There’s a profusion of media catering for Ireland’s new immigrant communities. But is Ireland’s new diversity being reflected in the mainstream media? Derek O’Halloran took a look for Focus77 way back in 2006.
Step out onto the streets of any town or city and you’ll witness the diversity that is a defining aspect of Ireland’s recent changes. The phenomenon is nowhere more apparent than in the throngs of faces and voices from all over the world walking along Dublin’s O’Connell Street. But how is this diversity of culture and background refl ected in our media? Well, the answer to that depends on which media outlets you examine. There’s a booming minority media sector, serving the needs of Ireland’s vibrant minority communities. Among these, the Polish and Chinese communities each have several titles vying for attention. The profusion of minority media isn’t confi ned to papers and magazines.
The new City Channel which broadcasts in Dublin, Galway and Waterford hosts both Polish and African specialty programmes, while Anna Livia radio includes minority programming in its schedule on a daily basis. And minority programming isn’t limited to the Dublin metropolitan area. Ade Oke is a past recipient of a Metro Éireann Media and Multicultural Award (MAMA) for his show The Rainbow, which broadcasts on Kilkenny -Carlow Local Radio. The MAMA awards, produced in association with RTE, recognise and reward work that promotes crosscultural understanding and cooperation. Ade sees his show as a forum where minorities and the mainstream Irish community can learn about each other. “Where two cultures meet, learning has to take place,” he says. “My programme is a medium for cultural exchange and understanding because, where problems arise between communities, it’s mostly because of a lack of information and knowledge.” Multicultural programming, he says, can bridge that gap by creating a space for meaningful communication.
Chinedu Onyejelem, the editor of Metro Éireann, and the man behind the MAMAs, thinks there’s a growing market for minority media. He sees the booming ethnic media sector is part of a natural cycle which in time will change as migrants integrate and minority and majority conceptions of identity adjust. For now though, the proliferation of new media outlets serve a crucial role for minorities by providing news of home and useful tips on their adopted culture. However, most of these new media are focussed at new communities, often in their own languages, so, even though it performs a valuable service, they can sometimes reproduce the divisions already apparent in society. The result is that, within what seems like an increasingly diverse society, many people live in parallel worlds that rarely intersect. How can media outlets targeting particular minorities or ethnic groups remedy that disconnection?
Mainstream media seems the obvious place for a broader engagement with the issues thrown up by our new multiculturalism. A number of mainstream media have made the effort to explore issues of identity and mutual understanding. Mary Fitzgerald’s excellent series The Faces of Islam in the Irish Times, did much to go beyond the lazy stereotyping of Muslims, by delving into the diversity of Islam at home and abroad.
RTE has also introduced a multicultural element in their programming through shows like No Place Like Home, and Mono, which told the stories of minorities living in Ireland. John MacMahon, who commissions programmes with multicultural content for RTE, says the channel is currently in the process of developing a broad policy on multiculturalism. He highlights programmes like Fair City, which incorporates minority storylines into its script, as examples of what RTE is doing to refl ect our new diversity. But when asked about the numbers of minority media professionals employed in RTE, he freely admits they are conspicuous by their absence. “People from different cultural backgrounds, you don’t see too many of them round here,” he says. However, he feels things will change over the next few years, adding that Ireland’s new diversity has come about quite rapidly and that it will take time for minorities to fi lter through. John’s not the only one to have noticed the dearth of minorities working in the mainstream Irish media. “There’s little or no ethnic diversity in the mainstream Irish media,” is Chinedu Onyejelem’s blunt reply to the same question. S
halini Sinha laughs at the notion that she’s probably the most high profi le media professional from a minority background in Ireland. Academic, activist and presenter of the popular Mono, she moved into broadcasting after gaining attention for her anti-racism work. For her, the lack of minorities working in the media means that it’s essentially failing in its duty to properly inform the public. “When you include people with different identities then you have different perspectives and a more accurate picture of what’s going on in society,” she says. “Without that diversity,” she maintains, “you can’t actually say in the broadest sense of the word that you are publishing the truth.” She notes that, although Ireland’s diversity is a relatively new phenomenon, quite a few practising journalists have moved here from other countries. That hasn’t translated into a greater presence in the mainstream media.
While Chinedu Onyejelem says minority journalists often encounter the perception that their level of knowledge about Irish culture precludes them from working in the media, he doesn’t accept this assessment. “Given the opportunity, people would retrain. Many immigrants are interested in acquiring new skills and knowledge and I think immigrants could comfortably compete with Irish journalists.” He says that in the broadcasting sector an individual’s accent is often cited as a reason why they mightn’t fi t into the Irish media-scape. “But I don’t accept that foreign accents would put people off. How about Americans? Their accent is not Irish but people make an effort to understand them. Wouldn’t an audience make the same allowance to understand other immigrants?” “If someone’s right for the job, accent shouldn’t matter, as long as a person can communicate well and do the job,” says John MacMahon. But, he adds, “that’s not to say that accent’s not a factor.” Ultimately it comes down to whoever’s doing the hiring and their conception of what constitutes an acceptable accent. “We fi nd some voices easier to hear. There are some voices that we haven’t noticed we’re not listening to,” says Shalini Sinha.
Even though she’s become a prominent media presenter, doesn’t it grate that Mono is packaged as a multicultural programme, separated in effect from the rest of the schedule and marked as different? “I would consider Mono to be a mainstream programme,” she says. “People said it was a minority programme. But the issues and stories we covered would appeal to anyone. I think those stories can be extremely powerful in breaking down barriers, in that you get an insight into the depth of humanity, regardless of background.”
Shalini currently writes a health related column in the Irish Times, amongst other projects. Ade has followed her media career and thinks she’s making the right moves. Ultimately, he thinks minority media professionals need to address a mainstream audience, and not be set apart because of their ethnicity or background. “She’s moving into the mainstream,” he says. “We should be taking our cue from her.” “I‘d like to see ethnic minorities working in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and in RTE,” says Chinedu Olyejelem. “I’d like to see Metro Eireann, currently a multicultural publication, become a mainstream paper. Because when we talk about multiculturalism, we’re talking about everyone in modern Ireland, not just about ethnic minorities.” Shalini Sinha couldn’t agree more, “I think it’s extremely important we have minorities presenting mainstream programmes.
If someone from a minority background were to present a Saturday evening chat show, one of the most normal things in Irish society – that would send a message that diversity is the norm.”