Media coverage of political issues discussed at the Journalism Skills Conference

On the day of the largest industrial action seen in decades, the NCTJ Journalism Skills Conference discussed the role of the Northern Ireland media reporting during public sector strikes.

The relationship between politics and the media was debated during a Q&A session with Maurice Neill, course co-ordinator, Belfast Metropolitan College; Noel Doran, editor, Irish News; Edmund Curran, editor-in-chief, Independent News and Media Northern Ireland; and Michael Cairns, politics editor, BBC Northern Ireland.

Maurice presided over the session which took place at Belfast Metropolitan College on 30 November. Maurice welcomed delegates before inviting panel members to comment on how they would ensure the protests were covered fairly.

Michael said: “I tried to be fair in the reporting and had people speaking from all parts of Northern Ireland. I spoke to the government, families and those working in the private sector. It’s all about balance and ensuring that the audience care about what’s happening in their area.”

Noel added: “It’s a huge event and it has been broadly broadcast because it’s a big turnout for Northern Ireland. But we are used to reporting demonstrations in Belfast.”

Edmund had recently written an article criticising the industrial action, but although this was his opinion he said it was crucial that other issues were represented throughout the paper. This was done by also publishing pieces from the viewpoints of the strikers and unions. 

During the session Maurice posed a question to the editors asking whether the media should speak to paramilitaries. The editors said yes but stressed that there was a grey area between TV/radio broadcasts and print reporting of armed groups.

Michael said that media rules during the Northern Ireland Troubles had been simply no broadcasting of terrorists and said he believed that this was still ‘‘the right thing to do’’. However he acknowledged that the debate had been complicated over the past decade by the broadcasting of messages of Al-Qaeda members by certain television networks.

Noel said speaking to paramilitaries ‘‘can be justified but not very often.’’ He added that the question was often “different for broadcasters as giving airtime to violent groups could be viewed as insensitive to victims’ families”.

Despite ongoing dissident paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, the issue has lost some of its relevancy over recent years, according to Edmund. Since the peace process began, he said ‘‘violent groups have become marginalised by the public’’ adding that this in turn had caused the media to lose some interest in speaking to rebel groups. However, he upheld the common view among the panel that it is a ‘‘journalist’s right to speak to a paramilitary’’.