Concerns over media decline and BBC dominance in Northern Ireland


By Steven McCaffery

A fresh initiative to support the “democratic function” of journalism is under way at Westminster.

The Committee for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has launched an inquiry into the future of local journalism, which follows the 2019 Cairncross Review on the industry’s sustainability.

These UK-wide initiatives are welcome, but there is a strong argument for paying special attention to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland, where upheaval in the traditional news industry has even deeper implications.

The Northern Ireland-based Social Change Initiative, an international not-for-profit organisation whose work includes programmes to support peace and reconciliation, has found increasing concerns over media decline.

We have held discussions with grassroots groups, supported independent media projects on under-reported issues and hosted an international conference featuring journalists from societies around the world that face division and violence.

We found that the media can be vital to ensuring mutual understanding in a divided society such as Northern Ireland, where communities largely live apart and are mainly educated separately.

But where there is a failure to recognise the role and responsibilities of the media, divisions can be entrenched.

The Good Friday/Belfast agreement of 1998 required movement on all sides, significantly, the vibrant media landscape of that time helped communities navigate their way to a landmark peace settlement.

Today, however, many national and international media outlets have left Northern Ireland, while local commercial newsrooms have suffered the dramatic downturns experienced globally.

As a result BBC Northern Ireland (BBCNI), with vast public funding, has come to dominate to a degree unseen across these islands.

Locally based daily newspapers, for example, operate with comparatively small newsrooms, with reduced sales ranging from 9,000 to 30,000 copies a day, while they seek to monetise digital output.

But they operate in the shadow of a major BBCNI operation with more than 600 staff, including approximately 160 in news. The BBC’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2020/21 show BBCNI expenditure was £59m, while the BBC network expenditure in Northern Ireland was an additional £34m.

This dominance becomes more significant given that in recent weeks a range of prominent media commentators and leading politicians have repeated longstanding concerns that some BBCNI programming appears to be giving disproportionate prominence to fringe political opinion.

The worry is that while controversy is a common feature in other societies to liven debate and attract audiences, it presents risks in a deeply divided community, with implications for the fragile peace and political stability.

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic leaders have also raised concerns at the lack of representation among on-screen journalists in BBCNI, adding that news stories and debates also fail to routinely reflect diversity.

A further question is the extent to which the corporation is adequately reporting on life across the rest of the island of Ireland, as it does for the rest of the UK. BBCNI does not currently provide routine daily news and politics coverage from the Republic of Ireland, despite both UK and Irish affairs being directly relevant to Northern Ireland society.

These concerns are surfacing at a point when the BBC Trust has been without a Northern Ireland representative for several years. Meanwhile, the director of BBC NI Peter Johnston has temporarily stepped aside to lead UK-wide improvements in BBC impartiality.

The BBC has longstanding UK-wide policies relating to issues such as diversity and balance, but is a bespoke approach required for Northern Ireland?

UK-wide BBC statistics on diversity are not reflective of what is happening in Northern Ireland, where the picture remains routinely white.

There is confusion over how BBC policies relating to balance are being applied in Northern Ireland, or if they are simply inadequate for a divided society emerging from conflict. BBCNI could publish data on its programming if it feels the criticism is unfair. It has not done so.

Meanwhile, does the focus on local news in BBC regions prevent BBCNI from providing routine daily cross-border reporting? Are special arrangements for BBCNI required to fully report both British and Irish dimensions?

BBCNI has particular responsibilities given its Charter obligations, its huge public funding and its dominant position, though some of the criticisms being made are also relevant to the wider media in Northern Ireland.

Government and the industry should consider models of support to arrest decline, bolster media plurality into the future, level the playing field and promote best practice here.

The range of voices that are raising concerns want to see a strengthened media landscape and a healthier public discourse, especially given the deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland. They recognise the vital role journalism plays in this divided society and want a real discussion on how best to enhance it.

  • This article was published in the UK's Press Gazette. See here.