Tuesday 21 May 2019

Media 'balance' often lets the powerful off the hook

The road to Gleann Colm Cille in the Donegal Gaeltacht
The road to Gleann Colm Cille in the Donegal Gaeltacht
Lorraine Courtney

Backchat: Lorraine Courtney

Balance is a wonderful thing. It prevents us, every day, from falling over and inspires skiers to descend vertiginous slopes. But balance in the media is infinitely more problematic. The newspapers and news shows, magazines and round tables and journalism schools still seem to believe utterly and completely in two very incompatible ideals.

One is an ideal of balance, non-partisanship and of always achieving perfection. The latter is a much more ideological ideal, which treats journalism as a kind of vanguard job, fighting for the powerless against the powerful, and leading us all forward towards some kind of enlightenment. Both of these ideas have inspired great journalists and publications. But many of the media's worst habits arise from the doomed attempt to pursue both of them simultaneously.

This week the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) wrote to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to say a recent decision to uphold a complaint against RTÉ's Mooney Show, following a discussion on civil partnership, was "inimical to the public interest". The complaint submitted to the Family and Media Association, which promotes Catholic family values, concerned a broadcast back in January, when former RTÉ news reader Michael Murphy and Tiernan Brady from the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network featured on Derek Mooney's afternoon show.

The association claimed that no opposing voice to same-sex marriage was heard during the broadcast. And the cherry on top of the big fat pink wedding cake? The BAI compliance committee upheld the complaint.

It is only fair that gay couples should be recognised in terms of inheritance, pensions and property, and that legislation should be put in place. Parenting too is not a slave to biology. Many heterosexual families, like those who chose to adopt or have step children, aren't all biologically linked to each other and we don't wave our Bibles at them. So why the enduring prejudice?

The short, brutal answer is because it's still there, it hasn't gone away and it isn't likely to go away in the near future. It might not be explicitly stated so much these days, it might be disguised as "concern".

You see, bigotry has evolved into ever more sophisticated forms, just like everything else. Yes, there are still people out there who firmly believe that gay relationships are unnatural and that gay people and loving marriages should never mix.

This latest BAI finding demonstrates a terribly poor understanding of the concept of media balance and the obligation to provide a forum for a variety of views. Every nutter in the community is not entitled to have his or her view transmitted via the national media.

On almost any issue, there are a huge variety of views and many alternative ways of presenting a selection. "Balance" is being hijacked as an excuse to avoid investigation and even to avoid independent thinking. Spokesperson-driven journalism favours money-rich organisations which can afford to maintain a constant flow of information to the media. In other words, "balance" is becoming an obstacle to good journalism, rather than a path towards it. Balance should mean going out of one's way to tell stories that those in positions of authority would prefer to remain buried. It should mean recognising that those who are not in a position of authority are more likely to be bearers of these stories, and seeking them out.

The new HBO comedy show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently made a mockery of false media balance in its coverage of climate change issues.

The video of the show went viral, with over 2.8 million views. The body of scientific evidence supports human-caused global warming.

In fact, a whopping 97pc of peer-reviewed scientific papers taking a position on the subject over the past 20 years concur. The media nevertheless continues to treat the subject as a debate, often with one person representing the 97pc consensus and one person representing the less than 3pc minority. John Oliver said: "The stridency, and the intense comfort with a lack of scientific information, is ludicrous - it's objectively ludicrous. So I'm attracted to going to wherever the biggest hypocrisy is, and there feels like there's some good mining to be done regarding environmental issues… this world will be a complete ball of fire before it stops being funny."

And this is also why grown-up discussions about anything nuclear are strictly off limits always, as well as those about the Middle East.

In the media, self-regulation works. Everyone has to think through journalistic ethics before they deal with complex issues. Finally, it ensures that at every stage there is a second opinion, and a chance to stop and think of the implications of what's being said.

Christians and other faith groups do have the right to manifest their own particular beliefs, but it is a right that must be balanced against the rights of others.

And let's not forget that it's probably a better idea to reserve compassion for gay individuals, who live in a society that, despite some trivial legislation and surface change, is not going to stop undermining and insulting them any time soon.

We must demand accuracy and balance and accuracy in media reporting, but also humanity in public life and political policy, and the right of the stigmatised and excluded to be heard loud and clear.

We're still a bit Irish

So far this summer, we've had the appointment of a new minister to the Department Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, who has "the language inside him" but not quite on the tip of his tongue, and Gerry Adams being outed as one of six TDs currently brushing up on their Irish skills at an expense of €16k to you and me.

Our last census revealed that our second language here is most definitely Polish. Nearly 82,600 people speak Irish every day outside of school, according to the results of the 2011 Census, making it just the third most-used language in the country. Some 119,526 stated that they spoke Polish. Irish is not even the main spoken language in the Gaeltacht any more. Actually, just 35pc of people use Irish on a daily basis in Gaeltacht areas. Among the 45,268 Irish Leaving Cert students, only 18,134 took the subject at higher level.

If languages have been discarded because they no longer equip their speakers to live full and successful lives, why attempt to keep them alive by throwing bajillions of cash at them? Yet most of our political parties think that the State should continue pumping millions into saving the language. Over the millennia, new languages have sprung up, flourished, withered and disappeared all the time. Something similar is happening here right now. Yet our politicians continue to be Gaelicised, superficially and quite literally by tokens. And the rest of us are incapable of having a sensible, rational discussion about the fact that it's time to make Irish an optional school subject.

I'm not against the Irish language but I'm against the horrible hypocrisy around it. As this farce of pretending that Irish is a viable language, eternally on the brink of a titanic revival continues, isn't it time to accept lingual realities and polish up our Polish language's sloshed phonetics and crumpled mass of consonants instead?

Our native language isn't Irish at all, it's a self-righteous cúpla focail of hypocritical bull.

'Why wait for your pet to be discovered by some random chance?

'Your pets are begging you to enter them in the annual Nose of Tralee contest - first place wins a photo shoot with a professional photographer."

Yes, this year was the inaugural Nose of Tralee competition, where pet owners could enter their pooches for their county and then go on to win the overall title.

Meanwhile down in Tralee's dome, the farce that was so hilariously parodied on Father Ted as the 'Lovely Girls' competition is continuing to out-parody its own parody.

There was tea-cakes being scoffed, silly anecdotes, buckets of ice and Paddy Power offering odds on the young women and all for the grand final prize of a set of Newbridge knives and forks.

Are there not other and better outlets to celebrate contemporary women that don't come with quite as much ugly, degrading baggage?

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss