The government’s proposal to restrict appearances on TV by terrorists follows the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, the bloody and gruesome aftermath of which was widely broadcast on TV and via Twitter. It reminds us of the broadcast ban that affected coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict from 1988 to 1994; and of the corresponding Section 31 ban in the Republic of Ireland. But censorship of this kind doesn’t work. In fact, it is an assault not on terrorism but on democracy.
The broadcast ban in Northern Ireland shifted the onus of censorship from the state onto the broadcasters, making it so troublesome to include interviews with proscribed individuals that it was easier to exclude them altogether. There is some evidence to suggest that it had an immediate impact on coverage. A study in 1990 by the Glasgow Media Group showed that in the first year of the ban, appearances on TV by Sinn Féin politicians such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness decreased by 63 percent from the year before. Some readers may take this as evidence that censorship works but they might also want to ask whether it had any impact upon support for Sinn Féin during this period. There was certainly no corresponding drop in the party’s vote.
But we should also look beyond the politics of a ban like this and consider its wider implications for democracy and free speech. Far from protecting democracy from terrorism and political extremism, censorship allows bad ideas and bad politics to go unchallenged and unexamined in public debate. It stymies the free circulation of information, news and opinion – the lifeblood of a healthy public sphere. But perhaps its most far-reaching effect is that it sets a dangerous precedent. It makes the censorship of any form of controversial opinion suddenly thinkable and justifiable. The question any democratic government must ask itself in that eventuality is that posed by John Milton in 1664: “If you would have us slaves, you must be tyrants. And then, who will stand by you?” (Areopagitica)
Prof. Máire Messenger Davies reflects on this week’s coverage of the Margaret Thatcher’s death.
I’ve recently joined Facebook and I felt it was an appropriate medium to voice a few thoughts on hearing of the death of Margaret Thatcher. I wrote:
‘Need to acknowledge the death of Margaret Thatcher and the torrent of media comment.’ The prospect of trying to make sense of it all struck me as daunting, and I added: ‘Good luck sorting that lot out, pundits.’
It was revealing (to me anyway) that my first written comment on hearing of the death of a person with whose politics I deeply disagreed, was not ‘ding dong’, (nor ‘tramp the dirt down’, as offered by several other FB Friends). And, with due respect to grieving Thatcher relatives and friends, neither was my response sympathetic. My first response was to note the ‘torrent of media comment,’ which shows how thoroughly indoctrinated a career in Media Studies has made me.
It could be one of those moments when people remember where they were when they heard the news. On the morning of Monday 8th April, I had heard on BBC radio news that there had been a massive, almost 9/11 type explosion in Damascus, and I thought – that’s going to be the lead at 1 pm, make sure you tune in to find out more. So I did – and heard that Margaret Thatcher had died. On with the TV, to get the BBC TV News version of it and there was nothing about Damascus: the whole bulletin was devoted to Margaret Thatcher.
The initial TV coverage seemed flat and predictable; most of it, including live pieces to camera by reporters such as Nick Robinson, consisted of obviously pre-prepared packages. So we got childhood in Grantham grocery; Cambridge; Denis; election as MP, twins, first woman leader of Tories, first woman prime minister, St Francis of Assisi, Falklands, miners’ strike, Irish hunger strikers, Brighton bomb, City ‘big bang’, tearful departure, and so on – all with carefully selected archive footage. It was clearly acknowledged in these pre-prepared packages that it was her own colleagues, in her own Tory cabinet, who finally brought her down in 1990 – cue Geoffrey Howe and his broken cricket bat.
But no-one would think that this had been the case from the even greater torrent, the positive tsunami, of hagiography from Tory spokespersons and the right-wing press that has followed, and which continues.
Ding dong about the ding dong song
All I can do – since this is not a scholarly content analysis (and good luck to future scholars attempting that) – is to point out the highlights of the media coverage that most caught my own attention. First, it’s impossible to ignore the ‘ding dong’ about the dingdong song – the song sung by the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939) to announce that Dorothy’s house, uprooted in the Kansas hurricane, has landed on the wicked witch of the west, and killed her. A group of anti-Thatcherites decided to organise a mass download of this song (written by Yip Harburg, a ‘left winger’ who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era in Hollywood, one of many ironic aspects to this affair), so that the song would get into the top ten of the download charts. This meant it would have to be played on the BBC’s Radio 1 Chart countdown on Sunday afternoon.
Daily Telegraph seized this opportunity to criticize the BBC:
‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, a song from the Wizard of Oz, has sold 20,000 copies this week …Friends of Lady Thatcher said the corporation would be guilty of a “serious dereliction of duty” if it aired the song.’
The Daily Mail front page was headed: BBC WITCH SONG INSULT TO MAGGIE and reported: ‘in a decision that will cause widespread outrage, the ding dong song will feature in Radio 1’s Sunday evening Top 40 countdown.’ Many on Twitter drew attention to the irony that ‘the Daily Mail that campaigned for press freedom over Leveson wants the BBC to censor something’. The Sun even found 91 and 94 year olds, who had played Munchkins in the movie, to express disapproval, in a front page splash headed ‘Wizard of Oz stars speak: MUNCHKIN FURY AT MAGGIE DING DONG SONG’.
The BBC, mindful of recent scandals, came up with a compromise, which like many compromises, doesn’t seem to have pleased anybody – but, as they’ve noted before, when both sides attack you, (cue Nick Cohen, The Observer, vs the Mail Online) you know you’re doing something right. The Radio 1 controller announced they would play a short clip from the song with an introduction from a newsreader explaining the context of the controversy. This seems to me to be an extremely astute move on the part of the BBC; the controversy is there, partly because the press are making so much of it, so they can’t ignore it. True to Reithian ideals of informing and educating, they decided to give listeners a short media education lesson, putting the song in context. Good for them.
‘All but a state funeral’
Plans for the funeral, with full military honours similar to that for the Queen Mother, were revealed; at the same time calls for ’personal respect’ continued. But if, as we are constantly reminded by her supporters, (and interestingly also Ken Livingstone, on PM on Tuesday) that she’s basically just ‘somebody’s mother and daughter’, many questioned the point of giving her a funeral so different from the average mother’s. The grandiosity of the funeral implies a great national leader – in which case, we have to comment on her effectiveness as a national leader, and, even for those who supported her, as such, she is found wanting. Peter Oborne, in the Daily Telegraph, 10th April, 2013, described the decision to have ‘all but a state funeral’ for Lady Thatcher, a worrying ‘constitutional innovation.’ He quoted with approval the Mirror’s description of her as the nation’s ‘most divisive prime minister’ and pointed out:
‘Defenders of next week’s funeral arrangements say that she was a “transformational” prime minister. This is true. But so was Clement Attlee, who introduced the welfare system and the National Health Service, thus fundamentally changing the connection between state and individual. Yet the Queen did not attend Mr Attlee’s funeral, a quiet affair in Temple Church near Westminster.… all one can do now is hope that next week’s funeral is not allowed to turn into a triumphalist Tory occasion that inflicts permanent damage on the monarchy and also our system of government.’
Oborne reminded his readers: ‘The dockers dipped the cranes when Churchill’s coffin came up the Thames in 1965. Would they have dipped their cranes for Margaret Thatcher?’ He knew the answer to this: No, they wouldn’t, not least because there are no dockers left in London’s Docklands; they have been replaced by the Canary Wharf financial district.
Many drew attention to the rewriting of history of the 1970s and 80s, including John Prescott in the Mirror, Saturday 13th April. But the best journalistically factual correction to this rewriting was a reprint of a Seamus Milne article from May 2009, the anniversary of her election in 1979. (And, on the point of effective journalism, what a curiously prominent silence there has been from her 1980s ally in helping to reduce media pluralism, Rupert Murdoch): Milne pointed out some facts and figures:
‘You’d never guess from all this fevered snobbery and retrospective catastrophism [about Britain in the 1970s] that average economic growth in Britain in the dismal 1970s, at 2.4% a year, was almost exactly the same as in the sunny Thatcherite 1980s – though a good deal more fairly distributed – and significantly higher than in the free-market boom years of the last two decades. Nor would you imagine that there was far greater equality and social mobility than after Thatcher got to work. Or that, while industrial conflict was often sharp in the 1970s, there was nothing to match the violence of the riots and industrial confrontations of Thatcher’s Britain.’
Thatcher the woman
Inevitably there has been reference to her feminism, or lack of it, and the undoubted fact that she was a very exceptional woman. Feminist Deborah Orr acknowledged:
‘she was the outstanding female politician of her generation, of any generation. Like it or not, that’s just how it was. Thatcher, the politician, was a nightmare. Thatcher, the woman, was more exceptional than any human being perhaps should ever dare to be.’
Self proclaimed feminist, ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch gave Twitterati a good laugh when she noted the almost perfectly equal division, rare in statistical polling, between 52% (pro) and 48% (anti) comments about Thatcher, as evidence that she ‘wasn’t divisive.’ There’s nothing you can do about this kind of idiocy except sigh.
Dancing in the street and leaping in the air
There have been celebrations and dancing in the street in Glasgow and in Trafalgar Square, which I felt no inclination to join. Quoting my own Facebook comments again: for me, the key moment when the ‘witch’ (if we must use the sexist labels of 17th century religious primitivism) ‘died’ was when she resigned, back in 1990, when many who are expressing authoritative opinions now, including members of the Government, were children, and could have no meaningful memory of her. Her resignation was the moment when those of us who had lived through the social depredations that she introduced, who had always opposed her politically, and who had disliked profoundly her personal, bullying style, felt it was appropriate to rejoice. And I did rejoice; I was teaching at Boston University in Boston, USA at the time; it was, aptly enough, Thanksgiving Day, and I was so moved by hearing the news on the 8 am bulletin on National Public Radio (it was 1 pm in Britain), that I tried to leap in the air and fell out of bed. Most of my American colleagues did not share my reaction. She was – and still is – a celebrity figure to them, the Hollywood Iron Lady, portrayed by Meryl Streep. Not to me.
But now, as a much older woman than my leaping self in Boston, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to rejoice at the death of someone who’d been in failing health for years, and who had undergone the awful tragedy of losing her once powerful memory, something that’s also happened to my own 94 year old mother, and a fate that could be awaiting the rest of us. An unexpectedly touching and sensitive piece by Russell Brand in The Guardian described seeing Thatcher in the Temple Gardens being helped to water the roses.
‘The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t.’
Coming back to the personal theme of mother and child: my favourite media exchange has to be Glenda Jackson’s powerful, theatrical, oblivious (to braying Tory insults and to her Labour colleagues’ absence), speech in the House of Commons debate on Wednesday, and her more conservative son, Dan’s Hodges’ response to it in the Daily Telegraph.
“There was a heinous social, economic and spiritual damage wreaked upon this country, upon my constituency and my constituents. … not only in London but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless.”
Said Dan, responding to a barrage of critical tweets telling him how disapprovingly he should think about this:
‘I’ll tell you what I think. I think the House of Commons assembled on Wednesday to honour a woman of conviction. And like it or not, a woman of conviction was what it got to see. Am I Glenda Jackson’s son? Yes, I am.’
Good for Dan. And to conclude with the Munchkin theme, a last, more hopeful word to writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, in the Observer, 14th April, drawing attention to more positive aspects of British identity, as he and Danny Boyle had done in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony:
‘It’s time to stop going on about the witch being dead and start imagining what might lie over the rainbow.’
The yellow brick road beckons….
Before the advent of television in the 1950s, Irish relied on British newsreels for on-screen news about Ireland. Dr. Ciara Chambers of the Centre for Media Research will be talking about this and the unque challange that it posed during a turbulent period in Irish history at a one-day symposium hosted by University College Cork. The event, entitled Reframing Cinema Histories will take place on Friday 22nd March 2013
Dr. Chambers will also explore in her paper the opportunities and challenges associated with the study of newsreel material in an age of burgeoning digitization and will consider the shifting archival attitudes towards access and preservation. One of the key questions she will pose is the appropriateneess of seeing film as an historical source.
CMR researcher Alan Hook and PhD candidate Oonagh Murphy will be presenting at the Conference Museums and the Web 2013 in Portland, Oregon between the 17th and 20th April. It follows research undertaken in April 2012, around informal events such as Hack Days as a way for Higher Education to engage and feed into the museums and cultural sector (This Is Our Playground Project),
The paper entitled “This is Our Playground: Recognising the value of students as innovators” is available prior to the conference online. The paper proposes that an informal relationship between young practitioners and large cultural organisations is a practical way to think about fast, nimble Digital Research and Development teams for these institutions and gives real world contexts to students designs and projects.
In the midst of the controversy over the fying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall, Ciaran Bartlett offers some historical reflections on newspaper coverage of political turmoil and riots in Belfast.
Currently, Northern Ireland is making headlines across Europe and America with Derry becoming the City of Culture for 2013. Simultaneously, however, protests in the greater Belfast area and elsewhere in Ulster, fuelled by the decision of the Belfast City Council to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall, have caused violence and tensions which have led the media to ask if we are indeed heading back to ‘the dark old days’.
This is a curious and, in my opinion, a much over-used and under-defined phrase. Seemingly, the term is used to refer to the very recent conflict in Northern Ireland, with some sort of mystical starting point around 1968. However, it is well-known that very similar problems existed in nineteenth-century Belfast when the city was expanding rapidly and becoming an extremely important industrial city in Victorian Ireland.
It may be possible to gain a deeper understanding of what and when ‘the dark old days’ actually were (and hopefully, our own times) by looking at the newspaper coverage of the riots in Belfast in 1886 in response to the Home Rule Crisis.
The history of public disorder, rioting and political unrest linked to cultural issues extends back far beyond the conflict that broke out in the late 1960s. And we can detect similarities in the journalistic coverage of events in 1886 and 2012. To this end, Belfast’s newspapers, The Belfast Morning News (which exists today as The Irish News) and the Newsletter (which continues today under the same name) reveal how they reflected and influenced he city’s historic conflict at the time.
The Government of Ireland Bill (1886), known as the first Home Rule Bill was defeated in an early morning sitting the House of Commons on 8th June. It was defeated by 30 votes. Due to the time of the vote, the newspapers were able to report on the events in time for publication on the 8th. The report in the Morning News attempted to inspire a hopeful mood among its nationalist readers who had probably, as J. C. Beckett suggests, thought the passing of the Bill was virtually guaranteed after the 1885 elections. The Morning News feed its readers with references that they would easily understand, in this case, it used and referred somewhat rhetorically to history. It said that “from one point of view, the result is to be regretted” and argued that the Bill was “the first time for 700 years that England was afforded the opportunity of solving the problem which her own misgovernment in Ireland had set to her”. It concluded that England had missed the opportunity to “settle the Irish Question…once and forever”.
The writing in the Morning News was curt, expressing ‘regret’ and ‘disappointment’ on several occasions, stating that the Bill had the power to close forever the “little chapter of strife and friction” between Ireland and England.
Interestingly, the Newsletter’s coverage of the defeat of the Home Rule Bill is comparable to the Morning News’ jubilant reports of the overwhelming nationalist election victory in 1885. It declared ceremoniously that “Mr Gladstone’s plot to sever the empire by granting legislative independence to Ireland was defeated”. Unlike the Morning News which carried a small table giving a concise break down of the voting results at the end of its reports, the Newsletter led with a large font headline: “VICTORY!” It went on to describe how “with feelings which we [the Newsletter] cannot doubt are shared by all our readers” that the “Home Rule scheme” which was “concocted by Mr Gladstone in conference with Mr Parnell has been defeated by a magnificent majority”.
With news of the defeat of the Bill in mind, serious rioting occurred in Belfast. The Newsletter stated the following day that the rioting, which had been ongoing for five days, was to be “deplored”. It described the veracity and increased intensity of the violence on the evening of the 8th, saying: “So outrageous did the mob become at more than one place, that the constabulary, after the Riot Act had been read, were compelled to fire upon the crowds”. These were very serious riots indeed. As a consequence of the defeat of the Bill, Gladstone had his government dissolved by Queen Victoria and further elections took place.
In my PhD thesis, I argue that the nationalist Belfast Morning News and the unionist Newsletter existed alongside one another in a sort of hegemonic struggle, each attempting to enhance the victories and soften the defeats of experience by their own political sides. When one newspaper’s politics was succeeding in Westminster, the editorial line could be reduced to gloating. However, when the same newspaper found itself at the sharp end of a political defeat, it would use politically strong, deliberate language and notionally invoke typicalities of various genres, including as I argue in my thesis, history, rhetoric and the gothic.
It is my contention that a similar model of explanation may be roughly applied to the modern counterparts of these same news outlets in Belfast. It must be noted that, in terms of language and inference, nineteenth century newspapers were (by and large) much more direct than modern newspapers. However, this case does make for some interesting comparisons. Though the hegemonic roles have been reversed somewhat in the reportage of the recent flag protests (with unionist politics being defeated so to speak in this instance), similar codes of journalistic practice, political hegemony and cultural exposition can be detected. Culturally, this may help us understand something of the much deeper historical roots of the so-called ‘dark old days’.
The Newsletter is producing a great deal of coverage of the recent flag protests focusing closely on the political reasons for protests and reaction to them, rather than on the violence itself. The Irish News focuses more closely on the violence and disruption caused by the protests and discusses the amount of women and children attending recent protests as a “calculated tactic to thwart police…and act as a buffer for loyalist paramilitaries”. While the Newsletter mostly refers to the protests as “demonstrations” or “flag protests”, the Irish News is inclined to refer to “loyalist protests” and “riots”. This difference in language belies the subtle differences between the reportage in both newspapers; small but vital changes.
The struggle for political hegemony that characterised the behaviour of Belfast’s two main newspapers in the Home Rule Crisis in the 1880s can still be applied to those newspapers today, even when the ‘winner/loser’ roles are reversed as they have been in this example. While the modern counterparts are somewhat more guarded than their predecessors (in terms of language), I argue that the same tribal content can be detected, suggesting that the newspapers here both reflect and influence our society greatly.
As media scholars and practitioners, it seems vital for our understanding of the role of newspapers in our culture that we come to grasp the truer, deeper roots of the past in Belfast, lest we risk a return to the actual ‘dark old days’.
This week saw two BLOC54 meetings, “BLOC54 is a distributed publisher for a group of independent games companies. The games sector in Northern Ireland has undergone immense growth over the last three years but to fully have the impact it deserves, this organisation was formed to provide collaboration opportunities for the studios in Ireland.” The First meeting in Derry hosted in the Business Incubation space NORIBIC and the other in Belfast hosted by Farset Labs, a Makerspace in Weavers Court.
“Farset Labs is a makerspace that provides a hub of creativity, technological innovation and entrepreneurship for local professionals, students and interested hobbyists in Belfast City Centre. In terms of atmosphere, it sits somewhere in the triangle of ‘Incubator’, ‘Research Lab’, and ‘Playground’.”
BLOC54 is a monthly meeting of the growing game development sector in Northern Ireland facilitated by Matt Johnston of Digital Circle. This month’s meet saw 3 presentations by Researchers from the Centre for Media Research and School of Media Film and Journalism, who attended both events to discuss their current work and challenge the usually tech focused events with their research into games and play.
At each event, Media and Play researcher Alan Hook presented “Capture the #fleg, games and contested spaces: ‘what games might change in Northern Ireland’” a meandering through his current research on games for change and pervasive games as a lens for the city. This was a review of an up and coming (postponed) project MYNI, a civic pride and internal tourism game developed for NITB and some musings on how play could help challenge contested spaces in Northern Ireland, resulting in the promotion of a new advertised PhD in the area.
This presentation was followed by Lance Wilson, a recent graduate from the Interactive Media Arts BA (Hons) who presented on Gaming for a Cause, a review of his dissertation project Revulsive on Carriage, a week long Alternate Reality Game designed to promote Health and Safety in the home, and expanded out into projects like Extra Life (Lance hosted the first Northern Irish Extra Life event last year), and Free Rice, amongst other projects that look at gaming as a fun way to help charities and organisations
The final presentation was by one of the Centre for Media Research’s PhD candidates Charles Clements who presented and mediated a debate on “Why Games Shouldn’t be Fun” the first steps into his PhD on Games, Agency and Meaning. This lively debate tried to shift the focus from the vacuous word “fun” and propose that developers should be aiming at meaning in games rather than “designing for fun” drawing on Bogost, Juul and Costakyan.
Media Studies needs to answer its critics and tell its side of the story, says Professor James Curran in this keynote address to the MeCCSA conference in Derry, given on Friday 11th January 2013.
Media studies have been subject to periodic attack by quality newspapers, across the political spectrum, for over fifteen years. According to the Conservative Sunday Times, a degree in media studies is ‘little more than a state-funded, three-year equivalent of pub chat’ that is symptomatic of ‘a dumbed down educational world’. The centrist Independent declared that ‘students learn nothing of value’ on media studies courses, adding that ‘this paper regards a degree in media studies as a disqualification for a career in journalism’. The left-leaning Guardian, though not fulminating directly against media studies in an editorial, has published a number of lengthy, feature-based denunciations. One declared a media studies undergraduate degree to be ‘puffed-up nonsense masquerading as academic discipline’ that is ‘an instant turn-off to employers’. Another argued that the rise of media studies has been founded on a corrupt compact between ‘cash-hungry universities’ and gullible young people who think that studying journalism at university will ‘help them meet Posh Spice’. It was headlined ‘Media Studies? Do Yourself a Favour – Forget it’.
To read more click the following link: Defending Media Studies
Eli Davies reflects on her time in Derry at the MeCCSA conference.
I am not a scholar of media or cultural studies, or a journalist or a filmmaker; I am a teacher and a writer, based in London. But, at the tail end of my longer-than-usual Christmas holiday, I found myself at Magee for the three-day MeCCSA conference, to help out with the general running of the event.
I was there as part of a fairly extensive team of other helpers, mainly students, all of whom, it has to be said, seemed far more expert than me at the whole business and had been preparing for it a day or so before I rolled up on Wednesday. For most of the conference, I was based at the registration table with two or three other volunteers; we welcomed delegates, handed out name badges and conference packs, directed them to the right rooms, and referred them to tech support, who smoothed over any last minute glitches with memory sticks and PowerPoints. The temperature seemed to drop quite suddenly in Derry as the conference kicked off and it was, at times, a draughty spot. But wrapped up in our cardies and scarves when necessary, it was a great place to sense the ebb and flow of the event.
I managed to sneak into the odd session over the course of the conference, a treat for someone who gets the occasional pang for her past academic studies. I am no stranger to critical theory – I’ve done my time with Barthes, Foucault, Butler and Zizek – but I am, I admit, a little rusty. So I had the odd panic before arriving, when I worried that it might just all go a little bit over my head. But the sessions I attended, which included a great panel discussion on the aftermath of Leveson, and the Friday plenary, featuring a typically provocative Terry Eagleton, were lively and engaging and left my head buzzing with thoughts and questions. It was fascinating also to look at the programme and see the amazing range of other topics covered in other panels, as well as chatting to PhD students about the papers that they were giving.
I first came to Derry ten years ago; back then I was a misty-eyed student of Irish literature, doing my masters at Trinity down in Dublin. I stayed with a friend who was living there while she wrote her Masters thesis about urban planning in the city. She walked me round, took me to all the places of note and told me the city’s story. Anne Crilly’s feminist tour of the city walls, which I went on the Thursday of the conference, gave a new angle to a walk I’ve done a fair few times since then. The walk included little-known tales of the local shirt factory workers and Anne pointed out the places in the city where they had met with Eleanor Marx and Mrs Pankhurst. On my first visit I became quite taken with Derry– with its walls, its history, its literary associations, its scenic backdrop. So it was nice, both on the tour and around at the conference, to hear other first-time visitors have similar responses to the place.
Several people on the tour, when walking past the Bogside and Free Derry Wall, remarked on how familiar these spots were from TV news coverage of the Troubles – a comment on media representation right there. Such questions obviously have very immediate resonance in Derry and several papers and discussions at the conference dealt with this. Other interesting questions are being thrown up by the Derry’s UK city of culture status. The aims of the City of Culture include regeneration and transformation – not unproblematic concepts, of course, something acknowledged and discussed by speakers throughout the conference.
There seemed, overall, to be a great buzz about the occasion. The mood was serious and scholarly, yes, but also lively and convivial. On Friday I chatted to one of the women on the university catering staff as she laid out lunch, and she commented on what ‘a good bunch’ the conference delegates were (the catering team were a pretty great bunch themselves). There was a similar positive feeling in the Playhouse, site of the Plenary discussion with James Nesbitt, and the Custom House, site of a very tasty dinner. On twitter there were posts about the conference from the hotels where people were staying and comments from delegates on how welcoming the locals were. When it came to Saturday morning, after the whole thing had finished, I actually felt a bit sad to leave.
Professor Martin McLoone offers a review of Professor Sarah Edge‘s Photographic Exhibition: Selective, Subjective: The Historical Photograph as a Trace of History, which has just closed. The exhibition ran in the Riverside Foyer Gallery at the University Of Ulster, Coleraine from December 7th – January 12th 2013.
In his account of the making of Robert Flaherty’s film ‘Man of Aran’ in 1932-4, Pat Mullen describes one of the difficulties Flaherty encountered in finding local subjects to co-operate with him. Apparently the islanders feared the camera and before they would agree to being photographed they sought assurances from the local parish priest that they would not lose their souls along with their likenesses. In a completely different context from the early days of photography, Arthur Munby records in his diary for 1862 encountering a similar fear – this time among the urban working class women in London. Munby, as Sarah Edge’s research confirms, bought, rather than commissioned, photographs of these women from various photographers at the time and in his diary he records that one of these photographers told him of the difficulties he had in getting the women to pose for him. ‘…they thinks it’s witchcraft or somethink o’ that’, he is reported as saying and by way of explanation adding, ‘Many of them are Irish, you see.’ These two incidents, separated by a period of seventy years, raise a number of interesting points about the art and practice of photography. First, there is clearly a problem here with photography’s capacity to capture and record reality – its documentary function – and the implication that it somehow delves deeper or reconstructs, reconconfigures or otherwise changes the object of its look – its representational function. This has been and continues to be a central concern for photographic studies. As Sarah Edge says here, the photograph turns the subject into an object and perhaps there is an instinctive understanding of this in the responses of subjects to their first experience of the camera. Indeed, it is this dynamic that renders photography’s documentary purpose extremely problematic. ‘The camera never lies’ runs the old adage but it is clear that from the moment of selection of subject and by the application of various techniques – composition, framing, lighting, setting and other extraneous factors the camera manipulates and constructs so completely that it might rightly be deemed the most mendacious machine ever invented. Even the evidence of the archive itself is suspect. Someone chooses what is kept and what is discarded and there is evidence that Munby’s own archive is a carefully selected set of images that tell his story rather than history. There is a supplementary question raised here also about photography’s role in nineteenth century anthropology and its status as historical record. Flaherty and his more accomplished photographer wife, Francis, approached their subjects through the filter of the nineteenth century. ‘I’m an explorer first’, Flaherty once said, ‘and only incidentally a filmmaker’. Like Munby before him, Flaherty was a flaneur of the primitive, wandering like an explorer from one remote location and society to the next, capturing endangered and unusual peoples on film before they are washed away by the filthy tide of modernity. Here, the Irish dimension is interesting.
In both these accounts there is an implication that the Irish represented a particular form of pre-modern primitivism and the camera, still or moving, represented the high point of modern sophistication in contrast. However, we might just as easily say that the photographs and films that resulted from the encounter between modernity and the primitive tells us more about the photographers and their ideological perspectives than it does about their subjects.
In the case of Munby, the subject of Sarah Edge’s study, there is a complex weave of ideological assumptions. First, of course, there is the problematic of race, ethnic identity or nationality. This is signalled in passing by the photographer’s remark about Irish girls but is central to the whole world of nineteenth century images of Ireland and the Irish, especially as these have developed from woodcuts and illustrations through political cartoons and on to photography itself. One of the ironies of the situation is that because of patent and copyright issues, photography actually developed more rapidly in Ireland than it did in Britain and, as Sarah Edge has pointed out elsewhere , because of the political tensions in late nineteenth century Ireland, photography developed a more clearly political and surveillance role there earlier than it did elsewhere. The surveillance potential of photography is already implicit in the voyeuristic tendencies clearly implied in the practice of the flaneur and the ethnographer and this aspect of the history of photography is central to the Sarah Edge’s work.
Munby’s photographs raise a second important ideological question. He photographed and bought photographs of mainly working-class women. In fact there is a double category at work here and Munby’s photographs raise very interesting questions about the construction in the nineteenth century of both gender and class identities. Sarah Edge is interested in this in terms of Munby himself – the voyeur and the dispassionate observer. Munby, she argues, represents a moment and a practice in the wider Victorian project of defining and circumscribing femininity and marking it off from Victorian masculinity. Central to this project is the question of power. Munby represents dominant patriarchal and bourgeois power and the photographs he collected tell us as much about this power relationship as they do about the life situation of the working-class women he collected. Munby removed himself from the material world of these women – the hardships and the poverty that they endured – and sought a kind of safety in the dispassionate security of the patriarchal gaze provided by the photographic image.
Sarah Edge is interested in the theory and practice of photography and her research findings are presented as both theoretical and practical or, to be more precise, through a theoretically informed practice. In her own practice she returns to the location of many of Munby’s original photographs. Her own contemporary photographs attempt to locate the materiality of these women – to find traces of the lived experience that Munby was anxious to contain. In her analysis, she argues that it is impossible to divorce the meaning of the photograph from the practice in its historical setting. She has devised a photographic practice that itself attempts to explore the deeper meanings and broader constructions of Munby’s photographs. In a metaphorical sense, she has set out to rediscover the stolen soul in the frozen likenesses of Munby’s women. The exhibition of images presented here attempt to reinsert these ghostly traces while at the same time asking pertinent questions about historical memory and the truth of the photograph.