Belfast riots, TV News and balanced sectarianism: They haven’t gone away you know!

Posted: June 22, 2011 in Media & Journalism, Northern Ireland

Only hours after Rory McIlroy picked up the US Open trophy and professed his need to get back home to Belfast and celebrate with family and friends; only hours after politicians in Northern Ireland fell over each other to congratulate the boy from Holywood and seize his triumph as a marketing opportunity for Northern Ireland’s tourist industry, what happens? They start rioting and shooting in the Short Strand/Newtownards Road interface! How thoughtless! That in turn brought out the very same politicians to fall over each other in their condemnation.

That’s the thing about sectarian riots: they’re not great marketing opportunities. There’s a marketing and retail course at the University of Ulster and the lecturers never tire of telling their students that if you’re going to market a country or a city, then avoid riots. Not good for the image you see. Look at Greece! Riots in Athens and tourists desert the whole of Greece in droves (we’re told). Most of the students learn the lesson quite quickly but the message is lost to the thousands of working class people in Belfast who couldn’t give a flying balaclava for marketing opportunities. What’s important to them is what’s happening on the ground and, in parts of the east and north of the city, it’s about what the peace process hasn’t done for them as opposed to their neighbours on the “other side” who seem to be reaping a harvest of benefits and privileges, mostly related to housing and social security.

Or is it? Does this really explain what’s happening in that area of east Belfast at the moment? I don’t think so and neither does the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland). Its area commander was very clear and confident in his assessment and remarkably quick to deliver it to the media. In this instance, the trouble was organised, started and coordinated by local elements of the Loyalist, Ulster Volunteer Force, and connected to wider tensions and rivalries in the organisation.

So how did local TV news report this? Did they take their cue from the PSNI, as they so often do when it fits the frame of the story? Well, no. You see, when it comes to apparent communal, sectarian violence, public service broadcast journalism in Northern Ireland resorts to its default position: balanced sectarianism. It’s a very dubious editorial practice and it works like this:  a story comes in about a sectarian attack by loyalists on republicans; so what to do? Well, as a good BBC NI or UTV journo, you run around like a headless chicken to find a similar attack by republicans on loyalists – no matter how tenuous the link, no matter how far out the chronology and no matter how untypical of the broader trends – and report it as part of a tit-for-tat cycle that explains the current incident. You make sure that for every Taig victim, you balance it with a Prod victim. (Indeed, in their peak-time news programmes the day after the trouble broke out, 21 June, rival TV news programmes even featured the same “victims”, using one to balance the other. Were these victims paid Equity fees?) And you also leave out inconvenient facts, presenting it all as a terrible, inexplicable tragedy that hauls us back to the uncomfortable truth that our wee corner of the island is still not quite part of the “civilised world”.

It would be wrong to characterise “balanced sectarianism” as a kind of nervous tic in public service broadcasting when it comes to reporting sectarian incidents in Northern Ireland. In fact, it has deep historical roots, well-rehearsed through decades of “the troubles”, and is as routine and constructed as a police report.

Postscript to anxious American golfers

Betcha I can hit that cop car way over there!

Now, if you’re reading this and you’ve just arrived in Northern Ireland for a golfing holiday, then have a stiff Bushmills and relax. Here’s a few facts to think about. First, it’s a riot in a small area of Belfast. It happens from time to time and doesn’t generally interfere with serious business on the fairway (though try to stay off the bunkers). Second, Belfast is not Northern Ireland and riots don’t normally happen on golf courses, beaches or the Giants Causeway (unless Ian Paisley Jnr shows up and then you never know). And third, Rory McIlroy is on his way home to Belfast and you know what? He’s not worrying about the riots on the Short Strand/Newtownards Rd. He’s a well brought up boy from lovely Holywood, a very middle class suburb on the outskirts of the city and a world away from the riots; and he’s won the US Open,  a lovely big trophy and a cheque for a million dollars. Riots? What riots?

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Comments
  1. Ormeau Cafe says:

    Holywood.

  2. Thanks for the correction! I also misspelt McIroy. That’s what happens when I decide to post late at night!

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