Common and separate media space - writing and reading newspapers

Editorial by Henrik Stenius

Recently, I came across the interesting fact that British and Irish journalists share the same trade union. The National Union of Journalists, established in 1907, has worked in both countries since 1941. To my mind, the fact that journalists in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland don't need independent unions raises fascinating questions about common and separate public/media space. I feel tempted to consider in what sense the public sphere is shared in the British and Irish islands and make comparisons with the spirit of community in the Nordic countries.

Irish journalists, as well as the Scottish, English and Welsh, look upon the world in their own way. They write for different kinds of newspapers and produce different kinds of regional agendas. It is also obvious that there is not just one single arena in which to compete for political influence. One important arena is concentrated around Westminster and another around the Dáil. If one insists, like I am inclined to do, on talking about a common British and Irish cultural and media sphere, one has to emphasise very strongly that the space is pillarised (a metaphor often used for describing the separate Protestant and Catholic sectors in Dutch society), with a separate British political, cultural and media pillar and a separate Irish one.

The newspapermen and women on these islands still have only one union. They probably feel comfortable with it because they share so many other things. During their career they may work in more than one region of these islands. They read without difficulty each others' newspapers because the symbols, topics, names and cultural codes are commonly known. Anything of this sort would be impossible in the Nordic countries. This kind of community does not exist. We can only read each others' newspapers with difficulty.

When Richard Kearney describes the British and Irish type of nations in his book Postnationalist Ireland, he uses the metaphor hyphenated nations to indicate that on a deeper level they have something profound in common. In order to understand one of the two cultures, one has to integrate the story of the other. One cannot write an intelligent history of England without dealing thoroughly with the history of Ireland. In the Nordic countries the situation is different. When you write the history of Finland, you do not need to mention Norway.

The Nordic spirit of community is different. Of course there are important institutional links between journalists in the Nordic countries in the same way that links exist in all sectors of society in these countries. Unions in different Nordic countries decided to have a common platform to discuss issues of importance. This is the pattern of every sector of Nordic societies. It is worth mentioning that when representatives of some of these sectors have their annual meeting, they do not discuss the question of being a Nordic citizen. That question just does not occur. The Nordic meetings simply provide cost-effective methods to reflect on one's own professional field from a comparative angle.

The "hyphenated nations syndrome" is not unknown within the Nordic countries: we have had Sweden-Finland, Denmark-Norway, Denmark-Iceland and, in a weaker sense, Sweden-Norway. But it is by no means "the hyphen syndrome" that creates the common Nordic identity. The Nordic countries share another kind of deep historical linkage which is lacking in Irish-British relations. Regardless of whether the Nordic citizens feel that they are members of a Nordic family, they nevertheless look upon the world in the same way. They share the same value system which is rooted in common historical experiences as part of a uniform Lutheran culture, where the culture, the state and the church were inseparable parts of a cohesive social structure. The Nordic countries share a value system, but they do not have a common media/public sphere.

Political culture in all Nordic countries passes through a Nordic filter. Having different strategic solutions, being independent nations, the neighbouring Nordic countries still are the first 'other'. In all sections of society, from the legislative processes in the parliaments to the communication among the grass-root voluntary associations, the decisions are made only after the issues have been debated in a Nordic arena, filtered through a Nordic context. An essential part of the national culture consists of this Nordic filter.

I find it fascinating to note that the same kind of filter of horizontal communication and collective reflection also exists in the realm of the old British Empire in the form of the British Commonwealth. Writing in the New European, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, His Excellency Chief Emeka Anyaoku gives a vivid description of his organisation as an institution that is not a trading block nor a strategic alliance, one that is without a dominant member and without a complex and hierarchical bureaucracy. It is an organisation behind which "lies a vast network of people-to-people contacts. The Commonwealth is not just an association of governments. It is as much an association of peoples. The fabric of the Commonwealth is a broad tapestry of personal, professional, educational and even sporting ties. The pattern of this relationship (...) is informality". The Commonwealth is partly inside, partly outside the European Union. It is one of the most interesting organisations in the modern world.

The biggest difference between the Commonwealth and the Nordic countries is that the participants in Nordic co-operation are socially and culturally very similar.

Dr Henrik Stenius

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