Posted tagged ‘media’

Does Ireland enjoy a diversity of published opinion?

April 14, 2010

Here’s an interesting proposition. Writing in yesterday’s Irish Times, columnist Fintan O’Toole suggests that there is no outlet in this country for alternative opinions. He writes:

Given the right-wing domination of our political and media cultures, it is not at all odd that radical dissent has been marginalised. (Even the word “marginalised” suggests, wrongly, that it was anything but marginal in the first place.) What is much harder to grasp, however, is that mainstream, rational analysis has been marginalised too.

This seems to me to be quite wrong, and I wonder whether he is confusing the expression of opinions with the implementation of what those expressing the opinions are recommending. Honestly, you cannot open a newspaper or switch on the television these days without having someone roundly condemn NAMA, the government, the banks, the builders, the politicians, those who defend the banks-builders-politicians-etc, and so on. In fact, if the free and plentiful availability of a particular perspective expressed in the media and other public outlets were to be evidence of its orthodoxy then Fintan O’Toole himself would be right at the centre of power. Indeed it is perhaps remarkable that one of the most frequently published opinions is the view that such opinions are not frequently published.

Public debate that includes a genuine diversity of opinion is not one of the things we lack. Indeed Fintan O’Toole’s column in the Irish Times (which is always worth reading) is itself evidence of the opposite of what he claims. What perhaps we don’t have is a clear trajectory from persuasive argument to action. We don’t have a sense, as a nation, that debate is more than a leisure activity. Even parliamentary debates are wholly ineffective as a source of decision-making. An Irish emigrant in the United States recently suggested that ‘debate is something you do at the bar; it makes the Guinness go down’.

The exchange and analysis of ideas is an important academic task. It is our mission to persuade people that critical analysis is not an abstract skill but rather a basis for reform. We need to celebrate diversity of opinion, not because it passes the time, but because it makes the things we do as a community work more effectively and more fairly. If we get that across better, we may win much more respect as a profession.

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All the news that’s fit to print

December 29, 2009

One of the key questions for modern journalism is about where to draw the line between news which the public have a legitimate right and expectation to know and items that are really just an intrusion into a person’s privacy. And before we go down that road, there is a corresponding question that needs to be asked of us, the general public: what do we want the media to tell us, and are we consistent between what we say in answer to that question and what we are prepared to read or listen to?

Of course the trigger for such a discussion right now would be the report by the Irish television station TV3 that the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD, has pancreatic cancer, a story they released despite the fact that they knew he had not told all of his friends and family and was intending to do so over the Christmas period. As far as I know, TV3 have not stated why they released the news in this way; the only statement from the station that I have come across was from Andrew Hanlon, Director of News at the station, who said: ‘We held it for two days to enable him to inform his family’. Apart from the attempt to portray the station as having behaved sympathetically, I cannot see in that statement why they did it at all. To be fair, it is perfectly correct to report on the Minister’s illness, as his role is crucial in the government and his personal ability to handle the issues facing the economy is a relevant issue; but there can be no real argument that this needed to be known during the Christmas holiday and could not have waited another week.

My own view is that the station got it badly wrong and behaved inappropriately in a very sensitive matter. The issue here is one of timing rather than of substance. And of course the reason why they did it was that they believed that it would provide them with publicity that would be commercially useful to them; the tut-tutting of the other media was not only not a problem, but perhaps was an additional bonus in PR terms. Such news items work for the media because, in the end we, the public, go for it. We may join the ranks of the tut-tutters, but we do so having read or listened to the item.

The problem in all of this is that it is difficult to formulate a set of principles on the public interest in such matters, or indeed on public accountability for those who exercise power, which is clearly set apart from what is just salacious interest. The French media did not report the existence of François Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter while he was President, although the story was well known. Was that the correct position? Or was it right to suggest, as some British journalists did at the time, that Mitterrand’s marital infidelity should have been fair game because it showed that he could not be trusted to keep his word, and that this was a matter of public interest?

Generally speaking, it is my view that the Irish media behave with a significant degree of responsibility. But even here we may need to develop a better understanding of what constitutes news that should be printed (or broadcast), and what is simply a matter of private concern that the public does not have a right to know.

Communicating the message

April 6, 2009

As I entered a meeting recently attended by a number of people from different Irish universities the sound of conversation suddenly stopped dead, and I was left wondering why I had had such an effect. It turns out that those present had been commenting, not necessarily positively, about DCU’s apparent obsession with getting itself and its stories into the media. As I had just appeared on television the night before, my arrival prompted a sudden silence. After I had managed to find out what was going on, an old friend of mine who was present suggested to me that the problem was that, in order to be intellectually respectable, universities should avoid trying to communicate in an accessible manner to the general public, as you could not do this without betraying the academic quality of what was being communicated.

As one of the smallest Irish universities we have a disproportionate presence in the newspapers and indeed in the broadcast media, and it is true that we make serious efforts to achieve this. So is this something that cheapens us in some way? I doubt it. Indeed, my own suspicion is that, between us all, we don’t do half enough of it. Right now there are stakeholders of the university sector in the outside world, with significant influence, who appear to be wholly unconvinced of the quality of what we do and the significance of our programmes of teaching and research. But our failure to persuade our stakeholders of these things has significant implications, not least in the erosion of our funding and increasing criticism of our status as autonomous institutions. We are not communicating our key messages well.

This failure cannot be put down to a lack of professionalism. All universities have highly respected communications, media or public affairs offices who do a very good job. Rather, it may be connected with an instinctive suspicion that there is something not quite right about blowing our trumpet; and it may also be connected with a suspicion that when we send out key messages they are often intended to produce a competitive advantage: i.e. we are using communications to convey a status for our own institution above that of others in the sector. And so the sector as a whole finds the idea of communicating a common message difficult and even counter-intuitive.

I think that one of the key priorities for the university sector during these times of crisis is to persuade the wider public that what we do is important, is of high quality, involves huge social and economic benefits, and is indispensable to the return of our country to growth and prosperity. We need to persuade that cutting our resources will not just produce quality issues in the universities, but will call into question Ireland’s claim in the wider world to be a high value knowledge society. And we need to be unapologetic about all this.

The blogging world

December 23, 2008

At this moment, you are reading a blog. Only a few years ago, you had no idea what a blog was, and if you had known you wouldn’t have found any or many. Now there are millions of them, and it is estimated that perhaps 300 new blog posts are published every second. But it is not just volume: blogs are credited with all sorts of things, including determining the course of election campaigns, ending the careers of major business leaders, changing tastes and fashions, and so forth. They have changed the publishing industry, and in particular the news industry: even traditional newspapers now also run blog sites for their journalists, which allow readers to make comments. Some blog sites are as influential as the traditional media – see for example the always interesting Huffington Post. In fact, an article written three years ago on CNET suggested that blogs were the future of publishing, with the qualification that the author did not think they would ever present a commercial proposition.

More recently some doubts have begun to set in. Some commentators and analysts have begun to wonder whether the sheer volume of blogs and the disorganised nature of the whole phenomenon is actually preventing rather than encouraging intelligent debate. Furthermore, as blogging becomes more and more pervasive, the worry is that it may be compromising the viability of traditional news media organisations – a recent commentator associates the growth of blogging with the possible collapse of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.

And what of the bloggers? Are they all ego-maniacs, driven by the belief that everyone out there is just dying to know what they think? Are some of them just incredible time wasters, slaving away at their blogs while they should be out having a life? Are some of them simply mad?

Of course there is an unpredictable and eclectic set of blogs out there. Quite a few are technical, some in such an obscure way that I doubt they do much for anyone. Some are true believers in something or other, which often remains opaque to the uninitiated. Some use blogs as a kind of family diary that would have very limited appeal outside of the family. Some are plainly crazed (and I confess I read one or two of such with amusement). But there are also blogs out there that are intelligent, enlightening, thought-provoking, humorous, humane.

If we are afraid of this avalanche of unorganised information and opinion, we should relax. We have been there before. The arrival of the printing press several hundred years ago had much the same effect, and the same kind of people tut-tutting today about the unreliable nature of the internet in terms of orthodoxy and accuracy were at it back then also, bemoaning the new technology that allowed people to assemble and disseminate views and information without first getting anyone to authorise it. It would be difficult to argue that mass printing did a disservice to humanity, and I imagine that the same will be said of blogging.

And I suspect we’ll continue to be able to distinguish between good information and valuable opinions on the one hand, and mindless rubbish on the other. Just like we are able to tell the difference between a quality newspaper and a sensationalist gossip rag. Humanity will survive, and I suspect blogging will continue to prosper and evolve.

But then again, I’d have to say that.

All the news that’s fit to print

October 5, 2008

The quality and stability of democracy in any society depends fairly crucially on the media, and on newspapers in particular. The willingness and ability of journalists to identify and pursue a significant story, and to present a trenchant but balanced view when they have got to the bottom of it, is as important as, and may be a prerequisite to, the willingness of politicians to defend rights and freedoms.

On the whole, in Ireland we have been lucky with our newspapers. They have tended to take a serious view of the big political and social issues and provide us with coverage that supports our democratic credentials. But then again, that comment betrays my age a little. I grew up when there were three Irish daily papers – the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Irish Press. It was also possible to get many of the UK newspapers, particularly if you were in Dublin or one of the larger towns; but their circulation overall was very small.

That picture has long changed, with the arrival of Irish editions of UK newspapers (particularly the tabloids), the enormous diversification of the broadcast media and the impact of the internet, where you can now choose to have as your daily newspaper something from just about anywhere in the world.  The ‘old’ Irish papers (minus the Press, which disappeared some time ago) are still in a strong position, but not a dominant one. This slight erosion has also made it more difficult to say for sure that our news coverage gets it about right; there are now many column inches on sale in newsagents focusing on celebrity gossip and adopting a much more partisan political approach. Conversely, I also sometimes wonder whether some of the media over-do the desire to bring people ‘to account’, pursuing stories largely geared towards finding someone to ‘blame’ for something – and this ‘blame culture’ may yet serve to stifle imaginative policies and innovation (which is always risky anyway for politicians and others in the limelight).

New technology alone will guarantee that we cannot return to the apparent comforts and certainties of how the media operated decades ago. But as citizens we need to remind ourselves that the dissemination and analysis of news is vital, and that it is (at least in part) a serious business. In the end the media, whatever platform they may use, will serve us what we appear to want. The quality of our news analysis is ultimately the responsibility of all of us.