I spoke at a conference yesterday organised by Queen's University's 'Victims and Dealing with the Past' project team to launch a new set of media guidelines. Following extensive consultation with victims and survivors and journalists and editors, two sets of guidelines – one for victims and survivors on media engagement and one for journalists, editors and educators on how to engage with victims and survivors and report on legacy issues – were produced. Here are my words:
I fully welcome these new guidelines for both victims and survivors and for those who represent the media.
They are a long time coming and we need to thank everyone involved in their production.
There is an inherent need for such guidelines because for many decades there was, is and will be an interaction between those affected by the violence and those who seek to discuss and disseminate these effects.
We only need to pick up our daily newspapers, stick on the radio or watch our local news bulletins and political programmes to see the past in our present. And realistically we know that this will continue into our future.
What runs through these guidelines is the necessity to treat victims of the conflict with respect and dignity. To ensure that we do no further harm to those who have been harmed in the most grievous ways in the past.
These guidelines warn against unscrupulous and unskilled reporters inflicting further wounds on those affected by (and I quote) “inappropriate earlier media coverage, public indifference, failure to investigate by the police, perceived injustice in the courts or perceived rewarding of perpetrators through a peace process.”
The concept of doing no harm should be priority of all ethical journalists and is quite frankly, a no brainer. So, if we take this responsibility as a given, what else are we to make of these guidelines? Are they asking journalists and those in the media to consider something more? Should they inspire journalists and our media to not just do no harm but to also do some good? I say yes.
I believe that they should counter the effects of “inappropriate earlier media coverage” that I just mentioned with media coverage more suited to the needs of victims and survivors. They should tackle the aforementioned “public indifference” by helping the public to understand and empathise with those most affected. They should challenge the police who had earlier and are even now currently failing to investigate the crimes of the past in an effective human rights compliant fashion. They should shine a light on how the courts meted out further injustice upon those who sought accountability. They should give voice to those who feel that a peace process has left them behind.
In effect the journalist of today and the future should seek to remedy those who had been badly treated by the media in the past.
I am not seeking to pin blame or condemn those who came before and may still work in the media today but I am asking that with these guidelines comes a new and more appropriate way of dealing with our fractured society. I am asking that our media draws its line in the sand and moves on from its past.
I am asking that they do their job as the 4th Estate and to really be the advocates for those without voice against the dominant systems of government and bureaucracy. They need to utilise their ability to frame political issues for victims and not for the governments. They need to embrace their indirect but powerful social influence and hold government to account.
Now this comes natural to many of our current journalists. Investigations into political corruption, incompetence and duplicity are tackled with the vigour it deserves. Journalist win all sorts of awards and platitudes for shining their light on these issues and rightly so but when it comes to some of the reporting on the legacy of our conflict many are left wanting.
They run for cover under the security blankets of media neutrality and impartiality when instead they should be partial when they see continuing injustice being meted out against those who have been harmed in the past. They should be focusing on the needs of the little old lady whose child was killed in the 1970s with the same vigour as they do for the little old lady who faces eviction from their nursing home.
They should be asking the questions of government as to why they have not brought forward measures to deal with all victims instead of asking those victims who have seen movement in the courts to comment upon the actions of the various actors in the conflict; and what should be done about them. There is no whataboutery when they are dealing with the concerns of the little old lady in the nursing home. They don’t ask her to empathise with the worries of a CEO in the local Health and Social Care Trust as they try to balance their budgets, do they?
This is the challenge for the journalists of today and the future. Are you willing to throw off the practices of the past and help rebuild a future we can all be proud of? You all have an important part to play in calling out injustice and have the power to shine a bright light into the dark parts of our past.
With the help of your stories, told in an open and honest way, free of political interference, we as a society can better understand the harms of the past. You can show us how it still affects those who were there, those who were left behind and those who are still yet to be born.
Now is the time to embrace this opportunity.