4 March 2004 Edition
Media mesmerised by Sinn Féin growth
BY JOANNE CORCORAN
"A decade after the ditching of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which prevented Sinn Féin from being interviewed on television or radio, the targeted party has gone from strength to strength."
These words could easily have been written by the Sinn Féin publicity department. But they weren't. Their author was Senan Molony, who wrote them in the Irish Independent last Monday. His comments, and those of many others after this year's Ard Fheis, are a sign of a change in the times.
The most important aspects of the Ard Fheis are the debates, the participation of delegates from all over the country, the launching of policy documents and the reviewing of policy platforms. It is an internal party conference, but like anything else Sinn Féin does, it is scrutinised and analysed over and over again by the media throughout the country. The difference this year is that the media coverage of the Ard Fheis held a different slant to previous years, when journalists would have either not covered it at all, or sought only what they considered negative elements to write about.
How far we have come since then. On Saturday evening, between 5pm and 6pm, 100,000 people tuned into RTÉ to watch Gerry Adams give his live presidential address. That is the highest number of viewers for any political party conference ever.
Director of Publicity for the party, Dawn Doyle, says that the broadcasting coverage over the weekend was, for the most part, excellent.
"The coverage, coming after the hysterical attacks on us preceding the Ard Fheis, was very interesting," she says. "The main focus for much of the media was the agenda we were setting out for the local and EU elections. The RTÉ coverage, which has only being running for two years, was brilliant, because it helped us to reach a whole audience that previously we couldn't have even dreamed of accessing."
RTÉ's live package included a morning session from 11am-1pm, and according to Dawn, 36 Sinn Féin representatives spoke in that session.
"That is an incredible number of people, reaching an audience that they would never ordinarily reached in their individual constituencies, and that will be followed up all week in local media as well."
In addition to the two live television slots, Raidío na Gaeltacht, and RTÉ radio carried interviews throughout the weekend and RTÉ programmes such as Week in Politics ran interviews with Gerry Adams and EU candidate Mary Lou McDonald.
A long way indeed from the days of RTÉ's enthusiastic implementation of state censorship.
Of course, there was one last gasp from the dying remnants of the revisionist generation. In broadcasting terms, that could be seen on TV3's Agenda programme, which carried an interview with the Sinn Féin President.
"The interview could have been carried out five years ago," Dawn says. "The few questions they asked Gerry were entirely negative. Agenda is a programme that claims to go beyond the headlines, so it was deeply disappointing to see them churning out the same negativity that we had to deal with in the past."
The print media was mixed in its coverage, but for the most part positive. The Sunday Business Post wrote: "The rise and rise of Sinn Féin has left the political establishment like rabbits staring into the headlights of an oncoming vehicle." The Irish Times editorial noted that "Sinn Féin showed itself to be a single-minded, efficient and determined organisation at its weekend Ard Fheis".
These articles showed how far the party has come. But even the hostile journos had to give the party its due.
Bruce Arnold, writing in the Irish Independent on Saturday, started his article by comparing Sinn Féin to the Nationalist Socialist Party in Germany in the '30s (that's the Nazis to you and me). But at the end of the article he conceded: "The party works as an organisation, and works with both skill and energy. It appeals to voters and it is winning seats. It has been formidably successful in Northern Ireland and is frightening parties in the south". Not bad from one of our lesser fans.
And some of the coverage was quite funny, even if it wasn't too friendly
The Sunday Independent's John Drennan had half the party in stitches when he wrote: "As some Northern Assembly member called Caitríona Ruane bleated about seven shades of hurt, a startling image came to mind. If you took away the Northern accent, Ms Ruane was the sort of doe-eyed social worker who could easily take a Fine Gael seat in Dublin South." Hmm, but Caitríona has a Mayo accent. Even Drennan was forced to deliver a backhanded compliment further down the page: "It will take more than one attack to topple a party, the public image of which is now defined by simple social workers."
The Sunday Independent, of course, ran Sinn Féin news over half its overall pages. Where would that paper be without us?
But the comment that drew the most laughs was in Miriam Lord's article in the Indo on Monday, when she opened with "flabbergasted from the Falls Road stepped up to the podium". But 'Ignorant from the Independent' let herself down with the rest of the article, which concentrated mostly on Ahern's comments about Adams during the week.
Dancing to our tune
As Dawn Doyle points out, many of the articles that were written, particularly in the Sunday papers, were prepared weeks in advance. Regardless of how positive the weekend went, there are elements of the media who will always show us animosity.
And the weekend was positive. 2004 will be remembered as the biggest, most vibrant, and most youthful Ard Fheis ever. In terms of media coverage, it was evident this week that the age-old animosity shown to us is waning. Some elements of the media might have seen one thing and written another, but that sort of denial is slowly being eroded.
"The media is starting to respond to our agenda," Dawn says. "Individuals are still trying to pigeon-hole the party, and this was obvious in Monday's papers, which covered the Ard Fheis mainly from a peace process point of view. They didn't deal with the any of the sections we covered on housing, health, policing, economy, education and so on. But the coverage has improved so much over the last two years. Now we have journalists concentrating on our bid for electoral success."
Ten years ago, Sinn Féin held its Ard Fheis in a community hall in Killinarden, Tallaght. The death knell had sounded for the Broadcasting Act, but the media was still acting as though we didn't exist.
To paraphrase the best quote of the weekend, it looks as though the revisionist media's day too, has tiocfaidhed.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.