A vibrant network of websites is publishing information and debating issues that Ireland’s mainstream media should have but did not, writes Miriam Cotton
The citadel of mainstream Irish journalism has been disturbed by the arrival of interactive, internet-based news and discussion forums that anyone can participate in. A vibrant network of websites has appeared and while they could be as much criticised as praised, many are a serious challenge to the status quo. And most of them are free. This phenomenon is not generally liked by the Irish media establishment which has had to make concessions to it by putting its own offerings online – albeit with strictly controlled opportunities for interaction with the hoi polloi, if there is any at all. There’s a lot of harrumphing about the need to protect professional journalism which in reality may be as much about a desire to keep control of the news agenda in certain hands as it is about any threat to the quality of journalism. Despite this, the mainstream media have been compelled to acknowledge facts and opinions they would much rather have ignored were it not for the healthy debates taking place on internet forums that frequently expose gaping holes in media coverage. Anyone who doubts this should visit the Ballyhea Bondwatch Ireland site, the NamaWinelake blog or The Story.ie to mention just a few of the sites which have stolen a march on mainstream journalism by researching and publishing information that the mainstream should have, but did not.
A survey of some of the main political news and discussion websites follows below but first a few things to be aware of for the uninitiated web-surfer. Most of these sites allow comments or news stories to be published by anyone who thinks they have something to say. The quality of what is published can therefore vary a lot. Keep an open mind and remember that joining the discussion is very often like taking a walk down Main Street – every sort of person is there. Some of it, it must be acknowledged, is just plain dross – and some of it is brilliant and original. Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking the owners or moderators of a website are responsible for or endorse the content of posts and comments when they do not.
On PoliticalWorld.org, Politics.ie or Indymedia Ireland, for example, the moderators have no idea what will be on the site until it is posted live by contributing authors, when it can immediately be read by hundreds of visitors. What could be more open or editorially interference-free? Anything defamatory or untrue will typically be deleted as soon as it is spotted – website owners have to be vigilant about this and the good ones have strict guidelines for contributing. The bad ones quickly lose credibility – and visitors.
Another feature of the internet news world is that many, if not most, posters use unusual pseudonyms. This lends an anarchic feel to the experience, the virtual equivalent of a masked ball at which people identify themselves by all sorts of weird and wonderful names: ‘Twentymajor’, ‘ComfortablySmug’ and ‘SwearyMary’, for instance.
Many people – especially politicians – dislike having comments directed at them by anonymous critics. A tough skin is needed if you are likely to find yourself the butt of general ire. Labour Party supporters are now entering the cold and hostile internet waters (The Straits of Minor Coalition Partners) where the Green Party’s ship recently went down with all hands. On the plus side, the criticism is mostly a reasonable calling-to-account of politicians and others, usually given a much easier ride by mainstream journalists who need to keep political sources on-side if they are to stay on the inside track of the politico-corporate establishment.
So what does mainstream journalism make of all this? MIT Media Lab’s Nigel Negroponte has been widely and approvingly quoted by colleagues, criticising what he calls the spectacle of the ‘Daily Me’ – a pejorative directed at users of the internet who seek out the news sources that interest them the most, disobediently rejecting the pre-digested news menu of the mainstream.
But what about the ‘Daily Them’ which until the advent of the internet had complete control over what the vast majority got to hear and read? In Ireland this was and still is particularly problematic among purveyors of traditional news media. The small, stifling world of Irish journalism is now so embedded with political and corporate PR power that the resulting slant on its reportage is as unnoticed and uncommented on as breathing to all bar a few of them, regardless of how objective they almost all so earnestly believe they are.
As to the quality of internet websites, mainstream journalists need to look to the mote in their own collective eye. Isn’t an awful lot of journalism luridly tabloid and notoriously riddled with mistakes and misinformation?
Where broadsheet journalism is concerned, doesn’t the dull agreement that crosses all political boundaries operate in effect – aside altogether from its own inaccuracies and omissions – as a form of censorship against other perspectives? Is it possible to distinguish the observations of Fionnan Sheahan, Matt Cooper, Laura Noonan, Dan O’ Brien, Brendan Keenan, Sean Collins, Sarah McInerney, Ivan Yates, Áine Kerr and screeds of others of our most respected mainstream commentators? They are almost all, essentially, of one view-point. This anodyne consensus is not unique to Irish journalism. As the world-renowned journalist, John Pilger once reported: “During the Cold War a group of Russian journalists toured the United States. On the final day of their visit, they were asked by their hosts for their impressions. ‘I have to tell you’, said their spokesman, ‘that we were astonished to find after reading all the newspapers and watching TV, that all the opinions on all the vital issues were by and large, the same. To get that result in our country, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here, you don’t have that. What’s the secret? How do you do it?’”
One of the high priestesses of Irish twitter is the illustrator Annie West, who has drawn a cartoon of what she calls the “wheel o’ guests” – a reference to the tiny pool of pundits deemed worthy of being invited onto mainstream political broadcasts. She might as relevantly draw another wheel for the even tinier number of columnists in newspapers.
Is there really anything that John Waters, Kevin Myers, Terry Prone (horrified by twitter) or Fergus Finlay have to say that they haven’t already said at length, many times over by now? Is it really the case that so few voices from the same narrow, socio-political milieu can speak for us all for a seeming infinity? But these are the trusted, inside-track opinion-formers – people who will never wander outside that small space on the spectrum of political thinking within which Irish mainstream journalism is located.
They are that safe intellectual capital defined by Chomsky who can even be ‘original’ and ‘independent’ without ever making any truly serious challenge to the status quo.
There is some superficial deviation from the standard – but mostly only enough for the journalists in question to satisfy themselves they are being courageous and balanced. Open-publishing news sites are far less in awe of that sealed-off world whether they are publishing from a left, centre or right persuasion. Every day, every hour, someone is bringing a fresh perspective on events in one of the most egalitarian and democratic phenomena to emerge from the internet. If you haven’t tried them already, pay a visit to these websites. And when you have done that, consider the advice of the Indymedia Ireland collective: ‘Don’t complain about the media – be the media!’
Miriam Cotton is Co-Editor of MediaBite
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