I have been trying for days to get in touch with some high-profile BBC correspondents in Belfast.
I understand they’re busy with the crackling controversies gathering heat around the impending July 12 Orangemen marches. This traditional celebration of King William III’s victory over the Irish (read: Catholic) rebels at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 falls on a Saturday this year, and the restrictions imposed by the Parades Commission don’t sit well with the British-leaning Unionists. To these loyalist Ulstermen (read: Protestant), the parades are like the Rex Krewe’s Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. They dress up in bowlers and black jackets and fly the Union Jack. But to Northern Irish Catholics, seeing the Union Jack flaunted this way (and in their neighborhood of Ardoyne!) must be something like having the Confederate battle flag paraded up Main Street in Lexington, Va., a flag that means “heritage” and “Southern history” to the Sons of Confederate Veterans but to those of us who know the South’s history of the 1950s and 1960s, it means the KKK and rabid Southern governors and senators spitting on the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. “Fergit, Hell” was the license plate on many a pickup truck.
Still, it seems odd that I, a news reporter for 26 years, would have trouble reaching seasoned BBC journalists who have been covering Northern Ireland since before the Troubles officially ended. Back in the day, when you came into a distant town or city to report a story for your paper or a magazine, the first place you went for a trusted perspective was the local paper. There, a reporter or editor would usually fill you in on background, then take you to lunch (or you pay for hers or his).
All that has changed in the digital age, and age of high security. Newsrooms are guarded bunkers, no longer open to interesting or interested (or weird) people who might wander in. My own former employer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, doesn’t even have a newsroom you can find anymore, having abandoned downtown for an inaccessible cube of a building out by Perimeter Mall.
It’s not that journalists aren’t open to the public, or to fellow journalists. My friend who is an AP editor in NY gave me the email of Ireland’s AP bureau chief, Shawn Pogatchnik, who responded generously with names of BBC correspondents he recommended to me (he would’ve driven up to Armagh from Dublin to talk to my students, but was leaving for a long vacation in France with family). And these BBC correspondents are much more in touch with their public now than in the past, thanks to Twitter. (Shawn suggested I contact these folks by Twitter.) Rarely can you reach reporters by phone or email anymore, much less drop in on them in an actual newsroom. You “follow” them on Twitter. So the BBC’s Martina Purdy has 10,700 followers on Twitter, and she herself is following 273 Twitter accounts. And the BBC’s Mark Devenport has 18,600 followers, and is following 859. Good for them. This new froth of information and news linking so many engaged people minute by minute is certainly a powerful new form of journalism. But unless Martina or Mark or the others I’m following notice me, and follow me, I can’t tweet a private message. Well, now that I’ve finally got a local cell phone, I’ll try calling the BBC in Belfast.
As the old sing, so twitter the young (which oddly enough is the title of a 17th century Dutch painting).
— Doug Cumming