Victims are not in the Past

Gerry Adams: under pressure
Gerry Adams: under pressure

It’s very hard to try to be objective about such an emotive topic. But let’s try to examine the impact on Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein and, the peace process of the BBC’s powerfully moving documentary about The Disappeared.

To date Sinn Fein has performed well post conflict: it has usurped the SDLP to become the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and it has made significant gains in the Republic, transforming itself there into a major political force.

Ousr was an especially squalid and dirty conflict in which many innocents died, and it was fought with a ferocity and ruthlessness that it is easy to forget in more normal times. Unlike most conflicts, however it did not end with one side victorious and the other defeated, regardless of how various elements tried to spin it at the time.

Essentially the Good Friday Agreement was a compromise, and underpinning it was an agreement that the various paramilitary groupings would cease activity, and in exchange the security forces would cease to pursue them. As part of the deal many paramilitary prisoners were released early from prison.

One of the main architects of this deal was Gerry Adams, who, along with his allies in the party persuaded the republican movement to support the new political structures that the Good Friday Agreement put in place.

Since then Sinn Fein have entered government at Stormont, and as referenced become an important force in the Republic, campaigning on opposition to austerity cuts, a popular agenda there.

The future has looked positive and we’ve all been encouraged not to dwell on the past.

However, there is a big problem with that. If you were a victim of the conflict and suffered serious injury or bereavement, your suffering is just as much in the present as it was in the past.

And as the government at Stormont geared up to celebrate a decade of centenaries, to encourage us to respect each others’ pasts, there were those, including myself, who pointed out that this would also lead to the marking of anniversaries some would rather forget about: the Abercorn Bombing, Bloody Friday, Greysteel,  Loughinisland and the Shankill Road bomb: the list goes on and involves members of all communities.

These events were all in the past, but they are still being experienced today, many of them were atrocities of the most appalling nature.

Recently there have been renewed allegations of security force linkages with loyalist paramilitaries. We are all familiar with the allegations being raised against Gerry Adams and some of his colleagues in Sinn Fein.

They may be carrying out different roles these days, but the past still hangs around them.

In Adams’ case this is a double difficulty. In the case of The Disappeared he has made several appeals for more information about those still missing, but he steadfastly denies his membership of the IRA and the role he played in the dark days of the past.

This does not just damage his credibility with political opponents, as the BBC documentary clearly showed it has also caused resentment amongst republicans.

But there is a problem here. Republican ex combatants have a simple rule in talking about their activities. If they were convicted they will talk about their actions, if not they won’t. And the reason for that is simple enough: were they to admit to committing serious crimes they would be liable to arrest, prosecution, trial and imprisonment.

So Adams is in a difficult position. He simply won’t change his stance when asked about IRA membership and his early days in the Republican movement. But nobody believes him, and in the Republic in particular that is a very serious problem amongst new voters, attracted to Sinn Fein by their economic policies.

And as far as dealing with the past goes, that’s not possible when some of those involved won’t speak openly about their roles, indeed lie about them: that’s a serious problem for Sinn Fein as it is very hard to have a dialogue where one side is not engaging properly: it also undermines their calls for  investigations into alleged outrages committed by the security forces.

So this is probably the most difficult problem of all faced by Richard Haass and his team as they attempt to negotiate a way forward. Many have called for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation process. That would require an amnesty from prosecution. Are unionists going to agree to that? It seems unlikely.

In the meantime we need to bring more focus to the victims themselves. By this I mean bringing more practical help.  Let’s take those seriously injured as just one example. Many of these people need lifelong care, and help with both physical and mental conditions arising from injury and trauma.

Yet for those who were hurt in the early 1970s, the compensation they received has long since run out, for many their carers are now elderly and they are at crisis point as they face up to the rigours of Welfare Reform. Surely all parties and all persuasions could at least agree on this: that notwithstanding who knew what and when and who exactly did what to whom, whilst this debate is raging, an even more pressing issue is not being fully addressed: ensuring that all victims have the right level of care and support from the State. It’s the least we can do.



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We have just three places left for our media training course at UTV Studios on November 14.

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How to Turn a PR Crisis into a Disaster

Here’s a bit of advice for PR professionals and spin doctors. Never, ever, ever interrupt an interview!
This classic clip from Australian TV demonstrates why. Sure the PR man was just trying to dig his boss out of a hole. But his intervention made for brilliant TV. The cameraman has the wit to pan around to capture the interruption and former Aussie PM Malcom Fraser who is clearly far, far more media savvy than his adviser, berates his hapless assistant as the camera continues to roll.
Did the TV station broadcast the interview? You bet it did! And a manageable crisis was turned into a great TV car crash.

Ignorance is Never Bliss

media trainingNever, ever agree to go on air unless you know what you are talking about and don’t comment on matters unless you have the inside track.
Former Manchester United legend Paddy Crerand gave a classic example of this when he appeared on BBC Radio Ulster the day Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement.
“I don’t believe this for one second,” he snapped. “It must be the silly season, they just make these stories up and put them in the paper.”
When Noel Thompson told him that there was shortly to be a major announcement at Old Trafford, he said: “How do you know, that? Who told you that? How do you know there’s going to be a major announcement. I don’t believe one word of that.”
He suggested that if journalists wanted to get the truth they should pick up the phone and ask Sir Alex himself.
And then Paddy confided that he had been at Old Trafford for three hours yesterday, and he hadn’t heard anything about this, so obviously it could not be true.
“Alex Ferguson is not just going to get up and say I’m going to quit. It’s just fantasy,” he ranted.
It made for brilliant listening, not just because he was about to be proved so spectacularly wrong, but that he managed to get himself so worked up and angry about it and used the opportunity to ridicule the media.
Maybe he should have called Sir Alex himself to check out the truth before pontificating so foolishly
Later in the day he tweeted that he was “shocked, stunned and amazed” by the announcement. As I’m sure he was.

How to Use the “F” Word Live on TV – and Get Away With It

This year we witnessed the shortest careers in TV news history when AJ Clemente made his unfortunate TV debut as anchorman for KFYR-TV.
The first two words he uttered were … well check it out for yourselves! And as he came off air he was promptly sacked. The cringeworthy Youtube clip that resulted is one of my all-time favourites.
So, is it possible for you to use the “f” word live on air during a news broadcast and get away with it?
Well yes it is. Check out this even better one from Sue Simmons, veteran anchor WNBC in New York.
This glorious gaffe was made in 2008 and yet Sue stayed on until her retirement last year, when she was feted by both colleagues and celebrities.
The difference is simple really, isn’t it? She said sorry.

The Nolan Show

NolanThis may be the worst of times for health bureaucrats but it has been the best of times for their nemesis Stephen Nolan.

Nolan is a gloriously complex and divisive figure, even at the BBC. For a long time the newsroom noticeboard had a letter posted on it from a utility company explaining that it would not be putting up spokespeople for the Nolan Show, because it was “light entertainment”, and therefore, by implication, not worth talking to.

Many news reporters felt the same and that Nolan was straying onto their patch by covering politics and current affairs without the disciplines and constraints that they were having to follow. The back-biting could be quite vicious. One reporter once told me that Nolan’s ratings dropped off significantly once the Jeremy Kyle Show started at 9.25 am. I’m pretty sure that’s not true!

There have been grumblings about his pay, about an alleged clothing allowance for his TV appearances and the suggestion that he is somehow an “accident waiting to happen”.

All of these, are of course, back-handed compliments because they demonstrate the extent to which Nolan was beginning to seize the news agenda. Over time the “Biggest Show in the Country” has become compulsory listening for politicians, PR practitioners and anyone associated with government.

PR people are especially terrified of Nolan. They never quite know whether they should put somebody up to be publicly kebabed or whether to withhold a spokesperson and run the risk of Nolan taunting the organisation for its cowardice on air.

I’ve even come across one press officer who advocates telling the show that he’ll put a spokesperson up but they are not available until after 10am – thus hoping that other items will over-run and the offending item will subsequently be dropped.

Interestingly Nolan doesn’t like people he’s planning to give a hard time to coming into the studio, he prefers to grill them on the phone. Maybe it’s because he would feel sorry for them if he could actually see them squirming and sweating in front of a microphone and would therefore go soft.

And he is so good at it: the use of silence; the persistence in pursuing precise, clear answers and the flexibility to carry on with an interview until he gets what he wants.

He’s also brilliant at bringing in ordinary people and getting them to tell their stories, their normal, plain language, contrasting with the convoluted speak of politicians, bureaucrats and executives.

Nolan doesn’t have too many friends in politics either. He had the rare distinction of being singled out for attack by Peter Robinson at a DUP conference a couple of years ago. And, yes, there was a time when the Nolan Show was a little out of control and unbalanced, too far down the road of tabloid radio, where everything was the fault of politicians.

But over the years both the man himself (he’s only 39) and his production team have matured and now consistently produce riveting radio. At the heart of it is really good research, so that Nolan is often as well-informed as his subjects –this is very rare in broadcasting and involves a huge amount of work.

That’s probably why Nolan’s workload is increasing in England with new shows in the pipeline. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be able to keep up his Northern Irish commitments indefinitely.

If and when he does go: his will be big shoes to fill: and life will get a lot easier once more for politicians, the PR industry, civil servants and anyone else in an official position who gets that dreaded early morning call from the Nolan production team.

And for the rest of us? Well, we’ll just have to make do with Jeremy Kyle.

No More Positions of the Week!

social mediaIt’s not just newspapers that are being swept away by new media. The latest publication to get the axe is More! magazine, famous for its “Positions of the Week” column and the notorious series when they asked men to put on “My Orgasm Face”.

Maybe after 25 years, it simply ran out of positions, or faces.

Maybe the shopping, fun and wildness of it all doesn’t work with younger women today.

Maybe readers no longer believe as editor Chantelle Horton wrote recently:  ‘It is the only weekly that will sort your wardrobe, your relationship and your weekend and will make you feel good about yourself at the same time.’

As if a magazine ever could: “Oh dear I don’t have a boyfriend, must go out and buy More!”

Ironically More! was the first UK magazine to be edited by Facebook friends. Whisper it softly, but maybe that’s when the rot really set in.

At its peak it sold 400,000 copies a week. At it’s closer that had fallen to just over 92,000.

Less is More!

Nice Suit, Shame About the Face

Media trainingAnd I thought I’d seen it all!

This, of course, is Willie Frazer helping to launch the Protestant Coalition.

Here’s some advice from the American designer Carl R Ellison  which Willie might find useful for future public outings:

“Politicians are among of the most visible people in television. You may also see them on various formal and special events. As public figures, they should dress conservatively without compromising their looks. Most of the time, you will see politicians dressed in traditional suits with a white shirt and outdated tie. At times, you would even think that politicians are using the bad clothing style to project believability and authority.

He advises:  If you want to wear a suit with a sexy touch, go for any with a very subtle pinstripe. There is no need to wear slacks with pleats and cuffed pants.

And as for ties, he says: “The easiest way to find the right tie is this: pick a tie with nice texture and choose one in solid color. Avoid using ties in pink, orange, yellow, purple, pastel, or gold.”

Sadly he has no counsel on the appropriate use of face paint at press conferences. It’s not something we generally recommend on our media training courses.