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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Bring the War Back Home
by Jason Mills
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A couple of years back, the nightly sectarian strife which was providing local kids with something to do over the Easter holidays took a somewhat ludicrous twist. Virtually overnight, a sea of Middle-East flags and slogans appeared across Belfast, particularly at interfaces, in response to the escalating cycle of violence and blame in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv. Palestinian flags were flown from the New Lodge flats, Johnny Adair paraded his fashion-conscious Alsatian around the Shankill draped in a Star of David, 'Go on Sharon!' graffiti appeared in the Village (at first glance it could've passed for one of those 'toot your horn!' type personal birthday messages), and our local politicians even took a breather from wrangling over the finer points of the Good Friday (dis)Agreement to air their views on matters thousands of miles away.
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Generally, the linking of the two conflicts has been prevalent for some time. Academics are often busying themselves assessing the kind of tragic interplay that can lock two communities into a prolonged struggle over the same piece of land. And although the model of 'indigenous' and 'settler' communities can be presented fairly cohesively, the connection, especially when viewed from within Northern Ireland itself, can often seem parochial and obtuse. Over the years, the Palestinian cause has proved particularly useful to republicans in that it provides a convenient tow-bar on which to hitch their cart within the wider global context of colonisation and imperialism. The standard popular association swings between propaganda and, on some level, genuine empathy, although it is sometimes hard to determine where one ends and the other begins. The Protestant/Israeli affiliation is slightly less conspicuous, incorporating a reactionary loyalist logic which simply bases its premise on being against anything nationalists are for, an apparent understanding of the way in which Ariel Sharon's government choose to deal with terrorism, not to mention a religious sect which believes that Ulster Protestants are the Lost Tribe of Israel.
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Of course, in Northern Ireland, where the institutional practises of the main newspapers serve to legitimise societal divisions, neither is the Middle-East conflict exempt from bias and perspective in its depiction. The period of April 2002, which saw the beginning of Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory and the explicit taking of sides on Belfast's streets, provided succinct evidence of this. The reports of this latter happening in the Irish News and Newsletter were a case in point, the choice of sources chosen to validate events immediately suggesting something of the ideological alignment of each. The main thrust of the Irish News article was carried by the views of Sinn Fein councillor Gerard Brophy, who predictably rose to the occasion by endorsing the actions of nationalists and bringing the integrity of loyalists into question. Thrown in for good measure, with more than a hint of derision, were the comments of the UUP's Bob Stoker who thought the whole Issue reflected 'the multi-cultural make-up of Belfast'. However, the farce-o-meter rose to a whole new level with the Newsletter's coverage and their sole reliance on a 'senior loyalist source'; attribution of course being a convenient vehicle for the peddling of ideology. Having dropped in the old 'Sinn Fein/IRA' semantic trick when mentioning them in conjunction with the PLO, he then proceeded to assert that 'there is a Protestant link to Israel because Orangism is based on the life of Israel and the five point Star of David, so there might be some thought behind it'. Oh, really? Perhaps if he'd taken the time to check his nearest lamppost and put some thought behind it himself, he may have noticed that the Star of David has, in fact, got six points. Whether this reflects more heavily upon the Newsletter or their anonymous 'senior loyalist source' I will leave up to you to decide.
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Overall, the portrayal of the situation in the Middle-East fulfilled many of the linguistic and graphic codes adopted within the media to subtley, and often not so subtley, reproduce dominant cultural stereotypes. Headlines, something of a microcosm of the values which drive news, provide several salient examples of how the same event can be represented differently, particularly when an identical news text from international agencies is used in both papers. In one instance, a Press Association story in the Irish News was headed 'Sharon ignores pleas to pull out' and carried a large colour picture of dead Palestinians in a makeshift morgue, whereas in the Newsletter it had been transformed into 'Battle for survival of Jewish people' (a quote from Ariel Sharon) with a picture of Israeli troops rounding up Palestinian youths. A day later 'Israel turns back on international pressure' somehow corresponded as 'Suicide bomb kills nine'. Issues of agency and causality are particularly significant in that the Newsletter's overall depiction of the suicide bombings appears to have connotations of the IRA's own no-warning attacks coded within its iconography. By contrast, it is the Israelis who 'step up their offensive', 'open fire without provocation', 'ignore pleas', 'turn their backs on international pressure' and 'fail to respond to concerns' within the broader ideological framework of the Irish News.
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Is the implication then that the presumed readership of our respective nationalist and unionist papers are supposed to catch a glimpse of their own reflection, however distorted, in this not-so-far-off inter-state, inter-communal conflict? 'Us', who merely seek national liberation in our rightful homeland and 'Them', the imperialist aggressor imposing a heavy-handed, illegitimate rule. 'Us', the besieged community under attack from terrorists and 'Them', the untrustworthy other attempting to eradicate our identity through a combination of negotiation and organised revolt. Certainly, any newsworthy opportunity to link certain circumstances in Northern Ireland to their more ferocious foreign counterpart was seized upon with glee and, on some occasions, a certain degree of recklessness. Witnessthe Irish News article 'Mediator reveals ties with Mid-East' in which the chairman of Derry City Centre Initiative was given a platform to evoke highly-charged emotions by declaring Israeli actions as 'similar to tactics tried in Ireland in the early 70's such as the Falls Curfew and Bloody Sunday'. Or the headline 'Republicans should have given weapons to Palestinians', which devolves editorial responsibility onto a republican prisoner through the presence of quotation marks. Indeed, if the Irish News needed any further gauge of which way to angle their news reports in compliance with the viewpoint of their prospective readership, they need only have checked their mailbag, a fact made explicit in the pro-Palestinian tones of the letters page. As far as the Newsletter was concerned, one opinion column began with the assertion that 'Israel is by any definition of the term, a remarkable country' before going on to suggest, in case readers hadn't already picked up on the thinly layered news clues, that Yasser Arafat 'has learned from the IRA'. The Irish News didn't necessarily agree with such a negative representation and set aside a full page for a feature about his life entitled 'Faithfully married to the quest for liberation'.
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Where this leaves us in relation to 'balanced' reporting is not precisely clear. Are we to be forever lumbered with the casting of pejorative shadows upon the 'other side' in accordance to an unwritten or unconscious 'house style'? Would any prospective solution or attempt at detachment leave us only with a shoddy outline of an ambiguous, agentless world, where buses blow themselves up, tanks move around of their own accord and guns engage each other in battles without human intervention? What can be said with certainty is that at a time when not only was there intensive violence playing itself out on a controversial world stage, but also trouble at Belfast's own interfaces, the Irish News and the Newsletter both failed irrevocably to adhere to principles of objectivity. And the question remains, how are our media to shed the sectarian underpinnings of the society which they purport to present to itself, if they cannot properly relate an international news wire from an outside agency without assigning it to pre-established paradigms? Indeed, should the scale of the Mid-East conflict heighten once more in the coming months, it will again prove interesting to assess their treatment of it. The media are not the cause of political division, either here or there, and therefore cannot be the solution, but to facilitate such unthinking affinities does no-one any favours, particularly not the Israeli and Palestinian people who remain cast in these moulds.
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