This year shaping up as another 1968, group told

 

Changing times: ‘momentous’ moment for journalism, BBC correspondent tells students

THIS YEAR could be one of the most “momentous” periods of the new century, Irish journalism students were told in Belfast yesterday.

BBC foreign correspondent Kevin Connolly, speaking at the annual Co-operation Ireland student journalism conference at Belfast’s Linenhall Library, said 2011 could be the year when “great change” happens across the Middle East.

More than 60 journalism students from the Republic and Northern Ireland attended the conference, which is also sponsored by The Irish Times.

Other speakers included Irish News features editor William Scholes, Belfast Newsletter business editor Adrienne McGuill and Sunday Times columnist Liam Clarke.

Connolly, who is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent and who has just recently and briefly returned from working in Libya, said 2011 could be remembered in similar fashion to 1968 when there was major upheaval in Northern Ireland and across the world in countries such as Czechoslovakia, France and the US.

“It looks as though 2011 might be remembered in the same way – but the major difference is that this time the great changes will be happening across the Middle East instead,” said Connolly.

He said he didn’t mean to be patronising but students were “lucky” to be facing into their careers at this moment.

“You were born at a time when this place was finally coming to some sort of political accommodation that gives you one of the greatest freedoms you can possibly have – the freedom not to become obsessed with the concerns of this place and to lift your eyes to wider horizons.”

Connolly, who previously worked in Northern Ireland, said he wasn’t generally an optimist – “I’ve seen too much human misbehaviour and cruelty for that – but on this subject I am an optimist”.

“It seems to me that it’s possible that after a very dark century when much more of the world lived under dictatorship than under democracy that the new information age has changed things in a very profound way,” he added.

“So the good bit of the internet is that it may have made autocracy impossible . . . there’s too much information flowing around for even the biggest secret police force to control and too much of it is anonymous for them to know who to arrest or punish.”

But Connolly, who is returning to Libya next week to continue covering the uprising, told the students that the internet also brought as much “misinformation as information” and there was still a requirement for on-the-ground “old-fashioned” reporting to convey to readers and viewers what was truly happening.

He also warned that while revolutions were exciting moments they “often go wrong and there is no guarantee that what follows them will ultimately be better than what went before”.