The two faces of journalism

A deeply unsatisfying and unquestioning exhibition at Somerset House.

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Call me an idealist, but I have long harboured the belief that the role of journalism is to ask probing questions and to uncover the truth no matter the cost. To expose hypocrisy and deceit wherever it is found. What happens, then, when this hypocrisy and deceit bleeds through from the subject into the profession itself?

2011 saw mass protests, change and social upheaval across the world on an unprecedented scale. From the uprisings in the Arab world to the Occupy movement on Wall Street and the August riots on Britain's high streets, journalists and journalism have been at the heart of this change. Recording, documenting and analysing.

Or have they?

Deep in the bowels of Somerset House, a new exhibition professes to offer the public an insider's peek into the world of frontline journalism. Using an abundance of stills and flickering, ghostly footage taken from Sky News broadcasts, the exhibition charts the coverage of breaking news events in the UK and Middle East. This overload of graphic images and self-congratulatory interviews creates a neat, self-packaged and digestible version of frontline journalism that encourages none of the probing, questioning and analysing for which such journalism is renowned.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that an exhibition sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's Sky News presents such a self-consciously rosy picture of news coverage around the world (after all, Sky was arguably the only true winner in the Libyan conflict). But what strikes me most is the hypocrisy and double-standards evident in both the way the exhibition is presented, and the unquestioning approach it takes to the role of journalists on the frontline of breaking news stories.

The exhibition is divided into two sections: one side of the room documents the so-called "Arab Spring", where the perpetrators are referred to as "revolutionaries" and "rebels"; while the other side is dedicated to the London riots, whose participants are branded as "hooligans", "criminals" and "vandals".

Now, I do not question that what happened here in Britain is fundamentally different from the mostly democratic uprisings that have been taking place across the Arab world, but the lack of any comparative analysis or questioning of such superficially similar events is frankly worrying. The tacit assumption that what is happening Libya, Egypt and Syria is necessarily a Good Thing -- with no mention of the instability and chaos that has gripped these countries in the past year; or indeed the complicity of western powers in propping up those very dictators of whom we are now lauding the demise -- is telling of the preconceptions we westerners often have when commenting on events in the Middle East. Perversely, there is simultaneously no mention of the social and political conditions that may (or may not) have played a part in fuelling the resentment of Britain's rioters.

I'm not saying that the toppling of Mubarak and Ben Ali are not to be celebrated, or indeed that I condone in any way the actions of those who smashed their way through our high streets over the summer. What concerns me is that an exhibition whose self-professed aim is to offer "a unique insight into the editorial, political and human aspects of news reporting" fails to ask some of the most basic questions that all journalists reporting on breaking news stories should be asking: What is a protest, how does it start, why does it continue and who is involved?

Because it is only by asking questions that we can uncover the truth.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a journalist and writer specialising in the Middle East and currently living and working in London.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.