Changing the debate

“Where smaller parties tread, the larger ones often follow”. Stephen Baker calls out the BBC for their failure to include smaller parties in their leaders’ election debates in the run up to the Assembly election.  

The exclusion of smaller parties like the Greens and People Before Profit from the BBC’s planned leader’s election debate is politically myopic and blinkered. Both parties made breakthroughs at the last Assembly election, with South Belfast returning Northern Ireland’s second Green MLA, Clare Bailey, and PBP’s Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann winning in West Belfast and Foyle, respectively. These results may be indicative of a genuine, growing appetite for change. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the collapsing of the executive may only have increased that appetite. The BBC should keep all this in mind as the plan and schedule their coverage of this election.

A cursory look at the recent history of Northern Ireland shows that where smaller parties tread, the larger ones often follow. It was often so-called fringe parties that helped to change the tone and content of political debate in Northern Ireland. It was also they who had the courage and imagination to push towards a political settlement when larger parties were obstinate and slothful. For instance, we should not underestimate the intellectual work done in the prisons at a time when republicans and loyalists were subject to a broadcasting ban. Figures such as David Ervine and his colleagues in the Progressive Unionist Party demonstrated a willingness to get into negotiations with opponents when mainstream unionists looked incapable of meeting that challenge. The DUP in particular walked out of negotiations and it was involved in a very public and angry exchange with working class loyalists who stayed in the process that lead to the Good Friday Agreement. In May 2007 the DUP entered into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin. Similarly, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition put the question of women’s political representation onto the agenda and for their pains were frequently mocked and brayed at by male counterparts. Today three main parties, the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance, are led by women.

Even on the pages of a progressive journal like The Combination, we have to acknowledge that Jim Allister of the TUV has often provided an articulate and forensic voice of opposition in an Assembly full of apparent placemen. Allister is an incumbent of what the media patronisingly dubbed the ‘naughty corner’, an honour he shares with the Green Party’s Steven Agnew (and, since last year, fellow-Green Clare Bailey, as well as the two PBP MLAs). It was Agnew who first flagged up problems with the RHI scheme as long ago as July 2013, when others were cheerleading the project or simply not paying sufficient attention. It is often the voices in the margins that have the independence of mind and spirit to see what others are wilfully blind to. At this stage I’m reminded of something Tony Benn used to say: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

In excluding these voices the BBC might say its job is to reflect society, and that this is best achieved by focusing upon the larger parties, whose size in the Assembly might recommend them as more representative of public opinion. But neither the BBC nor the media more generally reflects society, and it certainly isn’t the BBC’s job to do anything so pusillanimous. Media representations are integral to the very constitution of society, because they offer frameworks through which people think about the world around them, act in the world and experience it. In other words, media coverage and news reporting do not stand apart from the political process, they are part and parcel of it. If the media’s frame is truncated and exclusive, then that in all likelihood that will encourage a truncated and exclusive politics. If you confine debate to shades of unionism and nationalism (and whatever lies between) you are not merely reflecting an existing reality, you are it reproducing it. Most alarmingly, you are reproducing it at the expensive of other politics such as those of class, gender, sexuality and the environment.

To be fair, journalists clearly don’t see it as their job to simply sustain the status quo. Certainly there are local journalists that have done us all a tremendous democratic service by rigorously investigating political scandals like the RHI scheme. But when it comes to elections, different rules and criteria seem to take over – caution, at the moment to be bold; overt pragmatism, that has no ears for idealism; a determination to identify a centre or consensus about what the key issues are, when many are rejecting the agenda set by mainstream politicians; and damn laziness, that just can’t be bothered to think of a broadcasting format that would accommodate the existing breadth of political opinion. These last two points are important because globally we are evidently living through a period when there is no political consensus – the centre has collapsed. The narrow ground upon which political debate was conducted for decades has exploded and we can barely discern the shape of things to come. And yet, Northern Ireland’s ‘dreary steeples’ have a reputation for remaining impervious to “the deluge of the world”. It is not the BBC’s responsibility to uphold them. It has a responsibility to question, to probe, expand, to experiment, to let the world in.

Giving a platform to the same-old-same-old at this election feels like an abnegation of the BBC’s civic responsibility. To be sure, the BBC has a history of supineness but it also has a stated commitment to a public service ethos that desperately needs refreshed. Because if public service broadcasting is the very lifeblood of democracy, then recent events suggest that Northern Ireland’s politics is badly in need of a transfusion… and maybe an organ transplant or two.

Stephen Baker

21 February 2017