Investigative journalism in the North is ill-served on-air and in print – Anton McCabe
The Northern media has a disproportionately important role to play in scrutinising the political process, given that the five main political parties are cosily in the Executive, and 102 of 108 Assembly members are members of those parties. However, it is largely under-resourced for the task.
The Detail website provides the most significant investigative work. It receives funding from Atlantic Philanthropies and Northern Ireland Screen. The Detail employs five full-time journalists and a video editor. It has done particularly in-depth work on health and education.
The other main producer of investigative material is BBC Northern Ireland. The BBC has suffered serious job cuts, with an estimated 50 further to go by 2016. Its investigative programme, Spotlight, lacked the requisite incisiveness for several years. However, it has become stronger in recent months. Last year it tracked movement of monies belonging to Seán Quinn’s family into Eastern Europe to hide them from the receiver.
The Belfast Telegraph’s editorial numbers having fallen from approximately 120 to 60
Ulster Television (UTV) is the other main TV broadcaster. Four years ago it cut news output by 20%, and axed its investigative programme, Insight. Thirteen journalists, mostly very experienced, took redundancy. A former UTV journalist said these cuts were a result of OFCOM, the UK’s broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, failing to hold UTV to its obligation to produce 26 hours weekly of current affairs.
Being Northern Ireland there is, naturally, a sectarian division in the media. The best-selling daily, the Irish News, takes a broadly nationalist editorial line. The Belfast Telegraph sees its editorial line as cross-community, though it is widely perceived as unionist with small u. The third daily, the Newsletter, is Unionist.
The Irish News is the only locally-owned daily. In recent years, it has strengthened its news coverage, though sometimes carrying too much syndicated material from agencies. Most recently, the Irish News ran a series of stories on the expenses of First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, during a joint trip to Brazil in March. This caused Robinson unsportingly to call on the public not to buy the paper.
The Irish News has also taken steps to become more accessible to Unionist readers. Lurgan Loyalist Barrie Bradbury says that it sells well in the strongly Protestant Mourneview Estate where he lives. “Nearly all the shops and garages round Loyalist areas keep it now, whereas a few years ago they wouldn’t have it on the shelf” Bradbury told Village. “Loads of people say ‘Did you see in the Irish News?’ where years ago, you, wouldn’t have heard that”.
Until last year, the Belfast Telegraph was the largest-selling daily. Its identity was as an afternoon paper: however, it shifted to morning publication. Circulation has fallen by two-thirds in 25 years. The ‘Tele’ is owned by Independent News and Media (INM), and shares its owner’s difficulties. The paper has suffered major job cuts, with editorial numbers having fallen from approximately 120 to a current 60. It has, however, delivered on some stories; the most spectacular being David Gordon’s work on the links between Ian Paisley Junior, generally known as ‘Baby Doc’, and property developer Seymour Sweeney. This ultimately led to the resignation of Ian Paisley (Senior) as DUP leader and First Minister.
The News Letter is suffering major problems from lack of editorial resources. Scottish-based owners Johnston Press are seriously indebted, and reduced their workforce by 25% last year. Most recently, the Newsletter’s sub-editing operation was transferred to Scotland. It is perceived as relying on an ageing rural Protestant readership.
Both the North’s Sunday newspapers, the ‘Sunday World’ and ‘Sunday Life’, are tabloids owned by INM. Given the parent company’s difficulties, there must be doubt as to how long it will continue to publish two tabloids. Despite the limitations of the genre, both – in particular the Sunday World – carry investigative material on issues of public interest such as planning.
The weekly local press consists of over 50 newspapers. Half are controlled by two groups: Johnston Press, with 12 newspapers: and Alpha (owned by Ulster Unionist peer, John Taylor, otherwise known as Lord Kilclooney), with 16. The North’s sectarian divisions result in there being two papers in most towns, one perceived as catering to nationalists, the other to unionists. The self-evident potential advantages of diversity, albeit within the sectarian range, are usually negated due to neither paper having sufficient resources.
Anton McCabe has been a freelance contributor to the Sunday World, Sunday Life, Newsletter and Spotlight.