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BBC journalists have responsibility to the public

(Jim Gibney, Irish News)

In a normal democratic society a free press helps to bolster rights such as free speech, freedom of expression, free assembly, free thinking. With these rights comes the freedom to organise political parties, trades unions, women, community and other people centred organisations.

Around these organisations other liberties exist; the right to justice, equality and human rights. Assembled together the society these elements create when functioning to their maximum potential is both pluralist and democratic.

In the six counties, as a result of partition, many of these freedoms do not function to their maximum potential. Indeed many of them operate under the constraints arising from the conflict over the past 40 years and more; constraints sourced in the British government's political and military approach to the conflict.

Although a lot of progress has been made over the last decade of the peace process to create new democratic structures set in an all-island framework to replace those in the six counties, which maintained and perpetuated an undemocratic entity, there is still quite a journey to travel to destination democracy.

Indeed in my view a fully fledged, unfettered democracy can only exist in a united Ireland. Until that point has been reached democrats will be incrementally adding to the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement as we move through this transition period.

For example political, economic and cultural inequality still exists. The treatment by the British government of the Irish language bill is only one recent example of ongoing cultural discrimination.

Although the potential is there for a transparent, accountable, civic police service there are those in the PSNI from the old order – the RUC – holding back progress and they are not motivated solely by their own personal agenda. Constant vigilance is required to keep the securocrats at bay.

Despite the huge, unforeseen and welcome political changes that have taken place in the past month the old order and the old way of thinking are also to be found in sections of the media.

This has been most noticeable although not exclusively so in the commentary provided by the BBC especially in their flagship programmes Hearts and Minds and Let's Talk.

Some of the print media also reflects analysis by journalists which suggests they are locked into old battles and prejudices and have not caught up with the new circumstances and mood created by the agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

And while the public have the ultimate sanction over these journalists by simply refusing to buy their paper the same approach does not apply to the BBC.

Other media outlets might aspire to be objective and claim they are. The BBC has to prove it is because it is funded by the licence-paying public.

In theory BBC journalists do not have the same freedom to peddle their personal views.

There is a public expectation that BBC journalists will be objective and their comments broadly reflect the mood of the licence-paying public.

The licence-paying public overwhelmingly voted for an administration led by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Yet over the past month BBC journalists have harried Sinn Féin and DUP politicians with questions which are negative, which instil pessimism and could undermine the public's hopeful mood.

The Gerry Adams-Ian Paisley press conference is viewed as an historical departure point; one of the most important breakthroughs since partition, paving the way for republicans and unionists to work together to peacefully resolve problems: a truly inspirational moment.

But not for one BBC journalist who a few days later, amid the euphoria and optimism, asked Gerry Adams about the future existence of the IRA's army council!

His question brought a swift and uncharacteristic put-down when Gerry Adams described it as "stupid".

Other stupid assertions followed with Sinn Féin and DUP politicians being accused by BBC journalists of selling out – on the one hand administering British rule or on the other being willingly on the road to a united Ireland.

On whose behalf are these questions being asked – the journalist or the public? What contribution are they making to the emerging new society on this island?

Press freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. We need a bit more responsibility from the BBC.

May 4, 2007

This article appeared first in the May 3, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News