'Dissident journalists' find the going tough up North
REPORTERS IN Northern Ireland who go against official lines are being dubbed “dissident journalists”, documentary maker Trevor Birney told the Cleraun Media Conference in Dublin last weekend.
“I think it’s incredible that someone could come up with the phrase dissident journalism, never mind use it as a label,” he said.
“Dissident” journalists would find it “very difficult to shake off” the tag when dealing with “obfuscating” official sources, he said.
The lack of an opposition in the Northern Ireland parliament as a result of the power-sharing agreement makes the problems of a weak fourth estate “particularly acute”, he argued.
Newspapers in Belfast are struggling “to do anything other than copy and paste press releases”, while British television regulator Ofcom’s decision to slash UTV’s current affairs obligations in 2009 has also had a wider impact on investigative journalism in the region, said Birney, who co-founded the production company Below the Radar. It also runs the philanthropy-funded investigative news website, the Detail.
“This year has been the worst year for BBC investigations,” he said. “We’ve got a huge amount of talk, but we have very little investigative journalism.”
An Ofcom report published in July found that broadcasters’ total spending on current affairs in Northern Ireland had declined by 36 per cent since 2006 – a larger decrease than in England, Scotland and Wales. Spending on the genre plunged 23 per cent between 2010 and 2011.
Birney says there are 160 press officers in Stormont – more than there are journalists in Belfast newsrooms.
“Many of the press officers take Alistair Campbell as the person they want to be,” he told the conference, not intending it as a compliment.