Peace has seen media retreat from the North


ANALYSIS:While Northern Ireland has not been short of stories this year, there has been a distinct lack of media groups coming to cover them, writes GERRY MORIARTYNorthern Editor

NORTHERN IRELAND has just come through one of its busiest news periods – but it no longer attracts the outside media coverage it once did. In recent years, there has been a reduction in the commitment to covering the North by some of the major British and Irish news organisations which had diligently reported the Troubles for four decades.

Journalists in Belfast have not been short of stories this year: the “Irisgate” affair, the battle to strike an agreement over policing and justice, the Westminster election, the Saville report on Bloody Sunday, the dissident threat, street disorder such as at Ardoyne, and much more besides.

“A Chinese curse is that you may live in interesting times, but it’s not a curse for journalists because we thrive on mayhem,” observes the Sunday Times’s former Northern Ireland editor Liam Clarke. But as far as the Sunday Timeshead office in London was concerned there wasn’t sufficient mayhem in the North in recent years, which accounted for his early standing down as a staffman three years ago, although he still writes a weekly column for the Irish edition of the newspaper.

And that is mainly behind the journalistic retreat from Northern Ireland: the relative peace.

It has led a number of Irish and British news organisations to reassess their involvement in Northern Ireland. The Irish Timesand RTÉ have maintained their commitment to covering the North but the Irish Independent, Sunday Independentand Evening Heraldhave no staff reporters based in Belfast while organisations such as the Sunday Times, the London Daily Telegraph, Reuters and Sky have closed their Belfast offices.

The three Independenttitles pulled out of Northern Ireland in September 2007 when their sole Belfast-based journalist Dominic Cunningham, who worked for the three newspapers – Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, and Evening Herald– took early retirement.

Five years earlier the Irish Independent’s Northern editor John Devine also took early retirement and was not replaced. However, the newspaper sends up Dublin-based reporters to cover major stories.

Many media organisations outside the North rely on the Press Association news agency for coverage. PA has a significant operation in Belfast, with five journalists including its Ireland editor, Deric Henderson. It has seven journalists in Dublin.

RTÉ is maintaining a strong presence in Belfast. Two years ago it moved a short distance from Fanum House on Great Victoria Street to impressive new offices opposite the BBC on Ormeau Avenue. It has a staff of four journalists – Northern editor, Tommie Gorman, Michael Fisher, Brendan Wright and Eimear Lowe – as well as technical and administrative staff and freelance camera crews.

TG4 also has a journalist operating from the RTÉ office, Áine Ní Ghallchóir.

Gorman said that RTÉ “took seriously its role as the island broadcaster”, which was also illustrated by the RTÉ Authority deciding to hold its coming September meeting in the Belfast office. “I am as engaged and as interested by the Northern story as I ever was by any story in 30 years in journalism. I am fascinated by the evolving Northern Ireland, and that keeps us all busy,” he said.

The Irish Timesremains at Fanum House, where it has been based since the mid-1970s. It has two Belfast-based journalists.

Suzanne Breen is the Northern Editor of the Sunday Tribune, and is based in Belfast.

In 2007 Liam Clarke took redundancy after 16 years at the Sunday Times. “The level of interest in London is very low. Northern Ireland as far as London is concerned has become almost like Wales,” he said.

“We relied on a number of drivers for the London interest, that there were British soldiers here and that they could be killed and that there were attacks on Britain. Apart from that the interest was in the big figures, like Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.”

Up to three years ago the Guardianand the Observer, which are from the same stable, had separate journalists in the North – Owen Bowcott and Henry McDonald. But there was a consolidation of the operation at that time with Bowcott returning to Guardianhead office and McDonald remaining on staff to work for the two newspapers as Ireland Correspondent. He says he has seldom been busier, writing for two newspapers and also filing for the Guardianwebsite.

David McKittrick is the Ireland editor, based in Belfast, for the Independentnewspaper in London.

David Sharrock has been the London Times Ireland correspondent for several years based in Belfast however it is understood that the newspaper is primed to close its Irish operation.

Throughout the Troubles the Daily Telegraphhad a presence in Northern Ireland but over two years ago it ended its connection when its last full-time Belfast-based journalist Tom Peterkin was withdrawn.

The BBC network has a single Ireland correspondent, Mark Simpson, whereas previously it had both a radio and a television correspondent, respectively Kevin Connolly, now in Washington and soon to move to Jerusalem, and Dennis Murray, now retired. It is many years since ITN had an Ireland correspondent with John Irvine now based in Washington.

For several years Herve Amoric was Agence France Presse’s (AFP) man in Belfast. But a few years ago he moved to Dublin to place more focus on southern stories. AFP has now pulled out of Ireland, covering it from London. Amoric now works for France 24 Television in Dublin.

Shawn Pogatchnik of Associated Press (AP) was based in Belfast for 10 years but moved to Dublin in 2001 when the peace process began to bed down. He occasionally covers the North, but only for the major stories.

In 1995, Reuters appointed its first full-time Belfast-based correspondent, Martin Cowley, who worked in the city until 2002. Cowley is now involved in media relations and public affairs.

Reuters closed the office about five years ago and either sends a staff reporter from Dublin to cover significant events in Northern Ireland or relies on freelancers such as Ian Graham, who has retired from PA after 40 years with the organisation.

Sky News also closed its Belfast bureau. But it has two cameramen who cover the island and an Ireland correspondent Vicki Hawthorne.

Interestingly, Sky has been so busy in Ireland this year, particularly in the North, that it has re-employed on a part-time basis its former long-time Belfast correspondent David Blevins, who quit the company four years ago to gain a first class honours degree in applied theology.

John Murray Brown of the Financial Timeswrites from Dublin, travelling to Belfast for the big news and financial stories.

Bucking the trend somewhat in May 2008, US financial news agency Bloomberg appointed Colm Heatley as its Belfast correspondent.

Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor of The Irish Times