By Jamie Bryson
The summer of 2017 was the first step forward in many years in terms of proactive loyalist engagement with the media. In east Belfast journalists were welcomed to ‘contentious’ bonfire sites and invited to engage with the bonfire builders to try and gain a genuine understanding of the fears and concerns arising from the very real perceptions of a cultural war being waged against the unionist community.
This strategy proved effective. Media coverage was more balanced and for the first time disengaged sections of loyalism had a voice. Journalists previously seen as hostile to the PUL community began to provide more balanced coverage and gain a better understanding of the very real concerns within the grassroots unionist community.
This strategy continued in east Belfast throughout 2018 with positive engagement around unique flag protocols, which were largely successful thus demonstrating the effectiveness of self regulation. This also played into positive engagement and advocacy in the debate and dialogue around ‘contentious’ bonfires.
Independent mediators praised this engagement and I would say that loyalism certainly managed to win the media battle on that front. The PSNI, at the level of an ACC no less, had to explain their actions. That flowed directly from positive media engagement and advocacy from within the loyalists community. How could anyone fail to see the benefit in using the media to hold those charged with upholding the law to account?
There was also the more productive channelling of grassroots unionist anger in relation to some actions of the PSNI. Rather than expressing this anger via a predictable spate of profanity laden graffiti which achieves little besides vandalism and alienating potential supporters, the community came together to design banners that crystallised the frustrations and anger. This is more positive messaging, and certainly far more effective in terms of raising awareness than some form of graffiti campaign we may have seen in the past. Such actions would be the equivalent of riding around on a horse and cart when everyone else has progressed onto driving cars.
The development of the more positive and considered strategy flowed from a realisation that self-suppressing our own voice and thus eradicating our own arguments from mainstream discourse is counter-productive. In totalitarian regimes the first thing dictators seek to do is shut down the freedom of the press. Political dissenters are imprisoned for writing or publishing their work.
We are privileged in the United Kingdom, privileged because those that went before us fought Two World Wars and many conflicts both foreign and domestic to ensure that we continue to live in a free democratic society.
Some, even within loyalism, would argue that self-suppressing our own voice via boycotting any media engagement is the way forward. Many of these genuine concerns about the media stem from people who have many for years been demonised and maliciously targeted by the press, or from a generation whereby loyalists simply played their role and went home to their families and got on with their lives. This is perfectly legitimate, understandable and in some instances commendable in the sense that some people never sought, nor seek, publicity or credit for their activism over countless years.
There are others however whose concerns aren’t genuine but rather flow from seeing sections of loyalism positively articulating a message, and as such receiving a more fair and balanced hearing in the media. Driven by jealously they view this as a zero sum game. If one section of loyalism, due to an effective strategy of media engagement and dialogue, are seeing the benefits of such work then there will always be others who view this as a default negative for them. For the most part these are people who create their own storms, via their own gaffes and idiocy, and then cry when it rains.
Our society is still largely influenced by the narratives which prevail within the mainstream media. So if loyalism wants to build a stronger voice within society, then how is it proposed this can happen if we self-suppress our own voice from the main battlefield of debate?
Should those within loyalism who have engaged in a successful strategy and began to articulate a message, the core of which is demanding fair treatment in the media, apologise to those who are incapable of articulating their own message or who refuse to engage in debate? Certainly not.
I have argued for many years loyalism needs to engage with the media. I make no apologies for this and never will. If there are differing views and others want to argue for self-suppression, then let’s have the debate. Don’t cry from the sidelines- engage in the battlefield of debate and put forward your arguments if you are capable of doing so.
Will more effective media engagement and challenging stereotypes and inaccuracies mean that loyalism will always get it our own way? No. Will it mean there will never be negative stories, awkward questions or even malicious agendas pursued? No.
What it means is that at least loyalism will be there to put forward a counter-argument, to engage in the debate and challenge the prevailing narrative. It provides an opportunity to demand balance.
There is also a challenge for the media to display more fairness and balance. To uphold journalistic standards such as offering a right of reply and giving a fair platform to all voices, especially those who are the focus of articles or reports. There is further a challenge to focus on public interest journalism and intellectual debate rather than tabloid style mocking of loyalists who are often seen as an easy target due to a historical reluctance to challenge media narratives.
On occasions stories are published and the subjects of same are not contacted and offered a right of response. This flows from a lazy assumption that loyalists don’t engage with the media. This may be so, but does this mean that basic journalistic standards should cease to apply?
Loyalism must demand fair treatment and balanced coverage. We must also wade into the battle of ideas and be brave enough to open our arguments up to scrutiny and challenge. Unionist Voice has grown from that basic core principle.
What can anyone ever have to fear from debate and the testing of ones arguments in the fires of public scrutiny? If we, as a grassroots unionist community, self-sabotage our own voice and as such absent ourselves from mainstream debate by default, then can we really complain if we are airbrushed out or viewed as an easy target to fill empty column inches?