio and TV shows had the same 2 people on having the exact same argument over 2 positions that are not related to reality. Others have said this can the issue that brings Stormont down all over again. The only people that would suit – apart grom a small number of extremists on either side -are the people struggling to fill pages it broadcast slots in the absence of real sensationalism in the community. Yes if the DUP blocked Casement Park it could bring it down, but not only is there no suggestion they want to do so, they wouldn’t have the power to do so as what we’re really waiting for now is the final HMG contribution which I still have little doubt is there and will be forthcoming. The GAA and the football clubs have waited a long time and I’m sure this is the year when we reach delivery.

There have been other attempts at pot-stirring within the media, but an example of what we can expect from a lazy media in a politically stable NI was last week’s other dominant multimedia story – Ladgate at the Devenish! The real story here was another example of how some idiot with a camera phone can humiliate people and potentially cause them serious problems in their employment and their domestic situation. People doing nothing other than having a bit of a saucy night out having their photographs plastered everywhere by media that should know a lot better. Yet the media had no thought for the feelings of these women as our entire media turned into a 1980s Sunday paper for a week. That was seriously wrong to the point where we even had high profile individuals going all out to prove the Devenish was in either West or South Belfast (the Belfast Telegraph eventually settled on South West Belfast) to demonstrate that “our weemin” wouldn’t do a thing like that. I might sound flippant on this but be warned, without high level political instability at Stormont we can expect a lot more of this sort of tasteless drivel.

So watch yourself when you leave the house. You never know who’s watching…

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