Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Why is The Spectator commissioning biased articles about Northern Ireland?

The Spectator is Britain’s most recognisable conservative magazine.  Despite reflecting a range of opinion on the EU during the referendum campaign, it finally articulated the case that the UK should leave.  

It’s all the more puzzling then, that the magazine’s latest articles about Northern Ireland have amounted to little more than nationalist opinion pieces, launching patchily argued attacks on Brexit and the Conservative Party.  

Recent Spectator content on Northern Ireland has been commissioned from a freelance journalist called Siobhan Fenton.  Previously, she apparently spent a spell as a ‘parliamentary assistant based in Belfast’.  In her biography, she doesn’t reveal which party she worked for.  She now contributes prolifically to The Guardian, The Independent and the New Statesmen, where hostility to unionism is not uncommon, but The Spectator is more surprising.

It’s not illegitimate or even undesirable to write with a political slant, but, especially when your articles are presented as features or analysis, they’re expected at least to aspire to explain different points of view and reflect a version of reality that is recognisable.

A brief look at some of her recent work shows that Ms Fenton is not bound by these constraints.  
Her latest piece for The Spectator reports that Theresa May received a hostile reception during a visit to the Balmoral Show, just outside Belfast.  The author bases her assertion, not on eyewitness accounts, still less upon her own attendance at the show, but rather on an aggressive press release from John O’Dowd of Sinn Fein, that accused the prime minister of ‘breathtaking arrogance’ for visiting Northern Ireland.

Think about that for a moment.  The public mood in Northern Ireland was gauged by citing a vicious, anti-British diatribe from a republican politician.  It might pass for journalism in An Phoblacht, or even the Morning Star, but in a reputable conservative journal?

At almost the same time, Ms Fenton floated the idea in the New Statesman that the forthcoming General Election will see a ‘Sinn Fein surge’, with the party returning more MPs than the DUP.  Not a single credible political commentator in Northern Ireland, and few less than credible political commentators, would suggest that such a result result is a realistic possibility.  

The DUP has twice as many representatives at Westminster as Sinn Fein currently.  It’s highly improbable that Ms Fenton really believes herself that this scenario could happen, which renders her piece either wishful thinking or propaganda.

Indeed, to back up her claim, she conjures up a strange netherworld where ‘soft unionists’ vote for John FInucane, a lawyer from a notorious IRA family, in North Belfast.  She also says that the sitting MP in East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, is “likely to lose” to Alliance leader, Naomi Long.  

Even the most cursory working knowledge of Northern Ireland politics exposes the first statement as transparent nonsense and the second as highly contentious.  Long has a chance of winning the seat, but the bravest pundit wouldn’t say it’s likely.  

Freelance journalism is a tough trade, which requires a lot of work for sometimes derisory financial rewards.  I’m very loathe to attack anyone’s efforts to make a living by explaining Northern Ireland to readers in a national media where our issues are infrequently discussed.  

However, the fact that Siobhan Fenton has managed to pass off such ignorant, badly researched, transparently biased material to editors, particularly at a pro-Union magazine like The Spectator, is an indictment of their coverage of Northern Ireland.  

It’s not like there is a dearth of informed, thoughtful comment about Northern Ireland, if The Spectator and other media cared to commission it.  Ruth Dudley Edwards has written frequently for the magazine.  John Bew is a Northern Irish academic who contributes to the New Statesman and other outlets.  Newton Emerson, Eilis O’Hanlon, Alex Kane and Malachi O’Doherty all write well about Northern Ireland, from different perspectives.  There are many others.

I don’t like to perpetuate the notion that ‘they don’t care about Northern Ireland’ which often seems to colour our attitude toward the rest of the UK.  We’re a ridiculously touchy, self-absorbed little place at times, that consistently ignores its relative size and overestimates its own importance.  Still, I’d expect the editorial team of a national current affairs magazine to pick up on some of the subtleties of our politics, if it’s interested enough to run articles on the topic in the first place.

Unless The Spectator has made a conscious decision to present, unchallenged, a contentious slant, it’s recent commissioning decisions reflect apparent indifference to the quality of its coverage of Northern Ireland. The same is true of other outlets. I think we should expect better, because too many articles lately have presented a highly eccentric interpretation of this place, that few people who live here recognise.

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