Encroachingly, what media offers is ideological agitation in the promotion of radical social change, rather than, for example, conduits for information and commentary about matters of true social importance.
The newspaper, certainly, is no longer to be taken as the literal representation of its description, being only in the remotest sense about “news”. Sure, it contains stories about things that happened yesterday, but in the main – apart from events that are non-ignorable – these narratives are selected because of their relationship to an implicit programme of societal “improvement”.
Recently, we have been subjected to another frenzy of discussion about abortion, on the basis of a case with only the flimsiest relationship to that topic. A woman died in hospital as the result of the kinds of systems failure that have become an almost everyday phenomenon in the Irish health service. The link to abortion was that this was the preferred “treatment” of the woman and her husband, though unsupported by any of the medical practitioners involved. The discussion thus provoked soon moved on to, and remained with, the subject of suicidal ideation as a basis for abortion, even though this had no context whatever in the death of the woman.
The ostensibly unrelated subject of euthanasia has resurfaced also. As with the abortion issue, particular distressing cases are adopted and promoted to ensure emotion dominates the discussion at the expense of reason and balance. The issue is defined as "the right to die" or "rights to assisted suicide", placing at the centre the seriously ill individual seeking to bring his or her life to an end.
But it is obvious that, invariably, what is really at stake is the "right" of some other person to avoid legal consequences for any role he or she may play in the death of the person who is ill. The fact that there will be far more general repercussions from any change in law arising out of particular hard cases is glided over, and anyone seeking to raise this aspect is deemed heartless and "legalistic". Under cover of the real pain of particular people, principle is put to the sword, and few dissenting voices risk any robust engagement with the fundamentals.
The ideological dimension of this kind of journalism is concealed by virtue of the fact that the selected stories are invariably engaging and, up to a point, relate to some vague sense of the public interest. It is difficult, therefore, to identify precisely where journalism ends and ideology begins.
One way of shining light on this question is to watch for instances of engaging stories which are ignored. Three years ago, I wrote here about a young couple who had discovered, some time after having a child together, that they were half-siblings. The saga had its roots in a family law case, two decades before, in which their mutual father had been refused access to his young son, who was subsequently given no means of knowing who his father was. Years later, the grown-up boy unwittingly developed a relationship with a daughter born subsequently to his father in a new relationship. It was only much later, when the woman was pregnant with her half-brother's child, that the truth emerged.
By any objective criteria, it was a sensational story, not just involving an extraordinary human interest dimension but pointing fingers at official systems failures and possibly worse. Only one Irish media outlet picked it up: the Irish Daily Mail . Arising from this limited coverage, the story became front page news as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Still, the Irish media looked the other way.
Why? Because Irish journalists in general had long manifested complete indifference towards the routine abuses in Irish family courts. Had journalists and editors wished to agitate on that issue, this story, too, would have remained front page news for weeks, but instead they used their control of the news agenda to imply that the story had no significance.
In the unacknowledged ideological wars that now comprise the main diet of media, favoured stories are chosen because of their place in a programme of change which would inevitably carry society in a direction generally defined as more “liberal”.
Abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage – all these have in common that they represent a repudiation of existing understandings and belief systems. The persistent media implication is that these proposals relate not merely urgent and desirable changes, but that they will, once implemented, bring us closer to the perfect society, always promised in the subtext of all these discussions. But, of course, when these objectives have been accomplished, there will emerge a fresh series of tests by which the people will be required to prove their “enlightenment” anew.