Comment & Analysis

Media boycotts are wrong, but so is the stifling culture of self-censorship
"When one criticises certain elements in the media one is often accused of shooting the messenger”, writes Michael Kelly

Fintan O’Toole 

I’m not one for media boycotts. I think Newstalk’s decision to ban journalists from The Irish Times from appearing on programmes is childish. But, I likewise think it petulant of people from The Irish Times like Fintan O’Toole and Una Mullally to declare that they were boycotting Newstalk over George Hook’s now infamous comments that led to the broadcaster being demoted after the furore.

It strikes me as odd now to see O’Toole writing in his newspaper about how dangerous the Newstalk ban on The Irish Times is when he was the one to propose a boycott of another media outlet in the first place.

O’Toole is not alone. There has been much hand-wringing about Newstalk’s decision to ban the newspaper. Labour leader Brendan Howlin has even written to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to complain.

Strict policy

But, all the hand-wringing ignores the fact that the mainstream media in Ireland (and elsewhere) often operate a very strict policy of self-censorship when it comes to what they decide to cover and what they choose to ignore.

The same is also true when it comes to guests that are invited to appear on particular programmes. When it comes to issues of religion on most current affairs programmes, for example, there is usually a tokenistic person who is not hostile towards the Catholic Church. The rest of the panel – sometimes egged-on by the presenter – are happy to wax lyrical about all of their issues with the Catholic Church.

There is a stunning lack of diversity in the Irish media, and this is mainly because of the choices that are made by people at an editorial level. Certain voices are ignored, certain points of view go uncovered and certain stories go unreported because someone in authority makes that decision.

Someone I know recently proposed to write for The Irish Times in defence of the rights of parents to send their children to faith-based schools. The swift reply they got was that the newspaper had already aired what was described as the “sectarian” issue on the point of view.

When one criticises certain elements in the media one is often accused of shooting the messenger, but what happens when the people supposed to be messengers are instead campaigners who write a narrative to suit their agenda? Or when journalists take it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers preventing certain views and opinions being heard?

So, yes, media boycotts are bad, but so also are the subtle and not-so-subtle stifling self-censorship that goes on all too often in the mainstream media.