Stephen Nolan, a man who has confessed he knows nothing about music, is now on BBC Radio 5, clearing the scheduled programme to wax lyrical about The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and ask inane questions to music critics like,’What was so special about Prince?’ or to journalists in the US (who have spent all day outside the deceased artist’s house) such as, ‘What do we know so far about Prince’s death?’  I would imagine the answer might be something like, ‘Well so far, Stephen, we know that he died!’  But no! Instead we get endless inanity that is beyond satire. Like, ‘Don’t worry Stephen!  We’re working hard to get you an update via our x-ray drone that can see through walls and do a remote autopsy!’ OK – so that last part was made up. But you get my drift.

I can’t bear this nonsense anymore. I’m switching off the radio.

Right wing rants about the alleged liberal-left wing bias of the BBC are as regular as the healthiest bowel movements but they’re rarely if ever based on evidence-based fact, the academic equivalent of roughage. There’s no content analysis, no scientific methodology, just this knee-jerk reaction to alien opinions. This kind of reaction is nothing more than an ideological rod to beat the back of a public institution, not least an institution that does something so dangerous as broadcast to the masses. It is interesting, however, to note that when my colleagues and comrades on Media Lens or Spinwatch produce something a good deal more evidence-based and scholarly, they’re dismissed by the media as just the same as the knee-jerkers on the right. Thus, the age old BBC excuse that absolves all transgressions from journalistic independence and integrity: that is, that if they’re getting attacked from the right and the left about something they’ve just broadcast, then they must be doing something right. This is nonsense! It’s the sort of two-wrongs-make-a- right sophistry that not even Machiavelli would contemplate. Unless, of course, he got a job as a BBC presenter.

But yet, I’m a left wing academic just about finished a 20-year teaching career in higher education and going independent! I’m on a roll and I feel like celebrating with a rant of my own. It’s not so much a rant about political bias. It’s more about the self-abasement the BBC has displayed in the last couple of days in its response to a triple whammy of events: the Queen of England’s 90th birthday and the deaths of Victoria Wood (20 April) and the Artist Formerly Known As Prince (21 April). (Listen now! I gave the Queen’s title capital initials as well so don’t quibble like a pedantic fool!)


One wants to go to a gig!

The BBC got up a good head of steam with the Royal Birthday, when on Tuesday 19 April, they helped Prince William out of a public relations hole (regarding his work ethic) by handing him a deftly scripted interview in the course of which Royal Correspondent Nicholas Witchel asked all the right questions to all the right answers. Witchel didn’t get down afterwards and lick the royal boot but hey! I caught that glint in his eye!


I’m in a hole!


A shovel, Sir?


william with shovel

Look at me work!!!

Now here’s the funny bit. The BBC ran the interview ad nauseum throughout the day and linked it to what it promised would be wall to wall, schedule busting coverage of the Queen’s Birthday celebrations the following day, Wednesday 20 April. Only, what happened? Victoria Wood died! Oops. The Beeb goes into a tailspin! Her Royal Majesty is 90 (shock!) versus National Treasure Comedian dies suddenly (horror!) What’s more newsworthy? Victoria Wood’s death, of course! It was a one-off news story opposed to an endless repeat!

And here’s the almost beautiful part! (Well, for me at least!) Just when the BBC gets back on track with its orgy of Royal obsequiousness (i.e. how did Her Majesty do while we were off yesterday mourning the death of our National Treasure, Victoria?) the artist formerly known as Prince only goes and dies suddenly! Shocker! What to do now? What to do? Yes! Let’s forget there’s nothing else going on in the country or the world and clear the schedules to talk about Prince and how much everybody loved him!!! Earthquakes? Forget them! Hundreds of lives lost? Forget them! Jobs lost? Forget them! Pope suffers constipation? Who cares? Let us BBC presenters sit in our stupid chairs and talk the biggest guff known to humankind about someone we never met, whose music we never listen to, and whose musical sensibility we neither understood nor really appreciated on any level resembling intellect or taste. Let us be very 21st Century BBC! Let us be stupid!! Let us show oneself up and let oneself down terribly!


The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. RIP.

Ok. That’s my rant over now. A more scientifically grounded version of this blog post will appear in the very serious, academic, peer-reviewed journal, Nature…out soon in 2065! Only 9.99.

At the time of posting, the suicide bombs in Brussels on 22 March have so far claimed 35 lives, 15 at Zaventem airport and another 10 at Maelbeek metro station, and injured over 200 people. As expected, the events received extensive media coverage worldwide, coverage that, as usual now in this era of conflict between the west and the Islamic world, raises questions of accuracy, sensation and propaganda. To illustrate the problem, this limited case study analyzes the coverage across a sample of six British daily newspapers over the two days following the attacks, 23 and 24 March: The Guardian and The Daily Mirror on the centre-left; and, on the centre-right, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Star. The coverage tells a story of a seemingly unprovoked terrorist attack on innocent civilians that the ‘bungling’ Belgian intelligence services were unable to prevent; an attack that was set against a background of unchecked immigration and Belgium’s large Moslem, population; and, on the domestic, UK front, one that cast the current Brexit debate into sharp relief in relation to security and immigration.

The headlines

Some commentators expressed puzzlement at first as to the tactical purpose of the attacks, guessing it was meant to simply sow terror among soft civilian tactics. This was certainly the angle taken by the British press the following day:

The Guardian – ‘At least 31 killed after terror attacks rip through Brussels’

 The Daily Mirror – ‘The Death Squad’ (with photo, below, of the 3 suicide bomber suspects at airport)

The Times – ‘Bloodbath in Brussels’ (Ditto photo)

The Sun – ‘Primed Suspects’ (Ditto photo)

The Daily Star – ‘UK Alert As 34 Killed In Terror Hell’ (small inset with photo of armed, British police officer)

brussels suspects

Instilling terror for terror’s sake was an undoubted objective of the bombers, thought to be linked to Islamic Sate (IS or ISIS). But it also seemed clear that as home to the EU Commission and NATO Headquarters, Brussels held symbolic significance given the involvement of both organisations in the Syria and Iraq. Yet the newspapers barely referred to such a political rationale or to linkage to western military operations in the Middle East (though on TV, the BBC did acknowledge the possibility):

The Guardian – ‘Brussels Killers Linked To Paris Terror Attacks’

The Times – ‘Blunders By Belgium Let Bomber Slip Through Net – Warnings About Airport Terrorist Were Ignored’

 The Sun – ‘Terror In Brussels – 5 Bombers On Loose’

The Daily Mail’s front page story that day was about the latest “immigrants found on lorry” story so beloved of that newspaper, while the big front page splash for the Daily Star was the news that footballer, David Beckham, had sealed a deal for his own TV show. A small inset on the left hand corner of the page referred to the fate of a possible British victim of the metro bombing in Brussels – ‘Last text of bomb Brit’. (According to the Star, editorial priorities like these make it a better, brighter paper than the ‘dull, sinking’ Sun.)

On day one of coverage, most of the newspapers devoted several pages inside to detailed and graphic accounts of the bombings, including some quite intrusive images of casualties at Zementev airport. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian (24 March) criticized the broadcasters for their rolling coverage of the bombings, particularly for its hysteria and inane speculation, but the newspapers were just as guilty in those respects. And unlike the broadcasters, the press were able to give full vent to editorial comment and opinion about the bombings. Some of it was variously unwarranted, confused or just plain wrong.

How could the bombings happen and what Europe should do?

The editorial comment and opinion pages in most of the newspapers on the first day of coverage (The Daily Star had none) were dominated by the immediate security and intelligence issues that the attacks had raised and the implications for the wider Brexit referendum debate in the UK. In this sample of newspaper editorials at least, the ideological dividing line appeared to be between left and right. But as normal in the comment and opinion pages of the British press, space is given for debate between opposing viewpoints.

On the right, prescriptions for an apt military or security response were largely mixed with a good dose of Euro-scepticism and pro-Brexit sentiments. The Times was perhaps the most neutral when the day after the bombings it called for a united international stand and better sharing of intelligence (‘After Brussels’, p.31). In the same issue, Roger Boyes lay ultimate blame for the Brussels bombs and the recent attacks in Paris on US President Obama and his military retreat from conflicts in the Middle East. A decisive blow could have been dealt to ISIS before it grew and expanded to the point where it can now launch attacks on western interests anywhere in the world and at times of its choosing (‘Terrorists have filled a vacuum left by Obama’, p.28).

The Daily Mail acknowledged the words of President Hollande, that the bombings were an ‘attack on Europe’, it blamed the attacks on Belgium, ‘a country that has difficulty governing itself and, by common consent, a very poor intelligence service.’ Britain, it said, had to put its own security interests first, take back its borders and close them to free and open movement of people (‘An Attack on Europe’, p.10). In his column on page 11, Michael Burleigh reinforced the ‘blame Belgium’ line, saying that the ‘security failings (were) a damning indictment of a nation whose capital is home to both the European Commission and NATO HQ. How ironic, considering recent events, that the city prides itself on having the nickname, “Spy Central”’ (‘Lethal failures of the Bungling Belgians’). The paper’s guest columnist was John A Bradley, described as an author writing on Middle East issues. He agreed with the Mail’s editorial line but he went much further by insisting that ‘as a result (of immigrant and homegrown Islamic extremists in UK and Europe), we are facing a full-blown, internal Islamist insurgency – and that is exacerbated in tangible ways by the migrant crisis’ (‘With each new atrocity, ever more British voters will feel we MUST reclaim control of our borders’, p.16). The Sun’s editorial took a familiar chauvinistic line when it stated that Britain was safe not because of its membership of the EU but because its security and intelligence services were ‘second to none’ compared with their ‘shambolic counterparts across the channel’, i.e. those in Belgium and France (‘Safety Myth’, p.10). The paper’s political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, put it in balder terms when he argued that a Copycat attack here will push (UK voters) to Brexit’ (p.10).

On the left, The Guardian urged the EU to ‘maintain some perspective and keep a cool head’. Talk of war engulfing Europe, as per French PM Manuel Valls, ‘sets dangerous traps while offering no convincing solutions’ (‘Face Up To This Terrorist Threat. But Don’t Mistake It For War’, p.32). The Mirror argued that ‘any (security) response must be calculated to isolate and defeat the deranged (terrorists) […] So the response must not be knee-jerk. And we must challenge those who seek to exploit what happened in Brussels for their own political ends, preaching nationalism and spreading Islamophobia’ (‘Terrorism Won’t Win’, p.10). Yet elsewhere in the issue, ‘terrorism expert’, Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, urged an immediate military response. ‘Hard and fast surgical attacks by western forces (on IS in Iraq and Syria) backed up by local troops can defeat IS’, he said. ‘Then out fast, letting Kurdish and Iraqi forces take over. Russian President Vladimir Putin showed how effective fast, sophisticated military action can be’ (‘We Must Strike Hard And Fast To Wipe Out IS Evil’, p.9).

Comment and opinion on the second day of coverage, 24 March, turned the focus on the question of how the west should respond to the Islamist threat but for most of the newspapers the question was tied up with the wider Brexit debate. The Times editorial kept its focus purely on the need for a NATO-led military response to ‘fight hard against the very idea of jihad’ (‘Unholy War’, p.37). The Sun on the other hand took a rather more isolationist line. ‘We’re safer out’, it declared, pointing again to ‘Belgium’s catastrophic…failure’ as proof that jihadists simply ‘run rings around MI5’s continental counterparts’ (p.10). This is a reductionist argument, of course. The EU may have its new Europol agency to facilitate cooperation between member police forces but national intelligence services act (as they have always acted) purely in the national interest. So whether or not the UK stays in the EU, whether or not it closes its borders to the free movement of peoples, it will always have to deal with external and domestic terrorist threats.

This conflation of security issues with the Brexit debate simply muddies the waters at a time when voters need a clear understanding of the salient issues. In his regular column for the Times, David Aaronovitch argued that the ‘Terror attacks have nothing to do with Brexit’ (p.33). And the Guardian editorial observed that, ‘What makes the slowly unfolding events in Belgium more unusual (than the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks) is that there are some people who want to use the Brussels terror to fuel wider political causes and agendas (that) however unfounded or debatable (may) find a ready audience‘ (‘To claim Britain is safer out of Europe is dangerous and wrong’, p.42). Finally, in the Mail, columnist Yasmin Alabhai-Brown blamed the whole thing on the parents (‘Why will no one admit the way some western Muslims rear their children is fomenting terror?’ (p. 14). But perhaps the most troublesome theme to emerge from the overall coverage of the Brussels bombings was the treatment of the Brussels district of Molenbeek, with its population of 90,000, the majority of which is Muslim.

The ‘problem’ with Molenbeek

In the first day of coverage in particular, the British press seemed to be in doubt that Molenbeek had a lot to answer for as a harbour for Islamist extremists. Elite and popular newspapers on both the right and left sketched a composite picture of the district that left little room for nuance. Much of it was prejudicial if not outright racist in tone.

Among the mid-market, popular papers, Molenbeek was:

‘Jihadi Central’, ‘an extremist ghetto’, ‘a jihadist hotbed’, a ‘hotbed of Islamic extremism’ and ‘home to Europe’s highest concentration of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq’ (Mirror)

‘a hot bed of young, radical Islamists’ and (with reference to description in Le Monde), ‘a clearing house for jihadism’ (Mail)

a ‘Belgian hotbed of terror recruits’ and a ‘Jihadist ghetto’ (Sun)

The elite papers, the Times and the Guardian, described the district as:

‘a borough…where some neighbourhoods are up to 90% Muslim, (that) is seen by many as a particular problem’, a ‘fertile ground for ISIS recruiters’ and a ‘jihadi centre’ (Guardian)

a ‘suburb where jihadists can be sure of sanctuary’, a ‘nest of terrorists’, ‘a hotbed of radicalism’ whose ‘role in international terror was underlined in 2004 when it was the base of one of the key suspects in the Madrid train bombings’ and that ‘has since been linked to the Charlie Hebdo attackers’ (Times)

The use of sweeping generalization and prejudicial language in these descriptions is bad enough but there is also a problem of proportionality. Using statistics dated 2015 and sourced to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), the Guardian (23 March) charted the number of nationals from EU countries per million of population who ‘joined Sunni/Islamist organisations in Syria and Iraq. Belgium came top of the table with 40 compared with 27 from Denmark, 18 from France, 17 from Austria, 9.5 from UK and 7.5 from Germany. Alas, the paper did not extrapolate from these statistics the concrete numbers they represent. The figure of 40 fighters of Belgian fighters per million of a population of just over 11 million equals 440, or 0.004% of the population. The figure of 27 Danish fighters per million of Denmark’s population of 5.6 million equals 151, or just 0.002% of the population.

I could go on but the point is this: these tiny percentages hardly justify the kind of hysterical reactions we see in the newspapers everytime they report terrorist attack like those in Paris and Brussels. Furthermore, as we have seen in Northern Ireland, and in Gaza and the West Bank, the classification of whole peoples into ‘ghettos’, ‘radical hotbeds’, ‘hardline estates’ and ‘nests of terrorism’ only precludes public understanding and makes a violent state response seem justifiable and reasonable. As senior Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins observed, the hysterical reaction of media and public opinion in the west to terrorist attacks is just what organisations such as ISIS and Al Qaida want. They will look upon the coverage and think, ‘job done’ (‘The scariest thing about Brussels is our reaction to it’ (24 March, p.43).

Concluding remarks

I have argued elsewhere that the media in the west have to think about how they cover terrorist attacks on ‘home ground’, which is invariably less sober and objective than the way they report terrorism in North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. They have to ask why these attacks happen, not just how and by whom. They have to stop conflating the problem of terrorism with the problem of immigration in ways that make it easy for us to see every asylum seeker or immigrant as a potential terrorist. And they have to stop blaming the actions of a few on the communities in which those few live. Alas, the chances of that happening are slim because as we have seen so many times, large sections of the British press rarely let facts and the truth get in the way of a good old orgy of hysteria, sensationalism and xenophobia.

So the date is set for the referendum that will decide whether Britain stays in the EU or leaves after 40 years a member: 23 June. Most of the political parties at Westminster are allowing their MPs to campaign on either side of the debate, whatever the official party policy might be. Boris Johnson announced to the world he was in favour of Brexit like he was Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments on his tablet. Subtext to the Prime Minister, his party leader, who will vote to stay in: “It’s not about you, Dave. It’s just me”.

But here’s the thing. It’s looking like the debate in Northern Ireland will divide along party lines more than anywhere else in the UK. In other words, it’s going to be sectarian. We’re still waiting to see which way the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) goes but the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) have declared in favour of Brexit. The nationalist parties, Sinn Fein (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as well as the self-declared ‘cross-community’ Alliance Party (NIAP) want Britain to stay in.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Teresa Villiers, has come out loud and early in favour of Brexit, provoking Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of NI, to recommend she consider her position, a call she dismissed as ‘ridiculous’. While it might be a futile call, ridiculous it is not because the DFM has a point. For in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish government are custodians of that Agreement, a legally-binding international treaty agreed in the interests of all people on the island of Ireland. If the Northern Ireland Secretary declares herself in favour of leaving the EU, an eventuality that would have profound economic implications for the North and South of Ireland – raising barriers once again instead of taking them down – then that is a position that will undermine the Agreement, not safeguard it. Her position is especially more precarious in light of the fact that her boss, Prime Minister David Cameron, is in favour of staying in. It’s all very well to argue that Villiers has as much right to declare her hand on the issue as any other government minister but that is to ignore the point that in relation to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, she is not just any other minister.

mcguinness and villiers

Don’t be ridiculous, Martin!

As for the likely sectarian complexion of the Brexit debate here in the North, it will be interesting to see how the vote pans out among the general electorate. Will the sectarian divide among the political parties here be reflected at the poll? Or will voters do something they don’t usually do at our endless elections here: vote on the recommendation of, deep breath here, ‘the other side’? As a socialist, I have many issues with the EU in terms of its institutional power and reach, its democratic deficit, its punitive treatment of Ireland and especially Greece over their respective bail-outs after the global financial crash of 2008, and its appalling handling of the refugees fleeing from war in Syria. But the prospect of life in Northern Ireland outside of the EU and at the sole mercy of Her Majesty’s Treasury for the economic subventions we can’t do without is on balance too scary for words. So I guess that means I will be voting on the same side as the Irish nationalist parties. Then again, if I voted in favour of leaving I would be on the same side as the Unionists, all of them nationalists of a British hue. Many of us voters here may well make a non-sectarian decision on 23 June but our vote will be informed by nationalism, whichever way we go.

I haven’t gone away you know

Posted: February 8, 2016 in Uncategorized

So I have returned to my blog after a long absence of nearly three years during which time I’ve moved lock, stock and barrel to live in Derry city, gotten married and written two books! So it was absence by default rather than a deliberate decision to stop.

The old blog looks the same on the outside but I notice that things have changed under the bonnet (hood) and someone’s been messing about with the tools! Indeed I had to re-orient myself in order to post details of two new publications that readers might find of interest: The British Media and Bloody Sunday, which I published last year with co-author Stephen Baker (with foreword by journalist and activist Eamonn McCann); and the second edition of a book I first published in 2002, The War Correspondent. You may see more details of the books here at Amazon Author Central and hopefully give at least one of them a try!

In the meantime, now comes the job of rebuilding interest in this blog…




book coverThe War Correspondent-1


bloody sunday cover

On Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, British paratroopers killed thirteen innocent men in Derry. It was one of the most controversial events in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict and also one of the most mediated. The horror was recorded in newspapers and photographs, on TV news and current affairs, and in film and TV drama. In a cross media analysis that spans a period of almost forty years up to the publication of the Saville Report in 2010, The British Media and Bloody Sunday identifies two countervailing impulses in media coverage of Bloody Sunday and its legacy: an urge in the press to rescue the image and reputation of the British Army versus a troubled conscience in TV current affairs and drama about what was done in Britain’s name. In so doing, it suggests a much more complex set of representations than a straight- forward propaganda analysis might allow for, one that says less about the conflict in Ireland than it does about Britain, with its loss of empire and its crisis of national identity.

Interested readers can find out more at Amazon Author Central.

There was great excitement on The Pat Kenny Show on RTE Radio 1 this morning (20 May 2013) when security analyst, Tom Clonan, came on to tell Pat what we can expect for the forthcoming G8 Summit in Fermanagh.  This, said Tom, was a fantastic opportunity to ‘showcase’ Northern Ireland to the world!  Yes indeed. Northern Ireland, land of dissident golfers, flag protestors, horsemeat processing and world-leading centre for excellence in evicting the elderly from the their homes. Oh…and Coleraine cheese, which in Chinese medicine is a much sought-after, PC alternative to rhino horns. Now, the people of North have a lot of experience of being locked out of their own countryside – look at the new golf resort planned in place of the Causeway Coast World Heritage site. But the G8 are taking it to a new level altogether. Consider the following measures, for example.

To secure the beautiful Fermanagh Lakelands for our global masters in June, the British government are moving the local population cross-country to the controversial Maze Prison site (anti-capitalist protestors are getting Magheraberry Prison, lucky bastards!) and drafting in over 2000 security and intelligence personnel, some of them presently deployed foiling the evil Taleban in Afghanistan and all manner of terrorists and defenceless civilians in Iraq. After all, we know what a good job they’ve been doing in those theatres to date. The scary bit in all this is the involvement of private security contractor, G4S. Yes, the same G4S that cried off from doing security at the Olympics in London last year because it couldn’t guarantee the safety of Boris Johnson. Rumour has it that if they mess up this one in Fermanagh, they’ll win the contract to protect Edwin Poots. Hooray!

Due to the fact that every hotel and hostelry in Fermanagh will be booked up by the security entourages of the Americans, Russians, French, Chinese and Michelle Obama, these extra spooks from MI5 and other British intelligence services will be put up in so-called ‘snooze boxes’.  These are high-spec storage containers kitted out with all the mod cons and keyless entry as standard (although fussier personnel can choose bolt-ons such as soft furnishings, scented candles and cushioned toilet roll).  Presumably, the keyless entry will be biometric, meaning that a Northern Ireland accent/stare/spray-on-tan would trigger an all-out code-red alert and shut the whole county down. But if you come from Northern Ireland and you’ve ever had weird conversations with call-centre personnel (or worse, computers!) based in England, you will understand that such precautions are totally unnecessary.

Apparently, and I am unable to independently verify this information, elite units of MI5 have been trained in the jungles of Borneo, using chickens and pythons, to distinguish between a Fermanagh farmer and a dissident republican or between a terrorist training camp and a home farm sale. I bet Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, will be looking for more cuts to health and social services to pay for that kind of training! It doesn’t come cheap, you know, and we should be grateful to Sammy and the NI Executive for continuing the fight against terrorists, evil doers and traitors to Ireland. Isn’t that right, Martin?

What I understand to be more definite though, at least according to Tom Clonan, is that the Brits will order mobile phone companies to shut down their networks for the duration of the summit and deploy two or three predator drone aircraft to keep an eye on things from above . The drones should help with the farm sale –  their high resolution photography is so hi-spec that it can mark out a turnip from a swede from 60, 000 feet up and target it for destruction with a margin of error of just 3 inches. Impressive. But I’m not so sure about the mobile phone bit. They say it is to prevent terrorists using a fiendish new app to remotely detonate whatever bombs they plan to hide in the vicinity of our defenceless masters.  We can only hope that if we have an emergency during the Summit, we can find a telephone box but it seems a very extreme measure when all they need do is shift us all onto the Orange network.

Pat Kenny was very excited by all this but rather taken aback to hear that the Irish government would be obliged to secure its side of the border and pay for it all itself without any financial support from the G8. As Clonan pointed out, though, that’s because Ireland is a EU country and, after all, Pat, we’re all in this together!

Speak for yourself, Tom! Count me out!

PS. Grumpy old Rab is getting very vexed about the media build up to the Summit over at Media Studies Is Shit.  Definitely worth a look for those of us who just can’t wait to be ‘showcased’ to a bunch of neoliberal gangmasters!