EDITORIAL: Loyalists right to challenge their appalling treatment by the media

The media have a duty to act responsibly and fairly. Those basic ethical principles are often cast aside when it comes to dealing with loyalists. It is right that morally indefensible approach is robustly challenged.

By Jamie Bryson

Unionist Voice this evening carried responses by two separate groups of loyalists following a number of stories published in the Sunday Life today (07/04/2019).

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I have advocated loyalists building relationships and engaging with the media for many years. Malcom X once said “the media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent”. Refusal to engage with the media is an act of self-censorship. I continue to believe that it is always better to engage in the battlefield of debate because if your positions and ideas are never subjected to the fires of scrutiny and challenge, then what is their worth?

The media therefore have an important role to play, but in its purest sense journalism is supposed to be a facilitator- the chair of the debate, the arbitrator of the discussion and umpire in the battle of ideas. This necessitates that the media must perform their role with fairness and balance, or else discourse becomes unbalanced by default. There is, of course, a difference between independent journalism and commentary or opinion, the later forms of media engagement naturally being designed to allow for the author to express their own views and opinions.

So when urging loyalists to engage with the media, I simultaneously urge loyalists to challenge the media when there is unfairness; when the referee is not calling it fair, when impartial journalism is sacrificed in favour of propaganda or demonisation of one section of the community. Today is one of those times.

The Highfield Rangers supporters club were first to respond with their secretary, former loyalist prisoner William ‘Twister’ McQuiston, providing a statement to Unionist Voice challenging the allegations made against their club by the Sunday Life. They rightly expressed anger that they were not approached for comment and offered a right of reply. They further outlined how they understood that other individuals named in the article, Jim Spence and Eric Mckee, were also denied the opportunity to respond to allegations made against them.

That is wholly unfair; regardless of whether you like people or loathe them, if we are going to have ethical standards that we expect of the media, then these standards must be applied to everyone; therefore Eric McKee, Jim Spence and the Highfield Rangers Supporters Club deserve the same right to address allegations made against them as every other citizen. Their status as prominent loyalists cannot simply render them fair game or as persons underserving of the same principles of balance and fairness as everyone else.

The East Belfast Community Initiative also issued a lengthy statement challenging one of the most appalling and disgraceful stories that one is likely to ever come across. The story alleges loyalists in east Belfast, some of whom are facing criminal charges, are involved in some kind of crime cartel with a Dublin based crime gang.

Before we move on let me- once again- set out my position on drugs and crime very clearly, given some people appear to close their eyes and ears every time I repeat this position. I oppose drugs in all forms, and I oppose crime. If anyone- regardless of who or what they are- engages in criminal activity then they should be pursued by the law and subjected to the full rigours of the criminal justice system- but this must be done fairly and within the law.

Of course you cannot agree with this position on one hand, but retain the right to dish out vigilante ‘justice’ on the other when it is expedient. You also cannot agree with this position on one hand, but support trial by media and dispensing with the presumption of innocence when it suits on the other. As the old saying goes, one cannot ride two horses with only one arse. We must all strive for a society whereby the rule of law is the great equaliser between us all.

Today’s article isn’t just tabloid nonsense to fill a page; there is a far more sinister agenda at play. The article itself, written by the illusive Sarah Henderson, claims to be based on a briefing by the PSNI. We will soon find out given I understand the EBCI will be writing to the PSNI asking them to confirm or deny this and/or inform the public whether they agree with the assessment, or not.

If it turns out this malicious briefing- which dispenses with the presumption of innocence- did come from the PSNI then we, as a society, have a major problem. If those we charge with impartially upholding the law are systemically working with the media to prejudice live cases to ensure the accused can never have a fair jury trial, then this strikes at the very heart of our justice system. You would then have to wonder does it get darker still; are they trying to destroy any chance of a fair jury trial in order to bolster their desire to have persons accused tried in draconian diplock courts?

It would be somewhat ironic if the progressive Fresh Start was underpinned by a regressive criminal justice approach. That arse is trying to stretch itself between two horses once again.

If the PSNI aren’t behind the malicious briefings, then who is, and what is their agenda? The follow on question then is why are the media facilitating that agenda?

Perhaps the desire is to blacken and demoralise sections of loyalism that quite legitimately hold anti-agreement sentiments. The old trick was presenting those who are anti-agreement as anti-peace, entwining ‘peace’ with the ‘process’ into one phrase that developed into a holy writ. The truth of course is you can be wholly committed to peace, but robustly opposed to the process. To say you can’t is to give a veto over democracy to those who would threaten violence; that, ironically, is what is actually anti-peace.

So if you are intellectually incapable of battling those with anti-agreement viewpoints via debate, then the new strategy is to label those with whom you disagree as ‘drug dealers’ and ‘criminals’; to label the many due to the actions of a few. That is unfair and is stereotyping on an industrial scale.

It is positive to build relationships with the media and articulate ideas and arguments via the press. It is also fair to challenge the media when they abuse their position for ulterior motives. It is right and proper that loyalists have used this platform today to challenge the media.

And let me finish by saying this- clearly and unequivocally, under my own name. Unionist Voice exists to provide a platform to all sections of unionism and loyalism. You do not have to agree with a person, a group or a political party to defend their right to fair treatment and to be able to fight to have their voices heard.

If we are going to have principles of demanding fairness and balance, then we must fight for those principles not only for our friends, but for everyone. We do not care what section of loyalism or unionism a person comes from, Unionist Voice will advocate for their right to fair treatment.

The moment Unionist Voice becomes an exclusive voice for only one section of unionism or loyalism is the moment that the concept which underpins this site dies.

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