Orla Ní Dhúil
Do you feel as though mainstream Irish media represents you and the issues that matter to you? If not, then you are not alone.
There is a well-documented disconnect between many young Irish people and their government; a study in 2007 had Ireland’s young voter turn-out the lowest in Europe. But what is less well-documented is the disconnect between much of Ireland’s youth and its media. Though the political apathy is of course a problem in its own right, it is also in part a knock-on effect of a media that does little to prioritise issues that affect younger demographics.
This was well demonstrated by the Pantigate incident that has been unfolding since January, which has brought the issues of homophobia and censorship to the forefront of national debate. It has also shown that the priorities and loyalties of the Irish media do not align with those of much of the population. The issues of homophobia, the Iona Institute and other parties involved have been and will be discussed elsewhere but what is more significant to me are the actions of RTE in its role as state broadcaster during the scandal.
There was a lack of transparency from the beginning which made many people uneasy. When the final figure of the settlement of ¤85,000 was revealed many people were outraged. RTE has received over 850 official complaints regarding this pay-out for a comment which received zero audience complaints on the night.
“Pussy Riot and Hollaback are two groups that have big youth followings but their treatment on RTE was cringe-worthy at best. Brendan O’Connor’s interview of Pussy Riot in February was widely considered an embarrassment as he failed to discuss their activism, their feminism or their experiences of prison.”
The general frustration and outrage was expressed on social media platforms and described on RTE a week later as “Twitter lynch mobs”, though it was more akin to an unfiltered Letters to the Editor page. One upload of the section of interview edited out of RTE’s digital archive has been viewed on Daily Motion 27,360 times at the time of writing. This is higher than the average rating of 18 of RTE’s 20 most watched programmes. Perhaps this is not that surprising given that, according to the Irish Digital Consumer Report in 2013, 53% of Irish people aged 16-25 and 43% of Irish people aged 26-34 now consume the majority of their TV content online. I spoke to the chair of Ireland’s top journalism degree, Dr Jane Suiter, who has written for a number of publications, including The Financial Times, to get her perspective on how Ireland’s traditional media have struggled to entice young audiences.
“Yes I think traditional media are struggling with how to win audiences among young people. The Irish Times, for example, has hired a few younger writers who attempt to engage with issues relevant to younger readers but the success is patchy.”
However Dr Suiter felt that journalism has had to become partially about entertainment rather than purely information. “Journalists are increasingly utilising social media as a source and reference for news and current affairs; this allows more direct access for all citizens as the shift in news production becomes more bottom up. Younger people are more likely to be engaged in social media and this is thus a source of influence.” So young people looking to get involved in debates and commentary on current affairs now need no more qualification than an internet connection. Social media, particularly Twitter, is the primary news outlet for many young people all over the world, including Ireland.
Ireland has 600,000 daily Twitter users, making us the 10th highest country in the world for Twitter users per capita. This is a fact that journalists and broadcasters alike have been struggling with for a number of years. While this presents its own set of quality-control challenges, is an open more inclusive discussion not generally preferable?
The guests and debates on RTE only continued to highlight this disconnect in the weeks that followed Pantigate. Pussy Riot and Hollaback are two groups that have big youth followings but their treatment on RTE was cringe-worthy at best. Brendan O’Connor’s interview of Pussy Riot in February was widely considered an embarrassment as he failed to discuss their activism, their feminism or their experiences of prison but rather made inappropriate jokes and asked questions about Madonna. Last year, Ryan Tubridy interviewed the head of Irish Hollaback, Aimee Doyle, and suggested that she should find street harassment complimentary.
When asked Hollaback said: “It was quite clear that Ryan didn’t take us seriously and was determined to present us as a group concerned only with “wolf-whistles”, rather than a group concerned with street harassment and its place within rape culture. It was a frustrating experience, as we felt that there was a deliberate attempt to twist our words and redefine our experiences. It seemed that our attempts to challenge the status quo were unwelcome to Ryan, who of course benefits from that status quo.”
Just this month RTE came out with a new TV show, The Centre, that focuses on a working class community centre trying to “grab grants” by ticking “diversity boxes”. I watched the first 10 minutes of the pilot which was all it took for the show to be massively classist and transphobic, not to mention anti-traveller and dismissive of Muslim women. Rather than spreading the things that would offend people out, RTE decided to put all the things you might hate about them in one convenient place.
In February, UCC held a Journalism Conference where the issues surrounding sexism in Irish media were addressed, like the fact that 98% of opinion columns in the Irish Times are written by men. Audrey Ellard Walsh, a Cork journalist covering the event, referred to traditional news outlets as “legacy media”, which is an interesting term.
Legacy is what traditional media has to offer. Reputation, authority and trust are vital for any news outlet and it is the advantage that they still have over blog and purely online-based publications. However what online journalism has to offer is an accessibility and diversity of voices that is seriously lacking in much of Ireland’s “legacy media”.
But Dr Suiter believes that “online journalism” as distinct from journalism as a whole is an increasingly outdated concept. “In many ways almost all journalism is now online to a greater or lesser extent. The question is from where does it emanate? The traditional news organisations tend to have greater resources, more trained and experienced journalists and thus have a higher level of credibility with the public. The challenge for them and indeed for democracy is to ensure that these advantages are leveraged, ensuring high quality, questioning, well-researched journalism that engages with the audience.”
“Legacy is what traditional media has to offer. Reputation, authority and trust are vital for any news outlet and it is the advantage that they still have over blog and purely online-based publications. However what online journalism has to offer is an accessibility and diversity of voices that is seriously lacking in much of Ireland’s “legacy media”.
The BBC could be seen in some ways to reflect this. It is one of the most highly visited online sources of news, on its own site and across various social media platforms, but also maintains its tradition television and radio mediums. It combines new techniques with a reputation that is trusted. But more importantly it provides context for its breaking news, something which can be lacking in Twitter headlines.
At the end of our interview, Dr Suiter expressed optimism for Irish media in the future, that it would figure out how to adapt and change. This week The Irish Times saw changes as John Waters left their employment and the website hosted a respectful and engaged article at the Lady & Trans Fest at Seomra Spraoi.
Are we about to see a seismic shift in Irish media? Will ‘legacy’ outlets catch up with the needs and priorities of a very different country? I am not sure honestly. Most of the time in Ireland, to poorly paraphrase Yeats, change comes dripping slow. I do think that local, home-grown media still has value in an increasingly globalised word. So if Ireland’s media does change, hopefully it will be for the better.