Monday, 14 May 2018

Victims and the Media - Instruments or Players?

I was asked to speak to a conference in Queen's University, Belfast on Monday on the subject of victimhood and the media.  This is my speech.

The theme of my talk today is centred on the relationship between victims of the Troubles and the media in Northern Ireland; and whether or not victims are instruments of the media or players with the media.  As a direct victim of the conflict, I will give some examples which I hope will illuminate my own personal experience of this sometimes-fraught relationship.

Now one might ask what I mean by victims and what I mean by the media.  As anyone with any common sense will know, it would be foolish to try to bundle these two groups together as homogenous packages.  The victims and the media are made up of people of all shapes and sizes.  With different identities. Different political perspectives. Different ideologies. And most importantly, they are people with different experiences or even no experience of the conflict.

This can shape their world view. It can shape their thinking about the conflict.  About who they are as victims and who they are as journalists or presenters. 

The Media

When it comes to the media we have many different people in a variety of roles.  This can be in print media, on radio talk shows, on the TV news or current affairs programming.  They will have different parameters within which to work.  They may be constrained by their editors as to what they work on in any given day.  They may be pressured, externally, or even self-censor, to ignore certain topics or to vigorously pursue others depending on the particular political stance of their organisation.  They may be instructed that they have to provide a balance between different narratives.  They may have different styles of questioning and reporting. They may be restricted by the amount of time they can give to the story.

All of this makes the media environment a difficult place for the people working within it, especially when they are dealing with matters relating to our conflict.  It is within this public sphere where much of the battles of the past are being played out today, especially by some of our politicians.  The media are also players in this battle of narratives.  They will claim to be neutral, above the politics, just there to hear the stories and re-present them to their audience. 

But this is impossible.  We are all biased in some way or another. We are all constructed by the society we live in. All shaped by our experiences of the world.  All affected by the conflict in some shape or form.  This is normal.  We are only human.

Now, while the majority of our media representatives are reflexive, self-critical, and conscious of their biases and limitations, there is a tendency for some to engage in what is called conflict journalism. Conflict journalism, for me, is highlighted by a fixation on what divides us rather than what could unite us.  Highlighting difference and avoiding similarities.  It is characterised by a constant focus on the zero-sum scenarios that have ravaged our body politic for decades.


It is within this style of journalism that I feel that victims become instruments of these conflict journalists.  Where victims are used as a means to an end: to further advance the narrative battle. The meta-conflict: the conflict about the conflict.  Where the suffering of the so-called innocent victims, the heroes and martyrs, is highlighted for the purpose of showing how heinous the terrorists, the perpetrators, the monsters and villains, were.  Conflict journalism also tends to sensationalise the suffering of the victims as helpless souls in need of pity. 

As an example, I would like to you back to an episode of Nolan Live from June 2015.  The main topic that evening was concerned with the issue of a pension for those who were injured during the Troubles. As many of you will know, I am part of the Wave Injured Group who have been campaigning for this since 2011 and I was on the show that evening.  This invitation followed a BBC Spotlight programme from the previous evening which looked into the issue. 

Being a pre-recorded 30-minute format, Spotlight has the time and space to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of this campaign, and of the people involved.  We as a group were delighted with the end product.  We had been treated very sensitively by the production team. Our voices were heard and so were those who had concerns about the implications of the campaign: which could include provision for severely injured non-state actors. 

The next morning, I was invited onto the Nolan radio show.  The host that day was Enda McClafferty.  It was a measured interview.  I was given time and space to engage with the arguments and to have a constructive dialogue with the other guests.  I was left with a feeling that I had been listened to and heard. 

Later that day the call came to appear on the TV version. Along with my colleagues, I made my way to the studio, took my front row seat and got miked up, ready to go.  As the theme music died down so began the toxic battle of narratives. The obligatory Sinn Fein talking head versus the DUP one, with the host interrupting every ten seconds in his inimitable style. 

Then he came to me. As I attempted to give my reply, to add some nuance to the complexity of the conflicted society I was born into, to move away from the black and white, the good and evil, I was promptly interrupted and asked to talk about my own suffering. To describe my injuries, to describe my pain, to describe my life as a helpless victim.  I had not come there to do this: but under the studio lights and with the cameras looking on I reluctantly complied.  Once complete, I attempted to move onto more comfortable ground, but most of my token “two minutes” were used up by this stage. 

Onto the next victim and more of the same.  A young woman who was severely burned in the Omagh Bomb was asked about her experience of suffering. At the same time, the big screen displayed a stock image of a “terrorist”, placed alongside a graphic picture of Donna Marie, and the question was put to the audience: are they the same? 

The simple answer is: there is no simple answer.  But that was not the point.  The point was to show the extremes.  The evil wrongdoer beside the pure and innocent victim.  It was not about exploring the context or the nature of the conflict.  Such stark imagery was used to highlight the differences and to avoid the human similarities.  To keep a clear dividing line between the two.  The worthwhile issue of the pension and what it could do to help the survivors, was lost.

In the end I left feeling as though our campaign had been pushed back.  The sympathetic line taken by the Spotlight programme had been tarnished by the toxicity of the Nolan Show.  We felt that we had been used as instruments, to create a toxic debate in the studio that evening.  We had hoped that our issue would have been taken on by the host on its own merits: much in the same way that he champions other worthwhile cases, such as frail elderly people being ejected from their nursing homes. 

It is within this sphere that this presenter is at his best.  He listens to the case and empathises with the person in front of him.  His voice softens and his tone is more in tune with his weekend Radio 5 Live persona.  He fights the corner for these helpless victims of state bureaucracy, by giving them a loud voice: instructing his production team to make behind the scenes phone-calls on their behalf; sometimes resulting in satisfaction for the injured party.

This is not the case when it comes to many victims of the conflict.  These cases are not taken on their individual merits.  The injustice felt by individuals and families cannot be seen in its own light.  There must always be a contradictory voice in the studio: to provide balance when in many cases no balance is needed.  It would be safe to assume that there are no behind the scenes calls made to resolve these issues.

But maybe I am being too hard on the Nolan Show.  They are not the only ones I would view purveyors of conflict journalism.  Our daily newspapers are filled with this style of reportage. Highlighting the negatives rather than the potential for transformation.

And maybe I am also being unfair to Stephen Nolan as a journalist.  His fixation on the suffering of the victims may actually be a useful way to attract the sympathy of the public to a specific issue.  This is something that we as a group have learned during the course of our campaign.  This is where we became players with the media. 


To bring forward our campaign we knew that we had to enter the political arena. We would need to gain political support. We would have to play the game. We would need to gain the support of the public.  We would need to gain sympathy.  We would need to bring forward the human story in order for people to empathise with us.  In order to be seen as deserving of support.

We would need to use the media to frame our campaign in a way that would garner support.  We knew from very early on in the campaign the importance of imagery.  We consciously decided to put the wheelchair users front and centre of any media pictures. 

We understood how powerful the image of a woman, blinded by a no warning bomb, pushing her friend’s wheelchair, who lost her legs in a similar explosion, would be. Our amputees have been more than willing to pull off their trousers and remove their prosthetic limbs when needed. We have been open to telling the stories of how we were visited by the horrors of the past, of how we still suffer today, and how many of us fear the future.  This can be viewed by some as degrading.

Now this type of engagement is counter-intuitive to many of us as victims and survivors.  We don’t want to be seen as the helpless victims begging for support.  We want to be able to get on with our lives and grow. But because our government, at Westminster and the old Assembly, failed to provide us with the necessary support we had no other choice.  

We need to bare all, in order to be heard.  We need to shame and embarrass the powers that be to do something.  Otherwise we stay invisible, marginalised and ignored.  We are forced to keep going to the media, year on year, to let people know we are still here. Waiting.

And in this environment, the media have been willing to play along.  They have responded to the vast majority of our press releases.  Some have been printed in the papers.  Others have come along to our homes.  Set up their cameras and given us our two-minute slots on the evening news.  They have spoken to us down the line on the morning news shows.  At the moment we are still ‘newsworthy’.  But this cannot last forever.  Maybe they will get bored of our story.  What then for the campaign?


To conclude, I need to be generous to our fellow citizens in the media.  While I may have had some experiences that left a bad taste in the mouth, the majority have been positive and useful.  We have learned from past lessons that some formats are better than others when it comes to discussing such sensitive issues.  Journalists, like us, the victims and survivors, should always be willing to learn.  They may try to be objective, balanced, and detached but they cannot escape the reality that they too have been shaped by the same society that shaped us.  

All we ask is that they continue to try to treat us with dignity and respect, to be cognisant of what happened to us in the past, and to be sensitive with our stories.  But we would also ask that they too become campaigners against injustice. They have a major part to play in transforming the peace. They should take on the tough stories and help highlight what people are going through. But they should do this with a forward-looking focus, to help find a resolution, not as a way to fight the old battles. The should aim to be peace journalists.

On a note of caution, I believe that as a society we should not give carte blanche to victims and survivors and pander to all of their demands. Victims should not be put on high pedestals, free from criticism or scrutiny.  All we ask is that should we be held to the same standards as anybody else.  We are players - but we are players in our own right and should not be used as instruments. If our demands are right and just then that should be the reason for granting them. We are still ordinary citizens but with different needs. Who want to be seen as valued members of society. Visible, listened to, and respected. No more, no less.

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