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Una Mullally: Why are Irish journalists again missing a movement?

Media appears unable to interpret political movements formed outside traditional party structures

We are at that moment in a referendum campaign where stories, takes, and points of view need to be generated as commentary. Some will be insightful, others less so. Some will be deliberately provocative, some will be more concentrated on facts. Some will fulfil the most tedious trope in journalism, where criticism will be levelled at a campaign by those who substitute expertise and experience for a “hunch”.

There are more than two opposing campaigns under way, of course, multiple campaigns – particularly on the pro-repeal side – emerging from grassroots activism and active citizenship. As the media narratives weave themselves in knots, what I find especially interesting is how this referendum campaign is frequently compared to the marriage equality referendum campaign. Generally, this comparison follows two narratives.

The first is that because the two issues are so different, there is no merit in comparison. This ignores the nuanced comparisons that are worth making in terms of campaign infrastructure, strategy and messaging. The second frames the success of the marriage equality campaign as a stick with which to beat the repeal campaign. Both analyses are wrong, but the second is very telling.

Media narrative

There is a media narrative now that the marriage equality campaign was flawless. Yet my experience during the 2015 referendum was that the marriage equality campaign was frequently talked down by many journalists, patronised, and viewed as amateur. The fact that it was a new kind of campaign led many commentators to believe that the Yes side were “doing it wrong.”


The example of how much coverage was given to Renua is an interesting incident of media gravitating towards, and giving credence to, a new political entity

In general, mainstream media simply did not “get” the marriage equality campaign, and often missed what was happening on the ground. Right up until the vote, newspapers and panel shows were still churning out stuff about how “ No” could sneak a win. To anyone with any knowledge of what was happening on the ground, this was a ridiculous projection.

Yet now, two years later, that campaign is positioned as the “Best Campaign Ever”! That wasn’t the analysis at the time. A similar narrative is unfolding now, and I’m sure when the referendum is carried this time– and it will be much tighter – there will be a similar rewritten analysis of how effective the repeal campaign was.

Why is this happening? Why are Irish journalists once again missing a movement? The media at large does appear strangely unable to interpret political movements when they are citizen-driven and formed outside the traditional party political structures. The example of how much coverage was given to Renua is an interesting incident of media gravitating towards, and giving credence to, a new political entity just because it was a political party, even though Renua was instantly irrelevant.

Contrast that with how slow the media was to treat with legitimacy the protest movements around water charges, homelessness, marriage equality, transgender issues, reproductive rights, third wave feminism, and so on. Yet it’s the latter that are actually effecting social change.

I have spoken many times about the Irish media’s tendency to be disconnected from the social change that happens from the ground up. I’m sure this point of view annoys many of my colleagues, especially considering journalists are meant to be the ones “in the know”. My personal (unpopular) analysis is that while journalists as individuals are made up of all political persuasions and points of view, there is an odd conservatism of thought that permeates the industry.

The marriage equality campaign saw a largely heterosexual media comment and patronise an LGBT+ campaign

Reporters still report on elections, for example, as a race, rather than digging into the issues. The beginnings of this referendum campaign were reported upon in a similar way, revolving around the irrelevant positions of the likes of Simon Coveney, or discussing free votes in political parties (something the public, in general, simply doesn't care about). In fact it took an age for the media to actually dig into the issue, and in many ways, that still hasn't happened.

Meanwhile, the grassroots from which the Repeal campaign emerged, is just getting on with things. Journalists like to think they speak truth to power when it comes to the “establishment” – whatever that means – but frequently I find many are just as cautious, as conservative, as dismissive of progressive ideas as our politicians are.

Of course, the maleness of this commentary cannot be ignored. The marriage equality campaign saw a largely heterosexual media comment and patronise an LGBT+ campaign. Now we are seeing a largely male political journalistic class comment on a female-driven campaign. Perhaps if there was greater diversity in the Irish media, we would be getting different analyses.

Another fiction

With regards to an odd ongoing commentary that the Repeal side doesn’t have its act together, this is another fiction. It is almost as if the media is choosing to disregard what is non-traditional campaigning, which includes the remarkable crowdfunding that occurred this week, the multiple pro-choice organisations that have sprung up over the last few years, the massive protest movement, the swathes of people trained in canvassing during the 2015 referendum who are now prepped, and the perspective of younger people who are much less invested in the status quo than their parents were. Tellingly, these realities are what international media is drawn to analyse. Sometimes an outsider perspective can see more clearly.

Here’s a story about what’s happening on the ground. The first time I canvassed for marriage equality was March 26th 2015. The total number of canvassers out that morning to flyer Dalkey Dart station was two: myself, and a local councillor. In contrast, the first time I went canvassing this year March 21st, a week earlier than I had in 2015, in the Dublin Central constituency, there were over 20 canvassers in the group. This is not an anomaly.

Just like last time, something remarkable is happening on the ground, and indeed online - which is a real space, and not a forum to be disregarded. Whether the Irish media misses all this again is almost an existential question for itself.